CLASSIC TRUCKS: VOLVO FH CELEBRATES 25TH ANNIVERSARY
This year marks 25 years since the FH’s Australian launch. Now in its fourth generation, the big Aussie Swede today ranks as the most popular premium cab-over-engine truck in the land, Gary Richards writes
If there was ever a truck model that reflected the fortunes of its manufacturer, you would be hard pressed to think of a better match than the big cab-over FH series from Volvo.
It is now in its fourth generation and this year will mark 25 years since its Australian introduction. In that time, the FH has gone from strength to strength, much like its designer and builder, the now global Swedish company Volvo Trucks.
The company has already celebrated the anniversary in Europe as it was released there, with great fanfare, in 1993. Not only has Volvo released limited-edition FHs and FH16s to mark the occasion, it has been counting the thousands of FHs that have been built all around the world. In September last year, number one million was delivered. If you do some quick math, you will see that is an average of 40,000 FHs built each and every year!
In Australia, FHs roll off the Wacol assembly line at a rate of around six per day – which, by Australian standards, is an impressive number. Volvo has continually improved the plant, having invested more than $27 million in the production facility in the recent years, with future plans for improvements to chassis treatment and cab paint process.
All Mack trucks and most Volvos sold in Australia come off the Wacol line, making it one of the largest vehicle assembly plants in the country. With such a major facility, the FH range is built with world-class quality.
In Europe, the FH is the only model to be named Truck of the Year three times - 1994, 2000 and 2014, an achievement the company is justifiably proud of. It is also sold on every continent except North America, which somewhat explains where all of these FHs have gone!
With this local significant anniversary this year, it is worth having a review of the Volvo flagship. Its evolution closely reflects the frantic pace of global heavy truck design, with safety, innovation and technology being the key foundations of the many changes that have happened with this big cab-over-engine (COE) product.
|In Europe, a special series of FHs were produced to mark the 25th anniversary. In Australia, 14 units of this special edition were also produced this year to celebrate the milestone|
THE BIG AUSSIE SWEDE - GROWING UP
The Aussie FH series very much follows the Volvo global platform for the range but have been well adapted for the local market over the years. Australia is the only country assembling right-hand drive models outside the main Tuve plant in Gothenburg, Sweden. This somewhat reflects how adapted the locally produced Volvo FH range has become.
The Aussie FH journey actually started in 1972 when Volvo Trucks established a production operation at Wacol, in the western suburbs of Brisbane. While Volvo cars were well established in Australia, the truck side of the company had arrived in the country just four years before as an inspiration of a Sydney truck dealer who was looking for a European brand that offered greater comfort and reliability than what was typically available in the North American and English COE types that dominated the highways at the time. He imported several F86 prime movers. Two of these were put into service with Mayne Nickless on interstate operation where they proved to be unbreakable in spite of having a small (6.8-litre) engine. One was still in service 10 years later with 1.6 million km’s on the clock.
The trucks made a big impression and led the Viking invasion to our shores. It was, however, the larger F88 introduced a year later that stamped Volvo’s permanency here. The F88 came with a 260hp 9.6-litre turbocharged engine, developing an impressive 694ft/lb of torque and coupled to an eight-speed synchromesh transmission.
Standard features, which many other trucks of the time did not have, were: double reduction axles with diff lock; a crash-resistant sleeper cab with full heating/demisting; seat suspension; and power steering.
In 1972, Volvo Trucks sold nearly 500 trucks . Business was booming. Initially, they had been fully imported from Sweden and clearly there was the need to establish an assembly operation to better serve the Australian market. Hence, the defunct Leyland plant at Wacol was bought and rebuilt to manufacture trucks. At the time, it was the second-largest Volvo truck assembly plant in the world!
|The Wacol assembly plant has grown to be the largest truck manufacturing operations in Australia. Today, FHs roll off the line in a wide variety of configurations destined for Australian and New Zealand applications|
With local assembly, design adaptions could be made. The G88 was launched; with its set forward steer axle, spoke wheels, tandem drive and 16-speed transmission, it was highly tailored to the Australian market. The twin-steer version became available so the platform for growth was set.
Throughout the ‘70s, local truck sales and product development continued to grow. In 1977, the 5,000th Volvo truck rolled off the Wacol assembly line – a testament to the popularity of the Swedish brand.
In 1978, a new range of large COEs was introduced. The F10 and F12 models were a significant improvement over the G series in many ways. The larger cab and more powerful 10- and 12-litre engines appealed to many.
Over the coming years, a host of innovations were released, including the first intercooled version, the F12F, with its 12-litre engine pumping out 385hp. The capabilities of the F series were further improved in 1987 with the release of the F16 model. With its 16-litre engine producing 470hp, it was one of the most powerful COEs on the market at the time. By 1991, the F16 had an electronically controlled 16-litre engine which delivered 500hp.
