RETRO TEST - For Queen and colonies

Friday, August 16, 2019

Mother England forged, cast, welded, and bolted steel together, and then glued and screwed rubber, plastic, and Bakelite to that and gave us the Bedford TK. A simple tool to facilitate prosperity in the realm and colonies alike: ‘simple’ definitely being the key word.

So, the big boys of today build a truck with eight million sensors, 750,000 microprocessors, data displays with menus 12 screens deep and 10 pages across. Alarms that go off for no apparent reason at the time, only to find out later it sounded due to the methane concentration of a fart you did having fatigue inducing potential. They attempt to downplay all this by selling…sorry, telling us that operation is almost intuitive. Hmmm? Here’s ‘intuitive’. A steering wheel, three pedals, four gears, gauges for speed, fuel, temp, and air, an indicator, a ‘turny’ knob for the lights, a heater, and the good wireless to listen to the Queen’s Christmas message on. Eight areas of basic operation to look at, identify, and work out. Imagine how much time you could devote to concentrating on the road in such a machine…at a break-neck 80km/h!

What a thing of beauty! If the ERF brought back fantastic memories of British trucking at its all-time power and comfort highpoint, then John Baillie’s TK Bedford dropped us back half a generation again. Back to boyhood memories of NZCDC dairy tankers driven by men wearing plastic sandals (with 10 toes and healthy fungus-free feet), or the TK on the Shands’ bread run Dad used to help out on. It’s the same for John himself.

The Bedford interior is certainly one that doesn’t over-complicate things. With the exception of no grab handles, entry and exit would match many a modern metro distribution wagon.

The heart of the matter. The 6-cylinder 214 cubic inch behemoth. No cab tilt here.

“That’s where it all began for me. Wallace Transport in Wanganui, riding around in Roy Wallace’s fleet of TK Bedfords then driving one just like this, my first truck with Merv Paull in Wellington, clearing the rail of flour and salt for Foodstuffs. It’s memories. It’s all memories.” Well, that explains the livery! The first thing that strikes you with the Beddy is the onesize- fits-all cab. This TK is the 8.25 tonne GVM model but she’s got the full size accommodation block. On 16” wheels, the Baillie machine is set up for metro distribution from a precurtain era, when a cover was undone and rolled back at each delivery. The deck takes a 6-pallet footprint and there’s nothing so garish or tacky as a load-binder in sight, not on your life! This truck is from a time when mariners and motor carriers shared a common skill. It’s a beautifully proportioned wee time capsule. So let’s blast forth…

Entry and exit is a doddle even by today’s standards. Yes, there are no grab handles – that’s what the bloody steering wheel is for. The reality is you’re almost at eye-height with the driver when standing outside so it’s more of a step in, slide out. If you miss climbing in, you’ll catch your shin on the bottom step…suffice to say that’ll be a once-only event. She’s a slide-out-forward sort of arrangement on exit, and in time you’ll wear the paint off the guard with your right bum cheek, like so many did. You could happily jump in and out of this metro delivery horse all day long.

Photo: John Baillie and the Bedford that rekindles so many memories of where it all started for him.

Once inside it’s vista panorama, well, that is once you adopt the standard TK ‘SHF’ driving position – Stooped Head Forward. For those who remember breast milk more clearly than TK Bedfords, the TK cab was designed by one of the following noted cab designers, Doc, Sneezy, Dopey, Grumpy, Bashful, Sleepy, or Happy. Any regular human taking a posturally appropriate position in the driver’s seat finds themselves staring straight at the hood lining and sun visor. Adopt the SHF position however and it’s whole new world. You’re eye-level with the cyclist two feet in front of you at the lights who is looking back sympathetically at the truck driver with some strain of Scheuermann’s disease. The teaspoons in the cutlery draw at home have thicker handles than the cab’s A pillars, and the mirrors are the size of Winston Peters’ to-do list. In the right position there’s not much you can’t see from this critter…except what’s behind you of course. The 214 cubic inch (3.5 litre) 6-cylinder petrol engine develops a whopping 56kW (75hp), and as you’d expect is as quiet as a mouse. There’s nothing at all unpleasant about trundling around in the truck. Conversation between occupants is easily exchanged at normal living room levels. The ride is better than ‘surprisingly good’; it would be easy to spend a day in here. Any trip to the chiropractor would be firmly the fault of the stoop, or the rudimentary seat (especially the bench), rather than any bumps and jarring emanating from the bowels.

On the day we went wild in Bedford Nirvana the proud lorry was loaded with 90 ‘shekels’ of transport and warehousing’s favourite blue currency (how we weren’t the victim of hijack is anyone’s guess). Although impressive in appearance, total weight was just under two tonne. The TK was downright peppy away from the lights and appeared to have no issues keeping pace with its more modern cohorts. Once we arrived in the rolling country out the back of Pukekohe and Waiuku however, you soon received a valuable lesson on what power has done for progress.

The Bedford gearbox requires only basic numeracy skills on the part of the driver. There’s a ‘1’ that’s followed by a ‘2’, then a ‘3’, and just when you think it’s going to get complicated there’s a ‘4’ and that’s it! Gear location once learned is a silky smooth, ever so slightly vague experience. This is how we all learned. What fun! Having only four gears probably helps at the lights, but not out in the massive climbs of rural Waiuku (tongue in cheek there – just in case life’s a literal experience). On two occasions the TK needed a pause to gather strength as modern SUVs of almost comparative size rolled on by with children staring incredulously out of the side windows of their air-conditioned world. They owed trucks like this more than they’ll ever be told.

