Getting to drive this Volvo FE Low Entry 4x2 in rural Gloucestershire involved something of an international journey. It started life as a regular medium-roof sleeper cab in the shared Volvo Group facility at Blainville, in Normandy, France. From there, it moved to the Netherlands, where the low-entry semi-crew cab conversion was carried out by Estepe. Then it continued north to Kristinehamn in central Sweden, where the long established (and long named) Bro Bärgningsbyggen AB recovery vehicle manufacturer fitted the car transporter body. After that, it was a short hop to Volvo HQ at Gothenburg to join the central demonstration fleet, before the longer trek back south for us to drive. On the way, it stopped off to pick up an authentic load, too – a shiny Volvo XC90.
The FE Low Entry has its roots in the UK, initially designed as a specific solution to operating in London, but has now become a fully- edged model in its own right and is offered on many markets.
The Volvo had barely stopped moving at the Hut truckstop at William Gilder’s yard on the Evesham road out of Tewkesbury before it was surrounded by uniforms. Fortunately, they were firefighters on a training run, who proceeded to crawl all over the bright red FE that looks as though it might be a ¬ re appliance. What they saw inside the low and forward-mounted cab was a low-volume conversion which, while beautifully crafted, veers more towards functional utilitarianism than plush trim, with more alloy chequer plate and phenolic ply than brushed aluminium and walnut. Despite its length, the cab tilts as normal.
Wide doors lead into a cab with seating for a driver and three passengers. The passenger seats are mounted around 100mm higher and 300mm further back than the driver’s. This truck’s driver gets a nice cloth-trimmed seat while the passengers only have vinyl seats, although they are comfortably shaped and other more egalitarian options are available. There’s considerable space behind the seats for the paraphernalia needed for recovery work, but only the driver’s seat folds to provide access to it. Other storage includes reasonably-sized lockers above the screen and, on the rear walls, a document pocket and some heavy duty fabricated steel hanging racks.
While there’s no bi-fold or bus-type door option, the standard slam doors open a full 90 degrees with only a shallow armrest moulding at the top preventing a completely at door trim. Even with the FE’s full air suspension at its lowest level, there are a couple of highish steps to negotiate. Once inside, the crosscab access isn’t the widest at ground level, but widens considerably as it gets higher, making it almost completely free of any intrusions, with only the park brake lever and body remote control to negotiate, so it’s actually easier to use than some rivals. Should any passenger – an RCV crew member for example – need to stand in the passenger step well for any reason, there’s room to do so with the door closed.
Making allowances for the left-hand-drive, which presented a few challenges out on the road, the visibility is very good, including from the passenger seats which are effectively in the back. The side windows behind the B-pillars prevent your guests from feeling claustrophobic. The passenger door is fitted with a fair-sized vision panel, unobstructed by passenger legs. Although this forces the use of a two-part horizontal sliding window, the vertical frame in the middle wasn’t an issue.
The dash is mostly all familiar FE, apart from being on the wrong side, although the central area has a large at panel intended for easy mounting of operation-specific equipment such as body control panels and monitoring screens. Although the FE’s front bumper sits 2m ahead of the front axle, there’s no problem with placing it on the road, the left-handdrive being a bigger handicap on some junctions. The FE can be driven normally with the full air suspension at the fully lowered position, providing the desired interaction with vulnerable road users in urban situations while retaining maximum distance vision on the open road. The ride is surprisingly good, even on the lowest setting, where suspension travel is inevitably reduced.
While the low-entry cab sector is not known for excessive power-to-weight ratios, the 18-tonne Volvo came with a similar 350hp rating from its 7.7-litre engine to most of its 32-tonne rivals. As a result, and with only a 2-tonne car on the back, the performance was suitably brisk, particularly with the 12-speed I-Shift transmission taking care of the gears.
While the FE Low Entry cab comes as a one-size-fits-all offering, with no options to the basic structure, it is similar in terms of driving experience to a regular FE. Consequently, it’s likely to prove suitable for a variety of operations such as urban distribution, with less chance of drivers feeling they’re being made to drive a bin lorry than some rivals. And you could also use it for fighting fires.
Successfully refurbishing 26 Oshkosh tractor units for the British Army left Commerical Contract Engineers in line for a well-deserved medal at the last Commerical Motor Awards.
