Mar 03, 2024

Bedtime stories: a history of the sleeper cab

By: Steve Brooks, with assistance from Brian Weatherly.

Date: 21.06.2023

Sleeper cabs are, of course, a critical component of any long distance haulage operation and the plain fact is that without a decent bunk, attracting experienced drivers in an age of driver shortages can be a whole heap harder. Yet like most other aspects of truck development, sleepers have undergone their own remarkable evolution as this light-hearted limp into the past reveals.

Some years back, I was involved in a TV and YouTube video about two trucks on a trip along parts of the old Hume Highway. Simply titled ‘Highway 31’, the exercise was the brainchild of Matt Wood, now a converted corporate man with Volvo Group Australia but back then, a bloke keen as curry to sample life behind the wheel of one of yesterday’s big bangers.

No question, Woody’s a capable hand at the wheel but he’d long wanted to sample the truckin’ life he missed as a boy. Or as he put it, "live the trucking youth I never had" with a snapshot of the so-called good ol’ days, even if just for a day or two.

Capturing the passage of trucks and linehaul trucking in general, and separated by more than 40 years of engineering evolution, the two trucks featuring in the exercise were a remarkably well-preserved 1975 White 4000 and its modern-day descendant, a new Western Star 4900.

Typical for its time, and the absolute star of the story, the White was punched by one of Detroit Diesel’s famous screamin’ demons, an 8V71 stirring through a 15-speed overdrive Roadranger. Just as typical, you could hear it coming a mile off, the twin stacks belched soot almost every inch of the way, and Woody’s left arm had never been busier while his right ear rang like a car alarm. Still, and despite his obvious delight at briefly delving into yesteryear, I’m sure the thought of driving the ol’ cracker each and every day probably didn’t climb high on his wish list. A few days was more than enough.

Meantime, from where I sat, the workload was lightyears easier, smoother, quieter and no doubt safer as the 4900 Star with its DD15 engine, automated 18-speed box and superb steering and road manners made driving a genuine delight compared to the veteran workhorse.

Yet it wasn’t just time behind the wheel which so starkly separated the old from the new. In fact, from a long haul driver’s perspective, the sleepers of the two trucks were arguably as indicative as anything else of the evolution in truck design and driver comfort which has taken place over the past half century and more.

Like, Western Star’s Stratosphere stand-up sleeper is spacious and superbly appointed, and still easily among the best in the business. On the other hand, while the ‘dog box’ on the back of the White was good for its day and entirely typical of yesterday’s conventional big bangers, the modern-day mind boggled at the thought of shoehorning one’s self through the slot in the back of the cab, let alone imagining the difficulties of entry and extraction for a driver of, let’s say, more generous dimensions.

Indeed, it was around this point in the ‘Highway 31’ exercise that memory raced back to much earlier experiences in iconic trucks like the R-model Mack, W-model Kenworth and White Road Boss, most with sleeper boxes proving that when you’re tired enough, any bunk is better than no bunk. Then again, older timers will tell stories of a pillow on the steering wheel being a far better option than being dead-tired, if you get the picture.

Gratefully though, sleepers and attitudes to driver fatigue have come a long, long way, and they needed to, particularly given the vast distances and demands of linehaul trucking in our part of the world. But that said, some of the advances in sleeper design and space have been a surprisingly long time in the making, especially among European cab-overs and ironically, it was another Woody-inspired exercise which brought that point home with blunt clarity.

Sometime before ‘Highway 31’, we’d combined on a highly detailed production called ‘Clash of the Titans’ which ran two equally loaded B-doubles head-to-head; a 600hp Cummins-powered Kenworth K200 and a Volvo FH16 600. Long story short, the K200 had the exceptional space and appointments of a 2.8 metre ‘Big Cab’ sleeper whereas the FH had Volvo’s standard XL cab with what can only be described as a modest bunk berth.

Sleeping in the trucks each night on the linehaul triangle from Melbourne to Sydney, Brisbane and back to Melbourne down the Newell Highway, and daily swapping trailer sets and drivers from one truck to the other, it seemed like punishment when it came time to overnight in the Volvo bunk. While performance and fuel efficiency of the two brands were almost identical, the Volvo sleeper was notably deficient compared to the Kenworth.

