There is no doubt that Foden trucks, not too long ago, were the undisputed kings of the road in Australia; certainly throughout the outback, in heavy applications and on long distance hauls all around the country. This claim could, of course, in those days be contested collectively by the might of British Leyland and the many other marques of the day available in Australia’s highly competitive truck market.
The Australian Foden range, in many instances bore little resemblance, to their counterparts in England where they were manufactured for both the domestic and export markets in Sandbach near Cheshire. The big British marques of the day, Thornycroft, AEC, Leylands and Fodens in particular, are credited with opening up much of Australia. For a time after WWII they ran side by side with some of the big ex- US American marques that had entered Australia during the war with the Allied Forces. As legendary as the Diamond Ts, Federals and the many other (mainly US manufactured) trucks were at the time, few could compete with Foden and its legendary Gardner engine. As the ex-US Army fleet wore out in the decade after the war there was a substantial increase in British made trucks on Australia’s highways. In an effort to kick start their post war economy the British Government did everything they could to increase export to other countries of the Commonwealth. Subsequently English trucks saturated markets in Australia, Rhodesia and Africa particularly. One reason Fodens were so popular across many sectors of industry in Australia was the diversity of the range and the fact they were available in four, six or eight wheel configurations. Despite this, by the late 1960s the English marques were losing ground fast.
It was an era of turmoil with poor developmental decisions, mergers and take-overs. This created an opportunity for the American manufacturers to jump into the Australian market and reclaim their position. Previous to WWII the small Americans; Ford, Chev, GMC rules the road. Now it was Diamonds, B Model Macks and International Rs. The Americans had been far more advanced in engine technology and operators swapped their allegiance to the “Mother Country” in favour of higher horsepower, increased speed, better pulling power and improved fuel efficiency. While Gardner engine had served Foden operators well in the past it just didn’t cut compared to the option of having a Cummins HH220 (and later 250) installed. Most English marques were reluctant to go to the way of the Americans. They assumed that if a truck was suitable for the English domestic market it was good enough for the export market. It was to spell the death knell for them in Australia. However, for a time Foden fitted its trucks with a 250hp Cummins engine and this was popular with heavy vehicle operators. The “Big Fodens” as they were nick-named in the Northern Territory where they were used in roadtrain configuration, offered a 100-ton gross weight which far exceeded anything else available in either the American or British marques. It guaranteed Foden would remain the undisputed king of the heavy hauliers for a time yet. The later release of the Universal Series S95 in the late 1970s was meant to reclaim Foden’s market share in Australia. The export Foden S95 4x2 COE, fitted with a Cummins NTCE290 diesel and Fuller nine speed transmission was slightly different to its British domestic counterpart including a less complicated braking system but didn’t make it in Australia. Diesel Motors in Perth at the time were assembling what they called the tilt cab 8x4 Fleetmaster fitted with a Cummins NTCE 290 high torque engine which was trialed by Readymix Concrete in their Perth operation. It grossed 52 tonnes under special permit. The Americans and European marques had a firm foothold by then and weren’t letting go.
It certainly worked to Foden’s advantage that its Australia distributor, Diesel Motors Pty Ltd, was also a major user of the product in their own businesses most of which required tough trucks for a tough job. The O’Neil family, under leadership of Les O’Neil, owned Diesel Motors Ltd who assembled and sold Foden trucks from Perth to Sydney and all points in between including in Alice Springs where Les’s son Denis owned and operated Fleet Owners. Fleet Owners was started in 1954 with two Foden-hauled roadtrains. It soon became the major shareholder in the Territory Transport Association (later Co-ord Transport). The Association had been formed to better manage freight connections to and from the Alice Springs railhead under contract with Commonwealth Railways. Fleet Owners had acquired one 10% share initially but within a few years owned five of the ten shares with the other five 10% interests held, at that time, by D.R. Baldock, Tottey Transport, Buntine Roadways, TC Transport and D & N Transport.
