Truck Cab & Body Building in England c. 1947-1950

Last updated: 5 October 2019


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Typical newly built wooden flat bed lorry (truck) body and cab manufactured at Tillotson's circa. 1949 ready for delivery to the customer.

I use "truck" instead of the British word "lorry" on this page because the latter term is not much used or familiar in many countries these days - especially in the United States.

I apprenticed as a truck cab and body builder (after working in the drawing office as a draftsman for about one year) at the firm of Oswald Tillotson in Burnley, Lancashire, Northern England, from 1947 to 1950. Cabs and Flat Bed Bodies were hand built of wood with only minimal metal work at that time (the cabs were finished with sheet metal - van and panel truck bodies were just starting to be built using extruded aluminum sections and sheeting). I worked mostly in the cab shop doing joinery (mortise & tenon, dovetail and butt joints) and door making/installing, although I occasionally built flat bed truck bodies (under the watchful eyes and guidance of senior craftsmen) as did all apprentices, from time to time.

As I remember it, the British post WWII apprentice system was much changed from pre-war times mainly due to the number of demobilized sevicemen who had their apprenticeship cut short because of conscription at the outbreak of the war and also the large number of ex-servicemen who had effectively completed an apprenticeship in the military after government provided training and assignment in various specialties. I believe these returning servicemen were accorded preferential hiring as journeymen, or in some cases were hired as fully accredited craftsmen. That is the way I think it worked at Tillotson's. Young men who had completed secondary school were still hired as (unindentured) apprentices to learn the trade in the customary fashion.

This is a general overview of how wooden flat bed bodies were built at Oswald Tillotson's (and in the trade in general) in the late 1940s -- the materials provided, the methodology employed and the tools used. To that end, I have drawn up a rough sketch of such a truck body.

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Informal sketch of a generic Tillotson wooden flat bed truck body produced in the late 1940s. Not to scale or proportion.

I drew it from memory so the scale and proportions are undoubtedly off. Still, I think it is a pretty close approximation.

Of course, Customers played a prominent role in determining what specific features and finish their trucks would have. The drawing office would work with them to meet their desires while still adhering to sound construction practices. Some flat bed truck bodies were enhanced by installing detachable side boards and tailgates. Others incorporated custom design features such as abbreviated or contoured head boards. But still the basic flat bed design described here was the most popular one. The more complicated truck body construction was generally reserved for the more seasoned apprentices who also required less supervision.


Unlike building cabs that required considerable skill, building flat bed truck bodies was simple and straight forward - it was more akin to carpentry than fine woodworking (and something like kit building). Because of this, some basic flat bed truck body building was assigned to apprentices who could thereby hone their skills under the watchful eyes of senior craftsmen. Quality of work was the guiding principle.

I think Tillotson's physical plant was typical of similar British manufacturing businesses of the period. There was no compressed air system in any of the woodworking shops and therefor pneumatic tools were not used. There was overhead electric and natural lighting throughout and electrical outlets were provided in most shops. The Mill Shop had electrically operated machinery: circular saws, band saws, planers, sanders, drilling machines, shapers/routers, etc. There were no individually owned electrical hand-operated tools used such as circular saws, screw drivers, jigsaws, sanders, glue guns, nail guns, routers, etc.


Job assignment and location

The woodworking Shop Foreman assigned flat bed truck building jobs to apprentices as they arose (and also periodically rotated apprentices with senior craftsmen as part of their training). In the case of flat bed body building he would select the job site, issue the appropriate construction drawings and provide the wood "kit" prepared by the Mill shop -- laid out by him and transported to the job site by laborers.

The truck was parked in whatever shop space was available -- sometimes in the cab shop -- as determined by the foreman.

Trucks were in stripped configuration (only engine, transmission and chassis) with a temporarily secured wooden box that had been used as a seat by a company driver to deliver the vehicle from the manufacturer.

