BOB BEECH RECENTLY TOOK A TRIP TO KING TRAILERS TO HEAR THE LATEST DEVELOPMENTS FROM THE WELL-KNOWN MANUFACTURER, AND THEIR VIEW OF AN INCREASINGLY COMPETITIVE TRAILER MARKET.
PHOTOGRAPHY: CRAIG PUSEY
King Trailers Limited is a long-established British specialist trailer manufacturer. Founded in 1962 by Canadian engineer Vern King and based in Market Harborough, Leicestershire, the company grew to be the largest manufacturer of heavy haulage and low bed trailers in the UK. Many heavy hauliers quite literally built their businesses on the backs of King lowloaders: the ability of some early models to soak up all manner of punishment and still come back for more is legendary. A great many still remain in service.
In the 60s King Trailers led the way with knock-out front-end lowloaders. Operators were looking for greater ease of loading, higher capacity, and more usable deck space. The old knock-out back end designs, with their four in-line axles, had reached their limit: heavy haulage crews wanted something that was easier to use. King’s robust designs, in single, twin and tri-axle form, were a big step forward, but removing the neck still involved jacks and muscle power. As a result, a lot of heavy plant was driven over the side and spun around on the bed, especially when the boss wasn’t looking. The introduction of hydraulic goosenecks – which enabled the trailer bed to be dropped onto the ground, before the neck was uncoupled from the bed – changed everything. The King system was both simple and easy to use. They sold in big numbers. Time saved loading a machine was much appreciated by operators: for many, it became a one-man task.
King Trailers were also early pioneers of the stepframe plant-carrier trailer, which revolutionised the movement of both wheeled and tracked equipment. Up to this point stepframes had generally just carried large, bulky loads: only military tank transporters used this type of trailer for heavy concentrated weight. The concept of a multi axle stepframe – with its reinforced bed, beaver tail and hydraulically-operated rear ramps – quickly caught the attention of plant hauliers, particularly in the UK where overall height is less of a consideration. King Trailers claim that there are more of their stepframes in use in the UK than any other single make.
The use of a low-profile reinforced bed – able to withstand heavy machinery driven over the rear beaver tail – has been integrated into rigid truck bodies. King Trailers was one of the leaders in this sector, especially with three- and four-axle trucks. Their rigid bodies share many design features with stepframe trailers, with cross members integrated into the main subframe to give great strength and durability.
Low-volume manufacturing allowed King Trailers to build many specialist one-off trailers: specific uses include the transport of aircraft engines, complete fuselages, submarine components, large TV screens, as well as numerous military applications and specialist roles for the nuclear industry.
THE MODERN DAY COMPANY
The current owners took over the company in 1994 and have driven the organisation in new directions: the factory is still in Market Harborough and now comprises some 60,000 sq. ft spread over 5 acres. Some staff have been with the company for many years, including many skilled welders and fabricators; there is a team of engineers and designers able to devise bespoke solutions to meet customers’ exact needs. Because the company is very active in a number of sectors, it has established separate divisions to concentrate on these operations. This has enabled the group to cope with inevitable downturns in the economy. Specialist trailer building is often one of the first to feel the effects: many of King Trailers competitors have suffered, sometimes leading to closure. Spreading the risk with a diverse product range has helped the company ride out these periods – and, more importantly, keep skilled workers rather than let them go.
All of these activities come under the umbrella of King Vehicle Engineering Limited. This includes King Trailers, responsible for all of the standard trailer range, which includes stepframes, lowloaders, rigid plant bodies, etc. There is also a separate specialist division, King Transport Equipment, for bespoke designs for the military, aerospace and nuclear sectors. King have long experience in these sensitive areas. Other specialist designs have included a four-axle power-steered stepframe built to carry a 200 tonne/metre crane on the rear: the trailer chassis had to be specially constructed to withstand the stresses imposed and provide a stable base when lifting heavy weights.