Obviously O’Neil’s fleet was predominantly Fodens and it was their reliability in the Territory that helped build their reputation. The Fodens performed so well on the long outback hauls that not only did other TTA / Co-ord stake-holders operate them but companies who operated in competition to them did also. The most notable of these would probably be Ted Stiles from Outback Transport who raged an ongoing war over freight and freight rates with the Territory Transport Association over many years. As well as Diesel Motors, the O’Neil family also had extensive interests in the quarrying industry. Family patriarch John O’Neil (Denis’s grandfather) had established White Rock Quarries in Western Australia.
Their business portfolio expanded considerably over the years with ownership of several iconic Australian businesses including Bluestone Quarries, Australian Blue Metal, Hymix construction materials and more recently Readymix, Gunlake and Rollers Australia. The hallmark for early transportation needs in all these businesses was of course the Foden truck. Diesel Motors dabbled in other marques including Renault, Mercedes Benz and at one stage, Peterbilt. In partnership with American Bob Larkin, Les O’Neil imported ten Peterbilts into the country using his own interstate transport company, Mainline, to promote Peterbilt in much the same way Co-ord pushed the Foden Marque. The venture was abandoned after the USA based PACCAR organisation, owner of Peterbilt, made its historical decision to promote the Kenworth marque in Australia in preference to Peterbilt. This was following Ed Cameron’s now famous importation of the legendary S1 series. This is one of the reasons why Fleet owners chose to upgrade their Foden fleet to Mack and didn’t continue with Peterbilt or Kenworth as many had expected them too.
One of Co-ord Transports original Fodens is on display in the National Road Transport Hall of Fame. It was donated by Peter Severin from Curtin Springs Station and was retrieved for the museum by the Australian Army who sent a recovery team into the desert 400klms south of Alice Springs to collect the vehicle from where it had been abandoned twenty years earlier near Mt. Conner. This tray truck was used on the Alice Springs to Darwin run usually towing two or three trailers behind and is powered by an eight cylinder Gardner. It is typical of the models exported to Australia in that era complete with exposed radiator, big bullbar and S20 series integrated visor. In later years Co-ord used twin steer Fodens with power assist on the steering for their roadtrain work. Most had a 12 speed epicyclic gearbox with a main stick and a pre-selector auxilary operated either by second lever or air operated switch on the dash. This particular truck has been nick-named “The Mighty Quinn” in honour of Frank Quinn who used to drive it. On its arrival at the museum the name could just be made out. It had been crudely brush painted across the top of the radiator by paintbrush in a much faded and barely legible scrawl. One well known Co-ord partner was Stan Cawood, son of the Northern Territory Government Resident (Administrator) in Alice Springs and whom had earlier, in 1929, taken part in the expedition that retrieved the bodies of Keith Anderson and Bob Hitchcock who had died of thirst when their aeroplane, the ill fated Kookaburra, crashed near Wave Hill. (Yes, the same Keith Anderson who was a partner in Gascoyne Trading Co).
One Foden operator whose big rig attracted a lot of attention was Buster Powell who operated a 1948 heavy duty twin steer in Western Australia throughout the 1950s and 60s. This truck did much to enhance Foden’s hardy reputation for durability and reliability in the Outback albeit, in its final form, it was far from original. Powell had purchased the Foden new with the intention of carting wheat and flour but was caught out when the Western Australian Government introduced restrictive legislation preventing road transport operators from competing with rail. Powell was left with plenty of debt and few work prospects. Mining was taking off in the Pilbara region so he moved “up north” to haul manganese ore as a sub-contractor for DFD Rhodes (who later went on to construct the legendary Rhodes Ridley roadtrain). Powell hauled through bulldust over the 200 mile corrugated and dusty dirt track between Port Hedland and the Woody Woody mine for the next ten years. He recalled the rates were okay but the roads were hell. Powell decided that he would need to pull in roadtrain configuration if he was to make a decent living. The 6WL Gardner engine was swapped for a more powerful 130hp two stroke GM with oversized injectors boosting it to 180hp. Next it was fitted with back to back General Grant Tank transmissions significantly increasing the gearing range and finally, a bigger radiator was installed. Overheating was a major problem in the searing hot summers of the Pilbara so Powell fitted his radiator with a header tank made from two 44 gallon drums. Buster Powell used this unit hauling up to 53 ton of manganese ore on two trips a week over what can only be described as one of the worst roads in Australia.