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Informal sketch of Tillotson Works layout circa. 1948 - not to scale or proportion

As with the truck body sketch, I drew this from memory, so again the scale and proportions are undoubtedly off (probably more so than with the truck body sketch). By providing this rough drawing I hope to convey a sense of the production environment and the work flow.


Typical tool selection

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Link to my representative tool box page

The first tool kit that I assembled when I started my apprenticeship was dictated more by the very limited availability of new woodworking hand tools in hardware stores (Ironmongers shops - Brit.) right after WWII than personal preference. It consisted mostly of used tools given to me by my grandfather and father and some purchased from older Tillotson craftsmen. The first craftsman I worked for at Tillotson's particularly liked American tools (especially Stanley planes & bevel edged butt chisels, North Bros. "YANKEE" spiral ratchet screwdrivers, Disston saws and Millers Falls hand drills). Due to his influence my own tool kits always included such tools.

New woodworking tools -- especially American made -- were in very short supply in British hardware shops immediately following the end of WWII. It was not until 1949, when importation from America resumed (tightly controlled by the government due to dollar deficit restrictions) and British manufacturing had recovered from wartime damage and production demands, that new tools were available for sale in any quantity.

When new woodworking tools did become somewhat available in 1949 (often in limited quantities) I think it was mostly the older craftsmen who bought them to replace existing tools. In consequence apprentices in the woodworking trades like me bought many of their tools - mostly of pre-war manufacture - second hand from them. I think most Apprentices bought many of their tools that way - not a bad thing really for I think pre-WWII tools were better made - of higher quality.

The company provided Apprentices the materials with which to make their own toolboxes, tote boxes, bench hooks, tallow boxes and wooden mallets - as part of their training.


I used a pretty basic tool kit when building flat beds. Other apprentices used a similar selection of hand tools as depicted here. Upon being given the assignment, I would usually take my tool box, and/or a tote containing the tools I anticipated using, to the job site and set up a makeshift work bench using heavy boards on two saw horses.

Such tools as rip hand saws and jointer/jack bench planes were not needed as all lumber had been sawn and planed straight and square in the Mill Shop (but not cut to length) and so only cross-cut saws & smoothing and block planes were needed to prepare the provided lumber and dress up joints, etc.

Specialized tools such as Rabbet planes, Industrial electric screwdrivers, etc. were checked out of the stock room as needed and available.


Shop Equipment: There was always plenty of company owned communal equipment available for anyone's use in all the shops.


Wood used in building flat bed bodies

To the best of my recollection, and as a general rule, cross-beams and chassis runners were English oak; side rails were ash; floor boards were Jarrah; head board posts and battens were ash; head board tongue and groove was white pine.

The use of (Australian) Jarrah for floor boards was a post-war innovation at Tillotson's -- it was favored because of its toughness, wearability and weather resistance properties. I am not certain that white pine was always used for head board tongue and groove.


Order of Work (to the best of my recollection).

All fabricated wood joints, surfaces and installations were squared, aligned and smoothed throughout the construction process. Iron fittings ("J" and "U" and reinforcement angles) and bolts were sometimes issued from the stockroom -- they were fabricated/modified by the blacksmiths.


Inspection

The work of Apprentices was continually scrutinized and checked by Craftsmen and the Shop Foreman for quality of worksmanship and appearance. Shortly before completion of construction a craftsman painter would go over all the surfaces to be sure they were sufficiently smooth for painting -- he would point out any deficiencies and require corrective action. The Shop Foreman would perform a final inspection and acceptance of work.


Installation of Cab

At some point toward the completion of the body work the cab -- which had been built elsewhere by a Craftsman assisted by Apprentices -- would be installed, fitted and finished, usually by the same crew that built it.


Painting & Signwriting

After passing a final inspection the vehicle would be moved to the paint shop for completion.


All the above information is based on my rapidly fading memory of the way things were some seventy years ago. I chronicled it in the belief that history such as this is often forgotten - forever. Undoubtedly I have gotten some things wrong and forgotten many other things that I should have included - but I have done my best.


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