Graham Booth is passionate about heavy haulage and vehicle restoration and, as Ed Burrows explains, his enthusiasm even extended to nurturing his daughter’s own heavy-metal love affair.
Photographs: Graham Booth, Ed Burrows, Martin and Leanne Peet.
“But dad, it’s been part of my life since I was five,” she pleaded. “How could we get married without it?” It was not exactly something borrowed, but it was certainly something blue, which was the colour theme chosen for the wedding. Dad is Graham Booth, one of the last, traditional brush-and-stick signwriters, legendary restorer of heavy prime movers, former, multiple-tractor heavylift operations crew chief and a man very much engaged in his own heavy-metal love affair.
The object his youngest daughter Leanne had her heart set on as the centrepiece for her wedding reception is EGG 160, Graham’s Pickfords-liveried 1942 Model 981 Diamond T ex-British Army tank transporter tractor.
Diamond T damage
The wedding was only days away. Graham’s signwriting business takes him all over the country. Being away from home so often had prevented him from fixing the Diamond T’s nearside front wing. But Leanne was determined. He couldn’t let her down. He set to that evening, working into the small hours. There was only time for a cosmetic fix, but it did the trick. So, one delighted daughter.
After the wedding ceremony, Leanne and new husband, Martin Peet, set off to the reception in a blue Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud-bodied Bentley S, the wedding barouche Leanne had dreamed off since she was a little girl (her dad always imagined she only dreamed about trucks!).
Nobody loves Diamond T 980/981s more than Graham Booth. Over the years, he’s restored around 20 of them, and has owned ‘EGG’ for 30 years or so. Resplendent in the livery of Thurston’s Amusements, CCL 205 – his other Diamond T – is a fairground generator truck. From its signage art to its original heavy-haul role, in every respect it embodies the story of Graham Booth’s life.
As a boy, heavies represented a connection to his father. He worked in heavy transport, but was killed in a road accident when Graham was only two. As a youngster, as well as being excited by anything with a Pickfords’ livery, he recalls being specially fascinated by seeing Silcock’s Scammell Pioneer and Explorer showman’s generator trucks and tractors – sometimes pulling two trailers.
As a young man, after a few years in the building trade, followed by driving trucks carrying large and wide loads, he joined Silcock’s, the north-west travelling funfair operator. “By then, I’d obtained my HGV licence,” he says. “Silcock’s provided the best all-round engineering apprenticeship you could ever wish for. It was ‘in at the deep end’ of the show-must-go-on business.”
“We turned our hands to everything – and everything had to be right on the night. Vehicle maintenance, mechanical and bodywork repairs and fabrication only scratched the surface. There were the generators to look after. And the rides – with their hydraulic, pneumatic and mechanical drives to maintain and erect in safe, working order. Then, every few days, everything had to be dismantled and loaded up, transported to the next venue – and re-erected all over again. In many respects, it’s reminiscent of the heavylift and rigging industry.”
In his years with Silcock’s, vivid airbrush art and signwriting in the time-honoured funfair style provided him with a ready outlet for his artistic gifts. Eventually, though, the demands of family life dictated a change in career direction. He set up a signwriting business, covering everything from shop fronts to transport fleet liveries.
The multiplicity of engineering skills Graham Booth acquired as a Silcock’s showman provided the perfect grounding for classic vehicle restoration. Over the years, his undaunted zeal has encouraged him to take on rusted skeletons, engineless wrecks, incomplete restorations, engine rebuilds, the reverse-engineering of parts, coachwork fabrication and sheet-metal bashing. Indeed, with over 30 Scammell restorations to his credit, Graham Booth’s hobby has almost taken him into the realms of series production. It also equipped him for a total change in career direction.
In the early 2000s, while in his late 40s, he had the opportunity to join ALE (Abnormal Load Engineering). Doing so meant packing in his truck livery and general signwriting business. It was a challenge to which he couldn’t say no. As well as being his spare-time preoccupation, for several years, big prime movers became his working life.
As Graham Booth concedes, at heart he’s a showman. He stage-managed his ultimate Great Dorset coup de théâtre in 2009. This was well and truly showtime; historical re-enactment on an epic scale. Three tractors he owned at the time – ‘EGG’, a Scammell Super Constructor and a Scammell Constructor – ganged together to pull a dummy load on a Pickfords double-ender with twin, three-row bogies shod with earthmover-type, diamond-tread tyres. Another Scammell pushed.
