For almost a century, Sandbach (pron: sand batch) was home to two truck makers, bitter rivals for many years ERF and Foden were very much the backbone of the UK haulage industry. Rather more so than Leyland until the 1960s. A lesser-known fact is that back in time the two rivals were once a single company simply called ‘Foden’.
In those days, Foden built a reputation manufacturing steam powered lorries but differences of opinion within the ranks caused a huge argument at board level that resulted in Edwin R Foden and his son Dennis being spectacularly fired by the directors, of which most were his direct relatives. Edwin was paid off with a tidy sum of money and subsequently upped sticks and relocated to Lancashire wanting nothing more to do with Foden Ltd.
There was also an agreement whereby Edwin could not partake in the building of commercial vehicles but his son Dennis had somewhat other ideas. In 1933 Dennis Foden started his engineering company literally down the road from the Foden concern on a small scale differing from the family outfit by also manufacturing their own cabs as well as the chassis. The company was named in honour of his father Edwin Richard Foden, shortened to a simple moniker of ERF Ltd concentrating on the production of Gardner diesel powered vehicles which were quickly becoming more fashionable than steam. Considerable success was quickly gained and solid partnerships were forged with Gardner and Perkins for the supply of power units as ERF rapidly expanded.
The future’s bright, the futures plastic
As the decades ticked by, the ERF portfolio even included their own fire engine development company, but by far the biggest and most important milestone in the history of ERF- was the ‘SP’ lorry cab. Using a steel skeletal frame with plastic and glass fibre outer panels, the SP (steel plastic) cab was the answer to a problem that seemed to dog all UK manufacturers – corrosion. It was also lighter too and much easier to repair after accident or impact damage.
As ERF trucked through the 1970s and ’80s their unique approach to cab making won them many loyal customers, and Peter Foden (younger brother of Dennis) was very hands on, thinking nothing of jumping into his Bentley and visiting a customer even just for a chat or a coffee regardless of distance.
The ERF EC – Driving the future:
The ‘EC’ range introduced in 1993, which also happened to be ERF’s diamond jubilee, was the last all new product to be launched by the firm during independent family ownership. The previous range of ‘E’ series vehicles were struggling to match the continental rivals of DAF Scania & Volvo in terms of driver acceptance and appeal, being seen mainly as a ‘gaffers’ truck. That term refers to a lorry that is cheap to run and reliable but lacking the frills or kudos of more expensive foreign offerings. The EC featured a new and larger cab with a brand new dashboard that wrapped around the driver in a true ergonomic fashion in day and sleeper cab options that were also designed to be 80 per cent recyclable – all achieved on time and with a tight budget.
Most impressive of all was the flagship Olympic model. This featured a super high cab with well over 6 feet of interior headroom, built in lockers, microwave oven, air conditioning, velour seats, carpeting, tinted windows and plush curtains. Power units varied from the Cummins B series for the rigid trucks through to the 14-litre Cummins NT-A for the tractor unit and drawbar models. Other engine options included the 12-litre Perkins Eagle (based on a Rolls-Royce design) and latterly, a CNG powered ultra green model fitted with a Detroit power unit converted to operate on gas. The standard transmission of the Eaton constant mesh ‘twin split’ was carried over in to the EC, but gearboxes from ZF or Fuller could be specified as an option.
As the range developed, an interim model between the standard and Olympic was launched called the LX , featuring the plush carpets, tinted electric windows, velour seats and even burr walnut effect trim of the high cab model in the standard sleeper version. It quickly became a high selling truck and by far the most popular model was the EC10 325 which featured the renowned 24-valve Cummins L10 engine with Eaton ‘twin split’ transmission. This driveline was a true drivers specification that in the right hands, was unbeatable for economy or reliability. It was often said that the driver would be broken before he broke the gearbox as they required a unique method of operation in order to avoid nasty noises and frayed tempers.
