Trevor McKinnis of Stawell, Victoria, recounts his first visit to Alice Springs’ National Road Transport Museum three years ago, where he spent many hours trawling through the extensive display.
“I was just walking around, taking everything in, when a bloke comes to me and asks ‘How much longer are you going to be, mate? It’s half past 5 and we close at 3.’”
Wandering through the rows of frames that make up the Shell Rimula Wall of Fame, McKinnis was pleased to spot a number of familiar faces with whom he shared the highways, driving interstate.
“It was really good to see them there,” he says. “They all have a story.” In August, McKinnis joined these mates on the Wall of Fame, having been nominated by his daughter.
McKinnis ranks his 2023 induction into the Wall of Fame as the proudest moment of his transport career, the achievement made all the more special as he was joined at the Festival of Transport by two of his daughters and his partner, Jen.
As it was the family’s first time attending the Festival of Transport, McKinnis notes that they were impressed by the event, both for the opportunity it provided to meet new friends and its appeal to all corners of the transport industry.
He tells of enjoying the welcome drinks at a table of log carters from NSW and livestock freighters from Queensland, united by two important threads – a passion for transport and the ability to tell a good story with a beer in hand. McKinnis’ 50-plus years in the industry have equipped him with both!
His first taste of road transport came from working in a tyre factory in his early 20s. The protectionist policies that Australia adopted post-World War 2 meant that the importation of car and motorcycle tyres was near impossible and, as a result, local manufacturing was thriving.
Although the Australian workmanship shone, the decades of import-substituting industrialisation is blamed for a lower standard of living and slowed productivity. Tariff reforms in the 1970s combatted this but saw the manufacturing industry stagnate.
For a 27-year-old McKinnis, this meant he found himself hungry for more work and, true to his upbringing in rural Victoria, found it on a sheep farm belonging to Rodney and Albert Blake. In a Thames Trader, McKinnis would cart wool from the farm to the port of Geelong and make the return trip loaded with gypsum.
Following a number of unsuccessful seasons on the farm, McKinnis decided it was time to move on to the next challenge, telling his employer: “There’s not much use pouring money into me if you’re not getting money coming in.” He started work with a local bottle yard, running empty beer bottles to Melbourne and back every day.
The bond that McKinnis formed with John and Glenda Blay, his employers, was one that he has been fortunate enough to carry throughout his career and still holds dear today.
The draw of a new 1418 cab-over Benz saw McKinnis take up work delivering bricks. He soon swapped the Benz for a new International T-line, a rig better suited to handle the ever-increasing workload.
After five years of carting bricks, the call of the Western Highway proved too strong, and McKinnis began running interstate from Melbourne to Adelaide. He recalls his five years of interstate work as “hectic”. “We never heard of such a thing as a seven-hour break when we were on interstate. Might have been a two-hour break and then you would get going again.”
McKinnis remembers nights that he would return home and his partner, concerned that he was taking a while to come inside, would find him asleep across the steering wheel with the truck still running. He admits that he is leaving a safer industry than the one in which he had worked.
Working all day and driving all night eventually took its toll and a drained McKinnis noticed his children growing up without him at home.
He realised that he needed to spend more time with his family while he still could, lest the consequences of driver fatigue catch up with him. McKinnis took up work at a local abattoir, Frewstal Wholesale, carting hanging meat to Melbourne. It was clear that he had found the work/life balance he had been looking for in this role, staying with Frewstals for one month shy of 30 years.
An exciting part of McKinnis’ role was getting to trial new trucks, from Volvo to Mack, that the business purchased in the search for the ideal fleet. He was particularly impressed by a Scania R630 that handled the Adelaide Hills with an ease he hadn’t seen before. “I thought that was the bee’s knees!” he says.
However, he never found a model to top the yellow T404 SAR Kenworth he operated while driving interstate, remembering: “I did some miles in that little baby!” Hosted in the museum’s Kenworth Dealer Hall of Fame as part of the Festival of Transport, the Transport Women Unite Red Ball gave McKinnis the chance to reunite with a T404. “I stood in front of it with Jen and got a photo!”
Regardless of the truck, McKinnis has always prioritised maintenance. He says this is how he earned his nickname at work of Grumpy. “Being grumpy was the only way to get something done on my truck! If I stood there and asked nicely, they wouldn’t do it, so I had to tell them off!” He would wash and polish his truck every night when he got home from Melbourne. Although I’m sure pride in his equipment was the primary motivation for this practice, he shares an added bonus – “If we kept our trucks clean, the highway patrol never worried with you!”
When Covid hit in 2020, McKinnis decided it was time to retire. Having never been out of a trucking job for more than an afternoon, McKinnis’ 50 years of service in transport was complete.
Although that message doesn’t seem to have reached the industry yet, as he regularly receives calls asking if he’s keen to jump behind the wheel again.