As a self-taught enthusiast, having the experience and ability to put together this and other spectacular demonstrations, joining ALE as a heavy-haulage professional, was a natural step. In the UK, he typically worked as a steersman. Though there’s obviously vastly more to it, the steersman is the left-hand-down-a-bit guy, who guides the driver during inch-tight manoeuvrings. When an outsized load is processing at walking pace, Graham Booth was likely to be doing the walking.
On ALE contracts in South Africa, as driver and crew chief, he worked with Faun Goliath-bonneted 8x8s in the 650hp output range, and 800hp SLT350 cab-forward 8x8s. He was primarily engaged in moving electricity generating plant – weighing about 350 tonnes – from the docks at Richards Bay, KwaZulu-Natal, on South Africa’s east coast, to the province of Limpopo. The 1,600km route included long 12% gradients. “There was a lot of walking,” he says. “It certainly did my knees no favours.”
Before leaving ALE, Graham was the catalyst in the company resurrecting the Unipower (Scammell in all but name) 8×8 tank and heavy lift prime mover prototype. Converted to ballasted drawbar configuration, it became ALE’s lead tractor – and it provided the template for the Staffordshire firm’s in-house engineered, state-of-the-art fleet of six, Trojan prime movers.
These days, Graham divides his time between his GJB Signwriter business and restoration projects. He regards his long line of restorations as a living, moving museum, and sees himself as a custodian handing over to the next generation – a process well under way with Leanne and her husband, Martin – a senior engineer with BAE Systems.
Some girls love equine horsepower; Leanne’s idea of horsepower is mechanical. Before meeting Martin and getting married last September, for several years her idea of fun was driving and maintaining a stable of two lifting-axle 8×4 tridems; a 150-tonne-rated Volvo F12-33, new in 1985, and a restored, 1995 Scania 143EL spec’d for a gross combination weight of 180 tonnes. She still has the Volvo, but parted with the Scania a few years ago.
After the ‘What on earth…’, question from the uninitiated, they ask the cost of such heavy metal. She reckons keeping the two big Swedes was probably a bit less than the upkeep and vets’ fees for a couple of decent show-jumpers.
Much as Leanne might dream about running her big Volvo at max gross, in the scheme of things, that’s obviously not feasible. She used to content herself with hitching up to a gooseneck trailer loaded with one or other of their pride and joys, and getting some heavylift fun driving to truck events. Having more recently sold the family trailer, in recent years her big buzz has been driving in a Diamond T and Scammell convoy, with Martin and her dad.
Thanks to her parking at shows, Leanne earned a reputation for professional standard, gently does it, millimetres-precise manoeuvring. Then again, she’s her father’s daughter. Having studied law at college, Leanne Booth began her working career in the office of a law firm, indicative of character traits that combine a serious attitude, diligent application and pedantic attention to detail. Her original ambition had been to specialise in transport law. She obtained her HGV licence at 21, and holds a Certificate of Professional Competence in Road Haulage. The ‘L plates’ artic she drove was a DAF CF 4×2 with three-axle trailer. She passed her Class C&E only a fortnight after passing her Class C.
Predictably, Leanne’s ambitions switched from law to the prospect of a job in heavy vehicle operations. With a CV that ticked all the boxes, she spent some years with G&MJ Crouch & Son Ltd, the well-known Leicestershire heavy recovery and crane hire specialist. For the past five years, she’s worked in accounts administration with Millers Recovery, Preston – and like all Miller employees, has trained as a breakdown controller.
The boxes ticked, of course, include familiarity with heavy recovery. Leanne Booth’s first truck, acquired when a teenager, was a 1950s vintage ex-British Army Scammell Explorer heavy recovery 6×6. Like the Volvo and Scania, she knew it inside out. She not only worked on its restoration with her father, but also became well practiced using it in both a towing capacity for moving other trucks in the family yard, and craning engines and other heavy items for vehicles undergoing restoration.
Never on the road
Leanne never actually drove her Explorer on the road. But she had enough hands-on experience to know that, even though the six-cylinder Meadows petrol engine originally fitted to ‘Ten Tonne Annie’, had been replaced with a Cummins unit, the muscular demands of vehicles of its vintage more than match what they generate mechanically. In that respect, her Volvo and Scania were effortless gifts from the gods. Appropriately, the F12 is painted with the name Sleipner, the Norse god Odin’s eight-legged horse. The Scania was named Magni, god of strength, son of thunder-and-lightning, Thor.