Later he operated the Mt Prophecy Mine at Marble Bar with what he called his “side-kick”, the Foden. After Buster Powell died in 1985, his son Eddie retrieved the truck and took it to his farm in Western Australia where, hopefully, it awaits restoration one day in the future.
The West Australian based Ridolfo Group of Companies is one of the largest in the West with over 50 trucks and 150 items of other associated plant and equipment. Few realise this successful business had its start with an old utility and a secondhand FG Foden. Vince and Domenica Ridolfo migrated to Australia from Italy in the early 1950s looking for a better life. The young couple went picking grapes until they could afford a utility which was then traded, in 1962, on a second hand FG Foden. Vince cut and hauled timber for the State Electricity Commission for over twenty years and credited the reliability of the old Foden with giving him his start in business. As a matter of interest Vince and Domenica also bought the first Peterbilt in Western Australia (and second into the country) in 1963 and it remains the pride and joy of that organisation to this day. Unfortunately they have not been able to track the Foden down.
There were many iconic businesses using Foden in their operations in Western Australia. The west was won on the trials and tribulations of the trucking industry and Foden was certainly a major part of that legend. One of those historic companys was the Gascoyne Trading Co. whose deep red fleet ran the length and breadth of the west coast for many years through many owners carting general, wool, perishables and just about anything and everything. That company had its origins when aviators Charles Kingsford Smith and Keith Anderson purchased Carlins Garage in Carnavon (WA) and set up a small carrying business in 1924. The idea was to raise enough money to purchase an aeroplane. They won a mail contract almost immediately and carting mail through the outback was to stay a part of the business for most of its duration. Gascoynes also carted general goods and perishables all around outback Western Australia. The weekly trip to Port Hedland from Perth went via Meekatharra, Nullagine, and Marble Bar covering an amazing 2,500 miles per round trip. Gascoyne’s Fodens had Royal Mail blazened in capital letters under the windscreen. Old Gascoyne Fodens are usually easily identified by a spotlight mounted above the centre bar of the split windscreen. Gascoyne went on to become part of the Wesfarmers conglomerate.
Another was Bell Brothers whose massive trucking empire was eventually sold out to Holmes a’ Court. The company had been started in 1937 by brothers David, Robert and Alexander and while primarily a cartage company they were responsible for upgrading and building airfields all through Western Australia during WWII with their earthmoving equipment. Bell Brothers grew rapidly after the war and by 1959 dominated heavy haulage in Western Australia including raw materials into the Fremantle docks for which the Fodens proved ideal. In later years Bell’s would become the first organisation to import the ERF into Western Australia. Len Houlahan from Attadale (WA) also operated an impressive fleet throughout the 1950s and 60s that included Foden trucks. The family business Houlahan Services had been started by his father and was sold to Steel Brothers of England in 1969.
In the south, and all along the eastern seaboard into the harsh interior the Foden marquee was just as prolific as it was in the west and Northern Territory. Fodens were found in just about every sector of industry. Martin Transport in Melbourne had a few and these were used on all manner of haulage. Sprys Transport Service in Griffith, NSW, carted wine, produce and related product between states and were emblazoned with the logo “Speed it thru Spry” Len Wright in Mt. Isa, Central Queensland, operated a fleet of nine Fodens, most of which were twin steers. Mostly, they carted cattle into the railhead at Mt. Isa but if time permitted they’d truck them through to Cloncurry. In Broken Hill Allison operated an 8 wheeler powered by an 8LW 150bhp Gardner in the early 1950s hauling two single axle 33foot trailers of sheep Sheppard’s Wine Tankers also used Fodens to haul their tankers all throughout the wine regions of Australia and in one instance, narrowly avoided legal action after an accidental “wine spill” on the side of the road managed to stupefy the local dairy farmer’s cows for a few days.
