This page: Tips and advice on buying, storing and running a classic commercial vehicle.
Classic lorries, reasons to buy one.
Some tips and advice.
There are plenty of reasons to consider buying a classic truck, or lorry as they tend to be referred to in Britain. All commercial vehicles lead a hard life, as their operators want - and need - to extract the maximum usefullness out of their investment, hence few lorries are molly-coddled and treated like a prized motor-car. Because of this, survivors of even once-commonplace lorries soon start to become scarce. Often an older lorry, once of a certain age and bearing the scars borne of intergalactic mileage, is sold off - perhaps to a foreign land where many an old lorry ends it days once it has finished ploughing up and down the roads of Britain, or possibly relegated to shunting duties at the company's home depot, before being dumped in a corner and left to fall to pieces. Others may find themselves sold off for spares, or disposed of at the nearest scrapyard, once repairing them no longer makes financial sense. The fortunate few are parked in sheds, and often used for target practice by roosting pigeons, until such time as they are re-discovered and - hopefully - returned to the road once more.
Both of the videos embedded below, feature a huge collection of classic lorry photographs, including restored, un-restored, and "barn find" examples.
Old lorries needn't cost a fortune to buy.
Buying a classic lorry needn't cost an arm and a leg. A flick through a recent historic commercial vehicle magazine lists a number of vehicles, priced for little more than that of a middling Minor or crumbling Cresta. A Commer Q4 from 1956 caught my eye. Apparently in "very good condition", with just 14,000 miles on the clock from new, on the button and ready to drive, was available for offers around 5000 GBP. A 1969 ERF 549, recently restored, was priced at 3650 GBP, while a 1972 Bedford KM with only 20,000 miles on the clock - could be gracing your driveway for just 2850 GBP. Admittedly older vehicles, from the 1940s and earlier, do tend to command much stronger prices, but as can be seen, characterful old commercials can be bought for a relatively modest initial outlay, and often for far less than similarly-aged light vans and pickups, mainly due to the extra cost of running a full-size lorry.
Mention of the Commer raises another good point. The Army and other armed forces make great use of lorries, perhaps as troop transporters, or in heavy haulage. Ex-military vehicles tend to be very well maintained, and often cover quite modest mileages despite advancing years (many of the Green Goddess fire appliances pensioned off a few years ago had seen very little action when compared to their civilian contemporaries). Historic military vehicles can therefore make excellent enthusiast buys.
Some of the costs involved with running a larger vehicle.
The costs of running a large commercial vehicle, and not just the asking price, should be borne in mind when thinking about the acquisition of one. Whether running on petrol or diesel, any old truck will do an excellent job of drinking fuel like it's going out of fashion, so be prepared for a shock when first popping by your local filling station for a drop of fuel. In theory a petrol-engined lorry could be converted to use LPG, definitely something to consider if you're planning to make great use of your vehicle, but occasional trips out to local shows only would probably make this idea unnecessary. Despite their size, tyres and tubes can be found for prices comparable to those for classic and vintage cars, so at least that shouldn't be a major worry during the buying stage, although it could be used as a bargaining point if the object of your desires is due a new set of rubber.
Another cost to consider is that for suitable tools. A socket set from Halfords might be up to the job of keeping a classic car in fine fettle, but much heavier tools (sockets, ring spanners, hammers etc) will be needed to work on a lorry. Heavy duty axle stands and jack(s) will also be required, although these can often be sourced at autojumbles and off the internet for relatively modest prices, if you hunt around long enough. Engine cranes of suitable sturdiness will also be required if you plan to strip a vehicle, a roof beam in your garage may cope with a Mini's engine and 'box, but would soon give up the fight if asked to lift the 17.9 litre Hall Scott engine out of your Diamond T's chassis.
Due to the rarity of some models, finding parts with which to restore a vehicle can take some perseverance, just as with a rare car. Membership of a relevant owners' club can help, as can participating on a forum such as the one associated with this site. Classified ads for truck parts, whether in a magazine, or on a site such as this one, can also help with the search for that elusive part to complete the puzzle.
Restored or un-restored?
The size of your budget will probably determine whether you're looking to buy a fully restored lorry, or one needing work. Chances are it will make much more financial sense to buy one that someone else has already shelled out big money on restoring, but with rarer vehicles this may not be an option. If you buy a restoration project, you'll need to ensure that you have the equipment, time and money to throw at it. Professional restorers of old lorries are out there, but are few and far between. Many car restorers simply won't have the space to take on the restoration of a commercial vehicle - and if they have the space, check to make sure that the doors of their workshop are tall enough to accommodate a lorry passing through them! The costs of restoration, when compared to a car, also need careful consideration, especially if, like in a coach or bus, there are extensive interior furnishings that will need work. Any vehicle larger than a pickup truck won't fit in a typical domestic garage either.
