Dublin, Land of the Rising Sun

Empires can spring from unlikely places.

(c) Hino.com

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.

‘Pino’ and the J. Harris team. (c) harrisgroup.ie

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.

Hinos became ubiquitous in Ireland and elsewhere. IMCDb

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.

Comfort was a big Hino selling point. fotki

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.

The man himself. Robert (Pino) Harris. (c) independent.ie

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) 

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

34 thoughts on “Dublin, Land of the Rising Sun”

  1. Good morning Andrew,
    Thank you for this interesting account of Pino Harris; in 1978 Harris also attempted or planned to launch a 4×4 car with his own name on it. These were in essence Romanian ARO’s with small modifications.
    For whatever reason, actual sales never seem to have happened, but a brochure was printed:

    1. Good morning, Bruno. I wonder if you have the brochure you mentioned. The things you learn here are just great.

    2. Bruno, you’ve uncovered more unknown items to me, thank you. The effort required to print this kind of thing up must’ve been close to production of some form. There’s a rustic Niva look to this job which is more than faint praise from me.

    3. I recall seeing these AROs on Irish roads from time to time during the early 1980s, so somebody was importing them. I recall being somewhat intrigued by them at time, since one never read a word about them in any of the automotive press at the time. They seemed to vanish just as quickly as they materialised, as well… On a similar tack, I’d imagine the Lada Niva would have gone down well with the farming fraternity here at the time, had anyone the presence of mind to import them.

    4. The Fachwerk style of the backdrop – country house hotel universally favoured worldwide as an upmarket lifestyle signifier – doesn’t quite fit in with my notion of Irish rural architecture. The couple don’t look any too proud of the crummily-presented Eastern European bucket, whose paint scheme looks like the hastily anonymised corporate livery of the previous owner. Their luggage looks far more ‘premium’ than their transport…

      Anyway, I was sufficiently intrigued by Pino’s prescient suv venture to delve further and found this on the French CarJager site:

      “Over the years, Harris grabbed market share, angering British manufacturers who saw it as unfair competition. It was with this iconoclastic idea, and playing on his good reputation with Irish customers, that he decided to launch a competitor to the Land Rover.

      In June 1978, the managing director of J. Harris Road & Land Vehicles, Liam O’Reilly, revealed to Commercial Motor magazine the launch of 3 versions of the new Irish 4 × 4 (tarpaulin, panel van or pick up) soon followed by a luxury 5-door version based on the Romanian ARO 244, but powered by Peugeot diesel (Indenor) or petrol (optional) mechanics, and fitted with Dunlop tires and Girling brakes.

      We learn on this occasion that already 50 vehicles have been supplied to the Irish Army, and that a few copies have already been sold to loyal customers. The Dublin Electricity Company, for its part, refused the device, after testing it for a few months, while the Post Office is testing three vehicles. Liam O’Reilly is not taking it easy: he envisions 500 AROs sold in Ireland per year, and 1000 for England, where he says he already has a distributor.

      Since that day in June 78, it has been impossible to find the evidence of a real commercialization. J. Harris Group still exists, making Hinos, but also Ivecos and Isuzus in its Dublin factory, but there is total silence on the ARO affair. Did Robert “Pino” Harris realize that it would be difficult to fight the Land Rover, the designated target? Or were the negotiations with the Romanians in ARO more delicate than expected? Nobody knows. There remains this brochure, unique souvenir of the J. Harris 4 × 4! No doubt, the Irish AROs are indeed a mystery!”

  2. Again someone I never heard of, I must admit. Pino Harris reminds me of the BMW-dealer where my dad always bought his cars. I bought all my cars there as well, even though they are almost at the other end of our small country. That says somethings. What also says something is that it’s not very likely I’ll buy another Bimmer. Today’s design and all that.

  3. Good morning Andrew. Your account of Robert Harris brought childhood memories flooding back for me. I well remember when Hino trucks first started appearing on Irish roads in the late 1960s. They were slightly old-fashioned looking compared with their British equivalents, with their rather ersatz large winged Hino badge, but quickly gained a reputation for toughness and reliability. They were competitively priced and stock availability was better than the British brands. Here are a couple of period example from the late ’60s and early ’70s:

    As for Harris himself, he was indeed a modest man with simple tastes, but did have some dubious friends, including former Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Charles Haughey and got involved in a number of controversial property deals. These deals were allegedly far more profitable than the business of selling trucks, but the latter was his real passion.

