Were you part of this era? Did you run a Recovery Operation, Coachworks, or Garage during the early days of vehicle Recovery? Much of the website is based on my experience taking National Rescue from a small coachworks covering the Kingston By Pass, to a multi branch group with depots in London, Surrey, Sussex, the Midlands and the West Country. I was also able to draw on my later life 'Computerising' the Industry, where I picked up on other people's experiences. Recently the friendships I have made over those years, has allowed my to get 'Inside Stories' and confirm dates and names.
HOWEVER! I am just one of many who lived through this wonderful time and I would love to publish others experiences and recollections. If computers worry you, I can help whip your text into something they understand. I would also like to have any pictures of your kit at work, that you are happy to share (don't worry I have been ribbed constantly about the lack of Hard Hats, Gloves Boots and Florescent Jackets in my pictures and videos, but as you know, it was a different world back then). Please get in touch if you would be prepared to contribute.
Andy Lambert (Founder and MD of The National Rescue Group. Founder and MD of The MTS Group. Now retired from both, but remains in the industry as a Trustee in the charity RISC UK, as well as the webmaster to this and other sites)
As you will read elsewhere on this site, 'today's' recovery industry really started during the seventies. Anybody who is in the industry now, who was not part of those early days, may have problems understanding just how different things were, just forty short years ago. Those who were around then, will no doubt recall similar incidents, events and people, because my story is by no means unique. What was happening with us in Surrey, was also happening to others throughout the country.
To understand the 'way of life' back then, you must first remember motoring was also very different. For example, the Fire Brigade were not the professional rescue service they are today. All over the country, the police force 'unofficially' relied on the 'just passing' recovery truck, to help them out at the scene of an accident. This could be anything from 'dragging the causality clear', to using their breakdown kit, to cut trapped drivers out. With such a close relationship, it is fair to say most coachworks also monitored the police radio system, just to make sure they would be 'just passing' at the right time. Of course they did not do this entirely because they were public spirited, it was also a way of earning a living for most, and for many (myself included), it became a way of life.
When I started in recovery Motoring organisations, only really consisted of the AA and the RAC. Membership was small (by today's standards) and importantly, you were not covered for accident recovery. This meant that a coachworks would get most of its calls direct, and not mainly from 'the clubs', as it is today. Accidents were considerable more common than they are today, a tribute to the road safety innovations of recent years. National Rescue's Kingston office alone, at peak times in the seventies could handle five to ten RTA (now RTC) lifts a day. Unlike most of the professionals working a shift in the 'official' emergency services, a recovery driver could be on call and dealing with accidents 24hrs a day and seven days a week! This meant we got to know more than most about the causes of accident, the worst locations and the best vehicles to have one in.
Below we are cleaning up after Ringo Starr's little accident. Where he (and the lovely Barbara Bach) somersaulted over the Robin Hood roundabout in his Mercedes. The car was later crushed and we believe ended up as a coffee table in his house (if you ever read this Mr. Starr I would love a picture of that to put here).
Most of my early years were spent working the A3 between Putney and Guildford, but mainly along the Kingston By-Pass and Esher By-Passes. The first real recovery company I drove for, was the legendary Windmill Coachworks, of Molsey and later Staines. Next was Instant Service of Surbiton and then Cambridge Coachworks (called that because they were in Cambridge Road Kingston at the old Sun Engineering site). Before long I was promoted to Recovery Manger there and when I became a director, I formed National Rescue (because some TV puppets had pinched the name I really wanted - International Rescue). Ultimately this developed into The National Rescue Group and at our peak, we grew to have single Depots in Devon, Middlesex, and Sussex and several Depot across London, Surrey and The Midlands.
Because in those days all accidents were reported by the various police force's Traffic Divisions, you soon got to know the 'coppers' who were always dealing with the same accidents as you. Lets not kid ourselves, I remember the odd 'brown envelope' floating around, when traffic cars popped in to see my governor at the Coachworks, but that was they way of things in those early days, but it was not as common as some papers would have had you believe at the time. The reality was, that you often became good friends with the police. Because you both worked together in very hard, dangerous and often unpleasant conditions, it was impossible not to get to know some of them. In the event of an RTA with people trapped, it would often be the recovery vehicle driver who did the cutting free. I remember we carried far more cutting gear than the brigade did back then. For three years I drove a Bedford CF fitted with a large compressed air cylinder, just to power all my cutting gear. At the other extreme - I have lost count of the number of times I have held one end of the tape for a PC, or Skipper, while he measured the skid marks.