Challenging perceptions and efficiency
But a great truck got even better following the deletion of the L10 engine and the introduction of an even more efficient all new Cummins M11 power unit. This new engine featured fly by wire throttle and a full modular engine management software system known as ‘C Elect’. It even featured a telematic function whereby live engine data could be downloaded in service via a GSM link up. Standard power rating in tractor unit form was 380 bhp but a clever load sensing system on the ECU would boost power to 420bhp in the event of a strenuous climb or extra high load being placed on the engine. Both Cummins and ERF worked closely on installation but their joint marketing campaign was sheer brilliance.
‘Fuel Duel’ was a clever idea thought up by ERF director John Bryant. The prime directive was to get as many potential customers into the cab, and of course, to change peoples perception of ERF in general. A fleet of standard 380bhp tractor units were prepared with no trickery or tweaks to the driveline, only roof fairings and side skirts were added. ERF claimed their EC11 was more economical than any other fleet truck and every dealer had a fuel duel demonstrator at their disposal; ERF went to war with fuel economy. All the leading motoring press covered these duels with great interest and proved the point that on average, the EC11 was the most economical truck on British roads – the pay off was a huge upturn in sales and brand credibility.
1996 saw the take over of ERF by Western Star Trucks Holdings based in British Columbia in Canada reportedly for £27.4m and many were surprised of this decision. ERF also started to diversify into the municipal market with two new products, the EM central steer cab and the EU. The year 2000 had seen many new beginnings for ERF, in the March, ERF was bought by MAN and in the summer of 2000 seeing the launch of not one, but two new products, the ECS and ECX. For the first time in years ERF offered a steel cab to its customers. Another highlight was the construction on a new factory in Middlewich, Cheshire, £28m was invested in the new factory and state of the art production and administration facility.
Taking stock of the situation
After the move and some teething problems with production, things were looking promising for ERF albeit under foreign ownership, quality was better than ever and dealers now had a huge range of truly competitive and capable vehicles. Sadly, the parent company, MAN while auditing the accounts for ERF, uncovered some less than ideal entries in the copy books. It transpired that ERF and Western Star had seemingly inflated the value of the company by showing stock vehicles as factory orders amongst other misdemeanours. Chief Executive Officer John Bryant along with members of the UK management and accountancy team were suspended pending a full investigation. Losses of over £300m had been hidden behind creative book keeping and from this point onwards MAN adopted a much different and hard nosed attitude towards ERF.
Following difficult trading times and partly spurned on by being duped into buying ERF due to false accountancy, MAN subsequently diluted and wound the company down to the point whereby an ERF was nothing more than an Austrian built unit with a different badge on the grille. Sadly, the brand as a whole was killed off in 2007, but for me, the EC was a fine truck.
Dare I say it.. a man’s truck, a rock solid driveline, plenty of space in the cab and cozy soft trim in LX form which worked best in one driver one truck fleets or as an owner driver vehicle. 2012 marked the passing of the last in a very long line of Foden family members to have been in the truck business, Peter Foden CBE.
My own memories of ERF and Peter are fond ones. As a 16 year old lad, I was dragged along to the ’88 motor show with my father who was doing his stint on the Leyland DAF stand. Being a touch bored somewhat, I wandered off and stepped onto the ERF stand on press day. A rustic portly chap came over to me and introduced himself as Peter Foden and asked who I was here with. He paused for a moment and asked if I would like to see some real trucks. He personally showed me around every product they had on display and spoke with the same level of courtesy and knowledge as if I had been a prospective customer. He offered me a soft drink, gave me a sandwich then sent me packing with posters, stickers and brochures galore.
The guys on the Leyland stand thought it was hilarious when I re-appeared looking like a walking advert for ERF Trucks Ltd, but the one thing he mentioned to me on that day has never been forgotten in over 25 years. I asked him how they competed with huge corporate groups like Leyland DAF or Volvo. He put his hand on my shoulder and said with a broad Cheshire accent: ‘If my customer pays ten bob for my truck but I give him twenty bob’s worth of customer service – I’ll always hold my head high with the big boys.’