Thursday, October 1, 2020

Gordon Pearce had a 50-plus-year truck driving career, one of the most noticeable chapters of which was a regular dice-with-death stint between the UK and the Middle East. Through this two-part series we share in this trucking legend’s story.

Photo: That day the Scania Vabis tipped over…

When Gordon Pearce got an agency job driving for supermarket Asda in the early 1990s, were any of his colleagues aware that they were working alongside a true legend? As he backed his artic onto a loading bay at the RDC each morning, did the staff know – or care – that 25 years earlier he was reversing an AEC wagon and drag down the icy Tahir Pass in Turkey with equal precision? When the temperature in the southeast of England reached 30°C that summer, and his colleagues complained that their trucks didn’t have air conditioning, did any of them know that in the summer of 1978 Gordon nearly died of heat exhaustion alone in the Saudi Arabian desert? And when a self-important, jobsworth, hi-vis-clad security guard gave him grief for arriving 15 minutes late for a tip, did he care that in 1966 Gordon turned up in Turkey three days late? But then he had almost frozen to death, having been stranded on top of a Turkish mountain in sub-zero temperatures! The answer to all these questions is ‘no’.

Photo: First trip to Tehran in 1966 with the old AEC.

Not only because Gordon wasn’t the kind of man to shout about his achievements, but also because back in the 1990s nobody really cared. For the previous two decades thousands of British drivers had made (and in many cases lost) their fortunes travelling to the Middle East, but now that bubble had well and truly burst. Everybody knew somebody who had done the run, and the original long-haul legends were simply forgotten about. But that’s all changed now, and there’s a huge nostalgic interest in the jobs these men did. Back in 2014, a year before he died, I was fortunate enough to spend a day in this legendary long-haul pioneer’s company.

Photo: Gordon loading the first trip for Doha, November 1970.

Early days
“I hope you take your coffee black,” said 76-year old Gordon, as we explored his South London flat, admiring his huge collection of model trucks and framed photographs charting his 50-plus-year truck driving career. “I don’t have any milk here. It’s an old habit from the Middle East days,” he explained. “Some of the drivers carried milk, but I didn’t want to risk it spilling in the cab.” But there was a time that Gordon did take milk in his coffee, and it’s these pre-Middle East days that we started off talking about. Gordon’s driving career began in 1956, when he got called up to the army. His brother had been in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME), and suggested that he follow suit. “He told me it was a good number, so I applied for REME, and signed up for three years,” he explained. “I was driving Scamell recovery trucks, pulling tanks out of muddy holes.”

He was soon posted to Germany, where he piloted Diamond Ts and Scamells, and earned a few extra Deutsche Marks recovering wrecked German trucks. “I enjoyed the army,” he said. “They taught me about ropes, splicing, wire ropes, different breaking strains and first aid, and I learnt a bit of German too.” These were all skills that would come in very handy a decade later. “I got hooked on driving big trucks, and when I came out of the army I got a job with National Benzole, driving tankers.” He looked back at that job, which he did from 1959 to 1963, with fond memories. “But they operated some old stock [AECs, Albions, Clydesdales, Fodens], and today’s drivers wouldn’t believe what it was like driving their trucks,” he said, giving the example of a particularly notorious T-junction. “If you had a loaded 8-wheeler, you’d have to stand up to pull the steering wheel around. And you daren’t let go of the wheel, as it would burn your hands.” He recalled an occasion when he lost his brakes in a fully laden Albion tanker, while coming down a hill. “I had my handbrake on and both feet on the brake.

Photo: The Scania Vabis takes a break in Eastern Turkey en route to Tehran.

I put my headlights on as the speed increased to 60mph (96kph). Luckily, there was nobody in the way, and the road went up a slope before reaching a village. I stopped for an hour to let it all cool off and off I went again. It’s just one of those things. You were a proper truck driver back then.” Then followed a brief stint as a selfemployed ice cream van salesman, and a year of teaching people to drive cars, before following in his father’s footsteps and working in insurance. “But I couldn’t hack office work,” he said, taking up the story. “My brother-in-law was an architect, and one of his clients was financing Bob Paul’s [co-founder of original UK to Middle East haulier Asian Transport] new AEC and drag. This was after they had been out to Afghanistan in a Guy and seen there was some potential. He said they wanted a driver, so I went to see Bob. Of course, the interview was in the pub. He was impressed with the recovery stuff and took me on.”

Photo: Gordon behind the wheel of a Scania 141 in 2014.

