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Road Traffic - Steam, Motor and Electric Commercial Vehicles


Note - The information on the Lister 'autotruck' and related non road-going machines has been moved to the section 'Lineside Industries - Industrial and agricultural vehicles and equipment'

The demand for road transport grew dramatically in the period before the First World War, several firms dropping motor cars to concentrate on making lorries. In 1903 there were about a thousand commercial vehicles, by the mid 1920s there were over 300,000 vehicles and the road transport system employed more people than the railways. There were about 40 makes of British lorry, with about 30 foreign makes also on offer. About ten percent of the lorries in 1924 were steam and just under one percent were electric, the rest were all petrol powered as diesels did not really arrive until the 1930s.



Steam Road Vehicles

As mentioned in the outline history section a French artillery officer by the name of Nicholas Cugnot (1729-1804) made a steam three-wheeler intended for military use in 1769. This was arguably the first 'motor vehicle' although the small boiler could carry only enough water for a fifteen minute run and the maximum speed was about 4mph. In spite of these limitations on his first road trial of the three wheeler machine, making him arguably the first motorist, M. Cugnot hit a wall, becoming the first motorist to have an accident, and after several more experiments he scored the hat trick by becoming the first person to be arrested and imprisoned for dangerous driving.

Fig ___ Cugnot's Steam Carriage
Cugnot's Steam Carriage


William Murdock (see under Gas Works) devised what was probably the first practical high-pressure steam powered road vehicle but he was dissuaded from pursuing the idea. Trevithick the Cornish steam engineer made a steam road carriage in 1801 and Sir Golsworthy Gurney, another Cornishman, built a steam road coach which entered regular service between Cheltenham & Gloucester in 1831.

Steam 'traction engines' for use hauling waggons on roads were built by W. Hancock in the 1830's and J.R. and A. Ransome in the 1840's but it was the machines offered in the 1850's, notably those of Charles Burrel and Thomas Aveling, which saw them gain widespread acceptance. These machines could haul several waggons along any reasonable road, they could be fitted with cranes and a drive belt taken from the flywheel or a purpose designed drive wheel on the boiler side could be used to power other machinery. The photograph below shows a typical example of one of the larger machines, inset right is a photograph of the driving position on a similar machine.

Fig ___ Steam traction engine
Steam traction engine

In Britain steam road locomotives were still constrained by legislation, mainly due to their weight and the loads they placed on the roads. Small steam traction engines could tow loads of four or five tons and could be operated by one man whereas the law required two men to crew a larger engine. These road engines had a typical range of roughly thirty miles (48 km) on a tank of water. Smaller traction engines and lorries were allowed to move at up to 5 mph (8 kph) whereas those weighing over three tons were restricted to 4 mph (6.5 kph) in the country and 2 mph (3 kph) in town. Policemen sometimes carried a military 'pacing stick (which opened in a V shape to the standard pace length for marching) and used these to 'pace' steam vehicles. Drivers considered to be exceeding the speed limit were fined.

Steam lorries, as opposed to locomotives hauling trailers, were a practical proposition by the 1890's and they proved popular in Britain. The steam engine was easier to drive and to maintain than the petrol engine. They were generally more reliable, coal was cheap and railway locomotive builders such as Garrat were able to turn out workable machines. Steam lorries were widely used in many countries, steam road vehicles out-sold petrol engined machines in America up to about the turn of the century.

There are two basic types of steam lorry, those with a vertical boiler (known as 'undertypes'), and those with a horizontal boiler similar to those on most railway locomotives (known as 'overtypes'). The sketch below shows a Sentinel undertype, a Foden overtype and the rather unusual variant favoured by the Yorkshire Engine Company which had a horizontal boiler mounted transversely across the front of the vehicle. Steam vehicles came in all sizes, the little undertype delivery van in the lower right of the illustration below dates from 1902.

Fig ___ Overtype & Undertype Steam Road Vehicles
Overtype and undertype steam lorries

The sketch of the transverse boilered Yorkshire Engine Co lorry is from a tracing of a photograph from a 1975 Model Engineer magazine, the model was a fully working steam lorry built by XXXX. Foden pioneered the horizontal boiler on steam lorries with their three tonner of 1901. Edwin Foden served his apprenticeship with a firm called Plant and Hancock in Elworth. He did rather well there and in 1876 the firm was renamed Edwin Foden & Son and in 1902 the name changed to Fodens Ltd. This company gained prominence for its steam road tractors and went on to build motor lorries. In 1980 the Fodens truck building business was bought out by the American firm Paccar (although it continues to operate as an autonomous subsidiary).

On the Foden engine the 'tanks' to either side of the boiler are actually coal bunkers. It is worth noting that the large flat roof area on steam lorries was often loaded up with a few bags of coal, small sweets called 'Nigroids', available from chemists, are ideal for these sacks in N gauge. Steam power remained popular in Britain for road haulage well into the 1930's, in spite of the speed restrictions and high cost of road tax for these inherently heavy vehicles
.
There were a range of body types available, the sketches below were taken from photographs, the upper drawing shows a simple fixed flat floor, the centre drawing shows the vehicle fitted with a rear tipping body used by a coal merchant.

Fig ___ Steam lorry bodies
steam lorry bodies

The lower sketch shows a steam tank wagon, these were never very common although they did serve well for transporting road tar. One advantage of using a steam engine on a lorry was that the steam could be used for heating the cargo, which. is relevant when transporting materials such a bitumen which set solid at normal temperatures. In the 1920's more councils began spreading tar on roads to keep the dust down and steam tanker lorries were built for this work with spray attachments at the rear. Steam tank wagons for other cargo remained rare although horse drawn bulk tankers were in use from the 1890's.

Tipping bodies were available from about 1900, the early designs used a hand crank, which was hard work for the crew. By the 1920's tippers were built which used a power take-off from the crank shaft driving a threaded bar, a threaded fitting mounted on the end of the tipper body travelled up and down this bar. The threaded bar had to be quite long, the sketch below shows such a lorry (based on a photo of a waggon owned by a soap company), note the cab roof is fixed to the body and has a hole in it to allow the bar to pass through when the body is lowered.

