How low can you go? We head to Reddicth-based Fly By Nite to put DAF’s XF530 FT Low Deck chassis to the test

Low Deck tractors have become synonymous with the entertainment industry over the years. The configuration is quite unusual – but the ability to run lower and maximise volume is an essential part of many operations.

Besides entertainment, sectors in the UK that take Low Decks are TV and film support, the automotive industry (such as motorsport) and closed-car transport (ie, exotic cars, prototypes kept under wraps, etc). They are also used for transporting automotive components, for example, where panels and parts are moved from factory to factory between countries for final assembly in the UK. In addition, volume movers such as parcel couriers also make use of these chassis.

The Low Deck is a niche product for DAF in the UK and it sells about 100-150 per year. In the rest of Europe, take-up is wider – in a good year, DAF sells about 5000 Low Deck tractors to operators where volume is key.

DAF UK’s marketing manager, Phil Moon, reckons DAF has a 95 per cent share of the Low Deck market in this country. “This is largely down to the design of our chassis, but also the Super Space Cab and the strength of our DAFaid international back-up service, which is of benefit to operators going out from the UK and across Europe,” Moon says.

Typical operators are the likes of Stardes and Brian Yeardley – but DAF reckons Redditch-based Fly By Nite is probably the single biggest operator of Low Decks in the entertainment sector in the UK.

Evolving needs

If you go back a few years, a typical truck servicing the entertainment industry would be a 4×2 tractor with conventional fifth wheel height and step-frame trailer. But for this industry, contending with the step can be problematic. What’s more, touring around Europe means having to adhere to an 4.0 m overall height restriction, which of course impacts volume. There are height sensors active in the EU now, meaning trucks running just a few centimetres higher than 4 m will get fined – so sticking to the limit is imperative.

A Low Deck chassis enables operators to use a straight-frame trailer which can run on low-profile tyres to get the deck height down and give extra ceiling room. It also enables easier loading via a flat floor. This is important as a lot of stage gear is forklifted or wheeled in via transit cases, so the ability to push them right up to the bulkhead rather than going up a ramp can make get-ins and get-outs a lot quicker and easier.

Internal volume is about 100 m3 by virtue of having a floor height of about 1 m, with 3 m of free space between the floor and the roof of the trailer.

But when you lower a vehicle, you can run into problems with ground clearance and approach angles – such as when getting onto ferries, or negotiating steep ramps to loading bays or stages, where you are essentially loading at ground level. So operators need a set-up that balances the low ride height with the ability to work with these angles and clearances – and this is where the Low Deck chassis comes in.

The key to being able to lower the truck is to adapt the suspension. The vehicle has low-profile tyres, but that isn’t enough in itself to achieve the loading height required. DAF offers two front axles. The first is 163N rated at eight tonnes, which uses lowered parabolic suspension on a single leaf steel spring and was the norm a few years ago. But nowadays, DAF said most customers choose the air-suspended 161N eight-tonne option, which gives drivers more control over ride height.

The driver can increase chassis height to maintain clearance between the trailer front edge and the tractor chassis on steep ramps, or when riding over sleeping policemen, humpback bridges etc. With an air-suspended front axle, a Manoeuvring Mode enables the chassis to be raised up to 50 mm at the front and 60 mm (laden) or 85 mm (unladed) at the rear. This mode is activated via a dashboard switch at a vehicle speed below 30 kmh, and deactivates automatically when the truck exceeds 30 kmh.

Outside of Manoeuvring Mode, drivers can also select a lowered ride height of -70 mm, or a raised height of +130 mm depending on requirements. This is handy if you encounter a major obstacle, or if you need to profile the tractor and trailer and keep them in line on a slope, for example. And to ensure ground clearance isn’t compromised during loading, tyre deflection is compensated for (up to 10 mm at the front and 25 mm at the rear) by adding extra pressure to the air bellows.

Taking the fifth

FT can be specified with a low-height fifth wheel by Jost and Fontaine, which is mounted on a flat plate; or dual-height Jost version which is manually air-controlled so you can raise or lower it as necessary. A low-height fifth wheel means there’s a greater chance of the trailer clashing with the tractor chassis, so DAF offers a chassis protection beam to protect the catwalk from damage. This is optional for 96 cm fifth wheels, and standard for 91 cm versions.

In terms of engines, DAF offers Low Decks with MX-11 450 bhp, or MX-13 at 430, 480 or 530 bhp. Available gearboxes are automated TraXon 12-speed direct-drives with rear axle ratio of 2.39:1, or manual 16-speed overdrive top gearboxes with rear axle ratio of 2.53:1.

