HERO OF HAULAGE

In International Truck Stop, June 2021, DAF14 MinutesBy Will ShiersJuly 7, 2021

Will Shiers takes a brief look at the life of Geoff Bell, who improved conditions for British truck drivers when he opened the Carlisle Truck Inn.

When your only other option is kipping on the parcel shelf in a Bedford TK or on a homemade plywood sheet across the seats in an Atkinson Borderer, the thought of paying for a ‘proper’ bed in digs is probably quite appealing. Admittedly, you’d probably have to share the room with five other blokes and sleep fully clothed to avoid catching hyperthermia or being bitten alive by the numerous creatures that shared the mattress with you. Still at least you’d get some decent shuteye. These were the conditions that British truck drivers were still enduring in the 1970s.

When 37-year-old entrepreneur Geoff Bell opened Britain’s first purpose-built truck stop in 1977, offering single- and double-occupancy heated rooms, with clean sheets and a TV, he was onto a winner. Throw live music and decent food and drink into the equation, and it’s no wonder that the Carlisle Truck Inn was an overnight success, frequently attracting 250 trucks per night, and making its owner a wealthy man in the process. But before we get to that, let’s rewind the clock to 1939, to when our hero of haulage was born.

White DAFs in a row: Geoff’s second fleet of trucks.

Geoff Bell grew up in Little Bampton, a tiny English village in Cumbria, about 5km from Carlisle, and just a stone’s throw from the Scottish border. His dad was a blacksmith, his mum worked for local farmers’ wives, and money was in short supply.

It was clear that Bell wasn’t work-shy at an early age, and before he’d even reached double digits, he was working on a local farm.

“I remember being really interested in a couple of Fordson tractors they had,” recalls Bell, who would visit the farm after school and at weekends. “By the age of 10, I could drive them and was ploughing fields.”

The hard-working Bell contributed to the family pot throughout his childhood, driving a tractor, picking potatoes, and doing a paper round. Two years later, a life- changing event occurred when a farmer asked the 17-year-old Bell if he was interested in accompanying a lorry driver on a trip to Prudhoe, 20km west of Newcastle Upon Tyne in the northeast of England.

“It was a Bedford 10-tonner, and we had a load of lime,” remembers Bell. “All the way back, I was thinking, ‘This is what I want to do; to be a truck driver.’”

Shortly afterwards, the farmer purchased a new Thames Trader, specifically for the enthusiastic Bell to drive. Being under 21, Bell was restricted to vehicles less than three tons, and with its 20-foot wooden dropside body, the Trader just crept in under the magic number. Loads consisted mainly of slag from the steelworks, spread on local farmers’ fields, and hay. The work was hard, the hours were long, but with £13 in his back pocket every week, Bell certainly wasn’t complaining. “I was on the road, and one very happy young lad,” he says.

   

   
From left top: The truck that redefined for Geoff what a truck should be – the F88 Volvo; Geoff about seven years old; Geoff Bell and his second wife, Celene; Geoff was best man at his nephew Ian Iceton’s wedding. The two were big pals.

When he turned 21, he landed a job with local haulier, Fred Brown, driving an elderly Albion six-wheeler. It was slow and desperately underpowered, but at least it was a “proper truck”.

“It had the same engine as the four-wheeler and couldn’t pull my hat off,” recalls Bell. “It was snail’s pace up the hills and did not want to stop going down. Brakes? What brakes?” he recalls. But the best thing about driving the “old girl” was the money, with Bell clearing up to £23 per week.

He switched from job to job, gaining valuable experience and saving as much money as possible. He needed cash to fulfil his dream – to own a truck of his own.

“Then I found someone local who was selling a 10-ton Thames Trader with a B-licence, which permitted the carriage of building materials and farm requisites within a 120-mile (256km) radius and would allow me to work for any company that wanted these materials,” he explains.

There was just one hurdle – the £1000 price tag. Bell sold his Austin A35 van and added the money to his savings, totalling £350, but there was still a significant shortfall. Unfortunately, the bank manager didn’t share Bell’s passion or dream and refused a loan.

“But the seller suggested that I paid the money when I had earned it, and there was certainly no argument from me on that,” he says.