The problems of storage and transportation.
Which brings me around to perhaps the biggest headache that any old lorry enthusiast has to face, that of storage. Once upon a time, owners of large and/or tall vehicles would trot out into the countryside and strike up a deal with an agreeable farmer, to store their vehicle in a disused barn, in return for notes of the realm and a bottle of single malt at Christmas. In recent years though, the trend for converting old farm buildings into living accommodation has seen many vehicles lose their undercover storage. Vehicles can be parked up outside, under tarpaulins or lean-tos, but lack of proper storage can only hasten the deterioration in any old vehicle, and there are also security implications to leaving a cherished vehicle, large or small, visible to the local pond-life or yobbo. For many years I had my truck stored in a barn (now swept away and replaced by houses), and in a WW1 hangar (until it was unceremoniously dumped outside one winter), so I'm all too familiar with this particular issue. In the end we moved house just so that I could house my old warrior on my own property.
At the time I was using these outside storage options, my Dodge lorry (full story here) was far from being roadworthy. Each time I had to move it from one storage location to another, required the use of local companies with a low-loader on their books. Since 1995, I've had to arrange professional transportation of my (then) non-running lorry on seven different occasions. Cars can easily be moved on a trailer, but transporting dead lorries can be much more involved (and much more costly) due to their physical size, and weight. Not that these are reasons not to buy a project, just that they need to be factored in when budgeting for buying, storing and hopefully restoring your chosen wagon.
Can I drive a lorry?
Unfortunately, when compared to cars, driving a classic lorry has another potential hurdle to cross - that of driver licencing. Fortunately, when I passed my car test in the late 1980s, the licence that landed on my doormat including eligibility to drive a commercial vehicle (non-PSV) upto and including 7.5 tons in weight. I'm led to believe that this isn't the case now with licences issued in more recent times, so a careful check of one's licence is essential before buying anything larger than a 4x4. Specific and up-to-date information regarding all the ins and outs of driver licencing can be found on the direct.gov website.
Unless you buy a bus or a coach, most vintage trucks can only accommodate the driver and perhaps one passenger. This may not be an issue, but if you've a growing family, bear in mind that you'll need to take two vehicles to any shows you go to, or road runs you participate in.
Commercial vehicle shows and runs.
Talking of road runs, one advantage to preserving a commercial is that you get to enter and take part in events that aren't open to drivers of classic cars. Many clubs and event organisers arrange meetings for drivers of all types of larger vehicle - these included buses, coaches, artics, box vans, flat bed lorries and tipper trucks to name just a few. If you enjoy driving rather than just sitting in a field looking at static vehicles, then there are plenty of opportunities to exercise your old wagon, often on routes such as the Great North Road, and Shap that are etched in haulage driving folklore in this country. The video below was taken at a breakfast meeting for old lorries mid-2021.
One aspect I particularly like about old commercials is the variety of liveries that can usually be found on display. Even if you're at a one-make only rally, for example a Bedford gathering where many examples of each model may be on display, variety can still be assured thanks to the amazing signwriting that so many preserved lorries display. A field full of Minis will probably present many near-identical cars parked in row after row, but this is unlikely to happen with, for instance, a row of O-Series Bedfords, all sporting their own individual liveries, and possibly body types.
Something I hadn't considered until recently are the local petrol stations, and not just the cost of filling up, but their accessibility (or lack of). Many of the traditional garages, where you'd pull in, then pull straight out again, have been cleared away in the name of development. Local to me, the only petrol stations at our nearest town are situated at supermarkets. To enter one requires the negotiation of a mini roundabout, then a 180 degree about turn to get to the pump. Some deft work behind the wheel is then required to exit the garage, return to the roundabout, then continue on one's way. The other requires a 90 degree left, followed by a 180 to park alongside a pump. On leaving you need to turn right back on yourself, then almost immediately do another 180 to head back towards the road, all without collecting a petrol pump or pile of barbecue coal as you set off. Not a problem in a car, but my LHD 26ft long lorry will struggle to negotiate the first garage without some shunting back and forth, and doesn't stand a chance of getting into the second, thanks to its length and dismal steering lock. Motorway services tend to offer more space and an easier time of things, but their inflated prices mean I won't be topping up my 2 x 20 gallon tanks there unless I have to. Especially at an estimated 5 - 8 mpg (on petrol, ouch).
Hopefully this article gives a little insight into choosing, running and working on a classic lorry. None of the potential problems listed above cannot be overcome without a little planning, and the fun to be had from running a rare commercial vehicle makes any inconveniences pale into insignificance in my opinion.
Thanks to Jim Stringer for the photograph used at the top of this page, which features a number of vintage commercials in military service.
Old Classic Car (C) R. Jones 2023. Content not to be reproduced elsewhere.