Car delivery - there’s a lot more to it than driving a truck…

Ever wondered how your car gets from the factory to your dealer or doorstep? Simon Duval Smith spends a day with Mick Gilbey, a vehicle delivery expert and finds out there is a lot more to the job than simply driving a truck

Mick Gilbey is a stocky, friendly and plain-speaking Yorkshireman who has been delivering vehicles on car transporters for 22 years. He moved to Walon, a predecessor of his current employer BCA, after driving general haulage trucks, as he tells me. “I’ve always liked motors and I thought the job looked interesting but I didn’t realise the complexity of loading up to a dozen cars onto a truck and trailer, quickly and with a lot of care.” Mick is one of over 100 drivers based at Doncaster and one of the BCA driver team of over 900 drivers working their specialist fleet of 850 car transporters, which comprises various configurations to give the flexibility to meet the ever changing market demands. 

Mick works as a ‘roamer’ or ‘tramper’ - out on the road from Monday morning until Friday night, sleeping in the bunk behind the seats in the Scania tractor unit as he travels the UK collecting and delivering cars. As he says, the roaming life is not for everyone. “I’m away from the wife from early Monday morning until Friday afternoon but I like the freedom, I can start as early as I like, it’s almost like working for myself! I park up at services of an evening, get a shower and some food, stretch my legs and get a good night’s sleep in the bunk. I get to see different parts of the country - and not just through the windscreen!”

Many of the other drivers working out of BCA’s Doncaster headquarters are day drivers, they finish at 5.00 pm and their truck is then taken over by a night shift driver, mainly to carry out the long-distance deliveries as dealers do not accept cars outside ‘normal’ working hours.

Learning to load

How does a driver learn the skills needed to quickly and safely load up to 12 cars on to a truck and trailer? I am lucky to have Mick showing me the ropes; as well as having been with BCA in all its forms for more than 20 years, he is also a very skilled trainer. “We have eight full-time driver trainers who take recruits through a two-week training schedule, teaching them how to load and secure the cars and ‘trim’ the load to bring it under the required 16 feet high, to avoid low bridges etc. Not all recruits will make it through the two weeks; many find the responsibility and workload not to their taste,” says Mick, adding: “They might say that they did not expect there to be so much work, or simply do not have the planning and mental logistical attitude to organise 11 or 12 cars in the right order for delivery and packed efficiently.” After the two weeks, the new starters are sent out with an experienced ‘buddy’ for another two weeks, to further help them understand the complexity of the job.

On the road with an expert car handler

After a tour of the facilities at Doncaster, Mick and I take to the road in his truck - roamers like Mick tend to use one vehicle all the time - and after checking his E-POD handheld ‘office’, we head for Killingholme near Grimsby to collect 11 BMWs, one new M4 Competition coupe for a dealer near Malton and 10 registered cars for a corporate customer in York. 

The E-POD gives Mick a list of the cars and their location and a suggested order ,but it is up to him to confirm and plan his route and the order of loading which will enable the most efficient unloading or ‘dropping’ as he calls it. “We get the list of motors in a suggested order but we then confirm on the e-pod to the office the route we are going to take, to do this we have to make a clear mental plan as to which car we need to drop off first and thus which car we need to load first and so on.” 

And it is not always as straightforward as planning the right loading order to suit the route, as Mick explains. “Often we have an odd mix of cars to carry, some big SUVs such as Range Rovers, mixed with Fiat 500s and other small cars. Sometimes this means the cars can’t go on in the order you want to drop off as they won’t fit the truck and trailer. So it needs some pretty good mental jigsaw puzzle thinking!”

Assembling an automotive jigsaw

After a very comfortable and quick run to Killingholme docks; the Scania has automatic transmission and air suspension and is quieter and smoother than many cars, we collect a paper car list from the office on the dockside. There are BMWs as far as the eye can see, several thousand cars destined for dealers but our load is lined up in the marshalling area, ready for loading. A BCA inspector has checked the cars for any marks or damage and has put a small orange sticker on each windscreen to show that he is happy with them but Mick checks each car himself just to make sure, along with confirming the VIN numbers, and registration numbers on registered cars. 

Eleven cars in a line look impossible to get on to one truck and trailer but after a minute or so of logical thought and mental jigsaw puzzle solving, Mick gets into a 3-Series saloon and reverses it on to the lowered top deck of the trailer. This top deck is filled first and then raised as high as possible to allow the truck and bottom trailer deck to be adjusted into a ‘runway’ for the ‘peak car’ - the car one sees hanging precariously over the cab of the truck. Mick reverses another 3-Series all the way through the rig and places it expertly on the peak. 

After filling the other spaces and strapping each wheel tightly to the decks, the ‘trimming’ begins. The tops of the cars on the upper deck are over 20 feet from the ground and must be adjusted to less than 16 feet high, to clear low bridges and other overhead obstructions. Mick moves the main top deck down and takes a telescopic measuring stick with a right-angled arm at the top from the cab which must fit over the highest point on the rig.

You may have often wondered how the cars can be stacked so close together without touching each other and this is where the magic comes in. With a deft and light touch, Mick operates a multiplicity of control levers to raise, lower and pivot decks and individual car platforms, slide them back and forth and tilt them to what look like crazy angles to fit the load tightly and efficiently. Some cars appear very close to others but as Mick says, experience tells him how tightly they can be packed. “You have to remember that the cars are strapped by their wheels not their bodies so you have to include some clearance for the bounce of their suspensions.”

