Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Insert "sic Transit" joke here....

I had the Post Office to thank for putting the Mother’s Pride on the table from 1989 to 1996 – in more ways than one.
In 1989 the Management of the Post Office and the Union of Communication Workers were involved in one of their usual spats and busy throwing their toys at each other.

This lead to a six-week freeze on the delivery of parcels and a massive expansion in the number of small haulage outfits delivering parcels to all and sundry.
The strike went on for just long enough for the Post Office’s customers to believe that the private sector could do the job faster and cheaper.
Admittedly this was because the private sector could pay people less and had a slightly more laissez faire approach to drivers hours regulations and transporting hazardous goods but no matter, eh?
Shortly after the strike ended a mate told me that the company he was working for was expanding rapidly as a result and needed new drivers – the fact that I had driven nothing bigger than a Hillman Avenger and had only had my licence for a year was of no consequence.
And they were paying considerably more than the garage I was working at.
So I decided in the twisted sort of self-justification that comes with a potential 50 per cent rise in salary that as the the strike was over it wasn't really scabbing, whacked my resignation on the boss’s table and my days of staring at the underside of Renaults were over.
I have to say he didn’t seem that sad to see me go – and the way he encouraged me to leave that very day rather than work out my notice spoke volumes.
So the next Monday I turned out at 6am in a cold and wet yard in South Gloucestershire.
They gave me a tenner to buy a street map, a bundle of delivery notes, the keys to a Ford Transit and told me to get on with it.
This was a company that definitely a believer in on-the-job training.
It was their way of weeding out the inadequate. Many new drivers would come back to the depot at lunchtime with just a handful of parcels delivered and walk out. A few more would come back at 7pm with half a van full and be told not to bother coming back.
I came back with three parcels out of 40 that evening. And that was the start of my career in light haulage.
I was lucky that this company had bosses who actually drove their own vehicles, rather than had accountants running the show.
That meant that they chose vehicles that were good to drive rather than cheap to buy – and that meant Transits.

Bloody marvellous

At the time the new wedge-shaped Transits were miles ahead of the competition – they were fast and tough  and even without power steering they drove like a car.
They were quiet enough for the driver to actually carry out a conversation with someone else in the vehicle and reliable as hell.
It took the rest of the manufacturers years to catch up – it wasn’t until 2000 that I found a van that came close to being as good as the Transit, and it took Mercedes to make it.
The only fault with the Transit was the van’s internal height. After ten minutes in the back, the five foot high roof had you scuttling round the warehouse  muttering “Ethmarelda”.
Ford used to market this as a bonus – they initially claimed that the reason for the low roof was deliberate and it was so the van could go under low barriers.
Actually the real reason was dafter. The Ford designers had spent years on the van, and had come up with one version that would have a seven foot high body. This looked like a fine vehicle and they took the design to the Ford factory in Southampton which had been kitted out with a new production line for their sparkling new vehicle.
The managers loved it. The engineers loved it. But the union representative was not impressed. He told the management that the van would not be built in Southampton.
Management instantly assumed that the union was being bolshie but the shop steward took them down to the production line.
He pointed out that the paint rig, which would be used for the Transit was only six feet tall and had been designed for use on the Ford Cortina. The tall vans would not go through it. Oh, yes, and it had been constructed out of reinforced concrete and was an integral part of the factory. Knock it down, and they would have to built a whole new factory.
Hence the low roof on the van. Later on Ford did get their high roof, by the radical expdient of taking the newly built vans outside, and pop riveting a fibreglass roof on.
The company I was working for also ran a number of Ford Cargo seven and a half tonners, which were good, but not as good as their single Mercedes 814.
This vehicle was so highly prized by its regular driver that he would take it home every night, just to make sure that no-one else got their hands on it.
After three days on the job they gave me was an enormous Iveco 60-14 van which had the internal length of a bowling alley.
An Iveco 60-10. Unweildy.

They had the vehicle on loan from a dealership.
I’m not sure how they explained away the enormous dent I put in the back doors while backing it into the loading bay of an army base “somewhere in Wiltshire”.
They also bought a small fleet of Iveco 45-10 vans which I liked a lot – something I was to regret later.
And they had two Citroen C15 vans which were used to distribute expensive medical equipment.
These were great little vehicles. They had masses of space in the back, went like dingbats with a top whack of 100mph, and did 60-80 mpg. I could get in a C15 at 5am and be on the loading bay of a hospital in Ipswich by 9am.
I enjoyed the job enormously. For someone who likes to be on their own it's an occupation that's hard to beat.
In fact, I enjoyed it so much, I bought the company. Well, almost.

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