Fig ___ Steam tipper lorry with raised body
Sketch of a steam tipper lorry with its body raised using a threaded bar system

Telescopic hydraulic rams were not terribly practical although by the 1930s a few tipper steam lorries were built which used hydraulic rams supplied with water under pressure from the boiler.

In the 1920s a number of heavy steam lorries were built to haul articulated trailers, most were built and used for the timber industry.

The 1933 Road Traffic Act required steam lorries to be fitted with mechanical stoking apparatus if used for one man operation. Changes to the taxation of commercial vehicles based on axle weights, introduced in the 1933 Act, made steam road lorries expensive to run but their inherent reliability meant that existing machines remained in use in the areas of Britain associated with heavy industry into the 1950s and building machines for export continued up to about 1950. According to the steam enthusiasts the change in the law was at the behest of the Americans who were at the time the worlds leading oil exporters and who wished to expand their market in the UK.

Fig ___ Foden steam lorry
Photo of a Foden steam lorry



As noted above not all steam lorries were big machines, the sketch below shows a Mann engine of 1914, essentially a steam 'pick up truck'. By the mid 1930s pneumatic tyres were fitted to most if not all steam lorries and many had a windscreen and side mounted rear view mirrors fitted as well. The larger lorry shown below also dates from 1914 but by the 1940s it had all these modifications and is also fitted with a spark arrestor (I think the latter only appeared in the later 1940s but I could be wrong on that point).

Fig ___ 1914 steam pick-up and lorry

a 1914 Mann pick up and an undertype 1914 steam lorry photographed in the late 1950s

The 'pick up' would make an attractive addition to a goods yard scene, although finding suitable 3mm diameter spoked wheels might be difficult. As the chimney on traction engines was removed when travelling by rail you may have one in your bits box if you have a traction or ploughing engine as a wagon load. The coal is piled in the bunkers to either side of the engine, the water is contained in a tank under the drivers seat and extending back under the rear load area of the vehicle (shown red in the sketch).

In later years only the Sentinel range seem to have prospered, by now running on pneumatic tyres and with mechanical stoking so the boiler was moved to the rear of the cab with the funnel sticking out through the rear cab roof.

Fig___ Sentinel Steam Lorries

Late model Sentinel steam lorries

The later designs of steam lorry remained in use in some locations into the late 1940's and a few survived into the 1950's. My local gas works in Altrincham was supplied with coal from the coal yard at the station along a street 'tramway'. The works had a small steam locomotive and a small highly unreliable diesel, but they occasionally used a Sentinel steam lorry to pull the coal and coke wagons up the street. This lorry was used on site to move tanks of Ammoniacal Liquor about and remained in service into the mid 1950's when the tramway was closed down (deliveries thereafter were by road lorry). I understand that the railway system on the Altrincham Gas Works was covered by an article in Railway Bylines magazine in 2000 but I have not seen the article myself. Other large industrial concerns probably retained the odd steam waggon for similar odd jobs around the factory but they would not have been used on the roads by the mid 1950's. Specialised steam lorries and a few traction engines, remained in use into the 1950's the steam road-tar lorries remained in use in to the mid 1960s (see Fig___) and a few steam road rollers survived into the early 1970's (see Fig___). The example shown below was photographed by Ian Mackay and Barry Ruck identified it as being a 1933 S6 model.

Fig___ 1933 Sentinel S6 Steam Lorry

Late model Sentinel steam lorry

With the changes in the law in 1933 that penalised vehicles with a high axle loading one option for the steam lorry owner was to cut the thing down, removing the body, shortening the wheelbase and fitting a water tank at the rear. This tank could be filled to increase traction, converting the vehicle into a 'water ballast tug' which could then haul trailers about. The example shown below is such a conversion, completed in I believe 1935, and this engine remained in service into the 1960s, working for the firm shown on the livery hauling trailers from Liverpool docks to Birkenhead.

Fig___ Steam water ballast tug

Steam water ballast tug

Modelling steam road vehicles is not particularly difficult, for the Overtype the body can be made up using plastic card and rectangular tube sections, the funnel at the front can be made by winding some cigarette paper round a needle and soaking it in PVA glue. The decorative cap can be represented by winding a length of thread round the tube and painting this area 'brass'. The wheels are something of a problem, for traction engines and some of the 'portable' or tow-able steam engines used on farms the only practical option is to use a commercial kit. For older steam lorries you can use the German tank wheels discussed above. More modern steam lorries such as the two shown above used standard pneumatic tyres, for which the Dornaplas range is ideal.




Light Commercial Vehicles

By the time of the First World War the motorcycle was reliable enough to serve as a light commercial vehicle, early approaches used a two wheeled load carrier mounted in front with the back end of a motorbike at the rear.

Fig ___ Motorcycle based Traders Vehicles

Sketch of Motorcycle based Traders Vehicles

By the mid 1920s the side car was developed and a motorcycle 'combination' was a popular choice for traders and artisans with the side car used to carry the tools or goods being delivered. There were some quite unusual applications, in the 1950s there was a travelling blacksmith who carried his anvil and a brasier on the side car.

The development of the motorcycle allowed the bike builders to produce light delivery vehicles, often running on three wheels. These small machines remained in widespread use into the 1940's. In the sketch below is a three-wheeler delivery vehicle made by Auto Carrier, who went on to produce the AC series of motor cars. Fleetline offer a kit of a three wheeler Reliant delivery van, which was based on the Raleigh three wheeler shown below. When Raleigh sold its interest in these machines in 1935 the new owner adopted the name Reliant a many of the parts were stamped with the letter R. Having the axle at the rear resulted in a less stable vehicle but offered a useful carrying space to the rear. Most three wheelers failed to survive the 1950s but the Reliant range managed to keep going. In spite of the stability problem the rear-axle Reliant is the only three wheeler vehicle in production today and by the late 1990s this firm were the last British owned mass-production motor car company. In about 1938 Reliant started using Austin Seven engines but they only abandoned the motorbike front forks in 1955 when they introduced their Regal motor car fitted with an aluminium body.