It’s one thing having to repair small hatchbacks or vans, and quite another to be called upon to refurbish a fleet of military vehicles returning from action. But that's exactly what Commercial Contract Engineers (CCE) in Rochdale, Greater Manchester, was approached to do in 2011 by FTX Logistics, the UK branch of US engineering company KBR Group.
CCE’s usual fare includes maintaining light vehicles as well as HGV fleets for Yodel and Northern Foods. But even the conventional heavy MAN, DAF and Scania trucks it handles have little in common with the gargantuan 26 gargantuan Oshkosh M1070F HET 8x8 tractor units that were sent its way, part of the fleet FTX operates for the British Army. “These vehicles had come back from Iraq and Afghanistan. Nobody else in the country could repair them with the level of damage. So you can imagine the huge challenge that it posed for all parties involved,” comments Phil Ewbank, CCE chairman.
Refurbishing each one, Ewbank explains, could take up to 1,200 hours, meaning only three were completed a year, even working shifts that were sometimes as long as 10 hours.
The vehicles all had to be restored to peak peacetime condition, which proved a steep learning curve for the team. Sourcing parts from Oshkosh during the project, for example, was not easy, especially given the six-hour time difference between the UK and US.
“Most of the vehicles were manufactured 17 or 18 years ago. And then you find out that they don’t make some parts any more. So you’re having to resolve problems collectively” Ewbank comments.
“I don’t think the team would have been happy accepting the [CM] award in the first two to three years of the project,” he continues. “They were still addressing the challenge. But I think after that, we were ready.”
Walker says the timing of the Technician Team of the Year 2018 award was ideal as it coincided with the last of the 26 vehicles coming to the end of its refurbishment programme.
None of the team had ever encountered this type of vehicle, let alone carried out such major repairs and due to the complexities involved, every stage of the repair process was photographed for reference purposes.
After lying dormant in the desert, a particular problem with the vehicles was that sand had got everywhere. Electrical components, engines and even the cabs themselves were covered in it, requiring a full stripdown with the cabs off, the interior pulled out, and engines, gearboxes and axles all being dismantled.
Stripping each one down would take up to a week, says Ewbank, after which further progress lay in the hands of the parts supply team in the US. Typically, replacement parts would take six to eight weeks to come through due to the complexity of the process, adds Walker.
Walker doesn't say exactly how many pages are in that parts catalogue, but does confirm it is much bigger than the ones in your local Argos store.
Working on three vehicles at a time meant the team could pre-order some parts for two chassis based on what was needed for the first. But the parts supply was somewhat patchy - in some cases, parts did not get sent out at all or the wrong parts were dispatched. Between four and five technicians at a time were working on the HETs while additional staff were recruited and trained up, according to Ewbank. “Michelle oversaw the scheduling of the programme, and our lead technician was Glenn Wood, who has been with us for about 26 years”, he says. The project was completed efficiently, thanks to the excellent dynamic and good teamwork between CCE, FTX and the British Army, he adds.
In September 2018, the last vehicle was handed back to FTX, marking a theoretical end to the contract. But, thanks to the high quality of work of carried out by the company, FTX decided to extend CCE's role in the refurbishment of such vehicles, and it continues to work on what has now become an open-ended mission, says Ewbank.
Designed to transport the 72-tonne Challenger II tank, the Oshkosh M1070F will haul anything anywhere, whatever the terrain. Coupled to its 26-tonne 7-axle Kings GTS trailer complete with tank, the total train weight comes to around 118 tonnes.
Power is generated by a Caterpillar engine; an 18.1-litre 6-cylinder turbocharged diesel lump producing 700hp and 2,576Nm of torque. The power is delivered via a seven-speed Allison automatic transmission. When fully laden, The M1070F travels at a dizzying 49mph. It has tubeless tyres that work with a central tyre inflation system, which is set to alter pressures according to environment via switches in the cab labelled ‘CC’ (cross-country), ‘HWY’ (highway) and ‘MSS’ (mud, snow and sand).
The Commercial Motor Awards return on Thursday 28 November 2019 at The Vox Centre, Birmingham, celebrating the best in new and used commercial vehicle sales and aftersales. The awards welcomes not only dealers, but also bodybuilders, finance, rental, leasing and contract hire providers. Enter now for free and have your excellence recognised by the industry.
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