I bought my first truck, a 1962 Leyland Comet 4 wheeler, DS 5661, in 1969 and started driving it illegally a few weeks before my twenty first birthday. I had loved trucks since I was small and knew that that was what I wanted to do ‘when I grew up’. My Uncle Jack was a timber merchant in St. Boswells, Roxburghshire. He used hauliers and agreed that I could get a contract ‘A’ Licence to carry his timber from the Borders down into England – mainly Lancashire and Yorkshire. I left the safety of Glaxo Laboratories about six weeks before my 21st birthday and worked for Jack, in the wood, mostly burning the branches that the fellers ‘snedded’ from the trees, loading the trucks and driving the crane myself to load the trucks. I should quickly explain that in those days you didn’t need an HGV licence. To drive a truck, you needed to have passed your car test and to be 21. We slept in caravans on whichever site we were working on, and the only words I understood for many days, when the fellers played cards in a smoke filled, gas lit, caravan in the evening were ‘put the kettle on John!’, which sounded like ‘poor ke’l awn jawn’.
Jimmy, the senior feller, would patiently sharpen the chainsaw blades every evening, cigarette dangling from his mouth. When he remarked that ‘the stains are blunting the blades – try and avoid them,’ I innocently asked if the stains, which I assumed were like knots in the wood, were harder than the rest of the wood, they all fell about laughing. I eventually realised that a stain was a stone!
I would advance the theory that they were nearly English, being so close to England. They would respond that they needed the strongest Scots to keep us on the other side of the border!
I nearly didn’t get to drive a truck, ever. I shared Jack’s caravan. Wednesday evenings Jack used to drive home from wherever we were to St. Boswells. I stayed in the caravan. It was still cold at ‘Netherurd’ in March. Still snow on the ground, despite the new lambs being born. I cooked my dinner and made a cup of tea. I thought I’d have a lie down before going over to the big caravan, where they would play cards. I left the gas on to heat the caravan. I woke up choking, the lights were dim and guttering. The cooker dark, but the gas was still flowing. I staggered up and opened the door and breathed in and out, my chest heaving with the effort. I was minutes, if not seconds from never waking up again. Oh lucky man!
The truck, ex Dolphinton Creameries, was ready some 2 or 3 weeks before my birthday. Jack’s grown up daughters lived in Kendal and Ulverston, and he and my Aunt Nell used to visit every 2nd weekend. That Friday, we loaded for Wigan and Jack drove the truck to Levens bridge, Aunt Nell and I followed in the car. There it was parked up. Next morning we took the car back out to Levens Bridge and went down to Riding and Anderton’s Seven Stars Saw Mill, Wigan and unloaded. I drove back empty to Levens Bridge. There, Jack got out and told me to get on with it. I drove the truck home to Barrow and on the Monday morning up to Scotland, where I loaded again for Wigan and started my trucking career.
My first trip in the Leyland, with 10 tons of timber for Wigan (one ton overloaded already!) took me down the A74. Beattock at that time was a slow long climb on the northbound side and a very steep dip down the southbound side. The Leyland would manage about 50 normally. Down that steep slope I was doing over 60 and bricking it! Basically I’d lost control and was just hanging on.
I got away with it! My uncle Jack, whose timber I was hauling, when I told him about it, explained about going down hills in the same gear you would go up them, and told me a tale of when he used to haul timber for George C Croasdale at Haverthwaite. He had a meal in a cafe, which was actually an old bus, at the top of shap and sat with a young lad from Liverpool, who (like me) had been on his first trip.
The lad left first and Jack came across his wrecked truck at the bottom where you bend left, then right and there used to be the ‘Leyland Motors for all Time’ clock.
After that I used to go down Beattock and Shap in low gear, often to the annoyance of drivers with newer trucks and better brakes!
About a week after my birthday I was stopped by police in Carlisle. No M6 that far North then, we drove straight through the city on the old A6. The officer refused to believe I was twenty one – I guess I looked about 16! I proved I was by showing him birthday cards I happened to have with me. After looking at them, he asked when my birthday had been. ‘Fourth of April,’ I truthfully replied.
‘Then how come your log sheets go back to the middle of March?’
‘Ahhhhh,’ was all I managed.
‘Go on f*** off.’ He said, and went back to his car. Can’t imagine that happening today for so many reasons!
Unfortunately, I don’t even have one photo of that truck or those times. I painted a model Leyland in similar colours to my original, and it graces ‘Riding & Anderton’s yard’ on brother Andy and my model railway, as well as featuring in October 2014 Truck & Driver. I hope it gives some flavour of the noisy, cold workplace of the truck driver in the ’60s. Nor do I have any photos of the 2 Perkins V8 Leyland Mastiffs that I bought, KCK 840H and LRN 550J, to carry on hauling out of Coed y Brenin, (King’s Forest?) near Dolgellau in North Wales, where Jack bought a lot of timber from the Forestry Commission.