Our local police Garages were for the Met TDV based in Surbiton (in the old Cooper F1 Team's workshops) and Surrey Police Traffic at Burpham and Chertsey. Below is a photograph I took, showing some of TDV's finest dealing with a PolAcc (back in the days before that had to be called PVC's (Police Vehicle Collisions) just in case it prejudices a claim!).
In the case of a roll-over with derbies all over the road, it would be the Recovery Operator, Police and Fire Brigade who would often help the council clear up. As a rule we all worked together as a team, to get things done more quickly and get the road open again (Today's HATO's please note). There was little sticking to a duty roster, or doing it by the book - perhaps the book was still being written!. For sure roads were opened much sooner than they are today. and that in turn saved delays and more importantly lives.
The nature of the job attracted some unique personalities, both in the police force and amongst the recovery drivers. Most of whom would not last five minutes in today's 'highly trained' and 'politically correct' job. That said, if I had to face a modern major emergency I would be still be happier, to have any one of those 'unique individuals' beside me, in preference to today’s highly qualified, extensively trained, politically correct, identical clones.
One of the great compulsions of that time 'in the job', was to give everyone nicknames, both the police and your fellow drivers. I am told it is the same in military services and for sure it was common to not have a clue of someone’s real name, but to know their nickname. Some that I remember were -
Red Setter - had red hair
Hyphen - Had a hyphenated surname
Needy and Greedy - perhaps best left!
Jaws - because he had a big mouth (and a big heart).
Sunshine - because he would ask everyone he meet 'all right Sunshine?'.
Jim the Snake, because every job he was given, he would try and slip out of doing.
Spot - His name was Mark and that was the only nickname we could think of for him.
Four on the Trot Bot, He claimed it was a card came, but perhaps we won't go there.
Oscar Ripple - A young PC who was caught admiring himself and his uniform in the mirror.
Leroy - Something to do with the fact he was more often than not, covered in black grease?
Doctor Death (you had to see him dressed in his leather motorcycle gear walking out of the mist at 2am).
JPG Just Passing Geoff, (always just happened to pass a few moments after an RTA had happened. (What Radio officer?)
3M's There were two PC's both called Malcolm on the same relief - but this one had a slight stutter hence MMMalcolm.
Lofty Norman - A big man in all senses of the word. (I recall that he laughed at everything because that was his defence against the tragedies he saw each day).
The job at times could be very upsetting. Remember there were no compulsory seat belts, or skid lids back then, much less motorbike training. Some of the carnage we saw was awful and this caused a 'sick humour' to be needed and often practiced, just to get everyone through the day. Off duty you often played and occasionally drank together, as well. One of the best 'off duty' events I remember was the Met Police Raft Race, organised to raise money for the Falklands Fund. The pictures on the TDV website tell the story better than I can, and the surviving policeman and recovery drivers who were there, will no doubt have there own memories of the event. Below is the V Division Raft we helped build and transport leading the way (for a few seconds).
One of the great 'on duty' recreations, was when you were waiting for your next job and a police car chase came up on the radio. Because it was your colleagues (and some times friends) in possible danger, it was not unknown for one or two recovery vehicles to join in the chase! If it was a slow evening, any interesting call could have as many recovery trucks as police cars respond! There were many other amusing distractions while you were waiting for a call. I vividly remember one night (in the early hours actually), helping to round-up some horses, who had escaped from a field near Chessington. This was done by three teams of two PC's with 'tow rope' lassos clinging to the back of some four wheel drive recovery vehicle, chasing the horses across the fields. All this accompanied by abuse and free advice, shouted by a couple of ambulance crews, who had turned up to watch the fun.
The ambulance crews would often play host to both us and the police, at Kingston Hospital (usually in the early hours). After a particular long, or difficult night time job. We would congregate at the Hospital's Causality department and enjoy toast and tea with the lovely nurses.
