There was a time when Australia de­pended on the best of Bri­tish com­mer­cial ve­hi­cles for ev­ery­day freight.

There was a time when Australia de­pended on the best of Bri­tish com­mer­cial ve­hi­cles for ev­ery­day freight. Matt Wood finds a big old Bed­ford still singing for its sup­per in South Australia

Deals on Wheels - - Contents -

Asth­matic en­gines, ques­tion­able brakes and ap­palling electrics. Sound fa­mil­iar? Yep, I’m talk­ing about any old Bri­tish banger that I’ve had the mis­for­tune to spend more than a cou­ple of min­utes in over the years: Com­mer, Mor­ris, Thames, ba­si­cally any­thing clagged to­gether with tack welds, dev­illed ham and mus­tard in the Bri­tish isles and, of course, how could I leave out; Bed­ford.

I learnt to drive in a J3 Bed­ford at the age of 10 and it was more than 5 years be­fore I found out that not all trucks jump out of sec­ond gear. Driv­ing my Un­cle’s Ford F600 tip­per a few years later was a rev­e­la­tion!


The J se­ries was a hugely pop­u­lar truck in Oz. Ap­par­ently both Pak­istan and Australia were the biggest mar­kets for the bon­neted Beddie. Here they de­liv­ered milk, gro­ceries, build­ing prod­ucts and were found on farms ev­ery­where. A 3-litre Vaux­hall petrol six pro­vided just enough power to turn the back wheels on a good day, if you were fac­ing down­hill. I’m sure you could mea­sure the power rating with the fin­gers on one hand.

The lights were ap­palling, and could ran­domly wink out for no ap­par­ent rea­son. Same goes for the dash lights; and the in­di­ca­tors had all the ef­fec­tive­ness of a can­dle in a beer bot­tle. But, like so many things that have given me grief over the years, I can’t help but love an old Bed­ford.

Yep, that’s right, re­gard­less of all the swear­ing and busted knuck­les; I have a soft spot for these draughty, wheezy old jig­gers.

I did re­cently get to in­dulge my un­rea­son­able fond­ness for Bed­fords. Not just any old TK or J se­ries though, this one was the mighty KM. The KM Bed­ford was a heavy-duty diesel pow­ered be­he­moth that could be found as a trailer haul­ing prime mover or a heavy rigid.


On its re­lease back in 1967 the es­teemed Bri­tish trans­port mag­a­zine, Com­mer­cial Mo­tor, had this to say about the KM Bed­ford in a de­light­fully con­cise road test: ‘Vis­i­bil­ity and the gen­eral fea­tures of the cab on the KM—as users of the Bed­ford TK will know, since it is vir­tu­ally the same unit—are very good. Dif­fer­ences on the KM are that a Bostrom-sprung driver’s seat, a sec­ond mir­ror on the off­side (giv­ing a wide spread) and wind­screen wash­ers are stan­dard’.

Im­pres­sive stuff in­deed! I mean stan­dard wind­screen wash­ers! Be still my beat­ing heart!

The KM in ques­tion be­longs to Gil­bert Mo­tors, which is a John Deere and Fo­ton deal­er­ship based in the Ade­laide Hills town of Strathal­byn. The Gil­berts have a lot of his­tory on this site. The busi­ness has been here since the early 1900’s while the busi­ness it­self has been around since the late 1800’s.

Dealer prin­ci­pal Chris Gil­bert now runs the show, which was started by his Great Great Grand­fa­ther back in 1898. The Gil­bert an­ces­tor was a river­boat en­gi­neer who used to sell bi­cy­cle parts as he chugged up and down the Mur­ray. It wasn’t long be­fore he started mak­ing his own bi­cy­cles us­ing the brand name Tre­blig. Is it just me or does that sound a lot like the slang term “Treadly?” Hmmm, I won­der. “In fact he was one of the early adopters of hire pur­chase, peo­ple used to be able to pay their push bikes off,” says Chris.