Almost all of the deliveries were to Riding and Anderton’s in Wigan. My brother Andy drove the second truck. A nominal 180 BHP, they couldn’t have been very big horses. We sometimes had to open the door and reach round the back to pull the double diesel cold start, releasing extra power and clouds of dense black smoke, to get up the forestry road hills. Mind, we did sometimes have a couple of tons overload!
Apparently the people who objected most vociferously to the harvesting of the spruce and scots pine forests were the same people who had objected to them being planted some 20 years before.
In 1970, the old A, B and C licensing was changed to O licensing, so we were free to carry for anybody. Bowater Scott (now Kimberly-Clark) had a factory in Barrow and Andy and I started hauling for them as well as for Jack. The trailers were short – 28′ and 26′, which had been fine for the forestry work, but even on a 40′ trailer you could only load about ten tons of toilet tissue and of course you had to rope and sheet it. I finished with Jack and traded the flats in for 40′ vans. So wonderful to look in your mirrors and see 2 smooth sides all the way to the back.
After a couple of years, Blue Dart started to take a lot of the Bowater traffic, so we sub-contracted from Pritchett Bros. at Ashton in Makerfield. Pritchett’s main depot was in West London and was owned by a woman, whose name escapes me. Her son ran the maintenance. Funnily enough I met him out in Saudi, when he came out to manage Sea Land/Crescent’s garage.
We mainly seemed to get the Scottish traffic, the other Pritchett drivers preferred going South. A lot of the work was pallets of cheese from Kraft in Liverpool or Stork margarine from Unilever at Bromborough. If I remember rightly, the retail deliveries in Scotland were handled by ‘SPD’ depots, which I think stood for Speedy Parcels Delivery. We regularly went to Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen.
Unlike the timber, where the loads always looked massive, we never seemed to get pulled over by ‘The Ministry’ for inspection with the vans, and I never actually weighed one of the loads, but the Kraft cheese certainly felt about 20 tons, which would have put the mastiffs about 3 tons over their 28 ton gvw.
We then usually loaded empty biscuit tins from Wilkie and Paul in Edinburgh, back down to Jacob’s in Liverpool or various United Biscuits factories. Weight wasn’t an issue there, I doubt it was even 5 tons for the full load.
It’s a while since I went up the M74, but they’ve certainly lessened some of the gradients that were on the old A74 dual carriageway, particularly over Beattock and also down into the valley where the A70 Ayr Road crosses. That section was particularly steep.
On one of the journeys from Kraft up to Glasgow, I was on that stretch, fully freighted with cheese. They were re-laying the tarmac on the Northbound side, so we had been coned across onto the Southbound side, with 2 way traffic working. I was cruising down the steep hill at about 40mph. The trucks coming the other way were of course only going slowly, there were still Gardner 150s pulling heavy artics then and I guess the speed in the Southbound lane was about 20mph.
There was no traffic in front of me in my lane, so I suppose the guy in the Ford Cortina must have forgotten that it was two way working. He pulled out suddenly to overtake, facing me head on. I could see his knuckles go white on the wheel, and he simply froze.
I heaved the wheel to the left and into the central reservation, the Cortina flashing by me. At forty, with twenty tons on, the truck bounced about as though it was on a ploughed field. My head hit the roof a couple of times before I managed to ease back onto the tarmac. I couldn’t see any smash in my mirrors, so he must have managed to pull back into his own lane.
I was still shaking when I pulled into the transport cafe on the other side of the hill. Amazingly nothing had fallen off or broken. I was expecting broken springs at least! The mastiff was stronger than I gave it credit for.
The van was sealed, so it was with some trepidation that I opened the doors to back on at the SPD depot. There was less movement than I expected, I’d thought there’d be boxes everywhere. We used to put 6′ x 3′ boards down the middle of the load to stop the pallets falling into each other. All I had to do to straighten the load was to climb on each pallet and push the other one square with my feet.
I wondered for days how the Cortina driver had felt. It had certainly raised my heart beat!
It was a difficult time in haulage – 4 day weeks with power cuts and diesel shortages. Eventually I finished up selling the mastiffs, leasing a Daf 2200 and just driving myself. I still didn’t seem to be able to turn a profit, so in 1975 I quit working for myself and started driving to France for Pete Robbins.
Then Pete joined NODAG, a group of owner drivers and small hauliers, set up by Mike Conlong to take advantage of the fast expanding Middle East market. In January 1976 I set off for Damascus in Pete’s 140 Scania, for what was to be nearly 11 years driving to and working in the Middle East, mainly Saudi Arabia.
This article appeared in ‘Truck & Driver’ magazine in the January 2013 edition. Click HERE to link to their website.