Asian Transport
You could write a book about Gordon’s seven years as an Asian Transport (later Astran) driver – and fortunately someone already has, or at least a chapter anyway. To learn all about his many adventures and dices with death while driving to and from the Middle East, I highly recommend that you pick up a copy of Long Haul Pioneers by Ashley Coghill. I simply don’t have the space here. Gordon’s first journey, which paid £20 ($40) per week, saw him double-man the new AEC with Bob on a trip to Tehran. Gordon took a camera with him on that journey, and as he recounted the story he showed me the pictures in his photo album. It’s clear from the pictures that the weather in Turkey was appalling, the roads were narrow and treacherous, and serious crashes were commonplace.

Photo: Gordon on the highway with co-driver John Frost.

But fortunately, despite some close calls, both men and truck made it there and back in one piece. Cutting a long and very exciting story short, then followed 45 journeys to the Middle East (including the company’s first load to Qatar), firstly in the AEC, and then in Scania drawbars. Gordon looked back at his Astran days with happy memories. Although there were tough times, and “the winters were bloody hard”, overall he loved the experience. “It was a fascinating job,” he said. So why then did he decide to quit in 1974? Quite simply, to spend more time with his family. Gordon explained that although he would be in the UK for the best part of a fortnight between jobs, most of that time was spent waiting for the truck to clear customs in the Port of Dover on England’s south coast, unloading it and then dropping it off for servicing. “After seven years I told Bob I wanted to quit and spend more time with my wife and child. I wanted them to come first,” he said. Ironically, shortly after he left, Astran purchased artics.

Photo: Bob Paul (left), an Iranian driver (centre), and Gordon Pearce.

This allowed the drivers to drop their trailers in Dover and go home in their tractor units. “I’d have probably stayed on if I’d known,” he told me. “I do love wagon and drags, but they have their shortcomings.” Gordon thinks he got out at the right time. He didn’t like the way things were going in the mid-1970s, as hundreds of British drivers jumped on the Middle East gold trail. “I didn’t like it at all. They were flogging spare wheels and boozing it all away, then realising their paperwork was out of date. They’d ask the office for up-todate paperwork, by which time they were out of money. Some of them were real cowboys.”

Photo: Gordon behind the wheel of his new Scania 110 BGH 172H in 1970.


1. What was your most memorable breakdown?
“Three days on Tahir in the AEC in minus-50 degrees,” he says. They warmed coins in their hands and placed them on the windows to make peep holes in the thick ice.

2. What was the strangest load you ever carried?
“Cans of oil to Saudi Arabia.”

3. Have you ever been arrested?
“Yes,” he said, looking up at the sky, trying to recall how many times. Needless to say all were trumped-up charges, designed to relieve him of some cash, whisky or cigarettes. One of the most memorable followed a head-on crash with a coach on a single-lane road in Turkey. He saw the coach approaching, pulled over and waited. It drove straight into him. Although the coach’s brakes had failed, Gordon got the blame. The army turned up, carted him away and locked him up. Later that day they asked to see his passport, and when he told them it was in the truck they sent him off in a taxi to retrieve it. He got in the Scania, started it up and drove for a day and a half to the border.

4. What was your fastest Middle East run?
“I drove home in five and a half days once. That’s not bad going for 3500 miles (5600km). Of course this was in a Scania,” he said.

5. What is the longest wait you had at a border?
“Three weeks on the Turkish/Iranian border. But three weeks of drinking with your friends isn’t such a hardship!”

6. What is your least favourite country to drive in?
“Iraq, because of the secret police and the problems with customs.”

7. What is your favourite country to drive in?
“Without a doubt, Turkey.”

8. What is your most memorable accident?
Gordon was driving on a straight road in Turkey in a truck that weighed 52 tonnes. The rear axle went too close to the soft earth at the side of the road, pulling the entire truck over. “It took 24 hours and three trucks to pull me out,” he remembered. But the worst place to have an accident is always Saudi Arabia, because here it is ALWAYS the foreign driver’s fault. “If you weren’t there the accident wouldn’t have happened, that’s the way they view it,” explained Gordon.

9. What languages can you speak?
“I can speak a bit of German, French, Turkish, Farsi and Arabic. I’m not fluent, but I know enough to get by,” he said. “We spoke to each other with a mix of words in the different languages that we knew.”

10. Have you ever hit a low bridge?
“No, but I nearly got stuck in a Turkish tunnel,” he remembered. When he approached the entrance he saw a sign that read ‘3.8m’, and knowing he was under 3.8m he decided to go for it. But what he didn’t know was that in Turkey a ‘3.8m’ sign simply means ‘low bridge’ and isn’t an actual measurement. He got stuck halfway through and had to let the air out of all the tyres.

Part 2 here.