He started hauling for British Gypsum the next day, carrying bagged plaster and plasterboard, with return loads of grain. He was also working for local hauliers, including Fred Brown and Eddie Stobart, and shifting steel for British Steel Workington. It was tough work, which took its toll on the tired Thames. Shortly after paying it off, Bell traded it in for a newer model.

“I was on top of the world because this new truck was tip-top, with air brakes and a Minimec fuel pump,” he says. With a good wage, Bell could afford a decent car too. So out went a knackered old Austin 7, and in came a second-hand Ford Zephyr Zodiac. “What a bird-puller that was,” he remembers fondly.

In the mid-1960s more trucks were purchased, including a six-wheel Ford D series, a Leyland Retriever, and an Albion with an all-important A-licence – which permitted him to carry out national work without restrictions.

   
One of the earlier DAFs. Credit: Joe Donaldson. (left) Credit: Steve Dixon (right)  

Bell’s first tractor unit was a 1969 Ford D series with a 32-foot tandem trailer, but he wasn’t impressed. The truck was plagued with mechanical issues and had to have its engine replaced three times under warranty. It was beginning to sour his relationship with British-built trucks. Then, in June 1969, Bell had a test-drive in a Volvo F86 tractor. It was one of those epiphany moments.

“It was comfortable, had a very quiet turbocharged engine, an eight-speed synchromesh gearbox, and a tilt cab. I was very impressed,” he says. This was the final nail in the coffin of the unreliable D series, which Bell soon replaced with a Volvo.

He says the F86 proved to be incredibly reliable, and with so little downtime, profit increased. This gave him the confidence (and the funds) to purchase more, and it didn’t take long until the fleet had expanded to five and then 10. A garage was purchased, and a full-time fitter employed.

“We were getting good work, and the money was coming in very nicely,” he says. So much so that he purchased himself a one- year-old Rolls-Royce. “What an achievement. In just a few years, I’d gone from making £2 7s 6p a week working on a farm, to running a fleet of Volvos and owning a Rolls- Royce,” he says. But there was more success to come.

In the mid-1970s, a massive opportunity came Bell’s way when a half-built truckstop came onto the market. Up until recently, the government had been providing funding for truckstops, but this had been pulled, putting the project into liquidation. Now the 12-acre site, which included the shell of a three-storey building, was being offered for sale at £30,000. In addition to seeing huge money-making potential, Bell also desperately needed a depot for his own truck fleet, and this ticked the box. A deal was done.

At the time, Carlisle, like many British towns, had a serious shortage of truck parking spaces, resulting in vehicles being parked up all over the town centre each night while drivers checked into bed and breakfast accommodation. “With this in mind, the local council bent over backwards to help me,” explains Bell.

Geoff – and the truckstop – makes the news.

Initially, just the 20 ground- floor rooms were developed – and to a high standard. With en suites, central heating, and a TV in each room, the truckstop was a massive improvement on anything else available to drivers. What’s more, there was to be a communal games and TV room, a cafeteria, on-site security, a shop and a fully licenced bar for up to 200 people. “How could I go wrong? I was providing five- star treatment for drivers.”

The Carlisle Truck Inn opened its doors on 16 March 1977, attracting 50 trucks and three overnight hotel guests. But with nightly entertainment, word soon got around, and before long, the establishment was attracting 250 trucks per night.

Although Bell knew he was facing ever-growing competition from sleeper cabs, he still had the confidence to continue investing in the venture, developing the other two floors and taking the total number of rooms to 100. It was another wise decision, and the fully completed Carlisle Truck Inn was frequently at capacity. What’s more, everything was paid for, including a brand-new gold Rolls-Royce for Bell.

Such was the success of the truckstop that Bell was frequently approached by other local authorities asking whether he’d build a similar one in their area. But he wasn’t interested. “There was no point as I had everything I wanted. I would only have been working for the taxman,” he explains.

In the early 1980s, Bell founded a new haulage firm (Bell Holiday) with partner George Holiday – running an all-DAF fleet. In the meantime, the inn continued to thrive. So much so that in 1986, Bell was approached by BP, which was getting into truckstops, and asked if he would sell. His response? “Everything is for sale at the right price.”

By Bell’s own admission, the offer came at just the right time, as he was starting to get bored. He was looking for a new project. The “right price” of £1.9 million was agreed and Bell walked away from the Carlisle Truck Inn a very rich man.