Steeped in history: The Cleary Bros museum
In this Mack stronghold, old dogs don’t die, they’re brought inside for an injection of pride, passion and purpose, then head straight back to work. Steve Brooks reports
Historic display at Port Kembla
While the Bombo depot with its workshops and concrete batching plant remains the historical home of Cleary Bros, these days it’s the quietest of the company’s three main sites.
A short drive north, the Albion Park quarry is the operational centrepiece of the business and further north are the offices and workshops of the Port Kembla headquarters.
However, the Port Kembla site is also home to a fascinating and hugely impressive museum which not only highlights the company’s mechanical heritage but perhaps more emphatically, demonstrates the skill and pride of the tradespeople who have for generations continued to be such an intrinsic and vital part of the Cleary business.
As a placard within the museum states:
‘These machines on display have been restored to fully operational standard in Cleary Bros workshops.
The restoration work symbolises the dedication and workmanship skills of the apprentices and staff at Cleary Bros.’
Pride of place goes to a pair of immaculately restored NR Macks – one a 1942 model, the other a 1943 version – loaded with equally superb restorations of early Caterpillar and International machinery.
As Denis explains, neither of these two Macks actually worked in the Cleary stable but they were bought and restored to portray the trucks operated in the company’s early days.
Surrounding them are finely finished examples of not only earthmoving machinery from Cleary’s formative years but also motorbikes, automobiles and equipment dating back to World War II.
It is an exhibition of extraordinary quality and a stunning tribute to not only the company’s own history but the machines that in so many places and in so many industries played such a formative role in Australia’s development.
Yet as the old D7 ’dozer at Bombo demonstrates, not all the restorations live in the Port Kembla museum.
In what would become a heartfelt tribute to his father Brian, Brett Cleary had long held a keen desire to find and restore a Mack ‘Centennial’ model, a limited edition of 25 Mack Tridents produced to celebrate the new millennium in 2000, with each unit carrying the name of an Australian highway.
After a long search a suitable unit named ‘Cunningham’ was found in Western Australia and driven to Cleary’s Bombo workshop where every detail was painstakingly restored to new.
Ironically, the build date on the truck is October 20 … the birth date of Brian and Denis Cleary.
Typically, the truck is immaculately presented and while Brett is adamant its work days are over, ‘Cunningham’ has for the past two years led the Cleary Bros contingent of 30-plus trucks at Wollongong’s hugely popular i98FM Camp Quality Convoy.
The 2015 convoy attracted more than 800 trucks and notably, Cleary Bros and its employees donated more than $60,000 to Camp Quality.
Like his uncle, Brett Cleary is quick to direct credit for the quality of the restoration to the company’s tradespeople.
"This project became a real labour of love to our blokes (and) this truck is as much a tribute to their abilities as anything else."
Meantime, less than 100 metres away from the museum, a Mack CH model has just reversed out of a workshop.
The truck and the flat-top tray body fitted with a rear-mounted self-loading crane glisten like they’ve just come from a showroom.
As Denis explains, the Mack’s a 1999 model which was due for refurbishment and with the company’s need for a new field maintenance truck, the CH was chosen for the role and the chassis lengthened and strengthened to accommodate a new body and crane.
It doesn’t take long to appreciate the extent of the Mack’s makeover and even more graphically, the finish of the tray body built in the Port Kembla workshop.
A proud Denis Cleary says simply, "we have some really good tradesmen and if we have a need for something like this, we can build it.
In a lot of cases we can build things much better than we can buy them."
Yet it’s this capacity – the skill of fitters, mechanics, electricians, panel beaters and spray painters to completely refurbish, re-equip or rebuild a truck to new condition, or build from scratch a trailer or body for a particular purpose – which today makes Cleary Bros something of an enigma.
After all, there’s an increasing push among commercial interests – notably new truck suppliers – to reduce the average age of the Australian truck fleet which is said to be considerably higher than other western countries.
One suggestion is to lobby governments to increase the registration charge of vehicles over a certain age, employing the argument that older trucks are bad for the environment and miss out on all the safety and technological features of the latest new trucks.
A cynic, however, might suggest their real goal is to simply enhance new truck sales.
The same cynic might also point out that companies such as Cleary Bros are vitally important to the employment and economy of local communities and equally, remain a bastion of the trades training and skill sets which have become so diminished in modern Australia.
Consequently, their operational enterprise should be commended rather than threatened with higher charges.
It’s also worth pointing out that the company’s entrenched refurbishment and use of older trucks did not preclude Cleary Bros in 2012 from being awarded the Australian Trucking Association’s highly coveted ‘TruckSafe John Kelly Memorial Award’; an accolade which recognises the highest standards of safety performance and professionalism.
Accepting the award on behalf of the company were Les Lipinski and Steve Crandell, with Crandell commenting at the time, "this award is everything, everything we’ve worked to achieve."
As for Denis Cleary, he’s in no doubt times are changing, but change for its own sake is not something that comes naturally or is easily embraced.
Thoughtful for a few moments, he says, "we’ve been running Macks for a long time because it’s a good truck that gives us a good run and it’s easy to rebuild.
"The other thing is we own the gear, so everything it earns is ours and if we have to park it for a while for whatever reason, it’s not costing us anything.
"When it’s all boiled down, it’s about machinery earning its keep for as long as it’s practical.
"In our case, I suppose that’s a long time."
NOTE: Cleary Bros asks those parties interested in visiting the company’s Port Kembla museum to call 02 4275 1000.
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