The busi­ness evolved from bi­cy­cles to cars, trucks and farm ma­chin­ery. But in the early au­to­mo­tive days it was the Chevro­let and Buick brands that kicked the deal­er­ship off. “We then sold Chev Maple Leaf trucks, Bed­ford trucks and we were one of the orig­i­nal Holden deal­ers appointed both here and Mt Barker,” con­tin­ues Chris, “Now we’re Toy­ota in Mt Barker and John Deere and Fo­ton here in Strathal­byn.”

The one-time Holden deal­er­ship was also a Cham­ber­lain trac­tor dealer as well, but when

John Deere took over the Cham­ber­lain sales net­work, Gil­berts be­came a John Deere dealer; an ar­range­ment that’s been in place since 1967.

An Isuzu tilt tray now han­dles tow truck du­ties for the RAA ac­ci­dent and break­down side of the busi­ness. But I’m more in­ter­ested in the KM Bed­ford that the deal­er­ship still uses as a trac­tor de­liv­ery unit.

I ask Chris why he still uses the old Bed­ford as a trac­tor hauler. “It’s a nice old truck and it does the job very well,” he says. “We sold a lot of Bed­fords new.”

It seems the GM pow­er­plant in the Bed­ford also has other ad­van­tages. “We also get 5 min­utes’ no­tice to open the gates when he’s on the way back.”

I have to agree, that ex­haust note is hard to miss. In this day and age of sat nav, the GM ex­haust note also pro­vides an­other in­ter­est­ing func­tion.

“When I’m out de­liv­er­ing a new trac­tor I can al­ways tell if he’s taken a wrong turn in the truck,

The driv­e­line reaches its crescendo at 2600rpm be­fore I grab an­other cog, and this KM re­ally knows how to get its skates on when asked to.

or if I’ve given him the wrong di­rec­tions. “I can al­ways fol­low the sound and go and get him,” Chris says with a chuckle. “I al­ways know where he is.”


“So don’t let her drop be­low 2000, it glazes up the bores.” I nod con­cen­trat­ing on the sage ad­vice of­fered. “Each gear is 500rpm and lis­ten to the su­per­charger note, it’ll tell you what the en­gine wants gear wise.” I nod again, “No wor­ries.”

Dick Parker, me­chanic and part-time truck driver for Gil­bert Mo­tors, is giv­ing me a run down on how to drive the John Deere deal­er­ship’s de­liv­ery truck. If it was a generic white Ja­panese truck made within the past cou­ple of decades I may have been tempted to yawn qui­etly.

And it’s not equipped with an asth­matic pom­mie six, or even one of GM Holden’s finest bent eights. This old banger’s cab is perched atop a Detroit 6V53N and mated to a 10-speed roadie. And it’s in such good nick, I want to make sure I drive it how it’s meant to be driven, which, when it comes to 653’s, means full-noise.


This truck doesn’t sit in a mu­seum, or run to shows on a week­end. The old Beddie is a work­ing truck that de­liv­ers trac­tors through­out the Ade­laide Hills and as far south as Cape Jervis. It’s also been known to cart the odd 12-ton ex­ca­va­tor or dozer on its beaver-tailed back. And, ac­cord­ing to Dick, “It seems to go the same loaded or empty.”

I watch the tacho nee­dle dance at idle as I grab a gear and roughly idle away from a stand­still.

The 2-stroke V6 im­me­di­ately lets me know that it needs a firm hand so I sink the hoof to give it a drink. The an­swer­ing 6-cylin­der scream is joined by a su­per­charged whine that lets me know that both at­mos­phere and di­nosaur juice are be­ing sucked down the gul­let of the screamin’ de­mon in just the right quan­ti­ties.

I grab an­other gear, the clutch pedal a waste of time, just snatch and grab. The old Pom­mie lorry leaps for­ward hun­grily de­mand­ing an­other cog. As per usual I’m grin­ning like a four-year old at Christ­mas time, this thing is a riot.

Of course, it’s an er­gonomic night­mare. To­day, the out­side tem­per­a­ture can be mea­sured in sin­gle dig­its and it’s al­ter­nat­ing be­tween hail, side-ways rain and the oc­ca­sional patch of wilt­ing sun­light. In­side the cab I’ve had to drag my sleeve across the in­side of the wind­screen to see, and the sin­gle speed wipers are ... well … turned on.

