22nd January 2019

The history of haulage and road transport in the UK

From steam powered carts to driverless lorries, the haulage industry has weathered economic crises and technological revolution.

It is hard to imagine a time before HGVs. Look up and down the high street and see how many of the buildings were erected before the proliferation of lorries and trucks - when bricks and mortar would have been brought in by barrow or horse-drawn cart, and earth taken away in a similar way. Needless to say, the haulage industry has become one of the biggest global industries, driven by technology, economic growth and globalisation. Today, 85% of everything Brits buy, eat, wear and use is moved by a UK-registered lorry. This article tells the story of that industry.

1927 Chain-driven Sentinel steam lorry

1927 Chain-driven Sentinel steam lorry

The age of steam

Before the combustion engine brought quick, easy and cheap transport to the masses, the railways – and their steam powered trains - were the blood supply of the second industrial evolution. Suddenly large amounts of heavy and voluminous items could be transported great distances with less effort and so the 19th century saw people and goods travelling further, more easily.

Steam was even used to power the ’steam wagon’, usually only used for short trips, for example transporting goods from a factory to a railway station.

The internal combustion engine

In 1879, Karl Benz patented the first reliable internal combustion engine, although the technology had been in development for 100 years. Commercial production of the first vehicle began seven years later. Companies such as Daimler, Peugeot, Renault and Bussing soon produced their own vehicles powered by the combustion engine, including trucks. These trucks usually used two-cylinder engines and had a carrying capacity of 3,300-4,400lb or 1.5 to 2 tonnes.

It didn’t take long for organisations to spring up from the growing industry, for example the International Transport Workers’ Federation, founded in 1896. In 1904, 700 heavy trucks were built in the United States and by the start of the First World War this number was 25,000. These trucks enjoyed increasing quality of roads as many were surfaced for the first time after the invention of tarmac in 1901 in Derbyshire.

British military water chlorination lorry circa 1918

British military water chlorination lorry circa 1918

As is so often the case, war drives innovation. After WWI the automotive industry started using pneumatic tyres, increasing, which increased comfort, reliability and enabled journey times to expand.

The interwar years

Between the years 1903 and 1924, UK haulage enjoyed huge 300% growth. From 1921, the UK’s GDP grew steadily until WWII. Economic growth drove demand for goods, and more and more lorries were needed to transport these goods from ports, docks and factories to the growing consumer class. By the mid-1920s there were over 300,000 commercial vehicles on the roads of Britain. These ranged from ‘delivery’-type van-sized vehicles to larger lorries. Organisations continued to emerge, change and merge. The Transport and General Workers’ Union was formed in 1922 by the amalgamation of 14 separate unions and others were added subsequently. Its members included those in such transport areas as goods and passenger road transport and docks. The Road Haulage Association Organisations of long- and short-distance hauliers amalgamated in the early 1930s to form the RHA.

Thornycroft dropside lorry

Thornycroft dropside lorry

Haulage played a particular role in changing the transportation of heavy goods – cement, bricks and other aggregates – allowing large-scale building projects to happen more quickly and cheaply. Combined with increased affluence, house building sky-rocketed from around 100,000 new homes in 1925 to more than 330,000 in 1935.

The period also saw further innovations to lorries as the industry grew – enjoying the symbiotic benefits of the burgeoning car market. Horsepower grew allowing lorries to carry more and tyre technology – including larger tyres and double rear wheels – facilitated increased loads. A key innovation was the introduction of cabins in which drivers could sleep. There is even reference to a 1930 meeting at Daimler Hire Ltd in which a horse-box section was discussed, so there was clear demand for new ways to push and use the technology.

Leyland lorry

Leyland lorry

A landmark in the British haulage industry was the launch of the Leyland Zoo, which put the company at the forefront of the lorry and bus industry. The 1930s saw further innovations to engines, some of which allowed the cabin to sit above it (forward control), giving more space for goods. A key innovation of this period was the introduction of Leyland’s own compression ignition engine (diesel), after which the days of the petrol engine were numbered in civilian-use Leyland vehicles.

Post-war and the ’golden age of road transport’

Most manufacturing plants were turned into munitions or artillery factories – or modified to produce military vehicles during WWII. Once again technology advanced apace and many innovations found their way into the commercial sphere. Many people regard the post-war era as the ‘Golden Age’ of road transport and Leyland were poised to be its monarchs. The new optimism was exemplified by the new Comet truck and bus range.

