The cream of Devon
In a career spanning the best part of a lifetime, Bill Underhill has been there, seen it and definitely has the T-shirt. So we sat down with this West Country treasure of the trasnport industry to find out more about him, and his Scania 143.
My first encounter with the transport industry was when I was a boy in short trousers. There was a chap in my village who had a Commer TS3 – the old two-stroke with six pistons in three horizontally-opposed cylinders – and I used to help out with its maintenance. That's how I learnt my trade really. After that, I left school at the age of 15 in 1963 and worked for the local Ford main dealer as a diesel fitter.
I stayed with them until 1972, when I decided to go out on my own. I bought a Leyland Boxer, a four-wheel rigid, and gave it a go. Things worked out for me, and before long I was building the fleet. At the time I was dealing in hay and straw, so a Volvo F86 wagon and drag was my next buy. That truck had a 25' flat body and a 25' trailer behind it. In those days we could carry 850 bales of hay – smaller bales than today, mind you, but nevertheless a lot of hay with bales stacked right up over the cab.
Eventually, I had to give the hay up. I got really bad arthritis and my doctor said he wouldn't help me unless I packed in baling hay. But we did plenty of other things as well as tippers along the way. We got into fridge work at one point. That's when I bought my first Scania V8, a 142 which I picked up in 1986. D776 PDV was it's reg number, and I got it from Unit Commercials, who were my local Scania dealer at the time. The job was running hanging carcasses – beef and lamb – to the Continent. But what a job that was. The French farmers were against imports, and we had a load hijacked by them and our lamb set on fire at the side of the road. There was always someone causing trouble, or on strike – the farmers, the ferry workers, the customs people – they were all at it and it just made the job impossible. So we started doing container work instead.
We'd been doing some tipper work since the late '70s/early '80s, and that steadily built up. We were hauling animal feed and clay – ball clay and china clay – some of which was exported, and some of which went to the Potteries. We used the 142 on that job too, pulling bulk tipping trailers, and it was more than up to the job.
I just like the torque – it's out of this world. And the noise they make is just awesome. Then there's the power….when we were running the 142, there was nothing to touch it. We used to run over the Pyrenees and into Spain, and it just flew. The British trucks around at the time couldn't get near it!
It was a working truck with around three quarters of a million kilometres on the clock when I bought it about five years ago. But it was in a poor state. We've spent two-and-a-half years doing it up and we're not finished yet. The clutch was slipping, so we had to have the gearbox out to fix it. Then there was the interior – we replaced the steering wheel, the driver's seat, the door trims and lots of other bits and pieces, but it still needs things doing, like a new headlining. You can get most of the parts, so it's not impossible, but you have to work at it.
The respray was another issue – it had so many coats of paint on it, that it was a hell of a job, but we got there in the end, and a lot of people say they really like the paint scheme.
We now use the shows purely for shows and events. But that's a full time job in the season; we're out nearly every weekend. We do Gaydon twice, Ireland twice plus a load of other shows. I'm a member of the Steel Boys club and we do a lot for local charities, so the 143 is always out on show. One of my favourites is the Devon Coastal Run, where we start in Exeter and go to Dawlish, Torquay, Paignton and then to the Dart Valley Railway on the A38 before returning to Bovey Tracey. All in all, I reckon the 143 must cover something like 10,000 kilometres a year just on shows and rallies.
A lot of people like the livery, but for me it's all about the vehicle itself and its engine. I'm not personally so keen on the Streamline 3-series models, I prefer the standard cab with the steel bumper. Mine's a tag axle with air suspension on the rear axle and steel on the front. I love the ride quality, which is better with a trailer hooked up. To me, it's a proper truck.
The 3-series is a great truck, no question about it. What I like about them is that you can work on them. They're relatively simple, so you can fix them whenever you need to. But that's all in the past now. The technology in the new generation vehicles, which I understand has to be there to meet today's legislation, makes them extremely complex and difficult to maintain. That said, they're a great truck and I look forward to getting my hands on one.
But I'll still keep my 143 – preserved trucks are my passion, and that's not going to be changing any time soon!