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Wombat takes the tow road


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South Australia’s Andrew Johnson and Donna Norton have taken the plunge into the world of owner-drivers, transforming a Kenworth T409 SAR car carrier into a customised heavy-duty tow truck

 

 

Though this publication is named OwnerDriver, the old school persona associated with that turn of phrase is harder and harder to find, mainly because owner-drivers are too busy to stop and chat. So, when the opportunity did arise to meet a young passion-driven family having a crack, I wanted to find out more.

 

What makes this story even more exceptional, though, is that the single truck at the centre of this family’s endeavour is a tow truck. Andrew Johnson and Donna Norton are living in the ‘City of Tow Trucks’, naming their operation Wombats Heavy Towing. It’s still a business in its infancy but, after a couple of years, it’s really starting to forage. Sorry, I meant flourish – thought I’d try a little wombat humour.

 

A couple of things I need to clarify – yes, all those Lonely Planet tour guides and online travel pages refer to Adelaide as the ‘City of Churches’, but I disagree. When I was there recently I honestly saw more tow trucks than churches. Red ones, orange ones, purple ones … it was like a tow truck version of a Benetton ad. It’s definitely the ‘City of Tow Trucks’.

 

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Among all the tow trucks I spotted was a sharp Kenworth T409 SAR with a wombat on the side. My interest was piqued and, in a completely non-stalkerish way, I followed the wombat to get some more information. I’m so glad I did because it led me to the lovely Donna Norton and her partner, the extremely experienced (I’ll elaborate soon) Andrew ‘Wombat’ Johnson.

Metal guru

As already mentioned, Andrew and Donna are the owners and operators of Wombats Heavy Towing. The company is a single truck outfit with the aforementioned 2012 T409 SAR, an ex-Patrick car carrier, that was refurbished and turned into a tow truck.

 

The company is the culmination of Andrew’s career in the tow truck business, starting as a metal fabricator before spending time in several increasingly larger tow trucks. His experience included time behind the wheel of one of Australia’s biggest tow trucks up in the North Queensland city of Mackay.

 

However, Andrew’s transport lineage isn’t your standard ‘follow in my father’s footsteps’ kind of story. The family ties to transport were more manufacturing than behind the wheel. His father owned Superior Sleeper Cabs back in the day.

 

Andrew started in the industry at Truckworks in Adelaide, the company synonymous with building big eye-catching tow trucks. That was back in 2005, and from within Truckworks’ workshop Andrew learnt a lot about building and repairing all manner of vehicles, especially tow trucks. He also learnt that he really didn’t enjoy being in the workshop.

 

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Andrew Johnson returned to his ex-employer Truckworks to have the Kenworth's chassis lengthened.

Photo courtesy Wombats Heavy Towing

 

With Truckworks’ support Andrew gained his heavy vehicle licence and would often go and assist on different jobs. Eventually he downed tools completely and picked up the keys as a fulltime tow operator.

 

"My first one I drove by myself was a Kenworth T350," Andrew recalls. "It was just doing single or truck and trailer work. It was a 25,000lb [11-tonne] wrecker."

 

Truckworks really only dealt with the heavy towing side of things, hence once Andrew was licensed he had to go straight into the big stuff. Years of building, repairing and assisting meant he had the common sense and acumen to handle that responsibility.

 

From the T350 he soon progressed to the bigger 4900 Western Star and, subsequently, the bigger tows. Next move up involved a change of truck, a change of location and a massive change in climate from Adelaide to Mackay.

 

Andrew left the Western Star behind and jumped into one of Australia’s biggest tow trucks, a Mackay Heavy Towing twin steer, tri-drive Kenworth T408.

 

"Every time I’ve left somewhere it’s to gain more experience," Andrew explains. His story so far makes it clear he’s a man yearning to learn more and advance his skills. That drive for experience saw him facing the challenges of recovering some much larger vehicles in some much stickier situations. I don’t mean that metaphorically, the humidity in Mackay meant he was literally in much stickier situations.

 

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Wombats Heavy Towing’s Donna Norton and Andrew Johnson with their revamped Kenworth T409

 

Eventually, Andrew returned to his beloved South Australia where he opted for a complete change of pace.

 

"I just wanted another experience, I hadn’t done road trains and just wanted to go do road trains," he says.

 

That experience was courtesy of Wayne Betts and saw Andrew count up a fair few kilometres as he steered a Mack Super-Liner all around South Australia doing remote work moving pipes, hay and general station equipment.

 

From there, Andrew spent some time working for Farley Riggs in the oil and gas industry. His road train experience came in handy moving its gear around and gaining valuable experience on roads rough enough to make the Bruce Highway look almost comfortable.

 

"The bush tracks teach you a lot about driving and how to look after the truck," Andrew says.

It also meant experience in handling all manner of equipment.

 

"I feel like I could jump on anything now and be able to move it," he says, though he’s quick to add: "I definitely wouldn’t be the best operator, but I could get it done."

Having a go

Andrew had experienced a lot at this stage of his career. He’d worked for a couple of different bosses but, all the while, the desire to be his own boss had been fermenting away in his mind.

