It’s a scene straight out of hell. The ground below hisses menacingly, jets of steam shoot 20 feet into the air and every time the wind changes direction, there’s the tar-like smell of coal burning. As we wind our way down the open mine, we see subterranean flames simmering inside the retaining walls. “Don’t worry, this is normal,” says our minder for the day, looking at the horror in our eyes, “These fires are perpetual.”
The ‘picture postcard’ scene is completed by the presence of dark, low-hanging clouds and a constant drizzle. Then it happens... KAABOOM... stones, bits of coal and dirt are flung hundreds of metres up, and part of the hill we are driving down disappears in a cloud of dynamite and dust. Phew!
Then, as we go deeper into the open mine, we hear the machines – excavators, breakers and crushers, all pounding away with loud metallic clangs. And then comes the sound of tortured diesel engines, some straining to haul their loads up the ghat roads that ring the mine.
Shock and awe
The truck I’ve come to drive, Caterpillar’s assembled-in-India 777E, is a monster that can carry 100 tonnes. Visible in the distance, this “100-tonner” looks big. And I must say I love those monster-truck proportions. The wheels are simply massive when viewed side on, the triangular tipper sitting on top of the wheels is neatly positioned and then there’s the minimalist cab. Simple, neat and functional, it actually looks cool.
Heavy lifting is what the Caterpillar does best
One of the loaded trucks begins to make its way up the mine. The 90-100 tonnes of ‘over burden’, or top layer, however, isn’t weighing it down in the least. There’s no sag or slop from the suspension, it doesn’t bob or pitch too much and while the engine sounds loud, it doesn’t seem unduly stressed.
On the tight corners, the gigantic inside rear wheels spin briefly before finding traction and the
777E shoots forward. As it comes around the hairpin, we see the massive frontage for the first time. One thing’s for sure, Caterpillar doesn’t employ any aerodynamicists. This apartment-block-on-wheels just has to be the single-most un-aerodynamic shape in history. And then we get hit by the size. Now clearly this is a big truck, but what makes my eyes go wider and wider is the fact that it seems to keep growing and growing and GROWING in size as it approaches us. This is crazy – it’s already twice the size of a regular truck, and it’s still getting bigger and bigger. Soon, it literally fills my field of vision. I see nothing before me but truck.
Traction control is optional, so you do get some wheel spin.
Finally, as it crosses us, I realise, to my considerable shock, that even the tyres tower above me. Imagine having to change a flat; you’ll need an industrial crane to get it done, no joke.
As the 777E passes us, we hear the massive 32.1-litre engine. A blend of the howl from the massive turbocharger, growl from the exhaust and whine from the surprisingly smooth 12-cylinder diesel, it’s a unique blend of NASCAR-meets-aircraft turbine. It sounds great. And what adds considerably to the soundtrack is the crunch-crunch of the stones and small rocks on the path below.
Massive V12 diesel displaces 32.1 litres.
How in hell am I going to manage to drive this monster? Will I be able to handle the massive 6.2m width, especially with the steering on the wrong side? What if I brake too hard and get it to tip forward? This is terrifying. Clearly I’ve bitten off more than I can chew.
Throttle, brake and wheel
When the 777E I’m to drive finally arrives, the physical act of getting behind the wheel is severely disorienting. You need to climb a step ladder to get into the cab. And it isn’t just a couple of rungs up, it’s a proper climb. After you reach the top, somewhere between the first and second floor, you have to walk around to the driver’s pod.
Cabin is a small pod sat on the left.
To make matters worse, the cab is situated on the extreme left of the truck, and so I have to drive it on the left of the road. As I settle down on the spring-loaded seat, I see what obviously are India-sourced components – the instrument panel, the info screen with its many control buttons, the automatic gear selector. The truck is built and assembled on the outskirts of Chennai.
Assembled-in-India truck has some India-supplied bits as well.
Luckily, the 777E isn’t complicated to drive; far from it. There are two foot brakes, the second one where the clutch normally sits. You always need to be aware of which gear it is in, but apart from that, the process of driving is pretty straightforward.
