What do you do with them?

Rose George

  • The Eddie Stobart Story by Hunter Davies
    HarperCollins, 282 pp, £14.99, November 2001, ISBN 0 00 711597 0

Edward Stobart owns the largest independent haulage firm in Britain. A stammering farm child who hated school and left without paper qualifications, he worked all hours to set up his company, spending the weekends obsessively cleaning his lorries. A typical Saturday night out would be to somewhere ‘like Beattock, eating egg and chips in a transport caff, having tipped a load at Motherwell’. Stobart hovers in the mid-forties on the Sunday Times Rich List (somewhere near Rod Stewart), isn’t keen on going abroad, ‘has no hobbies, doesn’t collect things and has no interest in sport of any form, despite sponsoring Carlisle United FC’. He has a Ferrari he doesn’t drive and a yacht he doesn’t sail. He relaxes on a mechanical digger. Hunter Davies calls him the ‘greatest living Cumbrian’.

Davies’s book trundles slowly through the birth and marriage of Stobart’s grandfather John and his father’s business beginnings (lime-spreading). We learn how many Saturdays young Edward spent spreading slag and how much cash he liked to keep in his pocket and how much profit Eddie Stobart Ltd made in its first year. There are four pages on the business history of fellow Carlisle firm Metal Box. The lack of narrative discipline sits uneasily with Stobart’s own no-nonsense style. He loathes ‘fancy jargon’: ‘I was being asked all the time what my Total Quality Statement was. I’d say: “To run clean lorries, with smart drivers who arrive on time at your factory.” What more is there to say?’ Davies’s Stobart is difficult to dislike, but there are suggestions, in the book and elsewhere, that he may be quite a hard man. Thus: ‘Only two drivers out of some two hundred refused to wear collars and ties when Edward first introduced them. He imposed them: in fact, he made them compulsory. The two who refused both left immediately.’

Deborah Rodgers is Edward’s personal assistant. She

comes from Carlisle and joined the firm in 1987, when she was 23. She’d had dealings with Colin Rutherford in her old job, working at Hazard Haulage, and he had rung her up when he heard she was looking to move. He asked her if she wanted a job at Eddie Stobart Ltd and she was interviewed and taken on.

Such biographical indulgence of non-celebrities can be charming in an age of PR obsession, but only up to a point. So thank heaven for the Eddie Stobart Fan Club. It has thirty thousand members and an annual turnover of £1.5 million. Its members visit the Stobart merchandising shop in Carlisle, take regular guided tours of its two dozen haulage depots and get married in lorries. Eddie Stobart toy trucks are the biggest sellers in the Corgi range. Stobart himself is bemused by the cult, but cunning enough to make use of it (he has recently signed a deal for animated videos chronicling the adventures of Steady Eddie, Oliver Overdrive, Jock the Tanker and Loretta the Lorry). Industry rivals have long looked on Eddie Stobart with a ‘colder, beadier stare’ than the layperson’s ‘rather amateur, affectionate and, at times, soppy and romantic eye’. Alan Cole, former CEO of massive hauliers TDG, is typical. ‘When we heard about their growth, and then the existence of their own fan club, it seemed totally bizarre. It was a mystery to the rest of us how they had done it.’ Especially when you consider that Stobart has no advertising budget, and must be the only business of its size that refuses to employ public relations companies. Yet Neil Kinnock, the European Transport Commissioner, has a toy Eddie Stobart lorry in his office.

Stobart himself has an instinct for PR. He was the first haulier to impose a jacket and tie uniform on his drivers. He was the first to realise that the bar on the back of the truck obscured the company logo, and the first to modify his vehicles accordingly. He pioneered the practice of giving his trucks female names: Twiggy, Joan Doreen, Excilie Elizabeth. They soon became something to be looked out for by bored motorway drivers on family schleps, or sales reps sick of Radio 4, who began to collect sightings of the ‘giants of the road’.

Jools Holland publicised the craze, after his band passed the time on a UK tour in 1991 spotting Stobart lorries. His personal assistant wrote to ask for a calendar, and was sent one by return of post by slightly bemused Stobart staff in Carlisle – only slightly bemused, because fans had been writing occasional letters over the years, always answered in case they were potential customers. Holland explained his game in a newspaper article:

Whenever you spot a Stobart lorry you shout: ‘Stobart!’ Your sighting then has to be confirmed by one of the other people in the car and you can then claim a pound . . . When you go past a depot there might be 20 Stobarts there and some people try to claim £20 but that is obviously fraudulent and I make up the rules.

