The Origin of a familiar sight
During the 1950s I was appointed General Manager of Essex Carriers Ltd, in South Benfleet, Essex, having shown my potential for managerial ability by marrying the boss’s daughter. The company had grown from having idle time with a builder’s lorry in the late Twenties into the “National Parcels and Goods Services” run by my father-in law, Richard (Dick) Brittain. During my time it became a parcels and distribution operation covering all of Essex and into parts of London and Suffolk and with our very distinctive livery of rather bright orange and an unmissable logo made folks know we were about.
We had converted from a small fleet of dropside flats with, at first, hoopsticks and tarpaulin tilts to standardized five-ton box vans. The first addition were rear half shutters and tailboards then whole shutters through variations on doors, until we settled on double fold doors, that eventually we hung to slam shut if the vehicle moved off with doors open, secured with a Yale lock.
Occasionally I would go out with a driver if there was some problem with access to a delivery point or similar, and it dawned on me that a great deal of time and energy went into climbing out of the cab, walking around to the back and clambering up into the body, clambering back down and climbing back into the cab afterwards. I also found that the manufacturers did not seem to have studied ergonomics at all when designing the access for
getting in and out of the driving seat. In fact, some Fords we had at the time were not only devils to get in and out of but downright uncomfortable just to try to operate, with the gear lever nearly level with ones shoulder for a short person like me.
I suggested to Dick Brittain the idea of putting access to the load at the front as well as the back and after a great deal of ending up blind alleys, we settled on what became the Paravan, for which Dick provided the first basic design. The body form was easily decided on between us eventually, but the chassis to carry it proved a major sticking point. It called for a really low dropped front driving position forward of the front wheels and the lowest possible chassis height. We shopped around the manufacturers who built in the three to five ton range and they were polite but dismissive of such a crackpot requirement. Firstly they could not conceive sufficient demand to justify initiating a production line and could not see where they could accommodate a small detail like the engine.
Which led us to Dennis of Guildford in 1958, who, making fire engines, ambulances, dustcarts and other specialized vehicles had rather more open minds than others. Not only did they solve the problem of the engine but also the snags that arose in how to accommodate the controls to the gearbox and steering with the front wheels behind the driver, not something at all common in those days.
By adapting one of their other specifications they came up with a three-tonner with a body floor height of around three feet three inches. They devised a diesel with the engine behind the driver and cantilevered the front driving position so it was just inches above the usual kerb height. The driver would step down a few inches, turn left and step up into the body. One mistake we made was to make the front door on the angle rather than having a flat front, which would have obviated complicating the body work, and using an up-and over door but it seemed a good idea at the time.
Dennis were able to turn out two chassis, more expensive than something off the standard production line, but we thought them a good investment. At the time we built all fleet’s bodies in house to a standardized pattern but these were put out to Sparshatts the body builders, who rather doubtfully followed our requirements most efficiently. I recall we went through all sorts of variations of words for a suitable name and Paravan tripped off the tongue most easily.
To our surprise, our major problem then was getting them accepted by the drivers. The first stumbling block was the novel concept of loading front to back. It seemed to be some heresy of the Driver’s Creed, and the now familiar format of sitting in front of the front wheels took some getting used too. But gradually, when it sank in that working on such a vehicle was much easier and less tiring, especially in the city streets where most of the work was they came to be accepted and envied by those still clambering about many times a day, and the vehicles proved easier to winkle into restricted spaces at the kerb. But the cost of building such a specialized vehicle turned out, on balance, to be greater than the costs savings at the time, and the two were all we could justify buying. Of course, later when we instigated a productivity scheme that tied earnings to number of deliveries they really came into their own. But that is another story.
I have only just discovered that Dennis must have made more with evidence that N. Francis, who had a London parcels service, purchased at least one. We later went on to build more of the same concept but based on less expensive Bedford’s using standard form engine forward chassis.
Looking back over the decades, I am going to make what I think is a justified claim that Dick Brittain and I invented the walk-through parcels van operated in their thousands by myriad organizations like Postal services, UPS and other such giants. I wonder if a Paravan is languishing in a wood or a field or some farmer’s barn waiting to take its place in
the history of transport as we know it today? So far, there is evidence that three were made, but perhaps the readership knows of more?
Essex Carriers was absorbed into Atlas Express in 1969, but that is another story!
Eddy Barber is now long retired and lives in Canada. Eddy was a visitor to the Classic and Vintage Commercial Show at Gaydon in June (where a Paravan photo was found) He is eternally thankful he is not trying to operate a trucking business in the UK with Health and Safety, the myriad of Traffic and operating laws now existing and foreign operators to contend with. He also regrets the passing of the Lorry Driver of the Year Competition and the apparent eclipse of the RHA, both of which he was much involved in.