He’s the longest serving contributor to Contractor magazine (22-years) and could have been a doctor, or a full-time professional musician, but left medical school to operate heavy machinery. By Alan Titchall.
I was a big fan of Leonard John Kensell (LJK) Setright, an English motoring journalist who contributed to Car magazine for over three decades. His technical expertise was expressed in an enviable and articulate, often sartorial, writing style.
An eccentric, drop-out lawyer who loathed speed limits, public transport and environmentalists with equal passion, Setright smoked Russian cigarettes in a cigarette holder, was an accomplished clarinet player, and a respected scholar of Judaism, motorbikes and high-fidelity sound systems. He looked the part too – described as resembling “a gaunt Old Testament prophet in Savile Row clothes”.
I am thinking of LJK while interviewing Contractor magazine’s Classic Machines author, Richard Campbell, in the Victorian-era meeting room at our office-villa in the village of Mt Eden. In LJK’s heyday, in less woke times, there would be cigars and whiskey on offer. Today, just face masks, hand sanitiser and tap water.
Richard, could you explain that again – you were 11 years old and playing drums in a professional band?
“Yes, I played at weddings at age 11. The other musicians were older than me, of course. I taught myself listening to Ringo Starr of the Beatles. I was expected to learn a musical instrument when I was a child, and my first choice was the piano. I learnt to read music and did piano theory for two and a half years before the Beatles broke.
“And I had some drumming lessons with a good jazz drummer called Lou Mercer. I was basically hired by bands for sessions or to fill in as a drummer. I progressed from the Beatles’ sound when Cream came along, and I saw a picture of Ginger Baker using two bass drums, so I bought another bass drum to replicate the effects he was getting. I am capable in a wide variety of styles of music, from jazz to blues to hard rock. The only thing I’m allergic to is country music.
“When I’m sitting in my study modelling away, I usually have music on. I listen to hard rock music a lot. I love Van Halen and Whitesnake, Motley Crue, Wasp, Iron Maiden. Lots of drums. They all have good drummers behind them, especially Alex Van Halen.
“I still have two Ludwig kits and about six snare drums, one of which is a hand-engraved black beauty. I’ve got a set up in the lounge in case I get the urge.”
What does your family think when you’re thumping into your drum kits?
“My wife Robyn loves me drumming. It’s just the two of us, at home now.”
I understand you dropped out of medical school to operate heavy machinery.
“I have always been passionate about earthmoving machines. My parents split up when I was very young, and my Mum and I lived with her parents. On the weekends, Grandfather would make a picnic lunch and we would go out to Wellington airport to watch it being built (1954-55). I was immediately smitten by the earthmoving bug and it’s never left me.
“I was a good student and always got good grades at school. I went to Otago university where I studied medicine because my mother and grandparents wanted me to have a ‘proper job’, but all I wanted to do was drive a bulldozer. I was in a flat with others on Mary Hill. I spent the weekends looking for machines shifting dirt somewhere.
“On holidays in Wellington, where I grew up, I got a job with a local contractor pulling a roller behind an International tractor.
“When they thought I was proficient at going back and forwards, I was graduated to other machines. And you had to maintain your own machines as well, which meant greasing it every afternoon after the shift, filling it up with diesel, putting a cover over it, doing walk around inspections; something that is lacking these days.
“After a couple of years, I got a job with Goodman Earthmovers. I was hired by Tony Goodman. Then I got a job with Gough, Gough & Hamer in Wellington as a machinery storeman. A really nice boss there by the name of Toby Thomas. He used to deal with all the government departments and deliver quotes to the Ministry of Works and councils New Zealand wide.
“He recommended me for a job with GG&H in Auckland as they were planning on expanding the operation. I moved to Auckland in 1978 and have been here ever since. I was with GG&H until 1983. It was troubled times then, there was talk of downsizing the staff and targets were on people’s backs.
“So, I left to do something else. I met a chap called Rob Marsh who was friends with Tony Goodman. I ended up preparing the earthworks for kiwifruit orchards in South Auckland. Terracing the land was fun but tedious work.
“So, I tried another job that was nothing to do with earthmoving – Desktop Publishing with Biolab Scientific in Northcote. I had an interest in computers and they were wanting someone to put their newsletters together. This would be 1988 or thereabouts. I started off with Adobe Page Maker and the first iterations of Photoshop. That was much fun and has stood me in good stead down the track.
