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History of the Truck


Early Steam Lurries

During most of the nineteenth century long distance goods transport was by rail while local distribution relied on the horse. Although road-going steam vehicles were in use since the 1830’s, at first for passenger transport only and then in the form of the multi-purpose traction engine for farming, they were subject, particularly in the UK, to official harassment and public distaste to the point that they never caught on for goods transport.

Things began to change in the 1890’s. The potential for motor vehicles, whether driven by steam, the internal combustion engine, or electricity, as a substitute for horse-drawn wagons for local goods transport was quickly seized upon. They were faster, could carry more, and free from fatigue. They were slow by modern standards, clattering noisily on solid rubber tyres at speeds of just over a fast walk. This was just as well as their brakes were notoriously weak.

By the year 1900 there was a wide range available, usually of about one to three tons capacity. At that time they were called lurries, later changed to the familar lorry. Form, like that of the farm tractor, quickly conformed to function. The driver, however, totally exposed to the elements, was enclosed only by degrees (in the sense of gradual change rather than temperature!). The English were equally severe on their railway engine drivers who were left in the open for the first fifty years. Heaters were seen as effete in all motor vehicles for many years although possibly steam lorries provided it as an inadvertent benefit. During the thirties the engine retreated under the cab for most heavy vehicles in Europe, improving visibility and helping maneuverability, although it remains out in front in North America.

However, whatever their merits, their starting procedure, as described below, put them at a great disadvantage when compared to simply turning the ignition key or even swinging the starting handle:

“…..To begin with the ashpan and grate are dropped and swept clear of ash and clinker. Then the grate is replaced and the ashpan is left off to permit better air circulation. A rag soaked in paraffin is lit and dropped down the shute into the grate; this is followed by firewood in small quantities until a depth of six inches is built up, when four shovelfuls of coal are added. More coal is added at frequent intervals to build up the depth of the fire. When the steam pressure gauge shows a reading of 10 psi the blower is opened so as to draw the fire. Coal is gradually added until 150 psi steam pressure is reached. The the drain valve on the exhaust and the throttle is opened slightly for two or three minutes to warm the cylinders and blow out any water. Full pressure is reached and the waggon is ready to drive off. This procedure normally takes from an hour to an hour and a half….” (Reference 6)

Foden Steam Lorry 1933

They began to melt away during the “30’s with the introduction of more efficient and robust diesel engines although petrol scarcity during the Second World War gave them temporarily a new lease of life. Trucks such as this one were an impressive and frightening presence on the road, at least for some children (I was one of them), with a clattering chain drive, billowing clouds of black smoke (the coal was of appalling quality), and boasting an impressively and enviably grimy driver.

The modern truck

The use of trucks powered by internal combustion engines was greatly stimulated after the first world war. Well many thousand had been manufactured before and during the war on a subsidized basis according to War Office specifications, to be requisitioned in case of war. These were of some three tons capacity and, apparently almost indestructible.

A War Office Leyland in Arras, probably around 1917

 Those left over afterwards were recuperated by their owners or sold off cheaply, stimulating the development, not only of local distribution, hammering the last nail into the coffin of the horse, but also that of intercity road transport, accelerating the long-term decline of goods transport by rail. This must be now be reversed as the social and environmental costs of truck transport have become intolerable.

Carrying capacity has increased steadily throughout the century as did the number of axles. Articulated vehicles came slowly, even though one existed as early as 1895, but their use accelerated with the introduction of motorways and the growth of international trade. In the UK the four-axle configuration had remained popular for many years. Numbers grew also and by the 1930’s lorries were the principal cause of road congestion, especially in the UK, where their robust but low-powered diesel engines fought despairingly with the hilly winding main roads. Anyone who has driven fifty years ago in pre-motorway days will remember joining those long lines of cars frustrated by a loaded four-axle Foden or AEC in first gear grinding interminably uphill at 10kph.

Trucks and rural roads

The evolution of truck design, like that of all road vehicles, has been determined by the technical characteristics and extent of the developed road systems they were built for. As road systems have converged to a standard pattern so also has truck design. However, this complementarity between roads and vehicles is absent in the less-developed countries, which largely have to make do with imported secondhand ones sold off at the end of their economic life, usually in poor condition.

These trucks are hard on rural roads. Generally overloaded in order to earn as much as possible on each trip between producer and market (the road might be closed next time), they form a self-destructive alliance with the environment to rapidly break up the roads. Moreover, even if efficient on a cost/tonne-km basis, they are less so in a context of small loads, short distances and lots of unproductive waiting around, especially during the rainy season. An exception can be made for the basic seven-tonne twin axle Toyotas or Nissans, direct descendant of the 2-3 tonners of the ’50’s. Robust and simple, they can be found everywhere. The future, however, must lie with those ingenious vehicles, generally small, low-powered, and economical, to be seen in the rural areas of Asia. I hope that China and India, in particular will continue to develop similar vehicles for manufacture and use throughout the less-developed countries and thus reduce significantly the costs of building and maintaining rural roads.