Another Australian transport operator well known for their Foden fleet was Sydney based Aboods Transport. Aboods was operated by four Lebanese brothers, Cedric, Brian, John and Harry who were known as real gentlemen of the road. They drove many trucks over the years including some impressive looking Fodens, however, it is probably their modified Foden affectionately dubbed “Miss Rochelle” so named for his daughter, that has gained most fame. Cedric Abood modified this 1965 S21 by exchanging the cab to that of a 1966 Kenworth K100, fitting a 340hp Rolls Royce MkIII diesel engine, Fuller transmission, Hendrickson suspension and Eaton axles. This unusual looking hybrid still attracts much attention where-ever it goes and is referred to as a “Fodsworth”. It can often be found at truck shows where it is proudly displayed by the Abood family in memory of Cedric Abood who was renowned for his ability to rebuild his fleet from the ground up using whatever components he had available. His Fodens and Thornycrofts particularly were subject to repowering and refitting with unrelated engines, chassis, cabs and drive-lines. The Aboods built one of the most iconic transport companies in Australia operating an impressive fleet of other marques including standard Fodens and Thornycrofts all done up in the colourful company livery and usually named after the founders children.
There were not many early transport operators in Australia who didn’t have a Foden in their fleet at one stage or another. Arthur H Gillott and Sons operated a fleet of both table top and semi-trailers on interstate runs. The trucks usually traveled regularly between Brisbane and Sydney twice a week but also hauled to remote mining sites in the Northern Territory and to Mary Kathleen and Mt Isa in Queensland. This was at a time when outback roads were still rough and unmade and the drivers had to contend with ploughing through mud and crossing flooded creeks to deliver their loads. One of Gillott’s Fodens, a superbly restored FG bogie drive with double hub reduction and a Foden 12 speed transmission is proudly displayed in the National Road Transport Hall of Fame. Called “Skip Along” it was No#7 in the Gillott Fleet.
Legendary ‘South Road Runner’ Big Jack O’Day also cut his teeth on Foden. A journalist once described him as “six foot tall and strong as a Territory bull” and with the type of work he did he had to be. Jack’s career as an owner -operator started in 1955 with the purchase of a Foden truck fitted with a 6LX 150hp Gardner engine. Subcontracting to Kennelly’s Transport he did rig shifts all over the country before doing his first trip up the Old South Road (Stuart Highway) in 1959 carting general north to Darwin and scrap metal south to Adelaide. This was a run Jack O’Day went on to do for over twenty five years. So isolated was the track between Darwin and Adelaide in those days people often referred to it as “Jack’s Road.” Most operators preferred to operate out of the railhead in Alice Springs but Jack ran the South Road in its entirety eventually initiating the first road freight freezer service between Adelaide and Alice Springs. Much to the distress of Commonwealth Railways who tried to monopolise freight into the Northern territory, it was successful and many others followed suit.
The third Foden in the Hall of Fame collection is a 1952 FG single drive powered by a six cylinder Gardner. It was donated to the National Road Transport hall of Fame by Gordon Cupper of Mildura who used it in his carrying business in Merbein; a large horticultural, dried fruit and wine district in country Victoria. Cupper ran regularly between Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide and pioneered the use of the first semi trailer unit in the area. This particular truck usually carried dried fruit to the railhead in Hay and clay or timber to and from Mt. Gambier. The FG is immaculately restored and in good running order thanks to the magnificent effort of Ange Robi and his team at GTS Freight Management Systems in Mildura who sponsored the restoration.
