Be careful what you say when in the company of strangers. One of them may take your boastful claims to task. On my recent trip to Cwmbran, Wales, hosted by Meritor so we could learn more about air disc brakes, a group of North American trucking journalists experienced air discs on several truck configurations popular in Europe. One of them was a truck and full trailer combination, coupled with a convertor dolly.
Someone in the group had mentioned that backing that combo up to a loading door would be difficult, to which I replied that because it had two articulation points, a skilled driver could do it easily enough.
Back in the old country, I had a few hundred thousand miles on what we call B-train combinations -- similarly equipped with two articulation points but an entirely different setup. Over time, I got pretty good at backing the things up. I could alley dock a B-train; even parallel park one. It’s not terribly difficult if you set up properly. My problems began when the wrong guy overheard me boasting of my truckmanship.
As the event was winding down, I was chatting with David Kolman of RoadKing and Fleet Maintenance magazines -- himself a former driver and owner-operator -- about the differences between European and North American trucks. Just then, Dietmar Knoop, head of Research and Development at Meritor Heavy Vehicle Braking Systems in the United Kingdom, nodding and winking, asked if we’d care to try our hands at backing up the truck and trailer.
All you have to do with a pair of old truckers is say "I bet you can't ..." and the challenge is on. I, however, seriously underestimated the skill required to push what the Brits call an articulated truck backward into a simulated alley dock.
The big difference for me, the former B-train jockey, was the length of the lead unit. The tractors back home are a manageable 20 feet or so in length, and you're steering two trailers each with a wheelbase of about 28 feet. All in all, it's a manageable 80 feet of truck. When you turn the wheel on the tractor, it steers the lead trailer which steers the pup. Our tractors are shorter than our trailers, which makes them easier to steer.
Kolman said he was up for the challenge, so we flipped a coin for the honor of first dibs at being soundly humiliated. I won -- or lost, depending how you look at it. Given an hour or two, I’d have likely figured it out, but the bus was waiting to take the rest of the group back to the plant for lunch -- and you don't hold up a bunch of hungry, thirsty truck writers.
My first shot at going backwards resulted in something resembling a sheet-bend knot. My second attempt was better. More like a half-hitch knot, but still nowhere near the target. I learned afterward that you can't turn the wheel anymore than about 20 degrees off center, otherwise the dolly gets away and no attempt to recover will work.
The convertor dolly on those darned articulated trucks is one-third the length of the power unit, and so comes around lightening fast. In turn, that sends the pup trailer off on some other unpredictable trajectory. It felt like I was maneuvering a dingy with a battleship.
After about 10 minutes of humiliating hard labor, cranking and sweating the thing backwards I got close enough to the cones to call it parked. It looked more abandoned than docked, but my time was up.
Kolman, who had been taking notes, was no more successful than I was. He made the same mistakes I did, namely oversteering and trying to follow the trailer and convertor with the big long truck. He conceded that I had done a better job than he did, but it was a hollow victory. Neither of us would have landed a driving job in the U.K. based on that performance.
Then, as if to underscore our failings, along comes the chap who drives the truck full time. "Let me show you blokes how it's done," he says, climbing into the two-story cab. Then, adding insult to injury, he pulls the truck from the 'dock' and does a pre-emptive victory lap around the test course before carefully setting up for the backing maneuver.
Zigging and zagging this way and that -- not flailing away like Kolman and I were -- he deftly tucked the trailer between the cones, pulled it forward a little to straighten it out and then eased back the final few feet. He even stopped the truck on an imaginary line between the cones. We had been handed their hats by the big Brit.
I stand by my B-train prowess, or what's left of it after too many years behind a keyboard rather than a dashboard, but I will never again take for granted the skill required to back one of those European combos. My hat is off to the drivers who do that for a living on the ancient and very narrow streets and alleys of Europe and the U.K. Some even manage it from the wrong side of the cab. That would have given me bragging rights with the folks back home.