The Volvo was acquired in 2009, after selling the Explorer. She says: “The money was burning a hole.” Spotting an ad in the classifieds, she called the owner, and the same day Leanne and her father drove from their home in Southport to Slough, and did the deal. JR Swanson had owned it from new, it had full documentation and had only been driven by one person – Roger Annis. The lifting fourth axle was added in 1988. Apart from some fabrication work and painting, Leanne did most of the restoration herself – including parts sourcing and stripping down. The engine is an intercooled TD12F. Outputs are 380hp at 2050rpm and 1,180lb ft at 1,300rpm. The SR70 transmission has 12 forward speeds and two crawler gears.
The left-hand-drive 143EL was factory-built as an 8×4, and – signalled by the gold lettered ‘1st’ in the signwriting and the ‘There’s only one!’ Scania slogan – was the first of its specification in the UK. With 493hp and 1571lb ft of torque coupled to a nine-speed, range-change transmission, Leanne clearly had lots to play with.
The Volvo could be regarded as Leanne’s leaving present for her dad. Well, you can’t take everything with you, and there’s plenty of space in Graham’s yard and workshop. Aside from the two Diamond Ts, Graham’s other vehicle is a 6×4 Scammell Contractor, now undergoing total strip-down and rebuild. Originally operated by British Nuclear Fuels as a ballast tractor, it was converted by a previous owner to a slewing crane recovery truck, a configuration that suits Graham perfectly. Historically, it’s significant for being one of the few LAD-cabbed Contractors in the country. Most were exported. Almost all those sold in the UK were of the coachbuilt crew-cab type.
They sometimes say of marriages: ‘Losing a daughter, gaining a son.’ That certainly rings true of Graham Booth, Leanne and Martin Peet. And it’s all down to a snatch block. “He literally snatched her from me,” quips Graham, who admits to missing having Leanne around. “From being a little girl, she’s taken a keen interest – and never failed to pick me up on the tiniest detail. She’s a very meticulous lady. They are the perfect match.”
Martin needed a snatch block, and found one on eBay that Graham had for sale. Living in Lancashire, a trip to the Booths’ place in Scarisbrick, Southport, wasn’t out of the way. Pretty soon, Martin started giving Graham a hand. One thing led to another – and Martin to Leanne.
Martin’s first venture into classic truck restoration began seven years ago, with a Scammell Pioneer wrecker. He replaced its Gardner 6LW with a 6LX. The project was subsequently taken over by his brother, James. Martin later acquired a Scammell Explorer 6×6, now owned by his other brother, Anthony Peet. Its restoration included the top-end overhaul of its Meadows petrol engine.
Martin and Leanne are currently restoring an ex-Wimpey Scammell Constructor 6×6 and, also with Graham’s help, a lifting-gearp-equipped Diamond T; a project undertaken on behalf of Crouch Recovery. Martin also has a Scammell Pioneer R100.
With the front wing repair completed a couple of days before the wedding, EGG was ready to rumble. “No question, a Diamond T looks fantastic, and a dream centrepiece for a wedding – well, we all thought so, anyway,” says Graham. “But don’t be fooled by appearances. It’s a challenge to drive. The cab is narrow – tight rather than snug. Driving, you’re seated almost on the centreline. With six feet of bonnet in front, you’ve got to keep your wits about you. If a Mini was directly in front, you wouldn’t see it. Anticipation and situational awareness are everything – especially as the power for the steering is supplied by the driver – with a 22in diameter wheel for leverage.”
An event at the reception venue precluded EGG being driven there the night before the wedding. This meant Martin had to collect it, wash it and attach the customary ribbons and, the following morning, drive it to where the reception was being held.
Since first meeting, Graham and Martin had become good friends, with Graham readily praising Martin’s engineering skills. But could Martin be entrusted with EGG? Even Leanne had only paraded it in the arena at truck events – she’d never driven it on the road. But when Martin eased through the threading-the-eye-of-the-needle test – negotiating the narrow, inches-to-spare driveway exit from the Booths’ backyard – Graham had no qualms.
On the day of the wedding, despite Leanne’s concern about him getting to the venue on time, Martin drove the 28 miles without incident. “To start off with, the steering wheel is on the wrong side,” Martin comments, “but the brakes actually stop you, unlike a Scammell Pioneer, although staring down that very long bonnet doesn’t help.”
The morning after the wedding, Martin sprung a surprise. He thought it only right that Leanne should take EGG’s wheel and drive them back to Southport. Thrilled? It was the drive of her life.
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