Coffee-Break Memories : A bitter sweet night out

Here we go with another of Mike Humble’s coffee-break recollections relating to some automotive mayhem on a slightly larger scale, although this one does have a tenuous link to BMC>MGR…

The swansong of the T45 was the Leyland DAF 80 series- deleted in 1993.
The swansong of the T45 was the Leyland DAF 80 Series which was deleted in 1993

I love trucks – especially British ones, it stems from my late father’s long career in the REME working with all forms of transport protecting Blighty with the MOD. After almost 20 years’ service, he rejoined life in Civvy Street and worked with Leyland Trucks which eventually became part of what was, at one point, Europe’s largest manufacturer of commercial vehicles – Leyland DAF. Back then, I possessed Leyland DAF pens, umbrellas, travel alarm clocks, ties, boxer shorts – okay, I made the last one up, but you get the general idea. Suffice to say for many years until his well-earned early retirement, trucks featured heavily in my life whilst living at home.

My PSV and HGV licences were gained by default in a previous job and I have kept up to date with all the usual CPC requirements. After two unexpected rounds of redundancy, these driving entitlements have certainly come in very handy although driving has never been in my mind as a long-term career. Oddly enough, my current occupation is in fact HGV driving at night, a simple trunk from Gatwick to Doncaster and back again – in a UK-built unit I may add. It’s simple to do and it pays well, but, if wasn’t for my earphones and music or Radio 2 through the night, I would go stark raving mad. Someone recently quipped that I would know the M1 or M18 blindfolded by now – an interesting, but far from ideal, thing to try out!

I had this mate of a mate called Arthur some years back. He was colloquially known as Sixpence – as in the Tommy Steele film Half a Sixpence. From this classic musical movie came the hit song Crash Bang Wallop! and by now those who have a few miles on their clock will be getting the joke.

To put it mildly he was famed for smashing his cars up with expensive and often comedic results. Arthur was a night shift HGV driver with BRS on a contract with Tate and Lyle and, when he wasn’t driving, he plied the local pubs with quite possibly the world’s worst Elvis tribute act. Some say the only reason he pulled in a few bob and the odd free pint was because he was so rubbish – think of Vic Reeves doing his club singer character on TV’s Shooting Stars and you’re well on the way to experiencing his act!

One day, Arthur asked me if I fancied a night out on the road with him and just for the hell of it I said okay as I had some time off coming soon. The run was fairly simple – take a tanker down to Silvertown in east London from Northampton, tip, reload and then hot foot it up to Cadbury’s at Leominster in Herefordshire.

The evening came and I soon nodded off in the passenger seat of the tractor unit – a Leyland DAF 80 Series 330ATi – despite his infuriating whistling or singing along to the wireless. In an attempt to avoid duplication in the range following the DAF takeover, the Roadtrain moniker was deleted and the driveline was standardised in order to create a simple, reliable fleet-orientated truck leaving the 95 Series as the flagship model.

Despite the truck coming very close to the end of its production life – a swansong to the T45 if you like, it actually had more Leyland heritage than you might have imagined. The 11-litre DAF ATi power unit was, in fact, nothing more than a credible update of Leyland’s 680 Series toughened and modified to produce more power and less emissions.

I can also recall that the headlamps were superb and the steering lock was almost tighter than a Herald or Austin TX4 thanks to its short wheelbase. Small and punchy in low datum form and, just as the original Roadtrain was always famed for, the DAF 80 went like the clappers. The 80 Series soldiered on until 1993 when it was replaced with the DAF 85 Series, another fine fleet vehicle and one that, in its current form, the DAF CF, is still produced at the Leyland assembly plant to this day.

One of the gearbox options on the 80 series was the Eaton Twin Split. Here, Mr Einstein holds a driver training class to explain the unique change method to novice truckers!
One of the gearbox options on the 80 Series was the Eaton Twin Split. Here, Mr Einstein holds
a driver training class to explain its benefits and unique change methods to novice truckers!

Anyone who has driven or been a passenger in an 80 Series will know that, in short-wheelbase 4×2 form, they subjected the occupants to a choppy, jerky ride – especially when there was little weight bearing down on the fifth wheel. Once up to maximum speed the cab would bounce up and down quite violently – a freshly opened can of fizzy pop soon went as flat as water. Somewhere near South Mimms on the M25, I was woken up by almost falling out of the seat.

