Classic Truck: The Bedford TL

Published: 03:13PM Jul 7th, 2011
By: Alan Barnes

It may well be argued that, for Bedford, the remarkable success of the TK and a reluctance to interfere with a proven winner led to some delay in the development of a new vehicle. It was to be some 20 years after the first appearance of the TK that the company announced what was perceived to be its successor, the TL range.

Classic Truck: The Bedford TL

Trevor Haydock’s TL1630 tractor unit. Photo Gyles Carpenter.

In March 1980 Bedford unveiled its new TL and while the vehicle’s appearance and layout bore certain similarities to its older cousin it was apparent that the new range had incorporated some of the improvements that TK operators had long wished for. The most striking new feature of the TL was the introduction of a tilt cab, which other manufacturers had already introduced into their medium range lorries. Other improvements included increased cab headroom, interior trim which bordered on luxury, improved suspension and a range of engine sizes with both petrol and diesel units available.

Testing and development had carried on through the 1970s with prototype vehicles being extensively tested in a variety of climatic conditions both in the UK and abroad. By 1978 vehicles which were, for all intents and purposes, the first versions of the TL were being put through the last stages of testing before the new series of lorries was announced.

It was perhaps rather unfortunate that the launch of Bedford’s new lorry coincided with a period of economic depression which was to hit industry in general and the motor manufacturers in particular. The severity of the depression can be illustrated by reference to the production figures for the TK. In 1978 a total of 22,649 TKs were built while in 1981 only 4077 were produced. In 1980 the company built 3509 of the new TL while in 1981 the total increased slightly to 4052. The new TL was certainly not making the impact on the market which the TK had when it was launched and the usually strong overseas market had also declined. The economic difficulties were not confined to the UK and the company had seen a decline in sales right across the whole range of types and models which were built for export.

The level of sales was obviously disappointing but the TL itself was not to blame as the new lorry was proving itself to be a very sound vehicle. Drivers liked the spacious well appointed interior, while the new tilt cab made maintenance a lot easier. As well as the tilt facility the cab also had hinged panels on the sides of the cab which allowed access to the engine for routine servicing with the oil filler, dipstick, power-steering reservoir and windscreen washer tank all easily accessible. The advertising brochures for the new range expounded the virtues of the new Bedford cab design with the statement that the TL was fitted with ‘The tilt-cab that’s better than a tilt-cab’ which was perhaps somewhat obtuse even for a marketing department.

According to the company ‘The TLs cab can be tilted quickly by hand to a full 50 degrees to expose the whole front end for easy maintenance. Even the cooling system, with its setback radiator, is easy to get at. With the cab tilted forward there is room for the engine to be lifted straight out. But the cab does not have to be tilted for routine servicing and inspections or even most work on the engine.’

Safety and security were also design considerations; ‘Once up there is no risk of the cab coming down accidentally. An overcentre strut holds it secure and safe.’ While
Bedford also maintained that ‘What is more, cab tilting is tamper proof. The latch-down, hidden under the hinge up rear valences, is released with a ratchet spanner in the tool kit. To make doubly sure there is a secondary flip up catch.’

Once the novelty of tilting the cab up and down, a routine that apparently took just 30 seconds, had worn off the new owner might then have been tempted to investigate the interior of his TL. The increase of around three inches in headroom over the TK cab was quite noticeable and the deep windscreen and wrap around rear windows gave the TL cab a feeling of spaciousness. Low steps combined with a low floor made getting in and out less of a gymnastic exercise than many other medium range lorries. Well positioned grab handles and the high, wide doors also facilitated entry and exit and even a portly photographer like me managed to climb in and out without severely bruising any extremities.

The driver’s seat was fully adjustable and a suspension seat was also available as an optional extra while the dual passenger seat was fitted as standard. The seats were fully upholstered in the traditional Bedford tartan and cut-pile carpeting was also fitted. The controls were well laid out with a low set steering wheel, a neat and tidy instrument dashboard and a short stub gear lever. Some storage space was provided behind the seats by way of a fairly deep rear shelf which incorporated lips and pockets to prevent items rolling about. Additional storage pockets for documents were positioned above the sun visors.

With the engine under the rear part of the cab a deep front panel had been fitted across the cab to reflect the engine and fan noise backwards. Thick rubber floor covering, a heavy duty concertina seal around the gearshift, pendant pedals and universally jointed steering column also helped to reduce noise levels in the cab. These design features as the TL brochure pointed out ‘avoid those little gaps in a floor that have been proved to let through most noise’.

Reprieved

The design of the new chassis included new front suspension with long, 70-inch, friction free, tapered leaf front springs. According to Bedford the ‘large telescopic shock absorbers damp down any bounce, lurch or pitch. Being vertical they are fed with 100% of spring deflection so they can exert better control.’ The company also maintained that ‘The whole suspension package sets a quality of roadholding unusual in trucks.’