Fig ___ Three-Wheeled Light Delivery Vehicles

Three wheeled delivery motor vehicles

The three wheel arrangement allowed a tighter turning circle, making it popular for industrial locations. The example shown below is a 2x250 gallon airfield refueling truck or 'bowser' from 1937. Zwicky were based at Slough in Bucks, they specialised in airfield equipment as well as providing gear such as hydraulic jacks. The firm still operates today selling everything from aircraft tow bars to de-icing lorries and caterpillar track jacks. For this little truck they used Ford parts for the running gear (so spares would be easily available).

Fig ___ 1937 Zwicky refueling truck

Sketch of a three wheeled 1937 Zwicky refueling truck or bowser

Small three wheeler road vehicles were fine for a butcher or grocer handling his local delivery round but deliveries for the clothing trade and light engineering works needed something rather larger.

A popular small motor delivery vehicle of the 1920s was the Shelvoke & Drewry (of Letchworth) 'Freighter', introduced in about 1922. Although diminutive it found widespread employment for local delivery work, Express Dairies were an early customer, the railways found it cheaper to run than a horse drawn cart and it was widely used by municipal corporations fitted with a range of bodies from bin lorries to street-washing tankers (see also Appendix One - Water Supply, Sewage Treatment & Household Waste Collection). As well as a range of body types there were also several variants in cab design, the railways seemed to prefer the type with a roof on the cab. By the later 1930s the S&D Freighters were available with a fully enclosed cab. Some of these little vehicles remained in use into the later 1960s (possibly a little later). The wheels shown below are the early type, 20 inches (51cm) in diameter with 5 inch (12.5cm) wide solid tyres (double at the back, single at the front). From the early 1930s these machines were built with slightly larger pneumatic tyres wheels, roughly 24 inches (60cm) in diameter.


Fig ___ 1920s S&D Freighter

Sketches of the 1920s 1920s  S&D Freighter motor lorry

I originally had this down as an electric vehicle but Brian Carpenter, who knows rather a lot about this firm and its products, has kindly pointed out that 'despite the tiller controls and strange looks it utilises a petrol engine situated transversely across the chassis to the right of the driver's seat'. One use for this little truck was collecting churns of milk from the railway for delivery to dairies and factories in the town. This little vehicle is actually relatively easy to model, the curved front can be made from paper or thin plastic card with the remainder from card. The wheels can be represented using slices cut from Plastruct tube with the centre filled with Milliput into which a cut-down dressmakers pin is inserted for the axle, springs can be added using Slaters Microstrip. Further information and illustrations can be found on Brian's website 'The Unofficial Shelvoke & Drewry Website' (See Appendix Six - Contributors and Bibliography for a link to the site). Quoting from Brian's site ' In production from 1922 until the very last vehicle was built for St. Helens in 1955, although after 1952 the few Freighters produced were mostly for industrial purposes. Pneumatic tyres became standard after 1931..

Sole traders, moving up from a hand cart or motorcycle combination, preferred a van as this could be locked with their tools inside. The 1928 Trojan van is typical of the period, vehicles of this general appearance were seen right through the 1930s but went very quickly during and after the war.

Fig ___ 1928 Trojan Van

1928 Trojan Van shown with owner for scale

The sketch below shows a Morris van from the mid 1920s, incorporating most of the typical design features of the time including the then new cone shaped electric headlamps mounted on a bracket between the wheel arch and the bonnet. These were usually black enamel on commercial vehicles prior to the later 1950s when 'chrome' finishing became more widespread. Note the horizontally split windscreen and the way the roof dips down over the drivers cab. The ends of the multi-leaf elliptical suspension springs are visible in front of the radiator and there is no 'bumper' fitted. The hard financial climate of the period saw these small vans continuing in use into the 1940s. Many of the standard car designs were produced as a van variant, the Austin Seven van was a popular choice by the early 1930s. The sketch shows a mid 1930s example, by this time a single (hand operated) windscreen wiper is fitted on the drivers side and single pane Triplex windscreens were pretty standard (see also Appendix One - Road Traffic - Introduction, Licensing, Wheels, Suspension, Brakes and Transmission). Heavy lorries had the horizontally and vertically divided windscreens into the 1950s. The black enameled cone shaped headlamps remain but now there are also 'side lights' mounted on the front wings and at the rear. There are no turning indicators, drivers were expected to use hand signals and the bumpers are strips of steel mounted on brackets attached to the chassis, at this time only expensive cars had these chrome plated, on this example they were painted black.

Fig ___ 1920s Morris and 1930s Austin vans

1920s Morris and 1930s Austin vans

Modelling delivery vans is not really difficult although finding suitable spoked wheels for modelling pre-World War Two vehicles can be a problem. Heavier vehicles used substantial spokes, for which the best option is to use small white metal wooden wagon wheels (available in a pack of mixed sizes from P D Marsh). An alternative is to use toe nail clippers to trim away the flange from a set of Peco spoked wagon wheels, although these end up quite wide and would benefit from a sanding down if the design of the vehicle leaves them visible. The 'OO scale German tank wheels' suggested elsewhere can be used to represent the wire spoked type (as on the Austin van above) but they are rather large for modelling smaller vans and again benefit from sanding down on the inner faces to reduce the thickness.


Fig ___ 1957 Seddon 'service' van

1957 Seddon 'service' van

The 1950s had its crop of small delivery vehicles, building on the experience and technology developed during the Second World War. Mounting the engine inside the cab produced a flat fronted vehicle which proved popular for the slightly larger delivery vans, one classic example from the 1950s being the Morris J type van. Note there is still only a single windscreen wiper and the windscreen itself is divided into two by a central strut. Turning indicators are fitted to the sides (not the front and rear) and the headlights have a chrome rim holding the glass front in place, the remainder of the cone being painted body colour. The bumper at the front is still a simple non-chromed metal strip supported on chassis mounted brackets. The small car based vans by this time mostly had the single pane windscreen (the early Morris 1000 had the split type), the headlights were moving into the front of the wheel arches, 'running boards' had disappeared from the sides of the car based vans and the standard turning indicator was the 'trafficator', a small metal arm with an orange plastic base section fitted with a bulb. The Austin A35 (introduced in 1955) shown on the right in the sketch below has the trafficator shown extended, suggesting the vehicle is about to turn left. Odd examples of both these vehicles were still seen into the later 1970s.

