Mack Trucks is spending $13 million to convert a former comic book publishing plant in Virginia to make medium-duty trucks in a bid to muscle its way back into the market after a two-decade absence.
“It’s traditionally a pretty steady 90,000 to 100,000 trucks year over year in the U.S. and Canada with three-quarters of that being Class 6,” said Jonathan Randall, Mack senior vice president of sales and marketing.
That compares to the volatile Class 8 market, whose frequent ups and downs resemble a roller coaster. After a blistering order pace in 2018, Class 8 bookings fell in 11 of 12 months across the industry in 2019. Mack built 40,000 fewer trucks in 2019 than the year before. Part of that decline resulted from a 13-day United Auto Workers strike in October.
Listening to dealers
Mack quietly started looking at re-entering the medium-duty market two years ago. Dealers had requested the trucks to fill out a lineup that covered Class 8 highway and off-highway applications. They saw production-ready MD Series prototypes in Phoenix recently, the first medium duties from Mack since it stopped selling the Renault-based Freedom model in 2002.
“Medium duty isn’t new to us in any way, shape or form,” Randall said. “And it’s not new as far as this customer base and who they are.”
Most medium-duty applications — van, refrigerated, flatbed, dump and tank — are more about the work they perform than the underlying trucks themselves.
“Trucking is a necessary evil for a lot of these fleets,” Randall said. “General freight is not their business.”
Mack designed the MD Series from the ground up, borrowing styling and design cues from its newest Class 8 Anthem model. The MD Series will wear a silver bulldog hood emblem, signifying the truck’s content comes from multiple supplier sources. (A gold bulldog hood ornament denotes a purebred consisting of all-Mack content.)
A Cummins (NYSE: CMI) B 6.7-liter in-line six-cylinder engine offers up to 300 horsepower. An Allison Transmission (NYSE: ALSN) 2500HS six-speed transmission provides up to 660 pound-feet of torque. Meritor (NYSE: MTOR) MFS-12 front axles and MS 21-13x rear axles are standard.
Mack carried over air-ride suspension, a wraparound dash on the cab interior and the grill from the Anthem, which has invigorated Mack’s share of the Class 8 over-the-road market since it was introduced in 2018.
Even though Mack itself used “Baby Bulldog” in tweets to describe the new trucks, Randall said, “I don’t want anyone calling it a baby bulldog. It’s not a baby bulldog. The bulldog on the hood is the same size [as on a Class 8].”
Comic books to trucks
Mack’s plan to return to medium-duty trucks was not much of a secret.
The Morning Call newspaper in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where Mack builds all its heavy-duty trucks for North America at its Lehigh Valley Operations, reported in February 2019 that the Volvo Group brand was hiring engineers for a secret project in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
LSC Communications, formerly RR Donnelley & Sons, closed its plant near Roanoke, Virginia, in July 2017, laying off 140 workers. Mack quietly leased the 280,000-square-foot facility through a third party. It expects to hire 250 workers by the time it reaches full production on its MD Series trucks later this year. Production begins in July.
A ribbon-cutting Thursday, with Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam in attendance, marked the start of what Mack calls Roanoke Valley Operations.
It is the latest mid-Atlantic facility for Mack, whose sibling Volvo Trucks North America heavy-duty assembly plant is located 45 miles south off Interstate 81. Both companies are part of the Volvo Group (OTC: VLVLY) with corporate headquarters two hours south in Greensboro, North Carolina. A joint engine and transmission plant is in Hagerstown, Maryland.
“The logistics flow, particularly due to I-81, really helped us serve the existing footprint here in Virginia,” said James Chenier, Mack senior vice president of Strategy and Business Development. “This facility required few modifications and renovations.”