The M50 under construction in 1958 in Worcestershire and Gloucestershire

The M50 under construction in 1958 in Worcestershire and Gloucestershire

Safety and regulation had become key issues, with the Heavy Goods Vehicle Speed Limit Committee of 1953 and road haulage denationalisation in the same year. Records from the mid-50s show that other issues included licensing, railway strike action and delays at docks. The British government were trying in vain to revive the ailing railways, which were trapped by:

  • decaying infrastructure
  • tight regulation of services and fares
  • pay disputes
  • a reliance on steam
  • a first operating loss (in 1955)

Freight was increasingly headed to the roads. The Commercial Vehicle and Road Transport Club was started in 1965. Two years later, Covent Garden Haulage Ltd was established as a consortium of London market hauliers, enabling its members to handle imported fruit more efficiently and allow traffic to reach its member firms.

The explosion in private cars drove infrastructure investment. A key factor was investment in Britain’s trunk roads – Germany had put Europe to shame with its Autobahns. The network of new and improved roads grew quickly to 1,600 miles in 15 years and revolutionised freight logistics, allowing increased vehicle size, fuel efficiency and reduced journey times.

The 1960s and 1970s

In 1960, there were over 600,000 lorries in the UK and the Golden Age continued as infrastructure improved and the economy grew. Mass manufacturing and an increase in cheap imports boosted the logistics industry, including the sector of growing ‘parcel industry’ which, in time, would become a vast part of haulage and transport. Revenue and opportunity also drove innovation and lorries continued to change: the maximum permitted weight for an articulated vehicle in the early 1960s was 24 tons, its maximum length 33 feet and payload of 15 tons. By 1964 the maximum gross weight of an articulated lorry was raised from to 32 tons on four axles and the maximum axle weight from 9 to 10 tons. In 1968 the length limit was raised to 49 feet.

Truck drivers enjoyed better and better in-vehicle accommodation as manufacturers introduced better beds and facilities, allowing drivers to spend weeks away from home, without the need for expensive hotels. Sleepers were initially developed without comfort in mind at 18" to 24". They quickly grew to 36" to 48" with long-haul drivers in mind.

All of this made lorry logistics more efficient, but towns and villages were still a challenge with locals often lobbying to ban HGVs. This saw the birth of the bypass. Dozens were built around towns and cities to cater for the increasing heavy traffic - in turn boosting productivity and reducing journey times.

Watch this British Pathe film from 1965 on lorry safety:

The Winter of Discontent

During the Winter of Discontent in 1978–79, there were widespread strikes by public sector trade unions demanding larger pay rises. The first to take extreme action were lorry drivers, striking from 3 January 1979. With most of the nation’s goods transported by road, the country ground to a halt, not least as fuel deliveries all but stopped. On 29 January, lorry drivers in the south west accepted a deal for a rise of up to 20%, just £1 per week less than the union had been striking for; this settlement proved a model that was accepted throughout the country.

Watch this 1970s profile of a British truck driver:

In is worth emphasising how much haulage, freight and logistics is linked directly to economic performance as much demand is supplied by lorry. With diminished demand, haulage is hit hard. This is also true for industry, where the rise and fall of steel, mining, manufacturing, import/export and building can have deep impacts on haulage.

The 1980s onwards

The combination of globalised production, the logistics revolution, the deregulation of the truck sector in the 1980s led to profound changes. After a difficult start to the decade fiscally, the UK economy grew under the new Conservative government. Despite this, unemployment grew throughout the decade, impacting industry and manufacturing - many drivers losing their jobs. Even so, one driver remembers: "I call them ’the good old days’ when you had T-forms, CMRs and trip permits; when you HAD TO stop at a border and do something. The days when there were no mobile phones, sat-navs, laptops and GPS to keep tabs on you, because you were the boss."

From 1983 the number of five-axle articulated vehicles grew rapidly to overtake four-axle articulated vehicles as the principal means of heavy road transport. Another big change came in 1989 when the European Community acknowledged the benefits of better suspensions. A directive (89/338/EEC) was introduced that increased the maximum permissible weight of certain vehicles used for international transport, provided they were fitted with so-called ’road-friendly suspension’.

Great progress was being in road safety and the number of accidents (fatal and non-fatal) fell from 90 in 1975 to 63 in 1985 – continuing to fall into the ’90s. Some of this was put down to the compulsory use of tachographs, introduced in 1985.

