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Tom Kruse’s Leyland: A Great Australian Logistics Story.

by Murray Phillips,
Aug 1, 2023
COVID Safe Transport Business
COVID Safe Transport Business

Table of Contents:

Grab a cold drink and let us tell you a yarn about Tom Kruse, one of Australia’s greatest delivery drivers.

“I live and breathe the silences

and dust where no man reigns…”

  • Cold Chisel, Wild Colonial Boy.

Tom Kruse is a name that is synonymous with the Australian Outback in the mid-20th century. Born and raised in South Australia, Cruz spent much of his life driving freight trucks across some of the most unforgiving terrain on Earth.

During the nineteen-thirties, -forties, and -fifties, Kruse braved dust storms, sweltering heatwaves, and bone-chilling desert cold to deliver mail and goods to some of the most remote communities in Australia. His tireless dedication to his job earned him the respect and admiration of his colleagues and clients alike.

This is the story of Tom Kruse and the trusty Leyland Badger truck he drove across the sandy wastes of the Central Australain Outback.

From Small-town Boy to Outback Legend.

Esmond Gerald “Tom” Kruse was born in 1911 at Waterloo, South Australia, a small town 120 km north of Adelaide. One of 12 children, Kruse left school at 13 and did odd jobs, picking up valuable knowledge of bush repairs and mechanical improvisation: the iconic “Cobb and Co twitch” methods still used in the bush to keep things going.

Driving for Ding  

During the Depression, Kruse moved a further 200 km north to Yunta on the Barrier Highway, where he worked as a mechanic for his uncle. Following this, Kruse got a job with local cartage contractor, Harry Ding, hauling livestock, wheat and wool.

Ding already owned several of the mail runs in the northern part of South Australia. In 1935 he successfully bid for the Marree-Birdsville mail route. The two isolated towns were linked by the Birdsville Track, a dry, lonely and ill-defined cattle trail. 

First used during the 1880s to move stock from the Queensland Channel Country to southern markets, the track stretches 500 kilometres across a landscape of “blinding sunlight glinting off orange gibber stones, eerie desert darkness and palpable silence”. It was also full of flies, choking dust storms and sand that clogged air filters. 

Assigned to the Birdsville run

Kruse was Ding’s most competent driver and he was the natural choice for this demanding delivery run. Ding came up with a one week route to be completed every second week. It comprised a three-day journey north, one full day in Birdsville and then three days for the trip back to Maree. During the second week, Kruse would complete other mail runs while the cargo for the next Birdsville run was being assembled. 

Kruse had never driven the Birdsville Track until the day he started: New Year’s Day, 1936. Before that time, Afghan cameleers had dominated the supply route to Birdsville, although the mail itself had always gone by horse. 

Kruse would now carry the mail, a load of freight for the stations along the way, and five passengers, three of whom clung precariously on top of the load in the 45℃ degree heat.  

It was a demanding trip. It required a truck that could cope with the harsh landscape and conditions, not to mention the heavy loads. And Leyland had just the truck for the job. 

The Lancashire Steam Motor Company.

The Lancashire Steam Motor Company was founded the in British town of Leyland in 1896 by James Sumner and Henry Spurrier. Their first product was a 1.5 ton-capacity steam van. 

In 1987, the pair took their steam van to Manchester for the Royal Agricultural Society of England trials for self-propelled vehicles. This prototype Leyland truck carried all before it, winning the top prize of a silver medal. Their company built on this success and began building bigger and better trucks, including the first steam bus and Britain’s first ever export order for a steam mail van, which went to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).

The first petrol engine

The first petrol-engined Leyland vehicle — nicknamed ‘the Pig’ — was produced in 1904. A year later, the company supplied the first Leyland bus for service in London. In 1907 the company absorbed the steam wagon builder Coulthards of Preston, adopting the name of Leyland Motors Limited later the same year. 

In 1912, the military market opened up for Leyland, with their 3-ton lorry, commonly known as the ‘RAF-type’, becoming one of the standard military vehicles. By the outbreak of war in 1914 the company had 1500 employees and had produced approximately 1275 petrol engined vehicles and 415 steam wagons.