EV transport challenges

With the rapidly-increasing move towards electric vehicles, one might expect transporter drivers to encounter all kinds of issues - health and safety in high-voltage vehicle handling, and the challenges of collecting EVs with flat or below par batteries but Mick says that generally they are not a problem. “Safety-wise we don’t go under the bonnet or power cover of any car so we stay well away from the batteries. If a BMW i3 or i8 battery is below a certain level we won’t take it onboard as the directive from BMW to their dealers is that it has to have a minimum amount of charge in the battery before anyone tries to move it.” 

With the rapidly-increasing move towards electric vehicles, one might expect transporter drivers to encounter all kinds of issues - health and safety in high-voltage vehicle handling, and the challenges of collecting EVs with flat or below par batteries but Mick says that generally they are not a problem. “Safety-wise we don’t go under the bonnet or power cover of any car so we stay well away from the batteries. If a BMW i3 or i8 battery is below a certain level we won’t take it onboard as the directive from BMW to their dealers is that it has to have a minimum amount of charge in the battery before anyone tries to move it.” 

There are other challenges too though, as he tells me. “On the Jaguar I-PACE we have to be even more careful than usual. The car has an aluminium sheet all the way underneath and if this gets even the tiniest dent or scratch, it has to be replaced, along with the battery pack that it protects. Apparently this can cost £35,000, so of course we are as careful as we are with any vehicle, which means no damage!

Allowances and scheduling

Mick is allowed an hour and a half to load and the same to unload and is paid an allowance per car, on top of his standard wage; this works to the advantage of some drivers but there are some drawbacks to the system as he says: “If I get two or three eleven-car loads in a day, I can do well but if I get held up and take big cars like 7-Series or Range Rovers, I might only get seven vehicles on and the big ones can take longer to load place properly. For example, certain OEMs have strict loading instructions where we are not allowed to load vehicles backwards and this can affect the way we load the truck and how many vehicles we can get on.”

He says that conditions and pay are good at BCA but, “The key to this is scheduling and the variety of work available at the time, some days we may do 2 even 3 loads but other days we may have a longer run and only deliver 1 load.”

Due to manufacturer's order and production scheduling - some cars are still built for stock, in spite of what some OEMs boast - and the twice-yearly registration rush in the UK, the workload for drivers can be quite uneven. “It gets very busy now and then as you might get a ship coming in loaded with cars and the dealers want all the cars with them within 72 hours,” says Mick, recalling that, “When I started on the transporters, with Walon, we had to set up what we called a road ferry service, from Immingham to BMW’s main distribution centre at Thorne [near Doncaster]. We had trucks running back and forth 24 hours a day sometimes. Now BMW have a big distribution centre down south too, near to more of their customers.”

On the road

After messaging the office that we are loaded - their GPS system keeps them informed of the truck’s position, fuel usage, any heavy braking etc. all the time - we are away in under an hour and on the road to drop off the first ten cars. 

The whole rig is around 60 feet long so wrong turns are not an option and Mick uses a combination of sat nav and local knowledge to ensure we don’t drive down any cul-de-sacs or try and pass under any extra low bridges and tunnel ceilings. “We are supposed to run a maximum height of 16 feet as all bridges should have 16 foot 6 inches clearance but there is the odd one that is a bit lower, depending on where your truck is on the road. We have had an issue with one on a regular route but as long as you keep to the correct side of the road, you are OK!”

Trees are also a problem as they are not on the company-created route plans, which list all the bridges and tunnels and are regularly ‘tested’ by company surveyors, as Mick tell me. “In the summer trees can be a real problem, they grow out over the road and even light branches can cause terrible scratches so you have to look out for them all the time, you might have to move out into the middle of the road, only if it is safe of course, to avoid brushing your top cars against them. If some trees get really bad on a route we use a lot, we will call out a tree surgeon or the council to give them a trim.”

Care and damage

The overriding mantra at BCA is that of taking extra care to avoid any damage to the thousands of new and used vehicles that it carries all over Europe. The company operates a bonus scheme to encourage drivers - I shall call them that but they have a far more complex and responsible role than just driving a truck and trailer rig - to take extra care, with a weekly bonus scheme for damage-free deliveries that grows into a quarterly reward.

BCA has contracts with many OEMs, several of them premium carmakers - Jaguar Land Rover and BMW particularly, and a small damage repair can be very expensive. “A chip on a door edge can mean painting that door and the front or rear door next to it to ensure a perfect colour match, which can easily run up to £600,” says Mick.

Any damage repair which entails repairing a fixed panel such as a roof, wing or quarter panel, demotes the vehicle from new car status and means it has to be sold as used, so one can see that the stakes are high. 

My day with Mick and the BCA team showed me that the drivers who carry our precious cars are much more than just drivers, they are master logisticians, expert at maximising the usage of space and thus helping maximise the efficiency of the finished vehicle supply chain.

So the next time you see a car transporter on the road, with its cargo packed tightly and neatly, with seemingly unfeasibly small gaps between the cars, remember that it was all put together by the man behind the wheel - a true ‘motor master’ 

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