Empires can spring from unlikely places.
With Hino’s ventures into the realms of car production hastily truncated, we now rewind to their more staple area of interest: the heavy commercials business.
Rudimentary as most vehicles were during the first two decades of the twentieth century, Hino produced their inaugural solid, reliable workhorse in 1917. The first Hino bus arrived some thirteen years later with another score passing before building Japan’s first trolleybus. Far from a delayed timetable, Hino ploughed on with purpose.
Once inside the comforting cradle of Toyota, Hino became the mirror to Toyota’s cars, their trucks providing plain, honest and reliable machines capable of heavy use and high mileages with minimal service. Over in Europe there were similitudes but tastes naturally showed through; nods toward comfort, adjustability, desirability, the States exacerbating this trend. Hino offered belt and braces trucks, engendering a loyal following.
As their initial car expansion plans loomed, so too did the big stuff. 1964 saw Thailand opening their first overseas truck service outlets. Many more would follow.
And whereas vehicle manufacturers are often portrayed as faceless entities (more so these days), certain characters often surface to make for interesting reading today. A chap for example who once chartered a plane home to Ireland from a Mediterranean holiday he felt miffed with (to sell more trucks) opens the door to the enigmatic life of one Robert Harris, known to many as Pino.
This unusual sobriquet apparently stems from young Robert’s fondness for pinhead oatmeal porridge. As the son of a Limerick horse dealer, turned scrap merchant, Pino joined the family trade as they headed northwest to Dublin. In time, this saw Pino take up an interest in selling metal other than scrap in the shape of new trucks.
Possessing the archetypical ‘gift of the gab’, Harris won the deal to sell Guy Warrior and Invincible trucks in Ireland. Briefly under the control of Jaguar Cars, Guy’s sent over the necessary components in crates for J. Harris Assemblers to assemble and sell. Business steadily grew at the Cloghran depot close to Dublin airport. Later, like others blessed with similar entrepreneurial spirit, Harris sought larger premises on the Naas Road. Timing being the great divider, Guy then fell under the auspices of British Leyland, who had more than enough of their own distributors, leaving Pino Harris with nothing to sell. Fate, the fickle element.
On seeing a Hino truck at a motor show, he enquired into the feasibility of selling these unknown Japanese wares. Taken seriously, Harris was invited to Tokyo to tour the facility. Legend has it whilst talking business with senior Hino management, a problem occurred with a truck. Excusing himself to don overalls and fix the issue warmed the Japanese immeasurably toward this enthusiastic Irish fellow.
Unseen by the author, apparently a grainy black and white BBC documentary from 1967 showed a priest enthusiastically waving his aspergillum over completed CKD kits, blessing them with Roman Catholic fervour.
Early Hino adopters soon sang freely of not only the Manufacturer’s orthodoxy of frugality and reliability but also the unprecedented Pino Harris levels of service. Regardless of whether one or fifty trucks had been purchased, Harris guaranteed his customers what rivals dare not mention – keeping you moving, and therefore, earning.
Reports of the Harris style of selling have become almost mythical. Out and about, Pino might engage conversation with a driver at his delivery point or maybe a greasy spoon café. He would then state the iniquities of their current vehicle so why not pop down the depot, have a look at a Hino? Should they be an owner driver, on arrival the chap’s name would be already on the cab. A larger company would have several trucks perfectly lined up. Lured in, few said no to Pino.
His engaging manner and slick terms swiftly led to Harris becoming the talk of the town. Hino trucks became Irish trucks with the Japanese factory occasionally struggling to maintain the flow of knocked-down kits. The success of Pino Harris caused detrimental effects on those trucks made in and around the UK. 1988 saw Harris planning to expand into England, purchasing a plot of land for the excess demand of production, spares and repair in Catterick, North Yorkshire.
By May 1986, practically thirty years since his first Hino sold, Britain’s last independent truck maker, ERF (Edwin Richard Foden, the black sheep of the Foden truck making family) sold out to Canadian enterprise, Western Star. In turn, these fell under the VW umbrella via MAN trucks. Hino blossomed, operators including agricultural and dairy co-ops, entire fleets for BOC and Cement Roadstone as well as the ever present owner-driver.
Consider in the same year, J. Harris Assemblers had cornered 25% of the Irish truck market and continued pushing. Pino’s hand also controlled the Irish arm of Iveco, alongside fellow Hino partner, Isuzu franchises. Factor in that the Harris empire was entirely in private hands and not publicly limited companies.
Devoted almost as much to his mother as his beloved Japanese trucks, Pino married late in life upon his mother’s passing. His burgeoning wealth failed to propel him into the upper echelons of public life. Barring the occasional newspaper scandal, his down to earth demeanour and delight in the next sale kept his feet firmly on the tarmac – a new truck, doubtlessly supplied by him, rolling by.
The Rising Sun-shaped wave crest eventually faltered as currency fluctuations crept up on that side of the Harris operations. Before his untimely passing in 2017, the Iveco line outsold Hino for the first time.
Unless one was seeking a new truck, Pino always kept the cards close to his chest. But the sleuth-like ability to sniff out a sale never left him. Nor his living arrangements. For all his vast wealth (rumoured around £175 million) he preferred to live in the family home, the unbecoming S-Class parked outside the terrace house in Phibsboro, North Dublin.
Leaving the company to his wife, Denise, the Harris business continues in what appears very safe hands. As do Hino trucks. Progressing to the USA from 1984, entries in to the Dakar Rally in 1990 (with a 1-2-3 in 1997), keeping that fundamental credo for over a century, they are currently the world’s sixth largest truck manufacturer. Partly due to a shy but determined Irishman.
Date source: Various Irish Independent newspaper articles from the early 1980’s/ May 1996 (Alan Murdoch)