Special feature: Whistlin Dixie

Trawling through the Deals on Wheels online listings recently, the Ed came across a piece of NZ trucking history that immediately took him down memory lane of the 1980s

The truck that took my fancy was a 1980 Ford CL9000, distinctive in that it was a COE (cab over engine) and what’s believed to be the only one of that particular model in the country at the time. Even to this day, it’s considered an anomaly not just locally but also across the ditch in Australia where it also appears to be an orphan.

Named ‘Whistlin Dixie’, the truck plied Kiwi highways before meeting an untimely end on the Desert Road. I’m unsure exactly when the accident occurred, but it would have been after the truck was used to carry sound and stage gear for the Dire Straits, Brothers in Arms concerts held in Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch during early March 1986. No doubt a vigilant reader will be able to fill us in with further details.

With its impressive cab height, large two-piece grill and Americana-style paint job, the rig was the only example of its kind in a market flooded with well-known brands, similar to what’s seen on the roads today. When you saw Whistlin Dixie drive past, it was noticed — well noticed.

Life after death

Whistlin Dixie was rumoured among other things to be overseas but we found it in a West Auckland workshop

After reaching the end of its useful load-hauling life on the Desert Road, I’m told what was left of the truck (namely the cab), languished for some time in the yard of a transport company in Penrose, Auckland and here it might have remained if it were not for Chris Brownlee, but more on him shortly.

As for where Whistlin Dixie got to after disappearing from view, some said it was sent to Australia or put into a secret truck collection (as if), while others rumoured that it was sent for scrap. Funnily enough, nothing I could find online mentioned that it was being restored — in a West Auckland workshop no less.

Anyway, back to Chris. Our hero truck restorer wasn’t what you would call the usual truck aficionado, but he was well-versed with vehicle restorations and heard about the CL9000 through a friend at his footy club.

Recognising what was an iconic piece of Kiwi trucking history, Chris took what was left of Whistlin Dixie back to his workshop and commenced a lengthy rebuild around 2004. It was here he carried out the formidable restoration process between other projects until he passed away suddenly in 2017.

Through to completion

Whistlin Dixie was a head-turner in its day. Photo: Trevor Jonese

Now, the semi-finished project sits in the hands of his family, who’ve elected to hand it to someone who wants to see it through to completion.

Chris’s son Ray takes up the conversation: "Dad got the bulk of the work done on the truck and now it’s waiting for someone to carry on and finish what he started. Unfortunately, a lot of the information he kept in his head, so it’s difficult to find verification or details of much of what had been done."

The rebuild saw the cab fitted to what Ray thinks is a Mack chassis and suspension. I couldn’t locate an engine data plate, which may have been painted over, but from the numbers stamped on the engine block, Cummins New Zealand says it’s a variant of a Cummins 855 series engine. It began life as an NTC290BC (290hp Big Cam) and was built by their Columbus Engine Plant on 16/05/1978. Without knowing the service history, it’s possible the engine may have been rebuilt to a different rating/specification.

"I’m unsure if the engine has been started since it was installed, but it looks like most of the things have been connected," says Ray.

Bulk of the work is inside

Needed: Someone to finish off the restoration project

The whole truck sits on good tyres, and it appears the bulk of the final restoration work will be needed in the cab. It’s here that wiring will need to be carried out and even though I didn’t see them during my visit, the dash and instrument clusters will need to be connected and refitted.

Likewise, for the seats, hood lining, carpets, and sleeper configuration, there’s a decent amount of work required, but I’m confident that most, if not all of the parts, are available and on hand.

"Dad did two buying trips in the US for parts, and I recall accompanying him on one of the buying expeditions," says Ray.

Back on the road

It appears everything has been connected up

Probably the biggest issue with the truck is getting it approved for reuse back on the road. It’s here that things get sketchy. As mentioned earlier, Chris kept all the information in his head, and it seems paperwork has been filed away in places unknown. With that are records (if any) of engineering work certification and anything else needed to traverse the red tape of bureaucracy these days.

Having said all that, the work that has been carried out to date is all of a very high standard and superior to several restorations I’ve seen over the years.

A lot of museum collections have trucks that will never see the tarmac again, and often this has more to do with reducing the ongoing compliance costs for those institutions as opposed to the actual driveability of a vehicle.

The restored truck would fit nicely into a museum-type situation, and it could be transported to shows, if necessary. Wouldn’t it be fantastic to see it turn up at truck shows and display its sheer uniqueness? I’m confident that with the right finishing touches, it would be a sure-fire People’s Choice award winner and believe the truck can be the head-turner it once was.

Even sitting in its current form, I felt privileged to be in the presence of such an iconic piece of New Zealand trucking history and acknowledge Chris Brownlee’s contribution to preserving Whistlin Dixie for future generations.

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