Fig ___Morris J type and Austin 5cwt van from the 1950s
Morris J type van  and Austin 5cwt van from the 1950s

Cars and car based vans tended to have more bright chrome work on them by this time, in this case the door handles, headlight rims, wing mounted sidelights, radiator grille and front and rear bumpers are all chromed. There was also often some chrome on the window frames but in this example it was confined to the strut for the 'quarter light', the small triangular hinged window set to the front of the passenger doors to provide ventilation (essential with a car full of people smoking). The vehicle has two windscreen wipers, the arms of which are also chromed. The chromed door handle on the Austin is a forward facing hook which probably caught the occasional pedestrian by surprise on crowded shopping streets in towns and anyone being hit by this van faced the solid metal 'Flying A' Austin bonnet ornament. There are no external rear view mirrors fitted, the driver relying on a small internal mirror looking back through windows in the rear doors (not very useful even when the van was empty). External rear view mirrors on this type of vehicle at this time were not common but were usually fitted to the top of the wheel arches, well forward on the car. On larger lorries and vans the rear view mirrors were usually mounted on the front of the door frames as shown on the J Type van in the sketch (note there is only one mirror, on the drivers side of the vehicle). Both vehicles now boast 'side lights', on the Austin they are mounted in chromed housings on top of the wings, on the J Type they are mounted below the headlights.

The need for small vans of the type used for local deliveries was reducing by the 1960s, with the exception of the successful Mini van larger vehicles were increasingly in demand for tradesmen.

Fig ___Two types of Austin van
Two types of Austin van

In the early 1960s quite a few shops and traders continued to deliver goods to the home, the self-service 'supermarket' was still a novelty and most streets featured at least a few small shops. The traders continued to use the small car based vans, notable examples were the van versions of the Morris 1000 and the Mini, and from the later 1950s these increasingly replaced the hand carts formerly used by chimney sweeps and the bicycles of the window cleaners (who fitted roof-racks to carry their ladders).

Fig ___ 1950s Morris 1000 and 1960s Mini vans

Morris 1000 and Mini vans

Meanwhile people were looking for larger and more generally useful load carriers,and this lead to the development of what would become the standard general purpose light van design for the next fifty years (possibly longer). These vehicles were produced by various firms, all with broadly similar designs. These were all larger and heavier than the earlier types and suitable for a wider range of duties although the home deliveries by shopkeepers were rapidly disappearing by the time they were introduced.

Fig ___ Bedford CA and early Ford Transit vans

Bedford CA and early Ford Transit vans

The Bedford CA was a popular vehicle, introduced in the mid 1950s and produced in a range of variants including a mini-bus (a new idea at the time), fully enclosed van and even a van with the rear half of the body removed for use as a tow truck. The Ford Transit was introduced at about the same time, Ford had been fighting GM-owned Bedford over the British commercial vehicle market for years and in this instance Ford came out ahead. The transit was well liked, said to be comfortable, quiet and easy to drive. The same basic design then continued in widespread use well into the twenty first century.

Taller vehicles were required when the driver needed regular access such as vehicles used for parcels work, bread deliveries to the home and the like. The example below is an Austin 'walk through' van from the early 1960s (this one was registered in 1961). This van proved popular and I believe there were several ambulances based on this vehicle. Note the split windscreen, still seen on commercial vehicles although displaced by this time on private motor cars. Dave Plowman was able to advise that -
The Austin van is a 1 or 1 1/4 ton van. The Morris range which are near identical is the LD Series


Fig ___ Austin (BMC) light commercial 'walk-through' van

Austin (BMC) light commercial 'walk-through' van

Stick on 'magnetic' signs on doors brief period in the later 1970s and early 1980s


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Petrol & Diesel Lorries

Note - Most of the older lorries shown here were photographed at vintage vehicle events, they have been carefully restored, many of them to a better-than-new standard. Most lorries I remember in the 1950s and 60s were quite dirty and often a bit battered around the bodywork.

In 1889 football went professional and about this time Daimler built the first petrol engined commercial vehicle not based on a passenger car design. His new lorry placed the driver over the engine, a configuration known today as 'forward control', offering a larger load space for a given wheelbase. This arrangement was initially popular but soon gave way to the more conventional engine mounted ahead of the driver's position as this gave easy access to the engine for service and repair. The first decade of the new century saw a general realisation that the motor lorry was likely to be the coming thing. Thornycroft built their first petrol engined lorry as early as 1902 and it was about this time that the Lancashire Steam Motor Co changed its name to Leyland Motors. The American Model T Ford appeared in 1908, offering practical motoring for the more affluent masses and the basis for a useful light lorry. The four cylinder petrol engine appeared in 1909 but speeds and load carrying capacities of road vehicles remained low.


Fig ___ Early (approx 1910) petrol engined lorry

Petrol lorry with raised cab roof

The sketch shows the soft canvas roof on the cab hinged up, this was sketched from a photograph but I have no idea why having the roof hinged in this way was considered worth the cost. The standard lorry prior to the First World War was a two-axle affair, although twin wheels were used on the rear axle of the heavier designs.

Up to the First World War it was usual to have a completely open cab with no doors and no form of windscreen at all. After that war flat windscreens appeared on some lorries but often not to the full height of the cab roof. The plain glass used in early windscreens was lethal in an accident so it is unsurprising that windscreens were viewed with caution. 'Triplex' safety glass came onto the market in the early 1920s but it was the later 1920s before it was widely used on commercial vehicles. The Model T Ford light truck was by far the most common single make of machine in Britain from about 1912 through to after the First World War, Ford switched to using safety glass in about 1928 but the earlier vehicles all used plain glass windscreens.

Model T Ford Lorry

Model T Ford Lorry


As well as lorries there were a number of quite substantial delivery vans operating from as early as about 1900. These are not difficult to model, In the example shown below the engine is made from a 5 mm cube of Milliput, this should have a curved or peaked top. Suggested livery would be a dark grey roof, yellow body, engine compartment and wheel centres. The floor inside the cab would be dark grey. The radiator, tyres, axles, springs, gear levers and steering wheel would all be very dark grey. The lettering as shown might be plain black. A small oil lamp might be mounted on the bulkhead behind the engine compartment and if you can manage it a (brass) horn might be mounted just inside the cab on the right hand side.