One of the best things about those days was there was no directives saying what was correct and what was not. A policeman was perhaps not allowed to use passing recovery vehicles to clear the road quickly, but everyone accepted that they did. For the Recovery Operator there were few rules to work with. We knew little about gradients and number of turns on the winch drum. All we did know was that if the vehicle did not want to come back over the bank - you got a couple more guys to help you turn the winch handle, until it did. Try finding that under PAS43 or ISO 9000!. Later with the introduction of PTO powered winches and when winching a heavy load, a good recovery man could hear the tension in the cable. He could feel the crane move, listen to the PTO and engine's note and he know exactly when he was on the limit. Sadly, that is a lot harder today with all the hydraulics plumbing and safety cut-outs. I am not saying today's way is worse, just that it is not so much fun!
My first introduction to air bags was when we were given a roll-over near Esher, which just would not come up without them. I had to buy some second hand ones off one of my recovery heroes (Chris Cox of C&S Motors) at that moment and wait while they were delivered. The instruction (and full training on their use), was given by Stuart Histead (Chris's partner) 'there and then', using the causality as an example!!! Today of course you would need to first go on an expensive two day training course on air-bag-vehicle-rescue, which probably cost more than i paid for those air-bags.
This picture (above) is of that very day and taken from the late Alan Thomas' book Wreck and Recovery. The Reflective Jackets, Protective Glasses and Crash Helmets always worn today, must have been taken off, just a moment before the photo was taken! You can clearly see the mops of black hair Stuart and I had back then! Below is the three of us at a trade show in 2005. Note Chris leaning on me, still trying to persuade me to finally pay him for the air-bags.
The cost of any recovery for an insurance company (we were always sympathetic to motorists who did not have full cover) was always based on the maximum price you thought you could get away with. I found this very unsatisfactory and developed a much better and more scientific way of pricing jobs. This was based on the number of cigarettes I smoked during the recovery. A three fag job was thought to be a particularly hard one and would have been charged at fifty quid a fag i.e. 150 pounds total.
The money we made was put straight back into the business, because like most operators we run continually on bank overdraft. The recovery kit we used in the early days were mostly home made, the vehicles being brought at the local auctions. The back (usually a drop-side) was removed and our own bed was designed and built at the coachworks we were working for. There were of course exceptions on the heavy side like the ex-army heavies, such as the legendary Diamond T and the big Leylands. However, on the whole we built some damn fine kit, all between shouts. A good feature was copied by all the other guys on the ground and then often improved on. Once that happened we would copy it back again. When you did buy a 'ready made', it was nearly always new kit, fitted to a second hand chassis. Here you can see our second hand Ford Transcontinental dealing with a skip lorry, this would have been a little more than a three Fag job!
In the early days we operated mainly Land Rovers or Ford Transits, usually fitted with V8 Zephyr engines (hence the diesels engine front panels). Later on we also brought some ex-Wandsworth Counsel Bedford CF's and converted them. I remember one of the local competition Windmill Coachworks run an Austin Champ, but fitted with a fully tuned Healy 3000 engine. The lifting was always done by crane, usually a Harvey Frost, but there were other makes, notable Mann Egerton. A good man could 'chain lift' a brand new car using just a block of wood and the back seat from a 'write off' mini or 1100 (for padding) and then tow it a hundred miles without ever putting a mark on it. In later years we also operated a few Dodge 50's which I always though (along with the Ford Cargo), were the best looking vehicles around. By then we had also started using 'Spec-Lifts' for non accident work. This came about because during the seventies that great salesman Doug Maltby of Easylift, had convinced us to the Scandinavian idea of a 'Spec-Lifts' was the way forward. This was soon followed by the 'Under-lift' which meant you now had to be an idiot to damage a customer's car (but we still managed to employ some that did).
As I said earlier, when we started the company was called Cambridge Coachworks, but we decided to rename the recovery side National Rescue. Around this time I was blessed with having two very good friends, with recovery vehicles. One was John Dyos of Sunbury Salvage (the famous dismantlers with the Gyrocopter aircraft on the roof). The other was Bob Hunt of Langley Vale Garage. Two better mates a guy could not hope to find. Between the three of us we formed an alliance and agreed to help each other with work and staff references. The alliance worked well, until sadly John moved on to greater things (Dudley Autobase). However as far as Langley Vale is concerned, there is still cooperation over forty years on.