Holland said he hoped his motorway pastime would become a national game. But it already was: hundreds of fans came out of the Stobart closet after the article, enough to establish the official fan club in 1992. It got five hundred new members a month even before this book was published. Members receive the Stobart Fleet Manual and Spotter Guide, which lists all the lorries by name, with a box to tick after a sighting. They can buy Eddie Stobart fleeces, teddy bears and boxer-shorts decorated with tiny trucks. There’s an Eddie Stobart tapestry, and Eddie Stobart tea ‘especially blended for express refreshment’. That’s a lot of sidelines for a man who claims to hate publicity, and for a company whose employees don’t understand the fuss. Billy Dowell, a driver, says: ‘Some people knock the fan club. When they see the spotters hanging around the depot, they say: “get a life.” I don’t – I’m interested in trucks myself, so I can understand them. They’re doing no harm.’

But what are they doing, exactly? The word ‘spotter’ came into use in the Second World War – first because of spotter-aircraft, and then because of books full of illustrations of planes that might be about to bomb your house. Train-spotting books appeared in the early 1940s, listing locomotives, names and serial numbers. And now Eddie Stobart fans drive thousands of unnecessary miles a year for sightings. Emma Lewis, a recent contestant on The Weakest Link, said that her hobby was ‘collecting Eddie Stobart lorries’. And what, Anne Robinson asked, do you do with them? ‘Nothing,’ Emma replied.

‘I prefer the Volvos to the Scanias,’ Ena Poulton of Gloucester, who has eight hundred photographs of Stobart lorries, tells Davies. ‘You can’t see the woman’s name on the Scanias, that’s why. I’m always having terrible trouble whenever it’s a Scania.’ Alf Cooper, a 77-year-old retired bank officer from Essex, who drove 25,000 miles in one year lorry-spotting, has seen all but 15 of the Eddie lorries. Edward Stobart still doesn’t get it:

I remember the first time I was told that a fan had arrived at the depot at Kingstown. It was a Saturday morning, and I was in the office. Someone said that a bloke had driven up all the way from the Midlands with his family to look at our lorries. He was asking to see me. I didn’t want to go out – I didn’t want to meet some stranger. I couldn’t believe it anyway, thinking the bloke might be a bit, you know, funny, or it might be some old driver with a tattoo and a CB radio. Anyway, I got talked into going out and saying hello to him – and he turned out to be a bank manager! He was a perfectly respectable, normal person – not at all what I had imagined.

John Martin set up lorryspotting.com, which lists lorry details for thirty independent hauliers and has three thousand subscribers. He is quick to point out that there are MPs, brain surgeons and vicars among them, and that the list is growing rapidly. Davies also stresses that respectable and normal people – vicars, surgeons – make up a significant proportion of the Stobart fan club. The fans, on the other hand, couldn’t give a fig for respectability. ‘Most people probably think we’re mad,’ Ena Poulton says – she and her husband drive four hundred miles on a Sunday lorry-spotting. ‘But we find it good fun.’

‘Don’t worry,’ James Henley writes on the lorryspotting.com forum, when Emma Lewis rightly objects to being called unbearably sad. ‘I understand. They can only see it through their eyes. At least you had the bottle to say it on telly in the first place.’ Even train-spotters can’t see the point. ‘You can understand train-spotting,’ one told me. ‘There’s fresh air, you’re outside. It’s not about the numbers, they’re just an excuse to look at the trains. But people who go bus and lorry-spotting, they’re just weird.’ But their numbers are growing. There are as many women as men among them. It’s a communal activity: noting down serial numbers while driving is inadvisable, and the Eddie Stobart song (to the tune of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus) is best sung in harmony.

There are a thousand Stobart lorries. There are other, bigger fleets on the Continent, where the giant French hauliers Norbert Dentressangle (2800 trucks) do battle with Willi Betz (3800). A casual spotting competition, Nobbie (Dentressangle) v. Stobbie (Stobart), will soon be formalised, now that sustained lobbying by lorryspotting.com has persuaded Dentressangle to form a fan club. Such news may make Edward Stobart a happier man, if it takes the heat off him. Though he goes along with it, and profits from it, he remains uncomfortable. ‘I find being recognised anywhere very embarrassing. I’m not a pop star or a TV star. If the Eddie Stobart fans enjoy being Eddie Stobart fans, spotting the lorries, then that’s fine. I’m pleased they’re enjoying themselves. It’s just a shame it’s my name that has become public property. It makes me feel as if I’ve lost my freedom.’