The TL was available in both diesel engine and petrol engine versions. The petrol power units were the already tried and tested 214P 3.5 litre six-cylinder and the 300P 4.92 litre six-cylinder. The diesel units were the updated versions of the 3.6 litre four-cylinder 220D and the 5.4 litre six-cylinder 330D while for the heavier models the High Durability 8.2 Blue Series was also available. For the UK market only, the lighter models in the range – the TL570 and the TL750 – had the option of being fitted with the 214 petrol engine.

The company made much of the High Durability 8.2 Blue Series engine with its stiffer than usual block which it maintained resulted in quieter running. The sales details referred to the ‘press fit dry liners of high grade iron, two stage honed: their design gives exceptionally good wear and scuff resistance – something which is further enhanced by the use of molybdenum-inlay top rings on the pistons’ and went on ‘the whole valve gear specification is top quality – detachable valve guides, separate valve seats, exhaust valves with Nimonic 80 heat resistant heads and equipped with positive rotators.’ With details of the engine running to several paragraphs perhaps the brochure was aimed at prospective owners whose first action would be to take the TL apart!

Four- or five-speed synchromesh gearboxes were available on most models but vehicles fitted with the 8.2 Blue Series engines all had the five-speed box. Available gearboxes included an Eaton five-speed with either direct top or overdrive top, the Turner T5-400, the Turner T5-300 and Bedford’s own four-speed gearbox with close or wide ratio. For the TLs from 10 tonnes gross weight upwards a two-speed axle could be specified.

The TL ranged from 5.69 tonnes gvw through to 16.3 tonnes with two tractor units at 16.26 and 19.3 tonnes gross combination weight with the model designation being derived from gross weight. The lightest model being the TL570 and the heaviest of the tractor units the TL1930. However within that basic range the permutations were almost endless. There was a wide choice of wheelbase and at least two choices of engine although the heavier models were fitted with the 8.2 Blue Series as standard and the company also offered special order options. The demand from customers for a chassis able to accommodate a 24ft body led to the introduction of the 211in and 215in longer wheelbase models in 1984. In 1983 a 32 ton tractor unit was launched, the TL3200, which had a turbocharged 8.2 litre Blue Series engine a Fuller RT6609 gearbox and a Rockwell R170 drive axle but few of these were ever built.

By 1984 the engine power had also been slightly increased with the adoption of turbocharging and the engines were reclassified. The four-cylinder 220D became the 3.6/70TD while the six-cylinder 330D became the 5.4/105TD and were now referred to as the Red Series engines. The 8.2 litre Blue Series engines retained their name and were offered in two ratings the new 8.2/130TD and the higher rated 8.2/175TD. The ‘turbo’ badge also appeared on the front grille and by 1985 slight changes to the cab design had also appeared and the side lights and indicators had been separated and were now positioned closer into the cab corners. 1985 also saw the introduction of the Techliner package of cab modifications which included a redesigned grille, a roof spoiler and an air dam under the front bumper. This optional package gave the TL a more modern and very pleasing streamlined appearance.

The early 1980s had been a difficult period for the company and Bedford Commercial Vehicles had recorded year on year losses between 1983 and 1986 and the decision announced by GM in September 1986 to end truck production was not totally unexpected. However this was not quite the end for the TL as plans were being made for a group of businessmen to buy the truck business from GM. An announcement followed in November 1987 that Mr David Brown had bought the plant at Dunstable and truck production would continue. The vehicles built for the UK market would be badged as AWD while export models would be branded AWD-Bedford.

The new owners planned to reintroduce the TL and also update the TJ range and a dealer network was established. Prior to Bedford’s closure development work on the TL had been well advanced with a redesigned cab and the introduction of Perkins Phaser six-litre engines. The new company took on some of the redundant Bedford engineering staff and they were able to produce some rather elegant designs. The cab of the AWD TL now sported the Techliner grille resulting in cleaner lines and a pleasing modern appearance. However sales for the re-badged vehicles remained low and despite advertising campaigns across Europe and plans for more new designs AWD was not a success. The company went into receivership in June 1992 and in October that year the business was bought by Marshall SPV of Cambridge. Allowed to use the Bedford name, the company with its limited capacity was not able to deal with any large sized orders and lost a good deal of potential business.

The company was able to fill some small fleet orders mainly from brewery and delivery firms which had been traditional markets for Bedford since the 1930s. The TL continued to sell in small numbers through the 1990s and the last TL to be sold in this country was a TL 17-18 which had actually been built in 1996 but had been retained as a display vehicle at the Marshall factory. It was finally sold to Croft Bros, a dealership in Uxbridge, in 2001 and was eventually sold to Willies Wheels and fitted out as a mobile generating unit for use in the film industry.

For the TL it was perhaps a case of ‘what might have been’ with its introduction coming at a time of economic depression, severe financial difficulties and the pending demise of Bedford combined with increasing competition from the likes of Scania and Volvo. Its older cousin the TK hit the market at the right time and went on to great success, the introduction of the TL was perhaps some five years too late for it to be anywhere near as successful as the TK and it certainly came much too late to save Bedford.

My thanks to all those who were kind enough to provide information and photographs for this feature.

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