“I was with them for about six years, well into the 1990s. Then they downsized. I think they had overextended themselves. So, I went back into earthmoving after that, working with Liebherr NZ, based in Auckland. I was there for about six years too.”
You were there when you started writing for this magazine 22 years ago?
“Yes. The editor at the time approached me. I had written an article for somebody else that he read and liked. He initially asked me to test drive new machines. I said I’d rather not do that but can write historical stuff.
“I did my first article for Contractor in May 2002. But it was basically only a page and a half, and every other month, so they weren’t too detailed. Some machines you need to go into quite a bit of detail. There wasn’t a great deal of space in the magazine then, but I got paid for it.
“I wasn’t aware of the impact that it was having at the time. It wasn’t until 2008 that the new editor Mary Searle came to see me and told me a survey revealed my articles were the first thing people read when they get Contractor. She wanted to expand my article to four pages. That was a major eye opener for me. I didn’t realise there was quite the interest in history and nostalgia as what there was out there. It blew me away.”
The strength of your articles is in their technical detail. How do you source that information?
“When I was old enough to put together a legible letter, I used to write to the earthmoving distributors and ask them for brochures which they kindly sent.
“I put them into binders, and I still have them. Which is why I have a good backup reference when I write an article. I can go back and make sure the details are correct in terms of horsepower or weights or engine type. I have a couple of thousand brochures, including many on machines never distributed in NZ. Some go back to the 1930s that I acquired from Ebay, although I don’t buy many now that I’m retired.
“Some folks ask ridiculous prices for old literature, especially for Caterpillar literature which is very collectable. Fortunately, I have most of the CAT stuff from when I was little.”
Did you ever get to America to see these machine in action?
“I have only been to the United States once. I saw some big scrapers working in California. That was a highlight. When the Americans want to shift dirt in a big way, they do. It was quite a sight. Takes your breath away if you’re a complete nutter about machines like I am.”
You are retired now. Was that a decision you made to write and make models?
“I left Liebherr in 2008 and did some time with CablePrice, but I spent my last seven working years with TransDiesel and they were good times, and a very good company.
“That was until Covid came along and a lot of us older ones were laid off. I was well past retirement age at that stage and it didn’t seem worth going looking for another job. The likelihood of employing someone who was 67 years old was unlikely so, I reluctantly went into retirement.
I made some really good friends during my working life. Some of the people I operated with I still keep in touch with.”
What was the best machine you operated?
“I loved the little electric-steer Wabco 111A – they were brilliant elevating scrapers. Some people hated them; you have to know how to drive them properly. We used them at Goodmans and on the kiwifruit orchards in Auckland. I have done a feature on this machine in Contractor. I would like one for a pet!”
And the worst machine?
“That would have to be a Vickers Vigor bulldozer. It was a terrible thing. A family friend of ours on my Mum’s side, Keith McMillan, owned a Vickers dozer and let me have a drive of it one day. It was horrible – only the British could build something like that. But it has a mystique like the Euclid TC-12 dozer, and people are fascinated by it. But, they aren’t nice to drive at all.”
And what pisses you off about the industry today?
It will probably sound like its coming from a grumpy old bugger but there’s way too much automation on some stuff. I know it makes people’s lives easier, but take grade control. We learnt how to read grade stakes and if you got it wrong you got a kick up the bum.
“Also, the maintenance of machines. They get people off the street, stick them into a multi-thousand-dollar machine and then abuse it.
“I see it around town all the time – machines not being operated properly. Not digging the tracks out at the end of a shift. No first morning check to see if there are any puddles under the machine. They just open the door hop in and start it up. The machine could have leaked all its oil out overnight.
“You cannot always rely on safety systems or on automatic lubrication systems either, which a lot of machines have these days because they’re only effective if you check to see they are operating properly.
“If one of the lube lines has been swiped off during a shift and you didn’t see it, that pivot point is not getting greased and so a failure will result.
“I am not a big fan of AdBlue in engines either. A well-tuned diesel engine – and that comes down to maintenance again – will not pollute the atmosphere as much as the greenies say. Putting this additive into the exhaust system to lower the emissions, is just another system to go wrong.”
Last question: How long will you keep writing your column for Contractor and what do you get out of it?
“Well, I have been really humbled by how much people enjoy my articles, so I will keep on writing for as long as I can. There is no shortage of material! I get a great feeling of satisfaction knowing that people enjoy reading them, and I also get to dispel a few commonly held myths about some machines along the way.”