  4. Being Dutch and not very knowledgeable on heavy transport, “Trucks” equals “DAF” to me (which incorporates Leyland Trucks these days). although I pass more than enough trucks on the motorway, I don’t think I’ve noticed many Hinos amongst the DAF, Mercedes, Volvo, Scania and Renault trucks. Their international website also doesn’t mention pretty much any country from western continental Europe: the Channel can be quite the barrier sometimes (it seems – as per the famous apocryphical headline – that we in Europe have been cut off again). I’d never heard of Harris either but, as you say, he seems to have been one of the few recogniseable faces in what can seem like an anonymous industry.

    The current Hino range seems conventional but handsome enough. The Japanese versions seem to have an extra lower side window (only on the side opposite the driver) that I haven’t seen on other trucks. Doubtless to aid visibility and at first glance, a sign of thoughtful design.

    International versions don’t seem to possess this feature, so maybe it’s a regulatory thing in Japan:

    1. Mercedes’ Citaro has a bus-like folding passenger door with glass down to floor level

      And once again the Citroen Belphégor had such additional windows, in this case to assist operating in tight spaces

    2. I think a door with the extra window is commonly known as a “London door” in the UK? The main disadvantage would perhaps be that the extra piece of glass probably makes it impossible to wind down the regular window.

      I like the utilitarian design of Hino lorries, always enjoy seeing them all over Ireland. I rarely see one in England, but to my surprise I spotted a Hino tipper in Bath (UK) this week!

  5. Good morning Tom. BMC fitted similar additional safety windows to one of its trucks back in the 1960s, on both sides of the front panel:

    Leyland did the same in the 1980s, albeit on just the passenger side:

    It seems a very sensible safety measure, so I wonder why it hasn’t been adopted more widely.

    1. Didn’t the eighties’ Ford Cargo have such windows in the doors as well? The Iveco Cargo range that succeeded it had too, but I don’t think they extended down so far.

    2. That generation of Ford Cargo is I believe stylistically credited to a certain Patrick le Quément, during his tenure at Merkenich. Whether he was actually involved, or to what degree, I will leave to others to confirm.

    3. Thanks, all. Indeed one wonders why it hasn’t been adopted more widely. That Mercedes’ door is a bit weird, though: why? The magnificent Citroën Belphégor had wandered by these comment pages before, taking a break from stalking the hallways of the Louvre (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belph%C3%A9gor_(novel)). What a wonderful thing.

      The Leyland and Ford (I’d forgotten about that one too, while it was actually pretty common around where I live) are somewhat utilitarian designs, though nicely executed, but I think the extra windows give them a little more visual interest.

    4. In theory the Mercedes Citaro is a vehicle for inner city distribution logistics. The bus-like folding door and full size glass make some sense in inner city use.
      In reality I’ve yet to see a Citaro used as anything but refuse collection vehicle (invariably with equipment made by Faun) where this kind of door is even more useful considering the tight space they have to operate in.

  6. The current situation seems unclear: Harris is still listed as Irish and UK contact on Hino’s website; Harris Group’s own website makes reference to Hino but lists its current brands as Isuzu, Higer (Chinese coaches), Sinotruk, Crusader (minicoaches on various chassis), AOS (Turkish Isuzu midicoaches) and SAIC-Maxus (vans, sold using the LDV name in the UK).

    They also make reference to assembling the Sinotruk range as well as selling them – is this the first Chinese vehicle assembly in Europe? The old Harris-Hino website is alive but rather out of date: http://www.hino.ie The newest Hino I can see for sale in the UK is from 2014. I recall mostly seeing them as 8-wheel aggregate movers (quarry lorries) but they did offer other bodies. Given the Toyota connection, why didn’t Hino perform better?

    On the car front: though Hino did stop making its own passenger vehicles, it does make the Land Cruiser Prado and the FJ Cruiser based on it, on behalf of its parent firm. https://www.hino-global.com/corp/about_us/hinoandtoyota.html

    1. I’ll be driving past Harris’ headquarters on the Naas Road later today – I’ll try to see what’s in the yard! I’m pretty sure they are doing Sinotruk and Isuzu at the very least right now. And they are definitely carrying SAIC/LDV – in fact I think they recently announced they were taking on the UK distribution for these as well.