King offer a huge range of access equipment under the SkyKing brand. In joint ventures with Palfinger and other manufacturers, they can supply and service and repair everything from self-propelled scissor-lifts to huge truck-mounted extending platforms with a reach in excess of 100 metres.
The association with Palfinger also extends into the skip and hookloader sector. Once again a full range is available – from 3.5 to 32 tonnes on rigid vehicles, up to 44 tonnes with hooklift equipment mounted on purpose-built articulated trailers.
Rail equipment is another important area. KingRail offer a range of plant and equipment for on-track use, which includes conversions for excavators, trucks and other equipment. A special test facility at the factory allows machinery to be tested – and certified – after conversion or repair.
The final area of activity is traffic management, under the brand King Transport Equipment. This has proved to be a very important sector, generating around £7.5 million turnover per year – similar to the trailer division. Quite literally the most visible part of the product range are the Impact Protection Vehicles. Part of any modern roadworks on busy roads, generally based on two-axle 18 tonne rigid trucks, King design and build the bodywork, the energy-absorbing crash-protection cushions, and the large illuminated signs and warning lights that alert motorists to lane closures ahead and other hazards. A separate hire and leasing division (Safety Vehicle Hire & Lease) operate a large fleet of vehicles and other equipment, and work closely with utility and construction companies as well many local and regional authorities. Additional services include maintenance and parts support nationwide.
Stepframes have been big business for King Trailers in recent years. The proven designs, all with air suspension, have a large following: the three-axle range have very high strength to weight ratios, offering competitive payloads – which is of particular relevance to operators who do not wish to operate under STGO regulations. Movement of access equipment and other lighter construction plant often has a requirement to carry multiple machines on one vehicle; a lighter trailer and a standard-specification tractor unit can often achieve this within Construction and Use (C&U) regulations.
The GTS stepframe range starts with two-axle designs, the shortest versions are intended for urban use as an alternative to rigid vehicles: they offer first-rate manoeuvrability combined with greater payload. The three-axle versions start at 41,000kg design weight and go all the way up to the GTS60/3 19.5, which offers an alternative to a four-axle trailer, with a design weight of 60,500kgs and three-axles rated at 12,500kg. Under Cat 2 regulations, payloads can be as high as 49,500kg depending upon specification.
The most popular model is the GTS44/3 17.5, with an unladen weight of around 8450kg and a potential Cat 2 payload of 35,550kg. This is sufficient for many medium-weight excavators, yet still light enough for a decent payload under C&U operation. This model is often a popular choice with a full-width rear ramp and enclosed bodywork (with sliding roof) for the transport of forklifts and industrial machinery. There are numerous ramp options available, plus lift-axles, friction-steered axles, ‘fall arrest’ and other safety systems, to meet individual requirements.
Four-axle variants comprise the GTS67/4 17.5 and the bigger capacity GTS73/4 19.5, with twin friction-steered axles at the rear. The heavier version has a longer bed and is designed for the transport of road planers and heavy-tracked crushers. The reinforced bed is able to withstand the concentrated loads, while the longer wheelbase ensures that axle weights are not exceeded.
Straight frame sloping-bed trailers are covered by the KPS range, which is particularly suited for carrying wheeled equipment and vehicles, and gives great flexibility with other cargoes. The MTS stepframe range is a mono-frame design with a centre box spine, and is available in three, four and five-axle form with full power steering: they are designed for the transport of heavy construction plant with gross trailers weights as high as 85,500kg from payloads of 69,000kg. The MTSE range of extendible stepframes has been relaunched; it again has a centre spine design, with European style flush side raves, and available in three, four and five-axle power steered configurations.
While the demand for low bed trailers is now far lower (and King Trailer admit it allowed the competition gain ground on them in this sector), they still offer a range of two, three and four-axle trailers with power-steering. These are a combination of tried and trusted design, with a completely updated specification. The Hook and Go Hydroneck uses a simple but effective hydraulic system that is easy to use: excavator troughs, chamfered rear corners and boxed-in storage area with lockers on the gooseneck, plus folding outrigger boards and other features make for ease of operation. One and two-axle jeep dollys are available for use with the bigger trailers to increase capacity.