Dealing with the titanic forces, and I don’t say this with even an iota of exaggeration, is another matter completely. Step number one, as I try and move off, is to move into ‘D’. The gearbox has seven forward gears, and initially I let the automatic do all the shifting. Getting off the brake and onto the accelerator, however, is a terrifying moment. My leg shakes and I feel sick in my stomach as I gingerly lift my right foot off the brake. The 777E vibrates a bit and lurches forward, like a one-floor apartment block being shaken by an earthquake. And then it moves forward on its own accord, like a house being carried away by a massive mudslide. Only thing, there’s no slope here; it’s straight and level.
I should ideally tap the accelerator a bit, but I’ve no idea what effect hitting the throttle too hard will have. My minder, sitting right next to me, then chimes in, “axel-retter, axle-retter” multiple times, and I finally succumb, eyes half-closed. On cue, the 777E takes off. The big diesel is several times more responsive than I imagined. For the record, this V12 displaces 32,100cc, with each cylinder displacing 2,675cc.
You need to stick it in 2nd on downhills.
After a bit, we get to an uphill section. But the gearbox keeps shifting up to a higher gear, this despite the engine only spinning at 900rpm. To make things even more confusing, the 777E is flying up the hill. This is counterintuitive and confuses the hell out of me. What’s wrong? Has some sort of loony-bin auto pilot kicked in? Then I remember, this thing puts out 1,004hp and, wait, 4,757Nm of torque. Forget towing half-a-dozen everyday trucks, I’m sure a couple of 777Es could drag the Gateway of India off its moorings and deposit it halfway across town. And the best bit is that every time I pad the accelerator, I can feel that Himalayan torque come into play, and simply vapourise the weight of the truck... PHOOSH.
Peak power of 1,004hp is at 1,750rpm.
My instructor gesticulates heavily that I slow down, and so, taking another leap of faith, I softly rest my foot on the brake. The 777E slows down like I’ve hit the brakes with a sledgehammer; the wheels do a bit of a skid before it comes to a stop. It doesn’t help that the truck is near empty. It sure will take a bit of getting used to.
After some runs up and down, my instructor points to the wide and meandering super-highway inside the mine. Gulp, I’ll have to navigate actual corners. This thing is about the width of an average road and I have to be careful we don’t inadvertently take out some of the electric poles that line our path. I get a stern warning about this before we start. The row of poles does look like a picket fence from up here; honestly, rather inconsequential.
Driving on this highway is not for the faint-hearted.
As the first corner comes up, I literally crawl around. I come to a complete stop when another 777
has to pass me on the other side. This goes on for a bit. Soon, however, I learn to modulate the throttle and brake, and after a lap or two of the mine, I even get to grips with steering this beast around corners, the inside rear wheels momentarily spinning up at times. And then I begin to enjoy pulling the massive V12 hard on the uphill sections, hearing the mix of the rumble and the jet-like scream. Maximum power is made at only 1,750rpm, like an old aero-piston engine, and for the most part, I stay at 1,500rpm. But the noise it makes is epic. Best-sounding diesel engine ever, that’s for sure!
As you can imagine, it isn’t all fun and games. When it’s empty, you have to be careful to descend through slushy sections in the right gear. And at times, the brakes, because of the oil-cooled rear discs, are difficult to modulate at speed. Still, after a bit of wheel-time, the 777E is nowhere near as intimidating as it initially seemed, and for that it is all the more impressive. Partly made in India
and yours for Rs 3.5-4 crore, should you happen to want one. 0-100kph time, you ask? Top speed is only 65kph, but if you think that’s slow, imagine your apartment block doing that speed. Aah, see what I mean? What an extreme machine.
|Price||Rs 3.5-4 crore (depending on options)|
|Engine||12-cyl, 32,100cc, twin-turbo diesel|
|Power||1004hp at 1750rpm|
|Torque||4757Nm at 1300rpm|
|Suspension (f/r)||Hydro-pneumatic suspension|
|Front canopy height (loaded)||5177mm|
|Overall front tyre width||4961mm|
|Overall rear tyre width||5262mm|
|Fuel tank capacity||1140 litres|
|Maximum payload (110% of target)||119.1 tonnes/1,08,022kg|
|Maximum gross machine weight||1,63,360kg|
|SERVICE REFILL CAPACITIES|
|Steering system||60 litres|
|Transmission system||125 litres|