However, in 2019 and after years of complaints about the FH’s mediocre sleeper, Volvo finally reintroduced its extended XXL Globetrotter cab and after sleeping in an FH 700 for a few nights on a roadtrain run from Brisbane to Darwin, it was easy to conclude that Volvo now had the best sleeper of all the continental cab-overs.

Meantime, and despite an increasingly appealing model range, the other Swedish brand was copping its fair share of flak for what some saw as a negligible sleeper for the Australian market. As we can now confirm though, Scania’s premium R-series range is offering its new and significantly enlarged CR23 cab specifically for markets such as Australia.

Moreover, after recently spending a night in Scania’s bigger cab on an interstate trip, there’s no question each of the Swedish brands can rightfully claim the best bunks of all the continental cab-overs. Just whose is the best, well, that’s something of a dud question: the simple fact is that Volvo and Scania now have bunks better suited to the Australian market than ever before, and it’s for their continental competitors to decide if or when they want to catch up.

Whatever, sleepers able to meet the complex requirements of length regulations and driver demands across vastly different international markets have long been a difficult issue. It is, however, more of a problem for European cab-overs contesting low volume, high demand markets such as Australia than their US counterparts where conventionals rule. Indeed, with the relatively recent demise of Freightliner Argosy, the only remnant of North American cab-overs for linehaul trucking is Kenworth’s classic K-series, built solely by Paccar Australia and well-equipped with various sleeper options.

As for bonneted trucks in our part of the world, length limits preclude the use of the cavernous sleepers available in the US but even so, there’s still a wide range of roomy, well-appointed, factory-built sleeper cabs to choose from.

On both sides of the Atlantic though, the history of sleeper cab development is a fascinating tale of innovation and invention, and perhaps nobody has told the story more completely than highly regarded UK commercial vehicle reporter, Brian Weatherley. Writing a few years back in Great Britain’s esteemed trucking publication, Commercial Motor, Brian’s prime focus was understandably on the continental cab-over class where sleeper designs have ranged from the rudimentary to the radical.

What follows is an edited version of his original report but cab-over or conventional, we can all be grateful that sleepers have progressed far beyond the dreamtime.

So who built the first sleeper cab? The only thing we know for sure is they started to appear in the late 1920s, perhaps first in the UK where a 1928 draughtsman’s drawing shows a Foden Wagon cab with sleeping bunks. The following year, Mack introduced a sleeper section on its BJ model.

Then in the 1930s sleeper cabs started appearing in greater numbers, especially in the US. As trucks became more reliable they began traveling beyond the point where they could return home every night, thus the demand for a sleeper cab was guaranteed.

Early examples included General Motors’ T-51 tractor from 1931 while two years later, Kenworth’s first sleeper appeared on the west coast.

However, most of those early US sleepers were created not by the chassis manufacturers, but local bodybuilders. In fact, right up to the 1960s, thousands of sleeper cab and sleeper box conversions for both bonneted and cab-over trucks were produced by countless independent coachbuilders scattered throughout mainland USA.

Meanwhile, shorter distances within UK road haulage along with the still-strong presence of the railways in longhaul freight meant demand for sleepers was smaller.

It was a different story on the continent. By the late 1930s you could buy an extended sleeper on a Mercedes-Benz LZ 10000 bonneted truck, though like their US counterparts, early German sleeper cabs were built by independent coachbuilders.

Then, with the war years interrupting road transport in Europe, it was left to the Americans to refine the breed in the 1940s but with the world slowly returning to normal, it was possible by the early 1950s to buy a bonneted MAN with a bed and an ‘improved sleeping position’. In 1953 MAN came up with another overnight innovation – a small sleeping compartment that stuck out of the top rear wall of a day cab. Known as a ‘swallow’s nest’, the concept wasn’t confined to MAN and pictures of other 1950s German trucks including Henschel, show them sporting the ‘swallow’s nest’ design.

Among the continental manufacturers, the Germans continued to set the pace. In 1955 Mercedes launched its first-ever factory-built cab-over, the LP315 which could be ordered with a sleeper cab containing not one, but two beds, courtesy of independent coachbuilder Wackenhut.

The curvaceous LP315 cab had seating for four, with a brochure explaining, ‘During breaks or at night, the rear seats can easily be converted into two comfortable beds’.

