Mud and horses
In the 19th century, New Zealand’s roads were built by hand. They could be steep and winding, and wet weather often created impassable mud holes. Vehicle technology was limited to the puny wagon and horse team. Log transport by road was therefore not common – water transport, bullocks using skidding methods, and bush trams held sway.
Steam traction engines developed from the 1870s, but they were too heavy and susceptible to bogging down in mud to be useful in logging. Motor trucks first appeared early in the 20th century, but it was the First World War that greatly improved truck technology. Young soldiers returned in 1919 with experience in maintaining trucks and driving in mud. Bush tramways became increasingly expensive to build in rough country, so trucks and roads emerged as a cheaper alternative. Over the next 30 years there was a gradual shift from bush tram to road transport.
Driving an early timber truck was a skilled and sometimes risky job. There were many design drawbacks: heavy steering, engines underpowered for the heavy loads and steep grades, complex gear-changing, and inadequate brakes. If maintenance was put off and equipment became run down, the risks increased.
Truck meets train
Early log trucks had many shortcomings. On 2 June 1942 two trucks were carrying sawn timber from a mill at Ōruanui to Putaruru. With underpowered engines, they were speeding downhill towards the tram crossing, to gain enough momentum to climb the hill on the other side. But the mechanical brakes on the first truck failed. A train travelling along the crossing hit the truck, killing the driver instantly. The second truck stopped safely, but the driver said he did not hear the train whistle because his truck was so noisy.
The Second World War hastened the switch to trucks when thousands of military surplus six-wheel-drive GMC trucks were imported. The age of the logging truck had truly arrived.
There were steady improvements in trucking technology. By the mid-1950s diesel engines of over 300 horsepower could pull two trailers with a total load of 130 tonnes. They were so heavy that they were not allowed on public highways.