THERE is no mistaking Eddie Stobart lorries. Liveried in white, red, gold and green - especially green - and with big bold lettering, they are today a familiar sight on Mayo roads as they trundle daily between Dublin and the west. But behind the facade is an unique business story, and not without a Mayo connection.
The original Eddie Stobart, after whom the fleet is named, is still alive and well at the age of 82. He it was whose two lorries, hauling fertiliser and lime and stone and gravel to scattered farms around the English Lake District, started it all.
But it was his son, Edward, - no good at school, by his own cheerful admission, but great at figures - who built the company which has become part of modern culture. As a youngster, he had cut and sold bags of firewood door to door. In 1970, at the age of 15, having bade goodbye to school, he was operating a JCB machine installing the road signage on the new Carlisle bypass, the last stage of the M6 motorway. His working colleagues were a bunch of west of Ireland navvies, whose task it was to erect the signs as young Stobart dug down the required ten feet for each leg, under the friendly supervision of a Mayo site engineer, Seán Vallely.
With that work finished, Edward Stobart took over his father’s lorries and, along the way, transformed the image of road haulage in Britain. His lorries were freshly painted, and they were spotless. That was their hallmark. Truck cleanliness was their owner’s obsession, and Stobart took to sleeping overnight in the Carlisle depot to personally hose down and wash the trucks by hand when the place was empty. And he introduced a driver’s uniform, smart and crisp and stylish, with shirt and tie, a breach of the dress code rendering a driver liable to dismissal.
Finally, there was the master touch. Each lorry was given a girl’s name, emblazoned on the cab and on the front . The first ever was Twiggy, after the fashion icon of the sixties; then Tammy (for Wynette), Dolly (for Parton), and Suzy (for Quatro). As more names were added to a fleet that was growing by the dozens, Stobart spotting became a national craze. Spotters would spend hours on motorway bridges or suburban slip roads, logging and reporting that they had seen Wilma or Amy, Rebecca or Daisy Ann speeding by. Stobart drivers were directed to honk their horns and wave back whenever a Stobart spotter signalled a recognition.
Soon, the whole madcap idea had taken wings. A national Stobart Spotters’ Club grew with a reputed membership of 25,000. Comedians told Eddie Stobart gags. The Wurzels got into the top ten charts with ‘I want to be an Eddie Stobart driver’. And on Saturday afternoons at Carlisle United home games, when fans grew bored with the fare on display, the stadium would burst into the Hallelujah Chorus (to the strains of “Ed-die Stobart, Ed-die Stobart” ) in endless repetition, a chant later copied at so many north of England football grounds.
And then, at the age of 50, he exited the business as suddenly as he had started, selling out to his brother, William. Six years later - this time last year - Edward Stobart was dead at the age of 56, from a heart attack.
But the legend lives on. The big green giants, now numbering thousands, still ply Europe, and it is said that the distance travelled daily by the Stobart fleet is the equivalent of 24 laps of the earth.
Each lorry still sports the name of a girl, with a single unique exception. One particular lorry carries the improbable legend ‘Saoirse Eire’, a tribute no doubt to those early years when Edward Stobart and his JCB worked the M6 alongside the Irish road crew and their engineer, Seán Vallely.