The Bed­ford could never re­ally be called a comfy

truck. The seat up­hol­stery could have been made by Laminex for one thing. But if you opted for the Detroit diesel op­tion your seat­ing po­si­tion op­tions dwin­dled away very quickly. The ex­tra room needed to ac­com­mo­date the V6 raised the driver’s seat to a point that leaves the driver kind of hunch­ing for­ward over the wheel to see where they’re go­ing. It’s kind of sim­i­lar to the po­si­tion that some­one read­ing a mag­a­zine on the loo might adopt. Adding to this is the mir­ror brack­ets which are set well back on the doors which means that you al­most have to look over your shoul­ders to check the mir­rors while in mo­tion.


How­ever, all of this is just sur­face stuff. This old girl just oozes char­ac­ter. The driv­e­line reaches its crescendo at 2600rpm be­fore I grab an­other cog, and this KM re­ally knows how to get its skates on when asked to. It’s not long be­fore I’ve reached the high­way limit with the 2-stroke yam­mer­ing glee­fully through a sin­gle side ex­haust pipe.

The green V6 was treated to a spe­cial­ist re­build a while back which saw an in­jec­tor up­grade. This means the Detroit should be good for about 220hp at 2600rpm and 470 lb/ft at 1600rpm. I wouldn’t be re­ly­ing on the torque much at all re­ally.

This truck has been work­ing for Gil­bert’s for 25 years. It was traded on a trac­tor by a lo­cal pro­duce grower. Be­fore that, al­most un­be­liev­ably in this day and age, it was run­ning pro­duce in­ter­state to the Mel­bourne mar­kets from Mur­ray Bridge.


I won­der what it must have been like to be thun­der­ing down the Pent­land Hills in the wee hours of the night in this old Beddie, swing­ing the wheel, no jake brake, dash lights flick­er­ing and a rag on the dash to keep the in­side of the screen clean. A ra­dio of any de­scrip­tion would have been use­less for en­ter­tain­ment. Though I reckon you’d be kept busy enough just pi­lot­ing the beast.

I blip the throt­tle and down change as we come into town. It takes a cou­ple of goes as I’m re­ally not used to ask­ing those sort of revs from any truck en­gine these days. This KM is a sin­gle drive/ lazy axle sit­ting on steel springs, some­thing

Dick re­minds me of as we ap­proach the rail­way cross­ing on the way into town. I roll steadily over the track sav­ing the backs and heads of both driver and pas­sen­ger.

I climb out of the driver’s seat of the Bed­ford and con­tem­plate the old yank-pow­ered pom­mie. The words of Chris Gil­bert still echo in my ears along with the GM’s en­gine note, “If it aint broke, don’t fix it.”

A 3-litre Vaux­hall petrol six pro­vided just enough power to turn the back wheels on a good day, if you were fac­ing down­hill.

Above right: Dick Parker, some­time driver and full-time me­chanic has spent a lot of time be­hind the wheel of the Beddie.

Above cen­tre: A red­line of 3300 rpm! That’s howl­ing! Above left: A nice bit of old-meets-new-er badge engi­neer­ing. The GM pow­ered Bed­ford is a bit of Aussie truck­ing his­tory.

Above: This 1973 KM Bed­ford still sings for its sup­per.

3 4 1 2

1. The beaver­tail and ramps were added to the orig­i­nal flat top 25 years ago. This truck has even hauled a 12-ton ex­ca­va­tor.

2. Two temp gauges keep and eye on things

with the Detroit.

3. The 6V53 Detroit pow­er­plant gets a roar up when en­cour­aged. This one has had an in­jec­tor up­grade which re­ally makes it boo­gie.

4. A 10-speed roadie takes care of the cogs. 5. Who said street level truck ex­hausts were

a new thing?

6. The Je­sus flap for an emer­gency en­gine shut down. If the GM runs away this may be your only hope to shut it down be­fore it goes boom!

7. The steel sprung lazy axle rear is good for a kick in the pants if you hit any bumps go­ing to fast. 5 6 7

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