Fig ___ Early petrol engined delivery van

Petrol van


The word truck originally described a small solid wheel or roller of the type fitted on ships cannons in sailing ship days. By the nineteenth century the word was being used to describe the whole of the gun carriage and by extension any small wheeled trolley. The use of the word 'truck' to describe a lorry appeared in America in about 1916 and the term migrated to Europe with the American forces fighting in the First World War. It remained uncommon in Britain until the 1970's, the British generally using the word lorry whilst lorry drivers preferred waggon.

British built lorries tended to be fairly small, for larger vehicles American vehicles were imported, one example being the REO Speedwagon shown below. I photographed this lorry in 2002 at the Tatton show but then lost my notes. From memory it dates from shortly before the First World War, possibly 1911. Note that there are no rear lights at all and no illuminated turning indicators although the absence of side doors meant that hand signals were not a problem. Spoked wheels remained the norm on commercial vehicles into the 1930s.

Fig ___ REO Speedwagon

REO Speedwagon


During the First World War the petrol engined vehicle developed rapidly and the armed forces trained a large number mechanics and drivers. The Thornycroft lorry had been brought to public attention by the war and in the post war years war-surplus petrol lorries started to offer serious competition to the railways. At this time there was very little regulation of the road haulage industry, one man and a lorry constituted a viable business and In the period immediately following the war over eighty thousand lorries were licensed for the British roads.

The railway companies also started making use of lorries to augment their fleets of horse drawn vehicles operating from their goods depots. The railways owned the largest fleets of motor vehicles but they had only a small proportion of the total and were prevented by legislation from using them to replace rail services. Canal companies were not so restricted in their ability to use road vehicles and several invested heavily in this area.

Limited numbers of six wheeled rigid chassis conversions, based on standard American four wheeled designs such as the Model T Ford, were produced by third party firms such as Baico in the UK. The Goodyear tyre company commissioned a rigid chassis six wheeler to promote their new large pneumatic tyres in about 1920 but the rigid six wheelers were not produced in any numbers until the late 1920's.

The first articulated designs had appeared as early as 1898 but articulated and three axle rigid chassis lorry designs remained uncommon, there were however a few built in this era. The example below is based on a photo of a GWR lorry circa 1919, the gear box is behind the cab and has chain drive to the rear axle (the details are difficult to make out but there appears to be a chain on each side).

Fig ___ 1919 articulated lorry

Sketch showing a 1919 articulated lorry

Four wheeled tractor units towing trailers were more commonly used for heavier loads, mainly steam powered at this time. Petrol or diesel tractors, towing rigid draw-bar trailers, were restricted to a maximum speed of 8 mph (13 kph) in this period, this seems to have been more to do with the problems of poor brakes than anything else.

In Britain three-axle articulated lorries only appeared in any numbers in the 1920's with the Scammel firm being at the forefront. Scammel adopted the American 'fifth wheel' turn-table arrangement for attaching the trailing section to the tractor. Their first six-wheeler, a petrol powered machine, carried a payload of around eight tons as opposed to five tons for a similarly engined four wheeled non-articulated lorry. In the period following the First World War speed restrictions on road haulage vehicles were still based on axle loading, if the weight was under six tons per axle the maximum speed was 12 mph (19 kph) as opposed to 5 mph (8 kph) for heavier vehicles. Vehicles weighing less than two and a half tons were classed as motor cars and allowed to do thirty miles per hour. The Scammel articulated lorries were influenced by this constraint which resulted in some innovative design features. In 1921 Scammel produced an articulated 2000 gallon tank lorry, originally with a square tank on a conventional under-frame. The tank was later changed to a cylindrical design and by the mid 1920's the tank was no longer carried on a separate sub-frame but supported its own weight. This design remained in use for many years (often being used for chemical traffic), note the chain drive to the rear wheels of the tractor unit.

Fig ___ Scammel articulated tanker lorry
Sketch showing a Scammel articulated tanker lorry

The British Engineer Herbert Akroyd wrote a paper outlining the basic idea of the compression-ignition engine in 1890 and the first patent on such an engine was taken out by the French born German engineer Rudolf Diesel in 1892. A prototype diesel engined lorry had been built in 1909 but production did not start in earnest until the late 1920's. Petrol lorries were typically limited to about three ton payloads and top speeds were in the 20-30 mph (32-48 kph) range, although this was of course illegal. Anything heavy was generally shifted on steam lorries or towed on trailers by steam road tractors or steam road traction engines.

By the 1920's there were over a hundred thousand road lorries in Britain, although their use was still restricted by complex legislation, road tax was still based on a sliding scale related to axle loading. The example below was introduced in 1920 by Thornycroft, for its time a 6 ton lorry was a big machine. Note the hinged upper section of windscreen in front of the driver, this feature remained common into the 1940s and surviving examples were occasionally seen into the early 1960s.

Fig ___ 1920 Thornycroft 6 ton brewery lorry

Sketch showing a 1920 Thornycroft 6 ton berwery lorry


Between the wars motor vehicles were still very much under development, the London to Brighton car rally was first held in 1927 but several of the competitors shipped their unreliable cars on the railway for the greater part of the journey. There were some quite bizarre motor vehicles about, in 1922 Dunkley's of Birmingham introduced a two-stroke petrol engined pram with a small platform for the nursemaid at the rear. These were prohibited by law from operating on the pavement and had to run on the road proper.

Fig ___ Dunkley's 'Pramotor'

Sketch showing Dunkley's 1922 'Pramotor'


During the various financial ups and downs of the 1920s and 1930s a lot of people suffered hardship and were unable to maintain their vehicle. At the time a lot of wood and even canvas was still used in the construction of vehicles, and prior to World War Two scrap metal merchants had little interest in motor cars as they required a lot of work to separate out the useful bits. The result was that a lot of broken down farmers lorries ended up parked in the corner of a field and a lot of smaller vehicles were simply dumped in the countryside and left to rot.

Fig ___ One for a field - 1924 Chevrolet Pick-up (in need of some work)

One for a field - 1924 Chevrolet Pick-up (in need of some work)

By the 1930s steam lorries were still widely used, especially for heavy duties, the diesel engine was becoming more common on larger oil engined lorries but smaller lorries were usually petrol engined, at the time these were considered more reliable.