As illustrious as Foden’s history in Australia is, the Foden story actually started a good hundred years earlier on the other side of the world. The story begins with the birth of Edwin Foden (1841-1911) in Smallwood near Sandbach, Cheshire (England). He was the fourth child of the local grocer. Edwin left school at the age of 13 to become the local postboy before undertaking an apprenticeship as an iron founder at the local agricultural engineering firm of Plant and Hancock which had been founded in 1856. He later took a job at the Crewe Railway Workshops before returning to Plant and Hancock where at the young age of 19 he was made shop foreman. Edwin Foden enjoyed a good relationship with his employer George Hancock and for many years lived next door to him. By the time he was 25 years old Edwin Foden was a partner in the business which was then re-named Hancock and Foden.
When George Hancock retired in 1887 Edwin Foden took over the business completely renaming it Edwin Foden Sons & Co. He had two sons Edwin Richard (ER) and William (Billy). The business produced heavy duty industrial engines, small stationary steam engines and agricultural traction engines. Foden had spent a lot of time and effort in earlier years perfecting his compound traction engine and this later proved invaluable to the development of the steam lorry. In 1896 the British Government reluctantly eased many of its restrictions on road transport. Automobiles under three tons could now travel at speeds up to 12 mph (19 klm/h) without a red flag and there was a renewed surge of interest from all sorts of industry. Foden felt the time was right to expand his range and produced four prototype wagons; each one more refined than the other. The most successful of the four had the engine mounted horizontally. Taking up only half the length the engine would have ordinarily done, the drive chain from the countershaft to the rear axle had to be longer and heavier producing a hardier vehicle.
In 1901 Foden to built a three ton self propelled wagon for the British War Office trials. With a 500 pound prize and the lure of a military contract competition was fierce and there was much controversy over whether the Thornycroft or Foden wagon was the better of the two steam wagons put over through the arduous trial. Research shows conflicting reports however Foden’s model formed the basis for his highly successful line of vehicles produced over the next thirty years. Most Foden steam lorries were overtype but some undertypes were also produced. Edwin Foden died in 1911 leaving the business to his family. Foden Limited, as it was by then, supplied steam wagons and traction engines to the war effort in WW1.
William Foden retired in 1924 and moved to Australia. With unrest in the family company he moved his family back to England in 1926 and took over as Managing Director of Foden. Edwin's son, Edwin Richard, (ER) could see by then that the future of self propulsion and the automobile lay in diesel power. There are different accounts as to how and why Edwin Richard ended up leaving the family business in 1932 but the most common thought is that he was sick of the bitter wrangling over the future direction of the business and decided to retire early. Edwin Richard was 62 at the time and had spent his entire working life at Foden. Edwin Richard’s son Dennis also worked for the family business. He was distressed about what had happened and while he couldn’t afford to leave Foden himself at that point he wasn’t prepared to accept that his father had been ousted from the business his grandfather started. The idea for the ERF marque stirred in Dennis.
The immediate Foden family was rallied and collectively they managed to raise sufficient cash and resources to start the ERF business. This was a tumultuous period for Foden with several other senior staff either being fired or retiring. These included George Faulkener, (related to Dennis by marriage) and Ernest Sherratt who went to ERF. Dennis managed to persuade Edwin Richard Foden to come out of retirement and head up the new Foden family business. For obvious legal reasons the Foden name could not be used in the new entity but Dennis was determined his father’s contribution to the industry should not be lost in the transition. He called the new business ‘ERF’ using his father’s initials – Edwin Richard Foden.
Within a couple of years the original Foden company conceded that Edwin Richard Foden’s intuition had indeed been right and the future of commercial vehicles was in diesel powered vehicles. Manufacture changed direction almost immediately with steam vehicle production gradually easing off until it ceased completely in 1934. Foden’s first diesel was produced in 1931 with considerable input from Both Edwin Richard and Denis Foden. It is now displayed in a British museum.
