Country troubadours have written innumerable hymns to truckers: Romantic nomads who dodge weigh scales and high-tail it down moonlit highways to deliver the freight before hustling home to their baby.
But nobody ever wrote a song about a forklift.
The big semis grab the glory, criss-crossing continents, meeting and beating impossible deadlines.
But no coal car, no grain hauler, no flashy 18-wheeler has ever left the loading dock without a forklift.
|Dave Olecko, Business Edge|
|Western Materials and Handling VP and general manager Lloyd Cunningham cringes at the way some users abuse the machines that give him such a lift.|
The forklift, sometimes known as a lift truck, is the blue-collar bulwark of the international transportation and distribution infrastructure.
It's a squat, broad-shouldered, warehouse warrior with the work ethic of a sled dog and the sex appeal of a fire hydrant.
Scarborough-based Toyota Industrial Equipment (TIE), a division of Toyota Canada Inc., got to thinking along these lines recently and decided to celebrate one of Canadian industry's working class anti-heroes.
TIE tried to drum up interest by ballyhooing the sale of its 35,000th forklift, sold by a Calgary dealer, Western Materials Handling, to a city roofing company.
Not surprisingly, most of Western Canada greeted the announcement with a barely-stifled yawn.
But Lloyd Cunningham, vice- president and general manager of Western Materials Handling (WMH), which has been selling Toyota forklifts for 35 years, treated the occasion with the solemnity and respect he felt it deserved.
Cunningham began his career, straight out of high school, as an apprentice forklift mechanic and he nurtures an abiding affection for these runty and rugged workhorses.
"The forklift doesn't get enough recognition or appreciation," he says. "We see it all the time, the way they get abused by some drivers."
(A full-service sales, rental and repair shop, WMH Calgary sells 300 forklifts a year, ranging in price from $30,000 to $100,000-plus. The company boasts a 40-per-cent marketing share in Western Canada.)
Meanwhile, Toyota's marketing zealots spend a lot of time trying to sex up the image of their stolid lift trucks, even sponsoring annual "forklift ballets" in Toronto. Ever see a couple of forklifts perform a Swan Lake pas de deux, like stubby rubber-tired versions of Nureyev and Fonteyn?
But Cunningham, more of a meat-and-potatoes guy, would rather talk about how a new 2,250-kg forklift can haul and heft as much as 5,850 kg, no problem. Or how one of his sturdy trucks can operate at full capacity for 30,000 hours with no serious mechanical breakdowns.
He'd rather discuss the ways Toyota - and other manufacturers such as Kalmar and Load Lifter - have dragged these mechanical stalwarts into the 21st century.
A licensed technician, Cunningham's in good position to appreciate such advancements. As a kid mechanic, he could have written volumes on how to make forklifts better. Once known as "stevedore trucks," forklifts first came into vogue about the time of the First World War. Cunningham was never asked to tinker with those relics but even by the 1970s, forklift design left much to be desired.
Because of bonehead engineering, it was always a challenge to reach a hand into a cramped engine compartment to replace parts. Cunningham used to replace dead starters by jacking up the old forklifts and dragging the malfunctioning part out the bottom of the machine.
"Nowadays, you just open the hood," he says.
Depending on the make of truck, the mechanic often had to pull the entire engine, just to replace a clutch.
"Today it takes maybe an hour and a half," Cunningham puts things in perspective. "Those old units, there was a lot of excess iron in them, for really no reason."
Modern forklifts, on the contrary, meet with his unqualified approval.
Engines are smaller and more intelligently designed. Components are more compact and more durable. Now fully electronic transmissions are more reliable.
Improved fuel systems and electronic ignitions mean more efficient engine performance and fuel economy, not to mention greatly reduced emissions.
"I don't know how people could stand working those old forklifts in an enclosed warehouse," Cunningham groans, figuratively holding his nose.
A true connoisseur, Cunningham can't help lamenting the way some forklift drivers abuse their units. WMH repair staff see some badly battered, scratched and ill-used lifters.
If he had his way, all forklift jockeys would take pride in their stumpy little sluggos.
With a wistful look, he recalls one particular warehouseman who could've eaten off the forks of his lift truck.
"An older gentleman," Cunningham remembers. "That guy looked after his truck like it was his own."
Nobody ever wrote a song about a forklift. Perhaps it's time.
(Tom Keyser is accepting lyric suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org)