Fig ___ 1927 Dennis lorry

Photo of a 1927 Dennis lorry

In the late 1920's Sentinel introduced a rigid chassis eight-wheel lorry, offering a high payload with reduced axle loading. The law changed in 1933, penalising high axle loadings and within ten years most British lorry manufacturers were offering eight-wheelers in their range. These were never popular on the Continent or in America but six wheeled motor lorries with all four rear wheels driven were by 1930 offering payloads of 17 tons or so.

For tanker duties four and occasionally six wheeled tanker lorries were the norm (although there were a small number of eight wheeler tankers built, a small fleet of these was used by Pickfords to deliver oils to the Queen Mary in the 1930s. The eight wheeled lorry was very much a British thing, borne mainly out of the changes in the law in the early 1930s, taxing commercial vehicles based on axle weight. The illustration below shows a 1937 Sammel flatbed and a tanker from (about) 1938.

Fig ___ 1930s Eight wheeled types

Sketch showing an eight wheeler lorry

The Leyland Octopus was introduced in 1935 and were noted for their reliability and longevity. Such was the popularity of the Octopus that its driveline was basically unchanged from 1945 until 1960. The type was finally phased out in 1979, the illustration below shows a 1950s version (left) and the 1960s version (right).

Fig ___ Leyland Octopus

Sketch of a 1960s Leyland Octopus

The larger six wheeled lorries and the economies of the diesel engine (widely adopted in the late 1920's) made long distance road haulage a practical proposition. By the early 1930's there were over three hundred thousand lorries on the roads, a three fold increase in just ten years.











Fig ___ AEC Matador medium lorry and Leyland 6x6 in WW2 livery (photographed at a show in 2007)

Matador medium lorry in Army livery (photographed at a show in 2007)



Most lorries were small by modern standards (although the Army had quite a few larger types) so big loads such as crawler cranes and the like tended to go on a low-loader trailer hauled by a heavy tug such as the Pickfords lorry shown below left. When the photo was taken this had the engine side panels removed to show off the restored Gardener engine for a show, the example on the right has the panels in place.

Fig ___ Scammel 1944 'tug' and post war ex-army recovery truck

Photo of a 1944 Scammel 'tug'



In 1948 Road Tax, the aluminium bodied Land Rover and the Morris Minor car all appeared and the government began its large scale programme of nationalisation. All long distance road transport, road rail and canal, was purchased by the government who established British Transport Commission to oversee the co-ordination of inland transport of goods. The roads came under a new body called the Road Transport Executive or RTE which had a legal monopoly on all road haulage for distances over 40 miles (65 km). Short haul A and B licence operators and C licensed vehicles carrying the owning firms goods were not affected. There were over three and a half thousand separate companies to be absorbed with a total of over forty two thousand lorries and with owners fighting compulsory purchase through the courts the entire exercise took until 1952 to complete.

The operating arm of the RTE was called British Road Services or BRS and they are credited with bringing an abrupt improvement in standards for road lorries. For the first time safety was given priority, but this resulted in an increase in road haulage costs and private operators were able to under-cut BRS. Road haulage restrictions were soon relaxed to assist in rebuilding the country, and the BRS services came under increasing pressure. All vehicles had a roundel logo on the cab door (similar to the BR 'bicycling lion' logo) and the name in full in white on the sides and often on the cab roof front.

Fig ___ BRS roundel logo

BRS roundel logo (photographed at a show in 2007)

I believe the BRS livery was; lorries and vans used for general haulage maroon, parcels vehicles green and tipper lorries blue-grey. Later (I am not sure when things changed) I am told that at some point parcels vans changed to yellow with (possibly) red markings but I cannot confirm that.

Fig ___ 1950 'Foden 20' tipper in BRS livery (photographed at a show in 2007)

1950 Foden 20 tipper in BRS livery (photographed at a show in 2007)

The sketch below shows the successful Austin VA 'noddy van' introduced in 1958 and in production into the early 1970s I believe. The livery is the early BRS standard for vans, note the logo has changed to resemble the later BR style 'ferret and dartboard design introduced in 1956.

Fig ___ 1958 Austin VA van in BRS van livery
1950s BRS van livery

Note - Ken Ward, a regular on uk.railways newsgroup advised that the official colours for British Road Services, the nationalised road haulage company, were: General Haulage - Red, Vans - Green, Meat - Cream, Special Traffic (eg tipper lorries) - Blue. In 1969 BRS introduced regional colours on its general goods vehicles (discussed below).

The 1962 Transport Act scrapped the British Transport Commission, as a result the nationalised road haulage business (British Road Services) came under a new autonomous body called the Transport Holdings Company. The road vehicles were still operating under the BRS banner. In 1963 the Report on the Committee on Carrier Licensing (usually called the Geddes Report) was published, which suggested scrapping the complicated three-tier licensing system for private road hauliers. This idea was not immediately taken up however and it was another five years before the road transport legislation was substantially changed.

The most common lorries today are all of the flat fronted or 'forward control' type, lorries with a bonnet at the front were common in the 1950s and 1960s but fell from favour (in the UK at least) during the 1970s. The example shown below was built in 1951 and is typical of the designs in use at the time. Dave Plowman was able to advise - This is a Series II K2 Austin truck and looks to be a 2.2 ton.

Fig ___ Post war Austin lorry
Post war Austin lorry, photo courtesy Ian Mackay

Lorries at the time had windscreens split into two flat sections, the opening upper section had gone from new builds by about 1950 (although an opening hatch below the windscreen, to provide ventilation, remained a common fitting. The flat faced split windscreen remained common on lorries into the later 1960s, for one thing if something broke one of the screens it was less expensive to replace. On 'forward control' types of vehicle the cab tends to sit very high off the ground, there are no foot boards or foot holds in the body, instead there is a knurled ring on the wheel (the silver bit, they were I think always silver) to act as a foot step for the driver and his mate.