    2. OK, from what I could see (I had to concentrate on the road, this is not a good place to lose focus!) Harris have signage up for Isuzu and Higer, and the compound has plenty of those in stock, plus Sinotruck and SAIC vans. The older buildings are to let, and one can see where the Hino signs have been removed.
      I suspect the company may see Sinotruck and SAIC as the new Hino: no-nonsense vehicles at a price discount to the established brands. Well, if it worked once…

  7. What an interesting article Andrew and thanks for including “aspergillum” in the text too. I admit to having to look up what it meant and now I know. The wonders of DTW…

  8. Hino trucks were already part of the Irish landscape when I arrived, but what brought Harris to my attention was the Isuzu Aska ( J-Car) diesel, which they imported in the 1980s, and which became the preferred company car option for Irish sales-reps.

  9. Hi Mervyn. I had left Ireland before the arrival of Isuzu, so was unaware of the Aska. It was a rather smart version of GM’s J-car with neater detailing than the European Opel/Vauxhall version:

    I Googled ‘Isuzu Aska Ireland’ and found this, a 1987 Dublin registered example:

    I think ‘needs some TLC’ is how it might best be described. 😁

    1. They had four rectangular headlights, which made them look “American”, but the engines were the real draw. I don’t think anyone else offered turbo-diesels at the time, and Isuzu made the best diesels you could buy. GM prohibited Harris from importing petrol Askas of course.

    2. I’m sure it’d polish up nicely! Actually it doesn’t seem that much more corroded than some cars actually in service on Irish roads in the eighties…
      I find it curious I never realised in period just how closely related the Aska and contemporary Ascona were: looking at pictures now it seems so obvious! I guess the nose and tail tweaks were quite effective, so!

    3. That’s quite some weight reduction, there. But as Michael says, below, it’ll polish out…

      And thanks Michael too for the live Harris update

  10. Was the Aska Irish-only? I suppose the presence of the Cavalier kept it from the UK market; it seems that the American Cavalier (still using the J-body platform until 2005!) was marketed in Japan as a Toyota, with limited success. Subsequent Askas (rebadged Legacy, then two rebadged Accords) seem to have been Japanese-only. The Isuzu diesel from the Aska was also used in the Hindustan Ambassador 2000DSZ, incidentally.

    1. Apart from the 2-litre diesel in the Aska, Isuzu made a 1.7 diesel which cropped-up in the Nissan Sunny van ( saloons used a 2-litre Nissan diesel) and in the JDM Mazda 323/Familia saloon, and eventually found its’ way into Opels and Vauxhalls.

  11. Just out of interest, is it pronounced Heeno, Hinno or Highno? I’d always assumed the first, but for no real reason.

  12. Thanks for this very interesting portrait, Andrew. Unintentionally you’ve managed to solve one of my childhood mysteries: my mother was living in Ireland in the 1980’s. And why on earth would there be so many trucks in Ireland of a brand that was virtually unknown in my native country, the Netherlands? It’s the power of a very entrepreneurial man, or so it appears…
    Also, referring to Michael’s comment, I still remember the total surprise of seeing cars with iron-thread clothing hangers replacing the original radio antenna. It was such a different country, back then…

    1. That was partly because snapping the original antennae off was pretty much a leisure activity in some quarters. My parent’s Mk3 Escort sported just such an arangement for years!

  13. Evening all….. That Mercedes refuse truck isn’t a Citaro, it’s an Econic – the Citaro is a Mercedes single-deck bus available in rigid and articulated form (the latter with a not totally fair reputation for setting fire to itself).
    But to drag us back to Hinos – back in the late ’80s, one of our drivers had pulled up at a bus stop one morning in his Leyland National when a following Hino 6-wheeler laden with building rubble failed to pull out far enough to overtake him. The young lady sitting in the n/s rear corner was more than mildly surprised as the back window exploded past her right shoulder, along with several side windows. The now parallelogram shaped National was written off; the Hino, battered but unbowed, subsequently resumed its duties after appropriate exchange of details by both drivers. I should add that no humans sustained any injuries.

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