After concentrating on production for the military in WWII Foden again began producing vehicles for the civilian market post war. Most were simply the pre-war models with some basic improvements but a new bus chassis was released in 1946. In 1948 the new EF and FG range was introduced along with Foden’s FD6 two stroke engine. This engine was used in the heavier models such as the S18 FE6/15 rigid eight wheeler. By 1950 Foden had released a re-engined model pre-dating Leyland’s model by about seven years. The completely new FE and FG lorry ranges were introduced in 1948, along with the new Foden FD6 two-stroke diesel engine, which became the standard engine for certain Foden heavy lorry models, such as the S18 FE6/15 Rigid Eight-Wheeler. The same truck fitted with a Gardner 6LW-engine was the S18 FG6/15. Both of these engines were also used in Foden motor-coaches and buses. By 1956 air brakes and power steering were available throughout the Foden range and before long Foden buyers could choose from several alternate engines including Fodens own four and six cylinders and a range of Cummins, Gardner and Rolls Royce engines.
In 1958 Foden introduced a lightweight glass-reinforced plastic (GRP) in its cab production and by 1962 were manufacturing the first mass-produced tilting cab in Britain. The first truck released with the GRP cab was the distinctive S21 model which was nicknamed the 'Mickey Mouse’ cab by some. It was later also dubbed 'Spaceship Sputnik’. S21 Cab production continued until 1969. There are still quite a few S series cabbed Fodens in Australia that are fitted with the "export" version of the S21 - including an extension to the roof making a combined sun visor and ventilation intake. Foden promoted the glass-fibre cab as being both robust and handsome and offering great visibility, rust resistance and a weight saving of 1-1/2 cwts.
In 1964 a new model was introduced to compete in the 32 ton market. More than 75% of heavy chassis sold in Britain in the following years were tractor prime-mover units. This was due in part to legislative changes within the construction industry that favoured the use of articulation. A new factory was built adjacent to the existing Foden works but the truck market continued to be depressed and sales slowed considerably. Foden ran into financial trouble in the early 1970s and received a bailout from then Prime-Minister Harold Wilson. Foden struggled on in an uncertain market and did not recover somewhat when it won a Military contract in 1978. It was not enough and by 1980 Foden was in receivership and was acquired by American giant PACCAR . PACCAR followed up with a take-over of Leyland in 1998 heralding the end of production for the independent Foden range. DAF Trucks, which had earlier been acquired by PACCAR in 1996, were given preference and in order to retain loyal Foden customers were rebadged as being Foden trucks. These were offered with the option of Caterpillar, Detroit Diesel or Cummins ISMe engines. PACCAR continue to provide aftermarket support for Foden throughout the UK with DAFaid providing Foden operators roadside assistance. In 2005 PACCAR announced Foden production would cease the following year primarily to increase the manufacturing capacity at the Leyland factory for DAF branded trucks. Subsequently, the last Foden was produced in July 2006 putting an end to 150 years of Foden truck manufacturing. The final vehicle to roll off the production line was a Rigid 8x4 which was delivered straight to the nearby British Commercial Vehicle Museum where it is preserved for future generations in testament of four generations of the Foden family’s contribution to road transport.
Despite disappearing from our highways and byways many years ago the Foden marque has a dedicated following of enthusiasts in Australia with many making the trip to trucking festivals and open days around the country including to Alice Springs in the heart of Australia. The Darwin Motor Vehicle Enthusiasts Club has restored an early 1950s FG Foden re-fueler which is used regularly for club activities. Powered by a six cylinder Gardner engine the unit was originally owned by Air BP and was used to refuel both civilian and military aircraft at Darwin Airport.
Another popular Foden regularly spotted around Australia at truck functions and events is Frank Latorre’s 1965 twin steer S21. Frank initially purchased this now immaculately restored truck in neglected condition from a Shepparton wrecker in 1982. After a few repairs he used it to cart tomatoes for the next seven years and later Frank and his beloved Foden worked in a Boral Quarry dumping aggregate for another twenty years. In 2010 Frank retired himself and the truck now spending his time displaying it a truck shows and club events.