Back in 1964, London ship owners and short-haul trucking executives chuckled indulgently when Mike Woodman and Bob Paul set off on the first of three trips from London to Kabul in a second-hand rig laden with Linotype letterpresses.
But it was Woodman and Paul, now co-directors of one of Europe's most successful long-distance trucking firms, who had the last laugh.
For their 30,000-mile, 12-month odyssey proved that trucking to the Middle East could be a commercial proposition, and helped blaze the trail for what is now one of the busiest overland trade routes in the world.
"True, they did it the hard way," wrote the British trade journal Commercial Motor in February, 1965, "but so did Vasco da Gama, Marco Polo, Columbus and Cook."
The original idea was Woodman's. While driving to England from a stint as transport officer with the British Royal Air Force in Singapore, he began to wonder if trucks could haul freight from Europe to the Middle East.
After mulling it over for a year - and deciding it could be done - he invested his savings in a 1962 Guy Warrior truck and persuaded Paul, an old friend, to abandon a thriving but uninspiring dental practice to become his co-driver. Then he went looking for freight to haul.
That, to be sure, took time. But eventually he persuaded Linotype and Machinery, Ltd. that direct, door-to-door, driver-accompanied delivery was speedier and less risky than the usual methods of sending freight to Afghanistan : a ship to Karachi, a train to Peshawar and a truck to Kabul. Linotype and Machinery, Ltd. gave him the job of driving $200,000 worth of equipment straight to Kabul.
As it was obviously a gamble - no one had ever trucked goods to Afghanistan before - Woodman quickly found that no insurance company would provide comprehensive coverage for the run. But then Lloyd's of London came to the rescue and, in April 1964, the two truckers loaded six Linotype letterpresses on a York Freight master semitrailer and set off for Kabul.
The first leg was easy: they crossed the English Channel by ferry from Tilbury to Rotterdam and drove the Frankfurt-Munich-Salzburg-Graz route to the Yugoslav capital of Belgrade.
Then it got rough. "After Belgrade it was literally a track; all dirt to Istanbul," recalls Woodman. And east of Ankara it got worse, as the rig swung north along the Black Sea coast to Trabzon, crawled through three 7,500-foot mountain passes to Tehran, and bumped across the Desert of Death to Kabul.
"Dusty, bone-breaking, corrugated tracks, where the fastest you could drive was five miles an hour. Narrow mountain roads with sharp turns and loose surfaces and sheer drops on one side or the other. We got stuck countless times," says Woodman.
Customs formalities were equally primitive. In those days, TIR carnets - issued by the International Road Transport Union - extended only as far as the Turkish border, where it took Woodman and Paul five days to arrange a $17,000 bankers' guarantee to cover import duties on their cargo.
In Iran it wasn't much better. After much haggling at the Iranian border, it was agreed that a customs officer would accompany the truck across the country. "But after ten miles he'd had enough," recalls Woodman. "He jumped down from the cab and said he would take a bus."
But they got there. "The Great Britain-Afghanistan Express" arrived at its destination just 25 running days after leaving Britain. And when the machines were off-loaded the only damage found was to one crate.
The importer, Woodman said, was delighted. Had the machines come by the sea-rail-truck route, he told them, it would have taken at least three months. Furthermore, he said, because of the frequent re-handling, they would almost certainly have arrived damaged.
Relieved and triumphant, Woodman and Paul set off for home via Syria and Iraq, the southern route, where, ironically, on a straight asphalt roadway northwest of Baghdad, they got their worst scare of the trip.
"We passed a water-spraying truck coming in the opposite direction," recalls Woodman. "All of a sudden we were all over the place and jack-knifed off the road into the desert. They were spraying oil on the road, not water, to keep the asphalt in shape."
But again they made it and when the rig eventually pulled to a stop in London the distance clocked was exactly 10,000 miles. Unfortunately, Woodman says, they then learned that their tactical success was also a financial disaster. "We lost about $5,000," he says.
Undaunted, the two partners repaired their battered truck and tried again. In October, the same year, they hauled a second consignment of Linotype presses to Kabul and this time, having brought back a return load to Hamburg, wound - up in the black. Four months later, after their third and final Linotype delivery to Kabul, their critics conceded. In February, 1965, Commercial Motor, under a headline reading "TRUCKING TO ASIA IS NO PIPEDREAM," concluded that Woodman and Paul's fledgling transport company, Astran International, would "very quickly require more than one vehicle to run to or from the East." Just how many more, even Woodman never guessed.
Today, Astran has a fleet of 20 trucks, plus 60 chartered vehicles, shuttling constantly between Europe and the Middle East. Since the first trip to Kabul, Astran trucks have clocked about 14 million miles; in 1976 alone their massive white and bronze Scania and Volvo vehicles hauled about 18,000 tons of Middle East freight. "We doubled our operations in the past 12 months," said Woodman. "And we doubled them the 12 months before that too."
The center of Astran's booming operation today is the new 48,000-square-foot Middle East Freight Terminal at Addington, near London, in the leafy lanes of Kent.
There, chattering telex machines bring in round-the-clock reports of the drivers' progress and bustling secretaries move colored pins, denoting different vehicles, across a wall-to-wall map of Europe and the Middle East.
There too, outside the administration block, a man in a blue duffel coat and a waterproof hat hoses the dirt of 12 countries off a huge draw-bar trailer while mechanics, across the yard, tune up a tractor unit for its next trip east, and other workers in the warehouse load a Land Rover for the British Embassy in Tehran onto a Merriworth semitrailer. The daring gamble, obviously, has been worth it.
On the other hand, Woodman says, it's still a challenge. "You now have asphalt all the way and customs formalities are much simpler. But despite all these improvements running time is much the same. It still takes 30 days to Tehran because of congestion."
Although Woodman now runs Astran from behind a desk, and not behind a wheel, the slim, slightly balding ex-driver still makes regular trips to the Middle East, surveying new routes, conferring with agents, and smoothing the way for his fast-growing fleet. And although Astran now handles shipments by sea and air also, Woodman still believes road is best.
"At the moment, straight-through road transport represents the most effective distribution method to a large part of the Middle East," says the man who started it all.