Shortly after dawn on the morning of Tuesday 17th October, the six of us who were returning to Europe had a final breakfast, pocketed a handful of salt tablets and set off. We were all hoping to reach Tartus in time to catch the ferry that we believed was scheduled for the coming Friday. It was a tall order, but we were well rested, and with empty trucks there was no need to worry about blowing tyres by speeding in the heat.
Six was an unwieldy number of trucks to run together, so without much discussion we divided into threes, Joe Berrington, Kermit and I making up one of the trios. I was quite jealous of Joe’s motor, a towering Ford Transcontinental that seemed to dwarf my Magirus, while Kermit had a Volvo F88, the excellent truck I had given up for the dubious pleasures of the Maggie. We decided that the two groups would meet for the night at ‘The Mirrors’, a roadside restaurant well into Saudi Arabia. The other group set off ahead of us and we three were content to go a little slower at first, to allow a separation between our two groups. Apart from anything else, it made no sense to arrive in a crowd at each border, since we would only waste time waiting for each other.
By late morning, we’d left the United Arab Emirates and transited the southern edge of Qatar back into Saudi Arabia. With empty trucks, border formalities were considerably quicker, and inspections simply required the customs officer to step up onto the trailer’s rear under-run bar and peer through the triangular hole where we’d folded back the rear sheet of the tilt. At this rate, we’d have an easy run back to Tartus. I shouldn’t even have entertained the thought.
At first, we had a merry time in Saudi, sometimes driving three abreast on wider stretches of road and tossing snacks between our trucks, more for the fun of it than from any necessity. At one wide piece of road, we caught up a slow-moving local wagon and divided around him to overtake, still side by side, enjoying the driver’s startled expression. At our next stop, however, Joe noticed a problem with his trailer. Instead of the usual single cylindrical belly tank, Joe’s firm had fitted his trailer with four standard 450-litre truck tanks, strapped to the chassis and linked with a series of pipes. From one of these, diesel was trickling into the sand. Since the whole economy of the trip depended on running all the way home on dirt-cheap Saudi diesel, the leak had to be fixed. We peered under the trailer and discovered that there wasn’t one leak, but two. The needlessly complex network of pipes must have vibrated loose, and in the hour or so it took us to isolate one tank, all three of us ended up with our arms covered in diesel. We couldn’t afford to spend too much of our water on washing, so we’d have to live with the smell.
We’d scarcely got going again before my Magirus at last decided to play its air games again. As the air gauges dropped, I pulled off the road onto some hard sand and the others drew up alongside. Having two more drivers to address the problem was certainly good for morale, but we didn’t manage to identify the cause until, after half an hour of apparently fruitless fiddling, the air pressure started building again. We set off again, only for Kermit to notice a little further on that diesel was once again dripping from Joe’s extra tanks. Once again we crawled under his trailer to try to fix the problem, but without plumbing tape, it was hard to get the pipe joints as tight as we wanted.
We finally reached our rendezvous just as the others were going to bed, having had a relaxing evening in the Mirrors restaurant, named unsurprisingly for the mirrors that lined its back wall. They made goodnatured fun of us for taking so long, but the three of us were now linked by the bond of hardship and we shrugged it off. We were too tired to eat and simply collapsed into our bunks, resolving to start very early the next morning to make up time.
We were an hour further up the road, just after dawn, when my air failed again, but at last I found out what was wrong with it. I’d pulled over with enough air still in the system that we managed to identify a leak coming from the ‘blow-off’ valve. This is designed to prevent undue pressure building up in the system if the driver doesn’t use the brakes for a while. In some old trucks, particularly Fiats and the older French Berliets still favoured by the Bulgarian national transport company, the valve would operate so regularly that the truck would sound like a wheezing asthmatic trying to catch every breath, but mine was evidently open all the time.
We tried to unstick the valve by belting it with a hammer, and finally I decided simply to jam it closed. I sawed the end off a small electrical screwdriver and hammered its plastic handle into the outflow tube of the valve. To prevent the pressure from building too far, I then slackened off a connection to the air-horn, just enough to allow excess air to escape. This mad solution actually worked, all the way back to the north of England, where I delivered my return load from Austria. There, on a roundabout in Oldham, the screwdriver fell out, having survived for over 3000 miles. By now, of course, I knew the ropes; I sacrificed another small screwdriver, hammered it home and made it back to base in Brierley Hill.
Meanwhile Joe, Kermit and I still had to reach Tartus in time for the ferry, with little more than a day to manage it. Once again, the other three, with their trouble-free trucks, caught us up as we were grappling with the repairs. They stopped just long enough to commiserate – and in truth there was little they could contribute – and carried on. The rest of the day was spent in a hare and tortoise relay, with we three playing the tortoise. Joe’s tanks continued to cause problems and at one point his exhaust brake jammed closed. This was an auxiliary braking device that blocked off the exhaust gases and created a back pressure on the pistons, thereby slowing them down.
In those days, an exhaust brake was a fairly primitive affair, and in the Ford’s Cummins engine, it consisted of a steel slide that closed off the exhaust at the manifold. With the slide jammed closed, the engine produced no power. We worked out that the slide could be held open if we closed off the cylinder it moved in with an empty baked bean can that I supplied. I hastily wolfed down the beans, being reluctant simply to empty them on the ground, but the other two thought cold beans were too unpalatable to join me.
The effect of our serial breakdowns was that we never took any proper breaks. All our stops were devoted to repairs, instead of decent meals and sleep. For the rest of the time we kept driving, still hoping to make the boat. We were rewarded by slipping into Syria from Jordan just before the border closed on the Thursday evening. That left us a straight run to Tartus, only 350 kilometres away, but still a tricky journey over the mountains in the dark. Now we were within striking distance, we could afford to stop to cook a reasonable meal, though what we really needed was a wash. We had, in the end, managed to stop the leak from Joe’s tanks, enabling him to fill his tanks in Saudi Arabia, but the struggle had left us filthy and reeking of diesel.
We reached Homs, high on Syria’s central mountain spine, sometime after midnight, where we found the other three parked up for the night, with their cab curtains drawn. With an unspoken agreement between us, we drove on a little further and stopped for a brief consultation; we wouldn’t wait for them and we wouldn’t stop. It would be sweet triumph to arrive ahead of them in the queue for the ferry. We still had to negotiate the tricky, dirt road descent to the coast, but finally, at six in the morning, we reached Tartus and joined the haphazard line of trucks waiting for the boat. The others rolled in behind us an hour or two later. By late afternoon, we were all safely aboard the Falster and taking our overdue showers. The following morning, more to pass the time than in the hope of achieving anything, Joe and I removed the blow-off valve from my truck and took it down to the ship’s engine room, where we were allowed the run of the well-equipped workshop. We dismantled the valve but couldn’t find any obvious fault, so we reassembled it, complete with the doctored screwdriver.
Extracted from George’s excellent new book, ‘Into the Distance: The Long Lost World of Long-haul Trucking’. Buy it here.