Fig ___ 1951 ERF 6 ton 60HP lorry with split windscreen photographed at a show in 2007

1951 ERF LK44 6 ton 60HP lorry photographed at the 2007 Abbotsfield show (Flixton) by Ian Mackay

To work on the engine of the lorry shown above you lifted off a steel cover inside the cab, although access was difficult. This was part of the reason the conventional bonnet and cab arrangement remained common at the time.



Fig ___ Late 1950s Thames (Ford) lorry with split windscreen photographed at a show in 2007

Late 1950s Thames (Ford) lorry with split windscreen photographed at a show in 2007

By the early 1960s the articulated tanker was commonplace in a range of trades from bulk beer to petrol. The example shown below, photographed at a show in 2002 and dating from about 1970, is typical of the breed. Note that to work on the engine you have to climb into the cab and lift off the engine cover. The trailers were built by separate firms, the example below was built by Dyson.

Fig ___ Seddon Atkinson articulated lorry tractor with Dyson trailer

Seddon Atkinson articulated lorry tractor with Dyson trailer

By the later 1960s 'forward control' lorries tended to have better access for mechanics, the example below has a hinged (possibly removable) front section to the cab that gives access to the engine bay and the foot steps are designed into the cab body in place of the ring on the wheel common on earlier designs. By the late 1950s the curved 'wrap round' windscreen was fashionable on motor cars and inevitably this transferred to the commercial vehicles. The example below, dating from the early 1960s, shows a typical windscreen, note also the smaller windows lower down, also curved.

Fig ___ 1963 Morris lorry, photographed at a show in 2007

1963 Morris lorry, photographed at a show in 2007

The cab body, with complex pressed steel curves, is typical of the period. I have had some success 'back dating' the Dornaplas Ford lorry by adding rectangles of 10 and 20 thou card and sanding these to shape.

The permitted loads on road vehicles are governed by the quality of the roads and the ability of buried water and gas pipes, sewers and bridges to carry the weight. In 1964 the maximum loaded weight was increased from twenty four to thirty two tons, virtually doubling the load that could be carried.

Fig ___ 1965 Leyland lorry, photographed at a show in 2007

1965 Leyland lorry, photographed at a show in 2007

The cab designs became flatter and less moulded during the 1960s, the example below dates from 1968, and engine access was transformed by the introduction of the forward-tipping cab. This hinged just above the front bumper, tilting forward to reveal the engine (set toward the rear of the cab).

Fig ___ 1968 Bedford tipper and 1969 Ford with tipping cab, photographed at a show in 2007

1968 tipper lorry, photographed at a show in 2007

Older styles of lorries, some dating back to the later 1930s, remained in use into the early 1970s. The articulated lorry became increasingly common in the 1960s, replacing many of the flat bed lorries common at the time.

Fig ___ Late 1950s Foden and 1970 Bedford articulated lorry tractor units, photographed at a show in 2007

1950s Foden and 1970 Bedford articulated lorry tractor units, photographed at a show in 2007

In 1968 the National Freight Corporation was formed from the less-than-wagonload railway 'sundries' business, the railway owned road vehicles were transferred to this company (although some were leased back for parcels work and the like). The NFC adopted the trading name National Carriers Limited and the NCL yellow livery and logo was applied to the former railway vehicles.

Fig ___ National Carriers van

National Carriers van

In 1969 the British Road Services vehicles adopted regional colour schemes and gained a new logo (applied to the cab doors), they retained the British Road Services name and this was usually displayed on the vehicle. The logo was white, the example shown was on a North Eastern Division red lorry cab door.

Fig ___ BRS 1969 logo

BRS 1969 logo

Ken Ward, a regular on the uk.railways newsgroup was able to advise - In 1969 BRS introduced regional colours on its general goods vehicles as follows: South Eastern Division - ROYAL BLUE, Scottish Division - TRAFFIC BLUE, North Western Division - SEA GREEN, North Eastern Division - ROAD HAULAGE RED, Midland Division - NUT BROWN, South Western Division - ROAD HAULAGE GREEN, Western Division - LEAD GREY, Eastern Division - TURQUOISE BLUE.

Volvo articulated lorry tractors and big trucks appeared in some numbers in the early 1970's, this was when the international 'TIR' lorry system was being established and the standard British lorry was simply not designed to haul loads right across the continent.

One variant on the on the standard lorry is the 'hook on loader', this consists of a container with a sturdy cross bar at one end and rollers at the lower corners of the other end. The transporter lorry has a hydraulic arm which can reach out over the rear of the vehicle, hook onto the container, then pull it onto the lorry body. The container is dropped off in a similar way, usually the lorry will push the box back until the rollers are resting on the ground, then pull away slowly until the box is clear and can be lowered down. In practice it is possible for the lorry to tow the container about using the rear rollers. This system was developed in the later 1960s and became viable in the early 1970s, the British Army was an early adopter, they refer to this system as Demountable Rack Offload & Pickup System (DROPS). There are many types of body available for this system (some of which have ISO lifting points), and the associated road vehicles range in size from big heavy lorries to the lighter type as shown below, the example shown is in use by a landscape gardener.

Fig ___ Hook-on Loader

Hook-on Loader

The privatisation of many of the UK's publicly owned Businesses began with the National Freight Corporation (NFC) Management Employee buy-out in 1982. The NFC then formed the basis of Excel, which came into being in 2000 out of the merger of Ocean Group and National Freight Corporation, the new company then snapped up Tibbet & Britten in 2004, becoming one of the largest and most successful logistics companies in the UK. In 2006 Deutsche Post completed a 3.7 billion takeover of the freight company and merged it with its own DHL Logistics, the joint company now operates in 135 countries.

In 1983 the maximum weight limit for lorries was raised again from thirty two and a half tons to thirty eight tons, which had again quite an impact on the economics of road transport. In the subsequent ten years the lorry mileage in the UK increased by over thirty percent.

In 1983 a visible change occurred as all lorries were then required to have side guards and low rear bumpers. In 1988 a new requirement was amber lights along the bottom of the sides of trailers and longer lorries.

In 1988 British Road Services was privatised, becoming the National Freight Company, it was then absorbed by Excel Logistics (formerly the National Freight Corporation, set up in 1968 and discussed above)

By the mid 1990's there were over a hundred thousand lorries of over sixteen tons gross loaded weight registered in Britain, and of course quite a number of Continental lorries brought over on the ferries. In the mid-1990's the government decided to allow an increase to forty tons (with some route restrictions) and eventually to forty four tons. The problems this will cause for local authorities trying to maintain roads, and for utility companies trying to maintain their under-road pipelines, have prompted various bodies to look more closely at encouraging alternative forms of transportation.