 

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Andrew Johnson enjoys being his own boss

 

"The idea of not slaving away for someone else, wearing myself out for me rather than someone else," is what Andrew says was the appeal of undertaking such a huge commitment. The idea had always been in the back of his mind and, right in the middle of the unseen pandemic that is COVID, he had an opportunity thrown his way.

 

A phone call from Lyndon at Truckworks Adelaide led to a mighty big discussion between Andrew and Donna. Numbers were crunched, pennies counted and the decision was made by the couple to back themselves and have a go.

 

Lyndon had called with an ex-Patrick’s truck, just a cab and chassis and plenty of opportunity. The good thing was the years of experience working at Truckworks meant Andrew was able to get in and build it himself, taking six months to construct his own custom tow truck.

 

"There’s heaps of custom stuff on there," Andrew enthuses.

 

"Like the dash panels, I pulled all of them out, painted all those. The guards in behind the front wheels are custom made."

 

That’s just a couple of the custom touches.

 

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One of the first jobs, and one he chose to leave in the capable hands of the Truckworks team, was stretching the chassis. An extra 1.8 metres were added to accommodate the big Century KB55 towing body that came from the US.

 

"The best way to explain it is, in America they have rotators, right? Well, this is the underlift off a rotator spec truck."

 

When it went on the Wombats’ Kenworth it was the first KB55 in Australia, giving it an exceptionally long reach.

The factory-fitted Cummins ISX had been rebuilt not long before Andrew and Donna got their hands on it, however the rear end wasn’t quite as well presented. To start with, Andrew had all new brakes and bearings fitted.

 

After draining the front diff and being left with over a litre of fluid that can only be described as ‘tar, if tar was having a very off day’, it was decided to redo the diffs as well. All the shackle pins were gone in the front end so the front looks pretty much new now. Then a couple of new wiring looms were fitted, as the little T409 SAR would spit out electrical gremlins like we wish a pokie machine would. After that it was basically a brand-new decade old truck.

 

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Plenty of places to hide all the tools and equipment needed to get the job done

 

The final issue was the cosmetic approach to the truck. Having worked for companies with paint schemes bright enough for the international space station astronauts to spot, Andrew went the other way, keeping it simple and clean.

 

"I just wanted something stylish and subtle," he admits.

 

"I’d rather drop 30 grand into equipment at the moment than on a paint job." That doesn’t mean it can’t look good.

 

Custom made step boxes by Andrew’s brother Simon at Simon Built in South Australia add a touch of uniqueness. Different tanks on either side would never fly with ‘Mr Symmetrical’ (Andrew’s admission), so he customised the tanks and then had them wrapped so both sides to look identical. By the end of the six months, not only did the truck look nothing like an old bogie drive car carrier it performed nothing like an old bogie driver car carrier either.

All this building and speccing of the big T409 SAR was done with immense forethought by both Andrew and Donna, though they weren’t taking this owner-driver thing lightly.

 

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It’s not just the exterior of the old car carrier that’s been overhauled. Andrew and Donna

gave the interior a complete makeover as well

 

"I had in mind what I wanted to do, I wanted to focus on towing rather than recovery," Andrew says.

 

"If you do recovery you really need a holding yard, which I don’t have. If you go and clean up a B-double or something you need crews to do the clean-up, then you’re forking out thousands to crews." It showed the couple had really planned this thing through.

 

That leaves Wombats Heavy Towing concentrating and thriving in the moving of vehicles and towing of breakdowns. That also leaves Wombats Heavy Towing with a phone that never gets turned off. That’s what makes this company such a family owner-driver business.

 

Andrew might be the one rolling out of bed with keys in hand, but Donna is already downstairs with the jug on and the job information ready to go.

 

"You got to have teamwork," Donna says.

 

"If you didn’t have teamwork it would be a tough road."

 

The company is still only in its early stages. However, when you are kicking off in the middle of a global pandemic, you really are making life difficult. Even Andrew admits that.

 

"There’s the easy road and the hard road, I think I took the most difficult road," he laughs.

 

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Double decker buses are no issue for the T409 SAR. Photo courtesy Wombats Heavy Towing

 

Nonetheless, they are following their dream with passion and they are making it work. It’s a tough life as an owner-driver these days, so I tip my hat to them both.

Wombat origins

But wait! Did you really think I would sign off without enquiring about the wombat in Wombats Heavy Towing? Hell no! Before I explain I want you to browse through the photos and concentrate on the photo of Andrew. Then mentally put yourself in the shoes of someone helping to install a big electrical sign out the front of Truckworks in Adelaide. You find that the cord for the welder won’t reach around the garden, so you ask: "Andrew, could you bring the cord through the garden, mate?"

 

Like a good employee he gets down on his hands and knees and crawls through the garden. At the same time the boss’s brother-in-law comes out, hears some rummaging, glances into the garden and screams: "God damn, I thought that was a wombat!" True story. From that day on, Andrew became wombat and eventually Andrew and Donna became Wombats Heavy Towing. Well done, guys.

 

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