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Cheltenham Douglas - Fortune, but not much fame
publication date: Jul 28, 2017
author/source: Dave Moss
by Dave Moss
Though no-one could accuse vehicles designed for second world war duty as stylish, something about the AEC Matador's big-wheeled, uncompromisingly bluff appearance made it distinctive.
The angular, rudimentary, flat fronted cab, framed in ash and panelled in steel, usually backed by a canvas covered load area, was well in keeping with a high riding, all-wheel-drive medium artillery tractor, built for genuinely tough conditions. Evolved from a design acquired by AEC through a 1930's takeover, the Military received first production examples late in 1939, destined for use by British and Commonwealth forces.
A few petrol versions were built, but most had a 7.6 litre 95hp diesel engine, giving a top speed approaching 35mph. The Matador was intended to carry 10 crew and ammunition - and tow and extract 5.5"and 3.7" guns and radar equipment in battlefield conditions - so it usually came with a powerful, 7 ton winch.
Shortly before the war, Universal Power Drives - later known as Unipower - introduced a 4 wheel drive timber tractor. Its potential must have provided food for thought for one Frank Leslie Douglas, then a Unipower engineer, for in 1947 F.L. Douglas (Equipment) Ltd was established on Tewkesbury Road, Cheltenham - to acquire and recondition war surplus Matadors, for sale as forestry tractors. Many of these refurbished Matadors had a shortened chassis to improve manoeuvrability, and were fitted with a more powerful 9.6 litre 125 horsepower AEC engine, with a (slightly) more comfortable cab.
Although over 8,500 Matadors were built, their competence, off road ability and proven reliability in tough battlefield conditions ensured great post-war demand, mostly for forestry and heavy vehicle recovery uses. By 1950 surplus examples were becoming scarce, so Douglas began using other AEC chassis and hardware for its products, developing a market niche building rugged and powerful commercial vehicles for very specific applications.
Amongst these were so-called "tug trucks" for trailer haulage in factories, docks and other industrial applications, from which evolved the "Tugmaster" roll on-roll off tractor, announced for dockside use in 1954. This introduced a Douglas-designed rising "fifth wheel" system, allowing easy coupling to semi-trailers of differing heights - from which two- and four- wheel drive forward control versions were developed for aircraft drawbar towing. In turn, by the mid 1950's, the increasing complexity of its products saw the company designing more and more of the unique and innovative parts and assemblies they required.
With the Douglas reputation then growing, worldwide demand rose steadily, and Borneo, Pakistan, Turkey, Venezuela and South Africa were amongst the company's 1950's export markets. Products ranged from mobile crane carriers and rigid chassis 6x6 and 6x4 24 ton tipper trucks, developed from existing AEC designs, to all-wheel-drive conversions of lighter trucks like the Austin Loadstar and Leyland Comet, and the unique but ultimately ill-fated two-stroke diesel engined Commer QX.
Big tipper trucks for construction sites were an established product line by 1960, again initially AEC based, though Douglas later developed its own 10-ton 4x4 variant. This was followed by the Automaster, a huge, remarkably advanced but short lived 22 ton payload dump truck with unique squat design, 250 horsepower engine mounted ahead of the front axle, and an automatic gearbox. Its short wheelbase by large vehicle standards provided a very tight turning circle, but despite being introduced as Britain's motorway building programme began, it was unsuccessful, and production ended in 1962.
A name change to Douglas Equipment Ltd followed the death of its founder during the 1960's - along with a restructure and change in direction. Echoing much of Britain's car industry at that time, the rambling range of low volume products was overdue for urgent rationalisation to rein in worries over longer term financial security. Unlike the motor industry, the company heeded the warning, choosing to abandon its roots in forestry and off-road construction vehicles. Instead it focussed on two areas then promising market growth - where some product commonality already existed: aircraft towing tractors, and dockside tugs for port and ferry terminal use.
Soon afterwards the firm was taken over by the Dennis Group - then best known for its buses and dustcarts. Douglas was integrated into a little-known division along with the now long defunct Gloucester-based Mercury Airfield equipment concern - and Schopf Maschinenbau GmbH, a German manufacturer offering similar equipment. Dennis was bought out by Hestair in 1972, and the Airfield equipment unit divested. Schopf regained its independence, and today competes directly with Douglas as part of the Goldhofer operation.
Douglas no longer makes dockside equipment, but the brand and airfield equipment product line have thrived despite several owners since 1972, the latest being the Specialised Vehicles Group of the vast US Textron conglomerate. Though Britain has long since ceased making genuinely heavy goods vehicles, Douglas upholds its specialist tradition, still operating from Cheltenham, nowadays offering some of the most powerful and technically sophisticated wheeled commercial vehicles ever built.
Douglas products can move any current aircraft on the ground, with its flagship TBL600 towbarless aircraft tug offering 700 horsepower engines, two or four wheel drive and selectable power steering - on front, rear or all four Wheels, and crab-style if required. Its intended for pushback, inter-gate and longer distance maintenance towing of big aircraft - up to the newest Airbus A380-800 and 900 series, with maximum take off weights of 1,268,000lb - about 575 tonnes... Though this market is fiercely competitive, global demand for such vehicles is growing: its claimed over 85% of vehicles produced are exported.
So, next time you're awaiting yet another delayed take off, contemplating an ever-diminishing amount of legroom, and wondering about paying for yet another average sandwich, take a look outside. Chances are one of the first airport tugs you see will carry the Douglas name - a long way from converted war surplus Matadors, but a comforting reminder that world class heavy vehicles are still being built in Britain... right here, in the west country.
Further information and references
Explore the current Douglas Equipment model line here:
Some basic details and helpful links concerning the early years of F L Douglas Equipment Ltd are here:
Examples of the type of vehicles Douglas was producing in the 1950's are here:
An outline of the AEC Matador story and some pictures of these vehicles are here
There is a detailed version of the AEC Matador story - including a vehicle specification sheet - here:
Further details can be found here:
A PDF of the AEC Matador Driver's handbook is here. It makes fascinating reading!
This is a fairly old text now, but provides a brief insight into the world of pushback tractors for airfield operations, and a review of the market in 2003:
Details of changes in Douglas Equipment Ltd ownership since 2010 are here
Current owner Textron Inc acquired Douglas Equipment in January 2015. The news release is here:
© Dave Moss