Across the border in the Netherlands, 1957 saw DAF’s distinctive 2000-series cab-over appear with a factory-built sleeper cab, and the basic layout carried over to the 2600 model launched in 1962.

The Brits, however, were lagging behind for numerous reasons. For thousands of UK drivers, a night out meant bedding down in one of the many traditional transport depots or ‘bed & breakfast’ houses across the land, while others simply slept across day cabs on beds made from old sofa cushions or ex-army stretchers.

Moreover, an early antipathy from the unions towards sleepers began but they weren’t the only ones, with one leading UK operator famously declaring: "When a man working in a factory finishes his shift would you expect him to go to sleep beside his lathe?" It was a good point.

Yet by the early 1960s, plenty of sleepers were being built in the UK. Foden offered a factory-made sleeper on its S20 cab, albeit for heavy haulage or export markets like Australia.

In 1963, Mercedes struck a major blow for factory-built bedrooms with its LP1620 tractor offering the brand’s first integrated sleeper. The LP’s boxy cab featured a wide entrance, large windows and relatively spacious interior thanks to a flat engine tunnel. The stand-out attraction, however, was a foldaway bed behind the seats.

Yet the LP1620 was only the beginning of factory-built sleepers. In 1965, the daddy of all classic sleeper cabs – Volvo’s F88 – made its European debut and the big Swede had it all. It even looked like a proper sleeper, complete with a purpose-built bed, so no longer would drivers have to use odd bits of foam laid across the engine tunnel to fashion a bed.

Throughout the late 1960s and 1970s the F88 was Europe’s and the UK’s must-have sleeper, especially for drivers pioneering Middle East freight routes.

In January 1968, Scania hit back with its slab-fronted LB110 model, followed a year later by the V8-powered LB140 and together they set new levels of comfort and space in sleepers.

When it came to new models with sleepers, the Swedes certainly got the ball rolling and the 1970s saw a bevy of factory-built bunks from all the major truck brands across Europe and the UK.

Then in 1979, the world changed again with the appearance of the Volvo Globetrotter, arguably the first of the truly big European sleepers. Launched only two years after the original F-series cabs, Globetrotter (sold on F10, F12 and later, F16 models) ushered in a new era for high-rise flagship sleepers during the 1980s and 1990s, including DAF’s original Space Cab, MAN’s F2000 Roadhaus, Renault’s Magnum, Scania’s Topline, Mercedes’ SK Powerliner EuroCab and Iveco EuroStar.

Unquestionably the biggest of all the continental cab-overs was Scania’s eXc concept sleeper shown at the 2002 Hanover Truck Show in Germany. Based on a 4-Series Topline cab stretched by 1.3 metres, it provided a massive living room and snooze zone behind the driver’s seat. Its full-size bed was located lengthwise along the side wall, allowing space for an armchair, kitchenette, wash basin and ample storage.

A year later, eXc entered full production as the Longline, with Scania hoping to persuade road transport bureaucrats at European Union headquarters in Brussels (Belgium) to extend Europe’s overall length limits to accommodate bigger, better sleepers for drivers. Sadly, Scania’s arguments fell on deaf ears and Longline was dropped when the R-series range was launched.

Fast forward to today, looking at the latest cabs from Volvo and Scania in particular, and those gigantic sleepers found on US linehaulers, driver accommodation has certainly come a long way from the days of wooden slabs and coffin-like boxes.

However, while the US applies limits to trailer length rather than the overall length of an articulated combination which allows for the extraordinary size of some sleepers, Europe’s cab-over class is still somewhat hamstrung by strict overall length limits.

Nonetheless, and no matter whose brand it is, the evolution of the modern sleeper cab still makes a great bedtime story.

For more trucking history and great photos, see OwnerDriver's June 2023 print edition!

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Sleeper cabs are, of course, a critical component of any long distance haulage operation and the plain fact is that without a decent bunk, attracting experienced drivers in an age of driver shortages can be a whole heap harder. Yet like most other aspects of truck development, sleepers have undergone their own remarkable evolution as this light-hearted limp into the past reveals.For more trucking history and great photos, see OwnerDriver's June 2023 print edition!You can also follow our updates by liking us on Facebook. Trucks For Hire | Forklifts For Hire | Cranes For Hire | Generators For Hire | Transportable Buildings For Hire