“I do the odd job for friends and customers,” said John. “It’s such an easy and capable truck on metro, although it runs out of puff on the motorway. Sitting in the queue at Southdown Rail a while back, I was surrounded by swinglifts and ‘skellys’ waiting for their boxes and the TK really looked out of scale alongside all the modern container trucks. “We put a higher geared diff head on it in the rebuild to give it a bit more road speed. It was ‘really’ quick off the mark before that!”

Deck off and prepping the chassis for painting. John’s son Adam stands beside the Bedford with the cab half restored.

Like we found with the ERF, steering was great in terms of direction; there was no wandering. It was purposeful. Obviously, technique was everything at low speed on account of power-assist courtesy of ‘Armstrong and Co’. Brakes were fine, although you really do start to get a feel for how far we’ve come in the stopping department. The cab’s a rudimentary place, not festooned with complexity, and that’s even after John’s upgrade into the deluxe interior as part of the preservation. Before you get too excited, that essentially means a bit more black vinyl and recesses for the sun visors. Based on the one round dome in the middle of the ceiling against the back wall, drivers back in the Beddy’s day either had little need for interior lighting or ate all their carrots. We’ve listed the gauges and the heater’s a hot/cold jobbie with a 3-speed fan and a steel door to facilitate rapid warmth on a less than clement Taranaki morning … imagine it in Gore? If you had no manual at all, you’d have the switches worked out in about a minute.

Photo: Efficiency plus.

With its Bedford rear end and suspension the TK tips the scales at a feather-like 3100kg, meaning she’s good for 5150kg if you were feeling cruel, to yourself as well as the truck. Yet again it’s a classic case of how far have we really come, and more to the point, have we made the world more complicated than it needs to be? If you wanted to go out and work in the TK for a day you absolutely could, and John does when the mood takes him. If you broke down there’s a chance that with a few spares, some tools, and rudimentary knowledge, you could get yourself rolling again. “Honestly, if you have a few sockets, a couple of screwdrivers and spanners, and pair of pliers you could probably rebuild it,” John said.

It was only because the sun was getting low in the sky that we called it a day. We loved the little Bedford and would happily still be out there now burning around and having fun in rural South Auckland. It has a great vibe, a friendly wee truck that still ‘can’ to coin a phrase from a well-known children’s story. It’s a little truck that will provide John and his family a whole lot of fun in the years to come, and create some wonderful memories. And after all, isn’t that the whole point?

A charmed life
The Baillies purchased the TK in 2015. It had been a blessed wee thing in its near 35 years of life, having been kept inside for all but three of those years. The truck was bought new from Moller Motors in December 1980 by Olex Cables in New Plymouth (formerly Tolley Industries then CANZAC – Canadian New Zealand Associated Cables). “It was one of the last of the TKs,” said John. “Toward the end the parts bin was being plundered I think, because some had TM mirrors and all sorts. This one’s pretty straight in that regard.” The truck delivered product ex factory to customers, the rail, and transport depots, and picked up raw material and manufacturing inventory on the way back.

“We’d made overtures about buying it previously, but they were quite protective of the truck. It’d been around for a long time. Its last ever work there prior to us securing it was a monthly run to the metal recyclers. Apart from some rust in the gutter which was entirely normal for a TK, you really couldn’t have asked for a better example and it even had its own canvas tarp and ropes in the toolbox. “Family friend Graham Cowley from Zotsberry Farm in Te Aroha carried out a lot of the work. He firmly believes in ‘preservation, not restoration’ when doing projects like this. That means not making it better than new, and ending up with something that’s a true reflection of what it was. He really enjoyed working on the TK,” said John. “Lance and Wayne Cryer from Puriri were also a great help, supplying and fitting any parts that were needed along the way. A higher ratio diff head, various cab parts, and a few bits and pieces needed to get the CoF.”

Photo: A Bedford TK belonging to Wallace Transport in Wanganui, a company John spent a lot of time at as a young fella.

The journey to the truck we see today took a couple of years, although it was by no means a full-time thing. The engine hasn’t been touched. There’s a new radiator, brake slave cylinder, and reupholstered driver’s seat. A repair was found in the front cab panel that Graham fixed properly, and John cut about a metre off the rear of the deck as it had a big overhang when they got it and it looked out of proportion. “It was as much a case of hours of cleaning as much as anything else,” said John. There was a bit of healthy debate on paint and livery, but John was adamant he wanted the truck in the colours of Merv Paull.

“I was just going to have stickers for the signage but my wife Janet and John Dickey [Knight and Dickey] stepped in and said ‘that’s not going to happen!’, and I was given the phone number of the signwriter to use.” The fabulous brush painted sign writing came via the artisan hand of Auckland-based Ken Baird. The Bedford made its public debut at the 2017 RTF conference, looking resplendent under lights in an auditorium at the Claudelands Showgrounds. People gathered around it like bees around a honey pot, reminiscing and recalling tales. Everyone in trucking has a TK story of some sort. John’s intentions with the truck are simply to just enjoy it in whatever form that takes, be it using, showing, or eking out tales as the Beddy works its magic on those reminiscing about a simpler time.

Photo: The Bedford in Olex Cables colours prior to John purchasing it.
It wasn’t a case of ‘rescue’ because Olex were fond of their old truck.