When you think of British trucks, the same names automatically come to the forefront of your mind: ERF, Foden, Leyland and Seddon Atkinson. All but one (Leyland) are long gone, either swallowed up by European corporates or they’ve simply faded away.
UK truck manufacturing was once as sprawling and complex as our car industry almost, but there is one brand of commercial vehicle that seemed to be stuck in the dark ages more so than even Leyland during BL’s most turbulent times, with their own political troubles that ultimately caused their lingering death – Bedford.
Once a hive of motor related activity, Dunstable in Bedfordshire was equally a truck town as Leyland in Lancashire and both ERF and Foden in Cheshire. The main road from Luton was Boscome Road, where not only Bedford Trucks resided, but also Karrier which would subsequently become Dodge – and ultimately Renault Vehicle Industries. In a similar vein to Leyland, Bedford also built its name and reputation with buses and coaches – selling more to smaller operators, or family bus companies, rather than corporate fleets.
On the other hand, Bedford trucks were often found operating at light- to medium-weight categories, selling in big volumes to the likes of British Rail BRS, and carrier operators, such as the long-gone Roadline (above). The TK range enjoyed an enviable reputation for simplicity, reliability and cost efficiency, with dealers tending to be approachable and more customer-focused than many of the larger group franchises. The TK was the first Bedford to feature a tilt-cab, making routine work on the running gear much easier to perform. But a Bedford was far from being a machine that majored on technology.
Rival British makers invested huge sums of money in research and development throughout the late-‘1960s and ’70s as a reaction to growing competition from European rivals. Turbocharging of engines, along with other improvements aimed towards driver appeal, went some way to stem the threat of superior overseas products.
In a situation that mirrors British Leyland’s relationship with Leyland Trucks, General Motors (the parent company) was pumped huge amount of cash into Vauxhall, starving Bedford of investment. Although Bedford had won various military contracts seeing its ‘ MK four tonner’ as being the archetypical Army truck, this tended not to bring in huge sums of money enough to suffice re-investment, so improvements to the range tended to be minor facelfting or more cost effective production methods.
As the ’70s progressed, Bedford trucks were seen as a cheap and basic tool with very little driver appeal rather than being any kind of aspirational product. Hauliers required sleeper cabs and high roof options for long distance operations along with more power – Bedford just could not supply off the shelf.
When GM finally chose to invest in Bedford, they opted to spend the Lions share of money into developing a new heavy truck range called the TM. By the time this new model hit the market, its main European rivals such as DAF Volvo and Scania had the heavy truck scene sewn up. As worthy as the TM may have been at the time, operators simply did not see Bedford as a key player in the lucrative tractor unit marketplace. Even Ford with its Renault based ‘Transcontinental’ range failed to make a major impact in this sector, concentrating on light to medium trucks in the future.
By 1980, the Europeans had pretty much taken the UK by storm. Bedford’s next door neighbour Karrier had morphed into Dodge, and then Renault, which by now was making in-roads in an ever battling marketplace. GM by now was only investing paltry sums of money into the truck business and the TK range was re-vamped once more – and re-named the ‘TL’ series. Features like power steering finally became standard and after some development work with turbocharging, high power level options went some way towards nearly matching its rivals. Interior updates concentrated on new trim rather than expensive re-designs.
So far as the sheet metal mattered, only minor revisions could be seen with expansive use of moulded black plastic where lashings of chrome plate were once found and fixed side lamp/indicator units where rubber flexible protruding ones used to flap about in the breeze. Sadly, the TL never sold in the numbers hoped for and the truck quickly gained a reputation for mechanical fragility, especially when operated in demanding environments The once legendary ‘300 and 500’ series Bedford diesels did not respond well to turbocharging and in arduous use suffered from overheating, bottom end problems and broken crankshafts.
The rear axle also failed to cope with higher power ratings either with many operators discovering the pinion gears were prone to rapid wear upon high load or constant motorway speeds. Transmissions were also very antiquated, with the Turner gearbox having a difficult gearshift quality – and again, limited tolerance to higher torque and power. Far away in the distance, the death bell was tolling for Bedford, but as is often the case, politics hammered home the final nail in the coffin. And for no more a reason than national pride – that, and simply superior rival offerings such as the Leyland T45 and the Mercedes LN series (below).
The Conservative Government was looking to offload Leyland Truck and Bus to the highest bidder in an attempt to privatise BL. General Motors expressed a serious interest in Leyland, which had an excellent engineering and research facility in Lancashire, although was losing money at the time. A bid was formally placed with one condition – the plan was to take Land Rover as well, which caused a huge row in Parliament (in the wake of the Westland Affair). The thought of the Americans taking hold of Land Rover and Military supply contracts was too much to bear for politicians. Various compromises were offered, but General Motors stood their ground.
After much discussion, GM walked away from further talks. Taking stock of its parlous market share GM took the decision to firstly withdraw from the bus and coach market, then retrench from truck production altogether. Who knows what powerful alliance could have been forged with Leyland’s excellent T45 range backed by a GM’s finances. But the closure of Bedford trucks had a massive knock-on effect, as many suppliers were also based in the town. But out of the blue, a lifeline was thrown.
The Bedford truck site in Dunstable was sold to AWD Ltd in 1987. That company was owned by David John Bowes Brown, with AWD standing for All Wheel Drive. The AWD name was used, as GM would only allow the Bedford name for military trucks. AWD continued with the TL and TM range, now featuring Perkins Phaser engines on the smaller TL. This was a rework of the respected T6.354 engine. The AWD Bedford TK 4×4 (a rebadged and modernised version of the Bedford TK/MK range) was also produced and supplied to the armed forces.
Due to cheaper and superior competition, and the virtual collapse of the UK market in which AWD competed with towards the end of the 1980s and early ’90s, the company went into receivership in 1992.
Yet again, another lifeline was thrown and it was bought by the Cambridgeshire dealer network – The Marshall Motor Group – a a going concern. After limited success, Marshall split its dealership and Bus/truck production companies into two stand-alone divisions. Marshall also gained the licence to the Bedford name for use on all civilian and military products. But poor trading and high operational costs caused the LGV and PSV division to be closed down in 2002 – finally taking the legendary Bedford name with it.
- Essays : Selling the brand - 18 November 2023
- Review : Land Rover Discovery – first off the line - 15 September 2023
- Events : Leyland National 51 gathering, Whitehaven 29-30 April - 5 April 2023