Three Wheeler Commercial Lorries

At the smaller end of the scale a number of three-wheeled petrol engined 'mechanical horses' were introduced, originally for moving horse-drawn waggons about in yards these soon had purpose built semi-trailers. Three wheeled tractor units for articulated trailers had one advantage over the more conventional four in that, subject to the design, they could offer a very small turning circle. If the front wheel could turn sideways the thing could turn in its own length. In the early 1930s the Huddersfield firm Karrier developed a small three-wheeler petrol engined vehicle called the Cob (named after a type of working horse) which could move horse drawn waggons or its own semi-trailers. Th Cob proved popular with railway companies and industries such as gas works (see Fig ___).

The little three wheeled tractor and its articulated trailer was developed into a thoroughly modern road vehicle, retaining the very tight turning circle as a virtue of the single front wheel. The most successful series, produced by Scammel, continued in development and production up to the mid 1960's.

Fig ___ Early Scammel three wheeler

Early Scammel three wheeler mechanical horse

A white metal model of the 1935 Scammel type may be available as a kit from Fleetline (a former Skytrex kit), this comes with a flat bed trailer. A 1950's version, with a slightly more bulbous nose and a covered trailer (standard BR issue) is available from Langley and from Graham Avis. With a bit of carving at the front these can be converted to something resembling the early designs of the 1920's. The railway operated mechanical horses are illustrated and described in the section Railway Company Goods Facilities - Railway Owned Road Vehicles. The examples shown below are the 1950s Scarab design and on the right the final version of the Scammel mechanical horse the Townsman, a fiberglass bodied tractor introduced in 1966. The yellow Townsman is in National Carriers Limited livery (this was the trading name of the nationalised National Freight Corporation, formed from the former railways 'sundries' business in 1968)

Fig ___ 1950s Scammel Scarab and 1966 Scammel Townsman three wheelers

Early Scammel three wheeler mechanical horse

The last machine of this type to be produced in Britain was not used by the railways, it was based on the small Reliant TW9 'Ant' light truck, introduced in 1967 and in production until the later 1980s examples remained in use into the 1990s. These were used with fixed rear bodies for a number of duties by local councils but one variant featured the articulated trailer of the mechanical horse. I have not yet found a photograph showing enough detail to attempt a sketch of this latter type, the drawing below shows one of the more conventional light truck versions and a dust cart, both of which were widely used by local authorities in the later 1960s and 1970s.

Fig ___ Reliant TW9 'Ant'

Reliant TW9 Ant light truck

The Ant was taller than it looks, the cab roof being a good five feet above the road. The colour of the Ant cab was determined by the Jel coat of the fibreglass used in its construction. Most seem to have been yellow but the example shown below (photographed at the Tatton show in 2007) may have been repainted.

Fig ___ Preserved 'Ant'

Preserved Reliant TW9 Ant light truck







Electric Vehicles

Experiments had been made as early as 1851 with electrically powered road vehicles but battery and engine design was limited by the technology of the time, making battery vehicles impractical. Electrical power for railways and trams appeared in the 1880's, railways used a mixture of overhead wire and third rail supply, trams mainly opted for the overhead wire. Electrically powered (battery) vehicles appeared on the roads in for first decade of the twentieth century but only gained popularity in the 1920's and obviously these were confined to larger towns and cities. The example below dates from about the time of the First World War, lorries of this type were used by the railway companies for delivery work.

Fig ___ Electric lorry about 1917

Electric lorry


In Britain the most popular types were of American manufacture, British built electric vehicles were initially produced by existing road lorry builders. Many of these were already established as builders of steam engines for example the Great Eastern Railway used electric lorries supplied by Garret & Sons of Leiston and Ransomes Sims and Jeffries at Ipswich. There were some quite large electrical powered lorries built but the strengths of the battery vehicle are in stop-go work such as street deliveries, hence many electric vehicles did not have doors on the cab. Harrods the London store purchased a fleet of battery vans for delivery to customers, the idea being that these quiet vehicles would not disturb the clients during early morning deliveries.

Several firms produced electric vehicles offering payloads in the four to six ton range, the GV lorry shown below was sketched from a photograph of a fleet of such vehicles owned by Whitbread's brewery in London in the 1920's. In the 1930's smaller electric's with payloads of between a quarter and half a ton came into their own for local deliveries, these included milk floats and bread vans (getting rare these days) and small vans for service engineers.

Fig ___ Electric commercial vehicles

Electric commercial vehicles


Modelling electric vehicles presents no particular problems, the main difference was of course the absence of a radiator. As shown in the sketch of an early motor lorry above the chassis is simply a rectangle of thirty thou card with the body built up from plastic card sheet. A small supply of Plastruct Fineline rectangular section tube is useful to quickly build a square body shape. The only readily available wheels I know of are those of the Dornaplas range, they are quite large diameter and generally more suited to post-1920's models (see under Wheels & Tyres above).

The sketch below shows a British Railways electric delivery lorry operated in the early 1950s, the illustration is a model and the livery may be suspect, but it is I think broadly correct.

Fig ___ Electric BR delivery lorry

Electric BR delivery lorry

The sketch below shows a coal delivery lorry operated by Ipswitch Co-Operative Society in about 1960, the basis was evidently a milk float but note how the body has been raised to allow the sacks of coal to be lifted off without having to stoop.

Fig ___ Electric coal delivery lorry

Electric coal delivery lorry


In 1954 Bell Telephone Co in the USA developed the first so-called 'solar battery', actually it is a 'solar generator' as it does not store electricity but converts the energy from sunlight into electricity. To date the power obtained is not sufficient for practical use in transportation but research into both 'solar cells' and new types of battery is continuing. In the late 1980's the Californian state government passed a law requiring a certain percentage of road vehicles sold to be electrically powered by a certain date. The actual date for implementation seems to be slipping but this legislation has pushed the development of electrically powered vehicles and some promising developments have been made.




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