The US-designed Class 8 cabover engine (COE) type of truck was more or less signed, sealed and killed off by most American manufacturers many years ago when the US transport law was changed, regarding allowable total vehicle length. Freightliner was one manufacturer who continued building COEs until around 2006, when they were no longer wanted or needed by most US operators. They did, however, continue to supply these popular cabover trucks to much of the world outside the US… until now.
For a number of years, prior to the US cabover demise, there was a huge demand for some American cabovers in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Freightliner was quite active in these countries, selling the FLC and the FLB model up until 1998, when a new model was launched replacing the FLB. This new truck was called the Argosy, and Freightliner called it their Safety Concept Vehicle. The styling of the truck was as good as it got in those days, with smoother lines and a host of new and innovative features.
The truck was derived from the conventional style Freightliner Century Class model and shared cab components such as doors, windshield and grill. For improved aerodynamics, the Argosy sat closer to the ground with the use of 265/70R19.5 low profile tires on the drive axles, but, strangely, 275/80R22.5 tires were fitted to the front axle. Weight saving in this area was achieved with the use of Alcoa aluminum rims.
The rig’s powertrain specifications from the original prototype vehicle had a 400-hp Mercedes Benz OM457-LA diesel engine, and the transmission was to be a Meritor RSX10-145C gearbox with Meritor RT-40-145 twin drive rear axles. The rear bogies had Freightliner’s own AirLiner suspension and leaf springs were installed on the front axle, with disc brakes fitted on the front and drum brakes on the rear. The brake system was a Meritor/Wabco designed EBS (Electronic Braking System) which also had anti-lock capability.
The safety aspects were well and truly covered with numerous features, including a front and side Collision Warning System. The aluminum cab was designed to meet US and European crash standards and was fitted with a driver’s side airbag. The innovation continued with the unique electronically controlled swing-out staircase/steps on the driver’s side. The steps swung out when the driver’s door opened, making it easier for entry and exit of the cab. It was an optional extra to have the same system on the passenger side, as well.
When the Argosy was actually introduced, gone was the idea of using the Mercedes engine – instead Cummins, Detroit and Caterpillar motors were the options, ranging from 280-600 hp. The Cat C12 motor was an option before later Euro 5 emission legislation had to be addressed. Some of the popular attractions of the standard tractor unit to the operator was the low tare weight of 7-1/4 ton and the availability of a solid 3 year / 350,000-mile warranty. Other bonuses were the choice of five different cab configurations. From the 63-inch day cab to the 90-, 101- and 110-inch mid-roof versions, along with a 110-inch raised roof model, which incorporated an aerodynamic roof spoiler, these options made the Argosy more desirable.
At first, the Argosy was shipped as CKD (Completely Knocked Down) kits to the parts of the world previously mentioned (Australia, New Zealand and South Africa). They were assembled at the Freightliner dealers, and any chassis modifications were either carried out by them or by local engineering firms. As the demand for the Argosy waned in the USA, Freightliner decided to build complete, right-hand drive trucks for those parts of the world mentioned, on their dedicated assembly line at their Cleveland, North Carolina plant.
The Argosy II (also known as the 2nd Generation) was introduced in 2011. The cab structure and layout were similar, but a lot of internal components were the same as its sister truck, the Cascadia. Noticeably, the “cheese-grater” grill had a similar look, with its chrome finish and wide vents. The power options were still from Detroit, with the DC15 engine, rated at 560 hp, and the Cummins ISX, with an upgradeable 600 hp output. Eaton supplied the SmartShift Ultrashift gearbox, and the rear axles were from Meritor. All the Argosy trucks built on the North Carolina line were of the 6×4 configuration, but most of the foreign dealerships added into their brochures the available option of an 8×4 chassis.
In 2001, in New Zealand, a very special Argosy was going through its modification design stages and, when complete, would be operated by the Mobile Medical Technology, Mobile Surgical Services (MSS) wing. The truck and trailer combination’s role was to travel to remote parts of NZ and carry out many types of surgical operations. There are around 300 different types of procedures they can do, but the majority of them are considered low-risk and mostly classed as “outpatient” surgery. These include but are not limited to dentistry, internal exams and surgeries with minor incisions, such as hernias.
The reasoning behind the unique futuristic look was to make the truck look like no other seen on the road. This reflected what MSS was about, with the unique service they provided. The front of the truck and trailer was designed by Jurgen Brand and then constructed by Fibreglass Developments of Fielding, New Zealand. Andrew Panckhurst of Mobile Medical Technology told me, “It’s interesting, as the general public loves the design, but many Freightliner lovers think it’s the ugliest thing they have ever seen.” The additional space behind the front was used to house some extra oil coolers for the custom electricity generator that was installed off the PTO.
