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Why don’t we have American-style bonneted lorries in the UK?

Bonneted lorries, or ‘trucks’ as they are called in America and Australia have some advantages in some situations over the cab-over lorries that we have in the UK. In fact, you’ll rarely see bonneted ‘conventional’ trucks in the UK.

Let’s first look at why this is, then look at what UK lorry drivers are missing out on.

The UK and Europe have strict maximum length limits for heavy vehicles (without a permit) which would mean much less cargo could be carried as the trailer would have to be shorter.

Europe’s historic cities are full of narrow streets with tight corners which don’t suit bonneted trucks that have a much larger turning radius; they would be getting stuck all the time. The UK’s roads are deliberately designed to accommodate vehicles up to a maximum length; signage warning that long vehicles aren’t allowed would have to be installed in many more places.

As almost everyone drives cab-over lorries in the UK and Europe, there are economies of scale that make those vehicles more financially attractive than conventional trucks.

Our relatively shorter driving distances and mandatory breaks mean that drivers are less likely to live out of their truck and require the additional in-cabin space that a bonneted truck gives.

Advantages of a bonneted truck

  1. Aerodynamics: a cab-over lorry presents a large, flat frontal area to the wind. At motorway speeds, this is less aerodynamic and therefore uses more fuel (relatively speaking); at city speeds, there’s barely any difference, though. Trucks are able to travel at over 70mph in some areas in America, so this aerodynamic advantage can make quite a difference.
  2. Comfort: the longer wheelbase (distance from the front wheels to the drive wheels) of a bonneted truck means more driver comfort. The driver is suspended in the middle of a long platform which absorbs bumps from the road. In a cab-over lorry, the driver sits right over the front wheels and can feel the bumps and undulations in the road much more strongly.
  3. Noise and vibration: while huge progress has been made with in-cab noise, having the engine in front of you under a bonnet rather than right underneath your seat means less noise and vibration. Bonneted trucks tend to have exhausts which exit out of a stack up the back of the cabin, taking the engine noise away, whereas cab-over lorries tend to have exhausts that exit out the side, typically just in front of the drive wheels at street level.
  4. Maintenance and pre-trip inspections: no more tipping the whole cab and having all the gear you forgot to secure flying forwards into the windscreen. Simply lift the bonnet and you can see the whole engine. It makes it much easier to work on, too.
  5. Height: Conventional trucks can be shorter because you don’t have to sit on top of the engine. This makes it easier to get in and out of and, assuming the trailer isn’t tall, means that they will fit under more areas where height is restricted. For drivers that climb in and out of the vehicle regularly, fewer steps up into the cab is a welcome bonus and reduces the risk of a slip, trip or fall.
  6. Safety: You are right at the scene of the impact in a frontal collision in a cab-over lorry, whereas bonneted trucks have an enormous crumple zone at the front.
  7. Centre of gravity: as the cab is lower, the bonneted truck often has a lower overall centre of gravity.
  8. Sleeper cab comfort: the engine in a cab-over lorry is right underneath the cabin. If you have a sleeper cab, this will impart a lot of heat at first, then cool down quickly, making it harder to find a consistent temperature setting in cold weather and causing you to have to run the air conditioning in hot weather. It’s also more difficult to engineer a spacious sleeper cab when the engine takes up room under the floor.
  9. Interior layout: when you don’t have to worry about housing that engine right underneath the driver, you have more options for laying out the cabin in a way that’s appealing to the driver.
  10. Engine options: this is becoming less and less relevant because it is now possible to get cab-over lorries with over 600 horsepower and plenty of towing ability, but for real heavy-duty applications, the flexibility of engine choice in a bonneted truck is a drawcard. Drivers appreciate a bonneted truck’s torque in hilly regions.
  11. Windscreen damage: drivers of bonneted trucks often say that they suffer fewer stone chips.
  12. Pride: some drivers simply love bonneted trucks. They have the American allure – they want to be The Snowman.
  13. Legroom: again, this is becoming less a problem as design gets better, but older cab-over trucks were made as short as possible to maximise the length of trailer that could be pulled, thus maximising the freight that could be carried.
Moving house?

Advantages of a cab-over lorry

You’d think with all the advantages of a conventional bonneted truck that we listed above that there’d be hardly any advantages of a cab-over lorry. You’d be right, there aren’t.

  1. Manoeuvrability: cab-over lorries are so much more manoeuvrable than bonneted trucks. This is especially important in our historic towns and cities where the roads were designed for horses, not horsepower.
  2. Cab-over lorries are generally lighter than bonneted trucks, which leads to fuel savings and the ability to pull slightly heavier cargo without exceeding the maximum limit (within maximum axle loadings, of course)
  3. Visibility: a bonneted truck’s long nose can get in the way when you’re trying to see around the front of your vehicle
  4. Length: a cab-over truck is shorter, so you can pull more freight within the maximum allowable heavy vehicle length.

So, if you want to drive the big rigs, your best bet is probably Australia where you can drive a 53.5-metre road train that’s pulled by a prime mover (that’s what they call them over there) just a couple of steps removed from Mad Max, festooned with roo bars to deflect the large hopping marsupials and errant cattle away from the radiator grille. However, if you like the European truckie life, you’ll need to look for specialist jobs and applications that tend to use American trucks such as vehicle recovery operations and tippers.

Darren has owned several companies in the automotive, advertising and education industries. He has run driving theory educational websites since 2010.

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