The race for premium cab-over products was on. The European competition between Scania and Volvo spurred developments at a rapid rate. Safety, productivity and environmental demands saw Volvo invest in its biggest new product program – what would become the FH series. Around the world, Volvo manufactured about 200,000 F series between 1977 and 1993 – a healthy amount. Locally, the F12 and F16 models, with the optional tall Globetrotter cab, stamped its mark with long-distance operators in Australia.
|As this 1968 ad depicts, there were high expectations that Volvo trucks could offer Aussie transport operators some real advantages|
FH - OFF and RUNNING
In late 1993, Volvo unveiled its replacement for the F series. The development of the FH series took seven years.
A major part of the FH development was the all-new D12A 12-litre engine, with its overhead camshaft and electronic unit injector technology, which placed Volvo among the world's leading engine designers. It offered up to 420hp – a fair output for a new 12-litre engine. The 16-litre engine, gearboxes and the driveline were carried over from previous generations with many improvements and a host of additional features.
There were two models, the FH12 and the FH16, which shared common cabs and chassis. The new FH cab was a natural progression from the boxy F series cab, being 20 per cent more aerodynamically efficient, with much improved ergonomics and much better seating while reducing overall weight of the cab by almost 30 per cent. Unladen (tare) weight had long been an issue for Volvo trucks, and this improvement was much appreciated by owners.
|The move to local assembly in 1972 allowed the Volvo truck range to be tailored to Australian requirements. Soon the Wacol operation was pumping out F and G models at a rapid rate|
The cabin was subject to the toughest cab impact test where a 15-tonne static weight is placed on the roof and one-tonne pendulum is swung at the cab rear wall, after which the cab doors must be able to be opened. Safety and related innovations would be what FH became renowned for – a constant stream of standard and optional features to improve the life and well-being of the driver.
The FH12 won the European ‘Truck of the Year’ award in 1994.
In 1995, the FH series became the first heavy-duty truck to be fitted with an SRS airbag.
In conjunction with the introduction of the lower cabbed FM series in 1998, Volvo improved the FH series with minor modifications to the cab but major upgrades to the electrical system, engine and gearbox called TEA (Truck Electronic Architecture).
|The I-Shift - Volvo’s 12-speed automated manual transmission (a mechanical gearbox and clutch with smart electronic controls) soon became the industry benchmark for slick-shifting gearboxes|
Some major corporate developments within Volvo spurred on truck development. In 1999, AB Volvo sold the car division to Ford, making the company a dedicated truck, diesel engine and construction equipment supplier. This focus on heavy equipment also meant it soon after acquired Renault Trucks, which included Mack Trucks, then UD Trucks, giving it a much expanded base to develop new products.
In Australia, Volvo also released the 565hp Cummins 15-litre engine for the FH in 2000. This then near-new series Cummins was the first non-Volvo engine fitted in an Australian-built product and reflected the reliability and durability issues being experienced with the Volvo 16-litre engine in the harsh local climate. It was mated to the Volvo 14-speed transmission but the harsh torsional characteristics of the Cummins proved to be tough on the gearbox’s internals. Over the seven years of production, nearly 270 Cummins-powered FHs rolled off the Wacol production line.
|The FH was built upon the Volvo’s key platform of safety and so its crashworthiness is a big part of the design requirement. Here an FH strikes a large stationary object, so testing its passive and active safety features|
In 2002, Volvo Trucks introduced the next generation of the FH series, with the cab and driveline given a major update, at an investment cost of 600 million euros. Major changes included redesign of the cab to improve aerodynamics, the new 12-speed automated transmission: the now famous I-Shift, new electronics systems and engine improvements.
The notable exterior changes to the cab included new rear-view mirrors to reduce blind spots and new headlights. As standard equipment, the two FH Series models now included FUPS (Front Underrun Protection System) to further reduce collision impact to other road users. The interior was redesigned and new seats with integrated seatbelts fitted. Integrated telephone speaker and microphone with steering wheel controls for radio and inbuilt GSM phone were an option – all very high tech nearly 20 years ago!
The D12 engine was further updated to the ‘D’ evolution resulting in increased power output to 500hp. This used turbo compound (TC) technology, which proved to be a real problem in Australian operations. Another Volvo problem child at the time was the Geartronic automated version of its 14-speed synchromesh transmission. Like many early automated gear change adaptions, it was clunky and unreliable.
|When it came to truck performance, some consider that there is always room for improvement. Some FH16 operators, in true Aussie style, modified the air intake system to give their 700 horses more air to breath … seems to be effective in some conditions|
In 2003, after delaying the introduction of its new 16-litre engine design for two years, Volvo released its most powerful engine range ever. The D16C was a completely new engine, only the bore and stroke dimensions were the same as the earlier 16-litre Volvo engines. The D16C engine was available in two power outputs: 550hp and 610hp. Two years later, the power of D16C increased again to 660hp. With the release of this higher rating, demand for the Cummins-powered FH580 eventually faded away and it was discontinued in 2007.
The same year, Volvo introduced its next new engine design, the 13-litre D13A, incorporating the same design features as its nine- and 16-litre engines and with outputs up to 520hp.
The FH range then became known as FH and FH16. Volvo also celebrated 75 years of truck building so there were many things happening in the Viking camp!