DAF’s Low Deck family also includes an FA 4×2 rigid, plus three 26-tonne 6x2s in the shape of FAN with rear steer, FAR non-steered single wheel or FAS with twin-tyred non-steer rear axle.

On the road

Redditch-based Fly By Nite offers a slick touring logistics service for recording artists and entertainers, and has worked with such high-profile acts as Lady Gaga, Rhianna, Kylie Minogue and Stormzy – and it’s to the operator’s state-of-the-art rehearsal studio that we’ve come to test drive a DAF XF530 FT Low Deck tractor unit.

Cab choice is an important consideration for events haulage because the trucks are double-manned most of the time. It’s common or drivers to stay in their trucks for the duration of a tour, typically only sleeping elsewhere when taking a 45-hour break. If drivers are in the truck for week after week, storage for two people’s equipment is important.

The roomy Super Space Cab is ideal for this; it offers plenty of lockers and two good bunks. It’s also very comfortable to drive, as we were reminded when we left Redditch and joined the A435 and headed north for the M42.

As is now the norm, DAF’s demo truck was running on HVO (a cleaner fuel made from hydrotreated vegetable oils) – and as usual we were hard-pressed to tell the difference between HVO and diesel in terms of performance. Accelerating onto the motorway at Portway, the 32-tonne combination pulled very well indeed – as it should with 530 horses on tap.

Once up to cruising speed, we engaged Cruise Control and settled in for a pleasant drive. DAFs have always been good driver’s trucks, and we detected no obvious difference to handling characteristics when driving this Low Deck compared to a normal-height chassis.

But we weren’t on the motorway long – roadworks ahead meant we took a detour at Junction 3 and headed down the A441. Knocking the ACC off for a spell, the automated TraXon offered a super-smooth ride through some twists and turns, finally leading us back into Redditch and our base.

Manual option

Also available to drive was an XF530 FT Low Deck with 16-speed manual gearbox, which we took out for a drive along the same test route. We hadn’t driven a manual for a while and it was certainly fun to blow away the cobwebs – but compared to the ride quality of the latest TraXon automated ’boxes, we’re not sure why anyone but die-hards would spec a manual for on-highway haulage these days.

DAF said it is re-evaluating the need for manual gearboxes for the future. Though they still have a small, but significant following in the UK, the numbers sold across the rest of Europe are minimal. DAF’s manuals are no-cost options, so operators with a valued driver that prefers a stick shift can cater for them without breaking the bank. But automated transmissions are demonstrably better for fuel, and also have a big impact on a chassis’ VECTO score.

Some heavy-haulage drivers favour a manual ’box, though that is beginning to change – a 6×4 heavy-haulage tractor with an automated 16-speed TraXon gearbox is currently in build, said DAF.

Traditionally, manuals have been simpler to maintain, but the recent introduction of the more reliable TraXon automated ’box is beginning to change minds.

Phil Moon told us the series of vehicles DAF is offering today is probably going to be the last it offers with a manual gearbox – so customers who want one will have to be quick!

Verdict

DAF has put serious thought into its Low Deck range and it’s perhaps easy to see why the Dutch manufacturer has so much of the UK’s market sown up. Add in the attraction of the roomy Super Space Cab and you have a well-spec’d vehicle ready for lengthy double-manned operations into Europe, in which the driver (or drivers) can live pretty comfortably for an extended period.

Though Low Decks are a niche product, their ability to work with straight-frame trailers offering maximum volume renders them invaluable for some hauliers. Fly By Nite’s operation is just one example of how this flexibility – coupled with the driver’s ability to adjust chassis height when faced with obstacles – can mean all the difference.

SPECIFICATION

Model: DAF XF520 FT Low Deck 4×2
• Test gcw: 32,000 kg
• Chassis: 3.6 m wheelbase, 0.87 m overhang, 720-litre aluminium fuel tank, 90-litre AdBlue tank, Jost JSK37CW cast iron fifth wheel
• Front axle: 8000 kg 161N (air suspended)
• Rear axles: 11,500 kg single-reduction SR1347 (air suspended), 8000 kg (lifting trailing axle)
• Tyres: Goodyear 375/50R22.5 (front), 295/60R22.5 (rear)
• Gearbox: 12-speed TraXon automated
• Engine: 12.9-litre MX-13, Euro 6d, MX Engine Brake
• Max power: 530 bhp @ 1675 rpm
• Max torque: 2600 Nm @ 1000-1400 rpm
• Additional equipment: Super Space Cab with Exclusive trim, Xtra Leather Air driver’s and co-driver’s seats, leather steering wheel, Xtra Comfort pocket sprung mattress on lower bunk, 42-litre fridge

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