Classic truck drive: Brawny 1973 KM Bedford

By: Matt Wood


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

 

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!

 

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A little Bedford background

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!

 

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Gilbert Motors and its classic KM 

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.

 

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The dealership still has its original Holden V8 powered TK tow truck sitting in the shed awaiting a resto.

 

While an Isuzu tilt tray now handles tow truck duties for the RAA accident and breakdown side of the business, 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, 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."

 

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

 

Driving the Bedford KM

"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.

 

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Hard workin’ Beddie

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-tonne 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 is 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.

 

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Two temp gauges keep and eye on things with the Detroit.

 

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, meaning that you almost have to look over your shoulders to check the mirrors while in motion.

 

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A 10-speed roadie takes care of the cogs.

 

Oozes character

However, all of this is just surface stuff. This old girl just oozes character.

The driveline reaches its crescendo at 2,600rpm 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 2,600rpm and 470 lb/ft at 1,600rpm. I wouldn’t be relying on the torque much at all really.

 

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

 

Interstate runner

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 Bedford, 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 ain’t broke, don’t fix it."

  

Specifications: 1973 KM Bedford

Engine: Detroit 6V53NA two-stroke

Power: 220hp (est)/470Nm

Transmission: 10-speed Roadranger

Drive: 6x2

GVM: 22,500kg

 

 

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