The combination cost 1.5 million NZ dollars when completed in 2002 and runs at a constant loaded weight of 42 tons. The tractor is affectionately called “Edith Cavell” after a bridge in Queenstown, South Island, which itself was named after the famous British Nurse. Andrew also told me, “It has covered in excess of 835,000 kilometers (519,000 miles) over its 17 years of operation, mostly doing short runs between rural towns, and has been very mechanically reliable over that time. A new engine went in at 580,000 kilometers (360,000 miles) – another Cummins ISX – and the powered steps have failed over time and were eventually too difficult to repair. The interior has shaken around over the years, but overall we’ve been happy with the Argosy.” Since the Argosy will be no longer available, Andrew added, “The replacement is likely to be a large Euro unit – probably a Scania or Volvo. The drivers, or Steerologists, as they like to be called, are looking forward to a new and updated cab after all these years.”
Most US truck manufacturers stock “Rolling Glider Kits” for several current conventional models, and Freightliner was able to provide a glider kit option for the Argosy, as well. The kit equates to a brand-new cab, front axle with wheels and tires, chassis, wiring harness and most ancillaries – in fact, everything but the powertrain. Glider kits are up to 50% cheaper than a new complete truck, and the purchase is free from Federal Excise Tax (FET) in the USA. The need for kits is quite a popular practice in America, because it enables a written-off truck (well, its powertrain) to be put back onto the road. Another application for a glider kit is building a rig for a different use than the original donor vehicle. For example, a written-off tractor unit might become a flatbed or a dump truck. The buyer would either need to reuse the powertrain from a donor truck or buy a new or re-manufactured engine, rear axles and a transmission.
Another special Argosy was built by the huge Walmart retail corporation in 2012. Not in the US, but in Canada, a 2nd Generation Argosy glider kit was bought from the manufacturer and then Walmart had a truck made to their own specs. Walmart used the “Supercube” truck as a pilot project with the sole intention of hauling more goods on fewer journeys in an eco-friendly way. At the outset, the company had to apply to the Ontario Ministry of Transportation for special permits to operate the truck. Canadian law specifies that the length of a combination cannot exceed 75.5 feet, with most trailers being 53 feet long. The trailer on this rig was an extra 7.5 feet longer, hence the special permit.
The trailer was designed as a double-decker, and Walmart stated that 44% more goods could be carried. In addition to this extra trailer capacity, there was a box fitted behind the day cab for an extra four pallets. The project was seen as a success, but just one truck was built. At the time, Walmart considered adding four more “Supercubes” to its large fleet, but that did not happen.
As this story demonstrates, there was still a need for COE Class 8 trucks then, albeit in a low volume and for a niche market. Later, Walmart, in a collaboration with Peterbilt, Great Dane Trailers and Capstone Turbine, carried out another project and the result was the WAVE combination. These days, the mood has shifted to electric power, and the mega company has now bought a number of Tesla electric trucks.
The Argosy was a popular truck in terms of reliability and the reasons mentioned earlier, but all trucks have problems. A lot of operators thought the build quality was appalling. The plastic interior panels squeaked from new and literally fell apart during service. Over the years, this flaw was only marginally improved upon, which led to nicknames like “Fruit-Liner” and “Freight-Shaker” down under. It was not uncommon for some operators to remove cabinet doors completely to cut down on the rattles, which drove the drivers crazy. Faults would develop on the wiring harness as well, and, over time, the cool swing-out steps became unreliable, with a lot of operators just locking them shut.
Love it or loathe it, all things must come to an end, and the Argosy model is currently in “run-out” mode in Australia and New Zealand, with the last deliveries expected at the end of 2019 or early 2020. The model is being completely withdrawn from these two countries as they were the only two to be able to order them. South Africa withdrew the Argosy COE several years ago. The Freightliner factory will run down stock to build any outstanding orders. This will effectively end production of a Freightliner COE design from the USA. The (hooded) Cascadia model, which is not available yet down under, will replace it, but there are issues with permitted overall length. Effectively, the Cascadia, because of its layout, will not suit all the roles the Argosy was doing.
Freightliner is owned by Daimler Benz AG, and dealers in Australia also sell the Mercedes Benz and the Japanese Fuso truck brand, also part of Daimler. The Actros/Arocs/Atego models are available to fill the gap where the Argosy was working, but the Argosy had an advantage of lower tare weight over the Mercedes Benz models.
Shadowing the Argosy from its launch was the Kenworth K cabover, which was classed as the Freightliner’s main competition. In those days, the K104G looked pretty dated compared to the Argosy and utilized a set-forward steer axle. The Argosy’s set-back steer axle was more popular with operators, giving it excellent maneuverability, especially when backing-up B-double combinations. The latest like-for-like cabover is the Kenworth K200, which is actually built at the PACCAR plant in Melbourne, Australia. Currently, this cabover truck doesn’t seem likely to be withdrawn, and it is the last of the US-styled cabovers still available.