I started on overland driving Pete Robbins’ Scania 140 in January 1976. Pete had a Scania 140 and a 111, which was newer and which he drove himself. He was a member of Mike Conlong’s ‘Nodag’. A peculiar sounding acronym for ‘Northern Owner Drivers’ Associated Group’. The office at the time was in my home town of Barrow in Furness, just because Mike lived nearby.
First trip was to Syria. Television equipment for a transmission station in Homs, but clearing first in Damascus. My brother Andy drove Mike Conlong’s Scania 110, also going to Homs, and there were about 5 other Nodag members we met on the Hull – Rotterdam ferry going to other points eastward, including Qatar and Teheran. The ferry was back on – roll off. We were among the first to embark, a long way back in quite a dark hold. The stevedores had no patience with anyone who wasn’t proficient. Luckily we both had seven years’ experience on artics, so it presented no problem. Later as we were eating our inclusive meal, we listened to one driver regaling everyone with his tale of how he always made sure that he was last on, so he didn’t have far to reverse and also he would be first off at Europoort at the other end.
I was delighted to find this clip on Youtube, Thank you Bjorn Jensen for posting it. Shown here with his kind permission.
I drove for Douglas freight from the Isle of Man in ’76/’77. Sure enough, it’s my Volvo F88. I’m not in the clip – I must have been having a cup of tea in someone’s cab! The guy walking towards the yellow Volvo F89 must be Bjorn.
This was on the 40km. desert stretch between H4 (a point on the Jordan – Baghdad road) and Turaif in Saudi Arabia. It was mostly hard packed sand, but there were soft bits. I was lucky not to get bogged down on several trips across it, but plenty did!
I can’t remember who else was stopped for this tea break there. I think the green & white Daf was driven by a lad called Jeff from the Preston area, but could be wrong. I think I met him on another trip when he was headed for Tehran and picked up a turkish girl in Istanbul, who worked in a bank and took her with him. I think her parents alerted the police and he got into big trouble on the way back.
I was loaded with a prefab house for Al Khobar, from Kent, and you can see bits of it had already fallen into the tilt side. They were a good 20 tons, but the Volvo pulled OK for a 240 – or was it 230? It was very reliable. I don’t think it broke down while I drove it.
I came down through France, then through the Mont Blanc tunnel, dodgy permit into Italy and on down.
Douglas had a new 6 wheel LHD F89, but that seized the back cylinder on the road back from H4 to Mafraq and the driver dumped it and flew home, leaving an old Jordanian guarding it. I passed him a couple of times over the coming weeks as we started shunting the trailers from Iskenderun & left him food and money. It was eventually recovered.
The houses were for expat Saudia pilots and we delivered maybe 30 or 40 loads, including at least 10 trailers shipped into Iskenderun for onward transit.
The belly tank was a beauty, which hooked up to the air line to blow the fuel across. I filled it with untaxed ‘red’ diesel in England. As well as giving me the dodgy permit, Roy ?? the transport manager, said to be sure to plumb the tap loosely at Dover. I did and was able to run on red diesel on the way down from France onwards. On the return journey I could get back to Europe from Arabia on diesel costing pence per gallon. There were no restrictions on taking fuel out of the arab countries then, as I understand there were later. There were no trailer boxes unfortunately.
The Volvo had a ‘MN’ registration. On another trip a border guard between Czech/Hungary insisted that it wasn’t a British registration & wouldn’t let me through. Sometimes you got sick of paying bakshish, so I waited for the shift change. Luckily he hadn’t told anyone on the new shift and I was just stamped up and let go.
I remember the guy on the evening shift had a 3 ft length of plastic pipe, which he whirled around and played a weird tune. Quite surreal!
Apologies if any details are wrong, but it was 40 years ago. Great memories.
In addition to the other content on the site, I have written some short stories, based on my time trucking down to, and within the Middle East. They are published electronically on Kindle and can be purchased for £2.11 each.
Click on the cover pictures for a link to Kindle
1) ISKENDERUN. In 1976 I started hauling trailers from the port of Iskenderun to the Saudi Arabian town of Al Khobar. As with all overland runs, it wasn’t straightforward.
2) OZYMANDIAS. Having found that it was more profitable to stay in Saudi Arabia, rather than to drive overland, this is the story of one of those internal trips.
1) PERRY. A charismatic schoolfriend also works in the Middle East, where I meet him again.
2) The PBA. Doing a favour for a friend has a dramatic impact upon my career.
David Laing starts driving overland to try and make some money during the 1970s. He decides to try and supplement his income further by smuggling alcohol, but finds that events overtake him just as his life is turning around
Brother Andy and myself have recorded some of the stories. They can also be purchased as MP3 files and downloaded immediately for £2.00 each
Click on the link below
Alternatively, the recorded stories can be purchased as CDs to be posted to you for £5.50 each, including P & P within the UK. Other destinations, P & P on request.
Click on the link below
I hope you enjoy the stories.