Another of Roger’s schemes ended in disaster, at least for me. I drove into the yard one evening to find a large, brand-new tipping trailer parked in the middle of the compound. It was destined for me. Yeovil was a few miles south of the A303 trunk road to the south-west, where the small town of Ilchester was finally getting a bypass. Roger explained that the bypass needed truckloads of infill material to be hauled from nearby Ham Hill quarry and I’d be swapping my flat trailer for the tipper for the next few days. I’d never driven a tipper before, but as soon as I saw it, I knew this trailer was all wrong for the job. It was a thirty-foot, alloy-bodied bulk grain carrier, with sides too high and too light for rubble.
Roger had recently hired an experienced ex-driver as a transport manager, who quickly showed me how to operate the tipper controls and the donkey engine mounted at the front of the trailer to power the hydraulics. Under his supervision, I fired up the donkey and raised the trailer body to its full height on a single, five-stage hydraulic ram. Fully extended, the body looked intimidatingly tall, and the trailer’s twin red chassis rails looked strangely naked without the body sitting on top of them.
“Whatever you do,” said our new manager, “make sure the trailer and unit are in line before you tip, or you’ll lose the lot.” I knew exactly what he meant; a tractor unit’s fifth-wheel table is quite stable laterally, but it’s designed to tilt up and down fore and aft to allow for independent vertical movement of the trailer. The greater the angle between the tractor and trailer, the more that tilt becomes a liability, as it allows the trailer plate to tilt to one side.
Roger explained that we were being paid by the ton and added that I couldn’t be prosecuted for overloading if I was heading for the nearest weighbridge, which in this case just happened to be at the destination construction site on the bypass. So, he pointed out breezily, I could load as much as I wanted. I wasn’t convinced, but he was the boss. In retrospect, I realised that Roger probably knew as little about tippers as I did.
I was on the top of Ham Hill as dawn broke the following morning. It was a cold start and I shivered with a combination of temperature and a nervousness brought on by the growing realisation that I had entirely the wrong vehicle for the job. A couple of experienced tipper drivers, with their compact twenty-four-ton six-wheelers, watched me pityingly as I approached the driver of the bright yellow JCB bucket loader. He wasn’t too happy. “The trailer’s too tall for me to reach,” he told me. “You’ll have to go down into the quarry.”
Gingerly, I crawled the Mandator down the dirt haul road, with the big empty trailer banging and booming behind me, and lined up along the quarry wall, with the loader above me. Dirt and rubble started crashing into the trailer and, encouraged by Roger’s injunction to load as much as possible, I kept on waving for more until the loader’s nerve finally broke. I climbed into the cab and set off up the haul road, which was definitely not designed for artics. At one point the only way I could get the trailer to clear a major rock was to drive onto a stretch of dewwet grass and, of course, the wheels started spinning. A differential lock might have helped, but the AEC didn’t have one.
I made several fruitless attempts to get past and finally decided to jettison some of the cargo. I was too far up the narrow haul road to reverse all the way down, but the only way to tip the trailer with the rig in a straight line, as I had been warned to do, would have been to tip it behind me, thereby blocking the haul road. That would have made me decidedly unpopular with the quarrymen. Carefully, I reversed into a small opening just before the offending rock, but there wasn’t room to straighten the AEC under the trailer. I debated with myself and finally decided to raise the tipper only a little way. Had I been more experienced, I’d have known that sticky rubble wouldn’t shift from a partly inclined trailer, but I was about to learn. I fired up the donkey engine that powered the tipper’s hydraulics and took hold of the operating levers at the front of the trailer chassis. Very carefully, I extended the ram by three of its five sections, but the load stayed right where it was, with the trailer swaying slightly, but unnervingly, on its single ram. I tried improvising, raising the ram and shutting it off again rapidly, trying to bounce the body enough to dislodge the muck, but it remained stubbornly stuck.
Finally, I decided to inch it up a little bit more, but it was all too much for the flat-road grain trailer. With a gathering roar, the whole thing fell away in front of me, dragging the tractor unit round and crushing the passenger side of the cab, so that the roof was forced down onto the base of the passenger seat. The Mandator’s cab was a write-off and its rear wheels were three feet off the ground. The trailer body was half twisted off its chassis, but even now the load had scarcely moved; some had spilled out to the side, but the rest might have been glued inside the body. I was more numb than horrified until I realised that if the trailer had come the other way, I’d have been buried beneath it.
There was nothing I could do, so I trudged up to the top of the quarry, where one of the six-wheeler drivers offered to drop me off at our yard, only a few miles away.
I walked into Abbey Hill’s portable office building and stuck my head through the drivers’ window. By chance, both Roger and the transport manager were there, and both were surprised to see me.
“I think I’d better give in my notice,” I began.
“Go on, what’ve you done?” Roger asked.
I explained about the trailer, and in short order all three of us were in a car heading for Ham Hill. Roger drove down the haul road until we reached the remains of the truck. His only comment was, “Bloody hell, George.” He was remarkably cheerful, considering I’d just destroyed his tractor unit and the new rental trailer and, yes, this would have been its very first load. We had a quick discussion and decided to return with the firm’s newly acquired ex-military Humber wrecker, which wasn’t big enough to pull the truck, but did prove sufficiently powerful to roll it back onto its wheels, after we’d shovelled out most of the load. The Mandator looked a sorry sight but, amazingly, its engine still ran. I could drive it too, though the roof had been crushed down so far that I had to crouch beneath it. The whole rig leaned like a drunkard, but with the wrecker ahead of me as an escort, I nursed it back to the yard. Roger said nothing about my notice. It was a Wednesday and the next morning I was sent way up north-east to Hull, to deliver a Land Rover ‘on wheels’, in the company of fellow driver Jesse Pockson, whose car transporter was carrying six more Land Rovers.
“You’d better go home after that,” Roger said, “and give me a call on Saturday.” We delivered the Land Rovers the following evening and, armed with my driver’s logbook, I hitched right across the country in a day, from the east coast to the western tip of Wales. I’d never been so glad to get home, but I wasn’t sure whether I still had a job. Amazingly, I did. Jane and I had hardly begun to consider alternatives when I heard from Roger on the Saturday that the workshop had already fitted a new cab to my truck and it would be ready for me on Monday morning. On Sunday, I hitched back south and went back to work as if nothing had happened, but at the same time I lost the chance to move back home.
Extracted from George’s excellent new book, ‘Into the Distance: The Long Lost World of Long-haul Trucking’. Buy it here.