Forget “Transformers,” Western Star’s Real Business Is Rugged Work Trucks

August 06, 2018 by Jerry Hirsch, @Jerryhirsch

Western Star is a small truck brand best known in popular culture as the superhero leader of the Autobots Optimus Prime in the “Transformers” film series.

In the trucking world, its reputation for building extreme-duty trucks that take on some of the toughest jobs in the industry is part of the brand’s DNA. Western Star got its start hauling massive logs out of the forest. Today operators use them to support road construction jobs or for very specific applications like clearing large amounts of snow or salt distribution.

Dave Carson is the president of Western Star, a division of Daimler Trucks North America and a sister brand to Freightliner. Carson sat down with Trucks.com recently to discuss the industry and where Western Star is headed. Here is an edited version of that conversation.

What does the link to the “Transformers” franchise do for the brand?

It introduces the brand to maybe a lot of people who really don’t have any connection to trucking at all. It creates a brand awareness that big trucks can be cool and amazing, as we see  from the Optimus Prime version of that truck that was used in the movie. Does it sell trucks? Maybe, but I think it’s just more brand awareness.

Because of “Transformers,” people connect Western Star with big rigs. That’s not your top business?

About 80 percent of our sales are work trucks — dump trucks, cement mixers, tractors that are doing heavy haul, so flatbeds and tankers. Any truck that you might see on the road that isn’t necessarily pulling a 53-foot enclosed trailer that’s shipping just goods in boxes and pallets. The owner-operator, on-highway truck, it’s maybe 20 percent. We’re mainly operating 13-liter, 15-liter and 16-liter powertrains.

Does Western Star sell a lot of work trucks because it started out as a logging truck?

The company comes out of Kelowna, British Columbia, and it was very much oriented on the forestry business in Western Canada. It built an extreme-duty truck that could pull very large loads and survive the harsh conditions of true off-road situations where trucks were driving deep into the forest on what were basically bulldozed dirt roads and hauling lumber out.

How has that expanded?

We’ve essentially gone from logging into all different applications because of the durability of the truck and its ability to be used in all different types of conditions. We make snowplows, quite large snowplows that are used to clear runways in airports. They came out of the fact that Western Canada has lots of snow and lots of inclement weather. And that was also an early usage of the Western Star trucks that has moved into other places.

We have Department of Transportation customers in a number of different states that are using the truck with a snowplow and a dump body. They’ll use it for road construction in the summer, and they’ll use it for snow clearing and salt distribution in the winter.

Western Star and Freightliner are sister brands. Who sells more work trucks?

If you talk about something that’s heavier displacement, or higher horsepower engine, the answer is Western Star. But if you start getting into lower displacement, let’s say 13 liter or below, our vocational product on the Freightliner side in volume is greater than what we’re selling in Western Star.

How does selling specialized trucks affect manufacturing?

I would say we are a custom truck builder. We’re very unique in terms of the number of features and options that we can provide to our customers. Freightliner sells mostly to large fleets. Our sales of our trucks are really handled by our dealers. We support our dealers and they have those relationships for the one-, two- or three-truck deals with extremely unique specifications.

They work with the customer, then we work with them to fully spec the truck, be able to place an order, get it built, and then deliver it to the dealer who’s ultimately going to deliver it to the customer. Our relationship with our dealers is extremely important. And the dealers are very, very good at knowing all of those nuances and options and features that we can provide.

What is the biggest order you can think of where all the trucks were alike?

A very large order for us would be 50 to 100 trucks. We were working on a quote recently for 100. They weren’t all exactly the same, but they were close. And that’s a pretty significant order for us. It’s different, clearly, than what we would see on the Freightliner side where an order for hundreds of the same trucks is common.

Does the constant variation and customization add to the expense of manufacturing?

Obviously, the less standardized you are the more challenging it is to produce. We actually have some great flexibility within our two manufacturing locations. One’s in Portland, Ore., and the other is in Cleveland, N.C. Is it expensive to do customized? Yes, but we have very, very well-trained and flexible employees that know that almost every truck that they build on the line is going to be different than the one that came before it. They’re quite experienced and knowledgeable.

Freightliner recently introduced a series of electric trucks. Will Western Star ever go electric or autonomous?

We’ll obviously learn from everything that happens on the Freightliner side. All the knowledge that comes out of that process we’ll utilize. In the vocational marketplace, we have had some discussions on [autonomous] applications like a mine site where the vehicle never leaves the property. There was quite an interest in a fully electric mining dump truck that was also autonomous. There’s a lot of different work that would have to be done to realize it, but there are some vocational situations where autonomous and electric might be a perfect application.

Some analysts speculate that Daimler will wrap Western Star into the Freightliner brand. Your thoughts?

We see absolute value to the brand as a stand-alone brand, but not as a completely separated or distinct product or company from Freightliner. We see it as complementary. We believe that whether we’re talking Freightliner, Western Star, Freightliner Custom Chassis, Thomas Built school buses, or Detroit powertrains, we have a full portfolio of products to offer to our customers for every situation.

Read next: Daimler Unveils Electric Freightliner Cascadia

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