RIGIDS & DRAWBAR TRAILERS
As mentioned, King Trailers offer a wide range of rigid plant-carrying bodies on three and four-axle chassis. Many options are available, including front-mounted cranes, beaver tails with fold-flat ramps, straight-frame bodies, gantries etc. Also a range of two and three-axle drawbar trailers are available: either as standard platform designs, bespoke plant carriers, or for the waste industry.
We were able to quiz Lee Tipton regarding King’s plans for the future and where they think the UK trailer market is heading – in particular the effects of Whole Vehicle Type Approval from a specialist manufacturers perspective. “For us 2014 was an exceptionally good year – it was also when I joined the company. Part of a process of expansion and rejuvenation after the tough years of the economic downturn. Like all trailer builders we were hit hard. Thankfully, the diversification into new sectors in this period probably saved the company.
“Now we appear to be in better times. 2015 was a steady year and we expect this year to be similar. There is strong demand for our stepframe plant-trailers and rigid bodies. We’ve had some substantial orders from some of the big players in the plant hire and access equipment sectors – and we still enjoy steady business from a pool of smaller operators, who are loyal customers. “During the recession we had to consolidate the trailer range to a certain extent. We are less active in the lowloader market than we once were. But we still have the engineering capability to build them, and offer modern designs with a high specification. Our ability to build specialist one-off designs is a real strength. Many of the big European manufacturers are less inclined to get involved in this sector. We intend to make greater use of this capability in future. “Like all engineering companies, we have felt the effects of the skills shortage. But we’ve been able to retain most of our long-serving staff, many of whom have a range of skills that are invaluable to us. They are able to work really closely with our design engineers. We feel that this is one of the core strengths of the business.”
TRENDS IN THE TRAILER MARKET
“Health and safety is a big priority for many big fleet customers. The ‘working at height’ regulations are rigorously enforced on many construction sites: we have engineered a number of driver fall arrest systems to meet customers’ requirements. They are now fitted to about 50% of the stepframes we build. It adds about £2500.00 to the cost of a trailer. Some systems can be prone to damage, and we have developed various options to combat this. We will be launching a new retractable fall arrest system this year in response, which has a lot of potential. These need to be easy to use and durable in the long term.
“We also offer an in-deck lighting system. It lights up progressively as a machine is driven onto the trailer: it’s popular for night-time road works, where time restraints can cause drivers to struggle in the dark.
“Our new range of extendible stepframes means we can offer an UK-built alternative to the European manufacturers. We hope to make steady progress in this sector. We have also spent time and money improving our aftermarket activities, with new staff, new equipment – including service vans and new in-house systems – and a network of authorised repair agents. This ensures that customers get the technical help and parts supply to keep their trailers out on the road.”
“Like all vehicle and trailer manufacturers we have had to address this issue. We have a nominated DVSA lane here in the factory. A tester is able to carry out IVA inspections (Individual Vehicle Approval) on any vehicle that falls outside of the scope of the designs that already have ‘whole vehicle approval’. The specialist nature of our products mean that about 60% of our output is subject to IVA. We have established a very good working relationship with the DVSA staff locally and find them to be very fair – but most certainly no pushover.
“But troubles arise with the backlog of appointments. This is a national problem caused by a lack of manpower and can cause real difficulties. It is a growing issue: little seems to be happening to deal with it. Furthermore, we have found that some operators make changes to a vehicle after they have taken delivery. This means it no longer complies, but the system never takes note of this unless it is something really obvious that comes to light at the first MOT.
“We know for a fact that quite a number of European manufacturers enjoy a more flexible approach from the enforcement authorities in their home market – that gives them a distinct commercial advantage, which cannot be fair.”