After a bit of swearing on my part, caused mainly by the rude and abrupt awakening, Arthur said he’d swerved to avoid something, but it quickly became obvious what really happened. Literally moments later his head started to sag like a rag doll – he was nodding off at the wheel and I yelled at him to pull into the upcoming services where the A1M intersects the M25.

Pulling into the truck park area we had a bit of a to-do during which he admitted he’d been helping a family member with some home DIY or something to that effect thus not getting any kip. It was suggested he take a half an hour’s power nap – enough to get us to east London but he said if we were more than 30 minutes late, the load would be refused and all hell would let loose.

Any other time I could have simply jumped out, called him a few choice expletives and easily found my own way home, but having a conscience meant I simply couldn’t allow him to drive off in the knowledge that it was a dead cert that he and other motorists might end up dead. There was only one thing for it – I would have to do a stint behind the wheel regardless of the fact the ink had barely dried on my own HGV licence and I had never experienced the Eaton gearbox the motor was equipped with.

The constant mesh Eaton Twin Splitter gearbox is, to the novice, about as pleasant as putting your hand into the mouth of a hungry tiger – once mastered it’s a wonderful reliable transmission, but it soon sorts the men out from the boys. Picture the scene from The Spy Who Loved Me where Bond and Agent XXX are trying to escape the clutches of Jaws in that blue Sherpa.

Now think of those eye-watering noises from the gearbox, multiply the volume and vibration by the factor of ten and you still cannot get near the frightful din of an idiot with an Eaton. Despite Arthur’s best attempts to talk me through the up changes, progress was noisy and slow and I still shudder with embarrassment wondering what other drivers must have thought about this twit in a truck. Well, we got out of the parking area and on to the M25 once again with Arthur soon snoring away in dreamland.

Our main port of call that emotional night – the massive east London plant of Tate & Lyle

Climbing the bank of the slip road, the musical gearbox started playing more of a happy tune – helped by my temper calming down somewhat. Believe me when I say that I don’t really loose my rag that often but, when I do I get seriously nasty and, at one point, I was half-tempted to haul Arthur from the cab and roundly leather him for almost killing us both.

Oh well… on to east London and, after getting somewhere near our port of call, I woke Bagpuss from his slumber for further directions. Arthur came round and, after he had a swig from his Thermos and the requisite roll up, we were talking once more. We arrived at the huge Silvertown plant – in one piece – fifteen minutes early and with no bloodshed or bruising to each other.

He had another bit of kip while the tanker was discharged and, when everything was complete, it was time to head up to Herefordshire via an almost abandoned M25. There’s something quite relaxing about driving on a well-lit motorway at night, the junctions just tick away, no need for constant lane changing, no suicide Audi or BMW drivers carving all the traffic – I love it.

Just set the cruise and follow the nearest star, although my ankles and legs don’t half get stiff when you don’t require the use of the pedals. Once the Leominster delivery had been completed, we stopped at one of the many mobile snack bars on the A34 between Oxford and the M40 (unlicensed in those days) for a bap and a brew – why does tea taste so good in a polystyrene cup?

Anyway, on arriving back at the Northampton Westgate depot shortly before sunrise, Arthur said he’d sort me out later – layman’s terms for payment, of course, and we parted company – friends once more. About a week later I got home from work to be told a cardboard box had been left in the porch for me. Curiously opening the said parcel, I found my payment for getting Arthur out of the mire – more bars of Dairy Milk, Crème Eggs, Caramels and other various Cadbury products than I had ever seen.

I would have rather had a small envelope with the folding paper stuff, though – but, hey, that’s life!

Mike Humble


  1. Reminds me too of a couple of times with my old man, both times unfortunately too young/unlicensed to help beyond talking – once from Valencia to Bilbao in Spain and another time from the fruit and veg markets near Heathrow on a night-run

  2. A nice feel good story for Christmas and quite an interesting character, Arthur. There was a similar Elvis fan in Whitehaven in the nineties called Dave Dallas who used to regularly murder The Wonder Of You.

  3. The peace and tranquility of nighttime motorway runs, especially when radio DJs tend to shut up and just play the music. I remember the time I got the ferry back from Scotland to Larne, every other vehicle was an HGV, and somewhere wedged in the middle was my little Citroen ZX – literally the only car on the ship.

  4. @ Will M, if you have DAB, I do recommend Smooth Radio, even in daytime. Much as I like Radio 2, I find Chris Evans too full of himself and Steve Wright’s Serious Jockin is embarassing. Smooth mostly plays Radio 2 type music, but with minimal talk from the DJs, and even the adverts aren’t too intrusive.

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