National Rescue continued to expand driven by a conviction that the Driving Hours regulations, would eventually be applied to Recovery Operators, as well as General Haulers. Something that in fact did not happen for many years and even today has so many loopholes and provisos it is often flouted. By the early nineties and at its peak the National Rescue Group had these operational depots up and down the country:
Birmingham (2 depots)
During the late nineties as I became more involved with the software we were developing and supplying to the recovery industry, I decided to retired from the board of NRG This lead to a change of direction for the company and as a result the branches were sold off, or closed down, allowing the company to contract. Today (2015) the original company is now owned by my good brother Geoff's son Martin Lambert. It has been streamlined and concentrates mainly on Car and Light Commercial recovery only. Birmingham Depot which at first was owned and operated by Kim and the late Peter Coles, has since 2012 been owned by Mark Macklin and again they have streamlined to concentrates on Car recoveries. With such a rich heritage, it is likely that both companies will be serving the public for many more years.
What has gone above is largely concerned with accident work, which after all is how we started. However, because we needed to find things to do with the fleet until the next accident or 'shout' came in, we started to look for alternative forms of revenue. In the early seventies we were approached by Red Rovers to become a breakdown agent for them. This was soon followed by National Breakdown. You can read all about these clubs in the history section of the site. These Yorkshire based clubs had spotted the need for a more comprehensive but flexible cover, than the existing clubs (AA / RAC) were offering. By the end of the seventies there were a string of clubs we were working for and our fleet had to change to cater for this new type of work. From out of these motoring organisations came some great supporters of the industry. Many also become good friends over the years. People like Phil Briercliffe, Bill Diegutis, Brian Hagan, Tom Johnson, Bryan North and Ernest Smith.
No recollection of those days could pass without mentioning the ‘small favours’ we were asked to do. These included knocking out small dents or buffing out a scratch on Police cars, before they went back at the end of the watch. In the early hours, quietly winching a Panda from out of the mud, in the middle of waste land, complete with a ‘red faced’ PC and his lady colleague. I even had to discretely rescue a Police Inspector from Ham Common along with a lady companion who wanted to go on a 'stake out'. We often supplied vehicles for local fates sometimes doing mock recoveries for the audience. Most enjoyable of all was supplying flat bed vehicles for floats in the annual Kingston College RAG Day.
However, the real challenges came from out neighbours at Brooklands the Brooklands Museum. It started with picking up the odd Car, but soon escalated to aircraft components and then finally full aircraft. In the thirty plus years I have been associated with the Museum; I have been involved in the recovery of a huge number of aircraft.
Above I am delivering my a friend's (Brian Angliss of AC Cars fame) Hawker Hurricane to Blackbushe for its maiden flight, after a complete rebuild. Tragically the aircraft would be lost a few years later, when it crashed into the South Downs during an Air show at that unlucky airfield Shoreham. Some of the aircraft we moved were large ones and most were not going to fly again as in the case of the Vickers Viking airliner I am rear lifting into its new location at Brooklands in the summer of 2010 The Cockpit section shown below, we recovered from a dismantler’s yard. It can now be seen along with a Concorde, a Vimy, a Viscount and many others we have rescued at Brooklands Museum.
So what happened to me? In the early eighties I had seen the need to computerise NRG and this had been very successful, in improving profitability. I then decided to offer the software I had designed for free, to my fellow operators. Then when that became impractical I formed a company Motor Trade Software and with the add of Ian Lane, we proceeded to change the industry forever. This was the years of Garage Manager and Turbo Dispatch over RAM, There is a lot to tell about those years, about the skulduggery and downright dishonesty of some of those involved and the way good triumphed over evil in the end. If you are intrigued by this, then look at the "Control Room Technology' part of the History of Recovery section of this website.
I officially retired from work in 2006, but kept being involved with the industry when I was asked to become a Trustee in RISC the UK Recovery Industry Support Charity. I was also able to become more involved with Brooklands Museum and have spent the last few years undertaking some interesting projects, often borrowing recovery kit from my nephew and other recovery friends, to still be able to the job done.
Let me end by saying this. The realisation that the industry need to regulate itself had caused us to join the first UK association AVRO towards the end of the seventies. Training of staff was very much 'on the job' the only real books on the subject being the great Bill Jackson's - We The Professionals and Ron Grice's - Vehicle Recovery. Ron's book starts with the classic line - "Nowadays, Vehicle Recovery is a very important business: "it is even almost respectable" and that's exactly what we thought of ourselves back in the seventies!