The Leyland Zoo

By the late 1920s the company was at the forefront of bus and truck design. These years saw the introduction of the so-called Leyland Zoo, with animal names for Leyland models such as the Lion, the Lioness, the Cub, the Llama, the Tiger, the Terrier, and the model that would become famous on the Birdsville Track: the six-wheeled Badger.

Tom Kruse’s Leyland

The Badger used on the Birdsville run was powered by a 32.4 horsepower 4-cylinder diesel engine paired with a 6×4, 4-speed crash gearbox and a 2-speed auxiliary ‘joey’ gearbox. The original weight of the vehicle was 91 cwt (10 tonnes in modern units), with a load capacity of 5 tons, although Kruse often loaded it with up to 10 tons!

Over the years, Kruse made many custom improvements to the Badger. It’s transmission, rear axles and tail shaft were salvaged from a crashed Thornycroft truck and installed on the Leyland in 1939. There were also numerous improvised road-side repairs and adjustments made to the truck including found items such as bullet cases. 

Trucks on the Track.

Buring his time as a remote delivery operator, Tom Kruse earned a reputation as a master of his craft. He drove every type of freight vehicle imaginable, from massive road trains to nimble 4x4s. He navigated treacherous mountain passes, crossed raging rivers, and drove through the heart of the Simpson Desert.

Despite the many challenges he faced, Kruse remained dedicated to his job. He was known for his unwavering commitment to safety, always putting the well-being of his cargo and his fellow drivers first. His professionalism and attention to detail earned him the trust of his clients, who often requested him by name for their most challenging deliveries.

The Back of Beyond

In 1954, Kruse starred in a documentary film produced by the Shell Film Unit and directed by John Heyer. The Back of Beyond followed the fortnightly journey Kruse made along the Birdsville Track from Marree to Birdsville, showcasing the people he met and the challenges he faced. 

The film was highly successful, earning awards and critical acclaim. It is now considered one of Australia’s most iconic documentaries. It takes a docudrama approach — featuring re-enactments and a ‘lost children’ story — but also includes real-life bush characters such as Afghan cameleer Bejah Dervish, and Old Joe the Aboriginal rainmaker. 

The film took three years to make, with one year of planning, one year of production, and one year of editing. Filming conditions were challenging, with sand damaging the equipment and requiring the use of post-synced dialogue and sound effects.

Awards for his services

As well as the documentary, Kruse’s achievements did not go unnoticed. He was the recipient of numerous awards and accolades over the years, including the prestigious Outback Freight Driver of the Year award, which he won three times. His contributions to the industry were recognized by the Australian government, which awarded him the Order of Australia in 2015.

The Badger Retired…and Reborn.

In 1958, after many years of faithful service, the iconic Badger truck was abandoned on Pandie Pandie Station, where it remanind for decades. However, in 1986, a mail run re-enactment group was established. The group recovered the remains of the truck and embarked on a restoration effort led by Tom Kruse himself and a team of dedicated volunteers.

Back to the Track 

Seven years later, in October 1999, Kruse and his trusty Badger set out on a historic re-enactment of the mail run, delivering 7000 letters marked with a special commemorative postmark. This remarkable journey was captured in another documentary, this one titled Last Mail from Birdsville: the story of Tom Kruse

After the successful completion of the re-enactment, the truck was put on display at the National Motor Museum at Birdwood, near Adelaide, where it has been housed ever since. In 2008, Tom and Valma Kruse donated the truck to the people of South Australia, formally adding it to the museum’s collection. 

Today, the Leyland Badger and Kruse’s inspiring story are showcased in a permanent exhibit in the museum. The exhibit is titled SUNBURNT COUNTRY: ICONS OF AUSTRALIAN MOTORING.

A Role Model for Modern Logistics Professionals.

While the legacy of Tom Kruse and the Birdsville Track remains an important part of Australia’s history, modern logistics software has transformed the way we approach remote deliveries. With the ability to overcome geographical obstacles and provide real-time updates, these technologies have opened up new opportunities for businesses looking to expand their reach and serve customers in even the most remote corners of the country.

Tom Kruse was a true legend of the Australian Outback during the mid-20th century. His unwavering dedication to his job and his unparalleled driving skills made him one of the most respected and admired freight drivers in the country. 

His story continues to inspire the modern generation of drivers.

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