As the ’80s passed into the ’90s, the era also witnessed the disappearance of many of the smaller British haulage firms, like the south coast’s Scac International, Frans Maas, Interoute, British International, Pat Duffy, Kingswood, G B Express, R & A Freight, Pegusus, Comptons and F B Atkins. Some of these disappeared as part of mergers, acquisitions and takeovers leading to a consolidation into a small number of large UK haulage service providers (or 2PL logistics providers), with assets of thousands of trucks – for example Stobart.

This amateur film shows the life of a truck driver in the 1980s:

Another change to the industry was the continued emergence of the self-employed, UK owner-driver sector. An owner-driver would typically own one or two HGV tractors/cab units, which they would drive themselves, sometimes employing another person. Importantly the owner-driver would sign on with a haulage firm as an independent contractor from whom they lease additional equipment such as trailers. While this allowed drivers to be their own bosses, it also meant that firms could quickly adapt to situations by expanding or contracting their workforce.


The 1980s were seen as a divisive and tumultuous time by many but as the decade closed, a new recession began. Demand for road transport of goods was in decline until 1992, although by 1994/5 it topped the peaks of the previous decade.

The traffic policy of a gradually unified Europe shaped the development of logistics including its basic functions of transport, handling of cargo and storage. With wireless technology and computers playing a larger role in industry, the EU also drove the modern concepts of high-performance logistics: the organisation of world-wide supply chains and dimensions of quality in services, such as promptness and accuracy. Growing in tandem was the parcel industry with mail order increasing in popularity.

This was facilitated by the process of globalisation, which led to the creation of production sites for consumer goods outside of Europe. As a result, the logistics of consumer goods distribution were realigned to import harbours, where consumer goods arrived pooled in shipping containers.

As safety improved further, programmes such as speed limiters were introduced.

Into the 21st century

Outside the usual cycle of recession and recovery (2001 and 2008), the road transport industry has remained quite stable.

Domestic freight:

Even so, the Department For Transport report that goods lifted from/to the UK by UK-registered HGVs internationally has fallen steadily since the mid-’90s.

It is important to note that LGV traffic grew while HGV traffic declined. This could be driven by continued urbanisation and the parcel industry - the former meaning that more people live in areas that are harder for lorries to get to. Many parcel firms would set up out-of-town depots to decant parcels into more agile, urban vehicles.

By noting the rise of Amazon, we can see the potential impact on the parcel industry and road transport overall.

The use of mobile computers, GPS solutions, electronic tolling, and electronic vehicle logs have revolutionised logistics. In addition to seeing truck locations, managers can now:

  • set up geofences to enable alerts when a truck is nearing its destination (or has veered far out of its service area)
  • optimize routes using real-time traffic data
  • improve vehicle utilization
  • automatically track driver hours and fuel tax reporting information.

One of the biggest stories of the last few years was the announcement in 2017 that "fleets of driverless lorries will be trialled on British roads". The Telegraph reported that "Up to three lorries will travel in automated convoys which will be controlled by a driver in the lead vehicle in a bid to cut congestion and emissions." Autonomous vehicles continued to make the news as accidents were widely reported. As recently as September 2018 the UK media was reporting on the approaching trials which had yet to happen and sparked concern from motorists’ groups such as the AA.

The group most concerned with the news was of course lorry drivers, who, like many in the west, had seen continued articles such as ’13 jobs which will become automated by 2030’. This came at a time when the industry also had a driver shortage. "The Freight Transport Association says the UK is 52,000 HGV drivers short of what is needed – a 49 per cent increase on last year" reported one December 2017 story. At the end of both 2017 and 2018, this ’threatened Christmas’ with the media reporting the potential for empty shelves. The shortfall drove up the wages of many drivers and industry insiders explained that long hours and extended periods away from home meant fewer young people were seeking roles in road transport.

And, of course, Brexit happened. In 2018 the RHA said: "A no-deal Brexit will create massive problems for international hauliers – whether UK or mainland Europe based. For supply chains, customs controls and the controlling of lorry movements the key issues. The Dover Strait handles 10,000 lorries each day and processing them through the port is currently seamless. Should there be no deal and customs controls are established for UK hauliers at every European border, the knock-on effect will be crippling." The results of Brexit remain to be seen.

Today, 89% of all goods transported by land in Britain are moved directly by road. 98% of all food and agricultural products, consumer products and machinery in Britain are transported by road freight. 2.54 million people work in the haulage and logistics industry (the UK’s fifth largest employment sector). 493,600 commercial vehicles over 3.5 tonnes are registered in the UK and there are 600,000 Goods Vehicle driving licence holders. The industry is worth £124Bn to the UK economy and would be indistinguishable to the early pioneers of steam-powered transport that first boosted the industry.

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