Emissions were playing an increasing part of engine development so in 2007 Volvo Trucks offered the D13 with two emission reduction technologies: EGR (Exhaust Gas Recirculation) and SCR (Selective Catalytic Reduction). With SCR, higher performance was possible, improved fuel economy and a stronger engine brake: the ‘VEB+’. By contrast, the EGR version, like most early EGR engines, suffered with reliability issues due to the higher combustion temperatures due to the higher ambient temperatures often experienced in the Australian environment.
For Australian Volvo operators, especially those doing long distance in their FHs, there was some great news in 2006. The high Globetrotter sleeper cab had been extended in length by 245mm in a remarkable bit of global engineering and was known as the XXL. This meant a large mattress could be used, making the cab significantly more spacious for the long days on the roads. This extended cab was unique to Australia. Some were also later sold to Norway.
In 2008 Volvo upgraded the FH series, with the emphasis on driver comfort. The Gen3 cab features included rain-sensing windscreen wipers, headlights with cornering lights for better visibility when turning, as well as a swivelling passenger seat. Completely redesigned grille and headlights were the most obvious visible external changes. Soon after, Volvo Trucks once again claimed a first with the FH16, with its 700hp D16 engine, becoming the world's most-powerful production truck. Continuing on its Euro V theme, upgrades to the 13-litre engine were made, with power up to 540hp.
A host of active safety features were also released, providing the driver with a number of high-tech accident avoidance support aids.
In 2011, Volvo was again chest beating about the release of the 750hp version of the D16 engine. Its application, however, was strictly limited to typical European weights and roads so it was not made available for power-hungry Aussie truckies.
With the introduction of the D16 700hp in Australia, Volvo was leading the power race. This attracted those operators who wanted maximum performance. This enticed some owners to modify the air intake system to improve the engine’s air flow. Some seem to think this field modification helped, especially in hot and/or humid conditions.
With the release of the all-new cab for the FH range in 2013 – the fourth appearance change but the first all-new cab design in its 20-year history, major updates were made to a range of features and another lot of safety options released. As a completely new cab, it is slightly taller and the more vertical windscreen adds to the perception that it is a BIG COE. Cab ride and suspension has been a constant evolution from the early typical European ‘seasick’ days to something now very stable. The only downside to the new model was the popular XXL mega sleeper cab was no longer available.
In 2016, a couple of special ‘Performance Edition’ FH16s were locally built. Wearing the traditional Swedish national colours of blue and yellow, these big Swedes really looked the part with a range of distinct features.
Drivetrain changes included nice refinements to what is, in my opinion, the best automated transmission on the market – Volvo’s I Shift. The versatility of the I Shift was improved in 2018 with a version having two crawler gears – for those low-speed heavy applications. Then last year, a dual-clutch version was released, which gave it ever more slicker shifting.
The big news for 2019 will be the return of the XXL extended sleeper cab option. While the Gen 4 cab has set new records for its internal height, the sleeping/mattress area was always limited, especially compared to the leader of the big COEs, the Kenworth K200. The extra 250mm will be welcome by many of Australia’s bigger long-distance Volvo drivers.
TESTED & MADE DOWNUNDER
One of the major strengths of Volvo Trucks is its focus on quality. This inherent focus means that its product development process is very exacting and Australia plays a big part in the validation activity. Test units are pounded over the hot and dusty Aussie roads, often for years before production begins.
This insight into future releases allows local Volvo engineers to develop complementary and usually uniquely Aussie designs. The Wildbar – the Volvo term for a bull bar, is a good example. It is tested to ensure it harmonises with the driver’s air bag, headlight projection and the FH’s active safety features.
The appeal of the FH in Australia, in its 6x4 and 8x4 configurations, has been to east coast B-double and west coast road trains. These applications require highly-adapted specifications. For B-doubles, maximum fuel capacity is a must have but the set-back steer axle of the FH, while great for the ride and comfort, limits the wheelbase choices and so restricts the size of the fuel tanks. To overcome this, the local Volvo engineers have craftily positioned mufflers and Ad Blue tanks in special locations so maximum fuel can be carried.
While such local adaptations allow FH customers to tailor the series well to a multitude of applications, the FH is very much a global product when it comes to the parts used to make it. The cabs are imported as bare steel shells and trimmed out here as part of the local production process. The Volvo 13- and 16-litre engines, along with slick shifting I-Shift transmissions and other driveline components, are also shipping in from Sweden.
Recently, Volvo reflected on its long Australian history and this high level of adaptation by joining the ‘Australian Made’ campaign and created a special FH Australian-made promotion truck to mark the occasion. In its announcement, Volvo Trucks stated that joining the campaign means that Volvo Trucks are currently the only cab-over truck manufacturer to have been awarded the prestigious ‘Australian Made’ certification. The brand wears the logo with pride in part because of the jobs it supports. The Wacol plant is a significant part of Brisbane’s manufacturing base, employing almost 500 people – close to 450 people employed directly in the production process and about 50 dedicated engineers.
Today, the FH is the most popular premium COE sold in Australia. Its 25-year four-generation journey has made it the first choice in European COE both here and around the world. The road ahead for the FH series seems to be straight, powerful and, as always, safe!
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