The showdown at Cwmbran

There's nothing I enjoy more than trailer trucking, unless there's a contest involved to challenge my truck driving abilities.

Such an occasion presented itself while I was on a recent exclusive Meritor press trip to Europe to review its global air disc brake development and marketing strategy.

As part of the event, our small, select group of visiting North American editors were given the opportunity to hard brake heavy duty European trucks to experience firsthand the benefits and advantages of air disc brakes compared to traditional drum foundation brakes. Among the vehicles available for test braking at a course near Meritor's truck brake in Cwmbran, (pronounced "Kah-braun") in Torfaen, Wales, United Kingdom, was what the Europeans call a Rigid - a straight truck and full trailer connected by means of a single axle converter dolly. The Rigid was fully loaded.

After we finished our test drivers, I was chatting with Heavy Duty Trucking editor Jim Park. Like me, he is an ex-trucker and owner operator, however only I still truck occasionally to better keep my fingers on the pulse of trucking and fleet maintenance.

The taunt

Along came Dietmar Knoop, head of research and development, Meritor heavy vehicle braking systems, United Kingdom. Knowing our past as drivers, he asked us if we'd care to try our hands at backing up the Rigid.

Park got this gleam in his eye, like here's my chance to show Kolman and the rest of the crowd a trick or two.

Park claims he can parallel park a B-Train. This is a combination vehicle that consists of a tractor and two semitrailers connected by a fifth wheel assembly whose lower half is mounted on the rear of the foremost semitrailer. The front axle of the tractor is a single axle with single tires and the drive axle is a tandem axle.

The lead semitrailer has a tridem axle and the second trailer has a tandem or tridem axle.

While I've seen Park in action on other test drives and can vouch for his chops, I bet him that he was in over his head with this European rig. (I know from driving doubles, backing them up is no easy task.)

All you have to do with a pair of old truckers is say "I bet you can't ..." and the challenge is on.

"Fine," said Knoop as he headed off to cone out a course. Rather than being a straight back up, he had arranged a switchback course - even more daunting.

The coin toss

Park and I flipped a coin. He won the toss and elected to go first. He struggled at first, and got the Rigid in a knot once or twice, but eventually realized that steering a 10' converter dolly with a 30' truck requires some finesse.

Brow knotted and glistening with sweat, Park pulled it straight and set up for another try. Like in golf, I watched for clues on how he landed his first shot, figuring it would be my turn in short order. Settling down, Park got the thing backed in without hitting a single cone.

It was now my turn. Watching Park afforded me some insight into how to do it. I, too, managed it, but not easily, and I have to admit, it took me a bit longer than Jim. I'm not prepared to disclose the exact time, but let's just say it takes longer to untie your shoelaces when they are all knotted up.

I knew I'd be hearing about his win for the rest of the trip.

In our defense, since we spend more time behind a keyboard than a dashboard these days, we might not have passed the backing test and got ourselves hired for a U.K. driving job, but we showed 'em that we still had a bit of the right stuff.

The braggart

As we were basking in our modest accomplishment and exchanging high-fives, along comes the fellow that drives that truck regularly. As if to pop our inflated egos, he walks up and says: “Let me show you blokes how it’s done.”

First, he had to undo the damage I had done. To say the truck, stuffed roughly between the cones, looked abandoned would be an understatement.

Buddy released the brakes, took a lap around the lot and brought the truck back to the coned area and set it up carefully for the reversing maneuver.

He struggled a little, swerving a little this way and that like Park and I did. Later he told us the key was to not over-steer; not turning the wheel much more than about 20 degrees off center. I wish hehad told us that first.  

The phssssh of the parking brake came on after a couple of minutes of modest labor and the big bald Brit announced to us that we'd been soundly beaten. At least he had the decency not to gloat.

We'd been handed our hats, but we had stepped up the challenge.