In 1856 Edwin Foden (1841–1911) became apprenticed to the agricultural equipment manufacturing company of Plant & Hancock. He left the company for an apprenticeship at Crewe Railway Works but returned to Plant & Hancock at the age of 19. Shortly afterwards he became a partner in the company. On the retirement of George Hancock in 1887 the company was renamed Edwin Foden Sons & Co. Ltd. The company produced massive industrial engines, as well as small stationary steam engines and, from 1880, agricultural traction engines.
Experimental steam lorries were first produced shortly after the turn of the 20th century. In 1878, the legislation affecting agricultural use was eased and as a result, Foden produced a successful range of agricultural traction engines. The perfecting of the compound traction engine in 1887 gave a significant marketing advantage and later proved invaluable to the development of the steam lorry.
1896 saw the restrictions affecting road transport ease, which permitted vehicles under 3 tons to travel at up to 12 mph (19 km/h) without a red flag. The time was right and Foden produced a series of four prototype wagons. The experience gained from this, enabled Foden to build a 3 ton wagon for the 1901 War Office self-propelled lorry trial.
This design was consistently faster and more economical over the arduous road trials but was placed second overall as it was claimed that the Thornycroft entry had better off-road performance. Foden's wagon was nevertheless regarded by most commentators as a clear winner (the result was questioned in Parliament). This model was the basis for a highly successful line of vehicles which were produced over the next 30 years. The great majority of Foden steam lorries were overtype, but undertypes were also produced, including the unsuccessful E-type and the O-type "Speed-6" and "Speed-12", which was a much more modern vehicle.
By 1930 Edwin's son, Edwin Richard, (1870–1950) (known to everyone as simply E.R.) could see the future lay in diesel power. In late 1932 he resigned from the Board of Directors, following several years of bitter wranglings, and subsequently retired; he was 62 and ready for retirement, having spent his entire working life at Foden's. His son Dennis couldn't afford to resign, but wasn't prepared to let things ride; however, with financial input from across the immediate family a new company was set up to design and produce diesel lorries. George Faulkener, related to Dennis by marriage, became Works Manager and Ernest Sherratt, both ex-Foden employees, helped to design a new diesel wagon. Edwin Richard Foden was persuaded to come out of retirement and head the new company which became known as ERF.
Fodens very nearly went out of business in the early 1930s owing to two somewhat related circumstances. Firstly, steam traction was losing favour with commercial vehicle operators who, seeking less expensive and labour intensive means of working, were going over to the internal combustion engine. Secondly, a government-led investigation into the haulage industry, which became known as the Salter Report, found heavily against steam vehicles, generalising them as being dangerous to other road users and a fire risk. The damning report combined with already dwindling sales put extreme pressure on Fodens to look to new technology, the same that E R Foden had advocated but which the firm had dismissed. By the time Fodens had come to accept E R’s philosophy, the latter had retired from the company and established his own lorry making business which became known as ERF. In these desperate times for Fodens, William Foden, E R’s elder brother who had retired to Australia in the 1920s, returned to England in order to save the family firm from disaster. A new range of lorries was devised, and in so doing William implemented a components rationalisation policy to save money and to streamline production. The result was the DG, an example seen here in service with Hughes Brothers of Buxton. The DG was a success story; the vehicles earned a reputation for reliability, and whilst not fast were strong, easy to maintain and, probably essential, drivers enjoyed driving them. For the 1930s, the DG sported an elegant style of cab which employed a measure of streamlining. Note the starting handle: operating this would have.
By the end of the 1950's, production had reached the 500 mark for the first ever time. If the 1950's were years of consolidation, the 1960's were years of technical advancement. Yet the decade began under a cloud with the death of Denis Foden. Peter Foden then only 30 years of age took over the business reins and set about a programme of change. Gerald Broadbent, by now Managing Director of Bowyer Bros (Boalloy) of Congleton was again consulted to design and produce another ground breaking and revolutionary new cab for ERF. He christened his new creation the Long Vue cab. The LV cab made its first appearance fitted to haulier and ERF distributor Frank Tucker's eight wheel tipper in 1962 at the Earls Court Commerical Motor Show. It combined a stylish appearance with luxury internal fittings and a number of new and innovative features like a full width front access panel for maintenance, concealed door hinges, a large one piece windscreen and vertical push button door handles so that ropes thrown over the load did not snag up on them.
The cuts in rail lines during the 1960's really worked in ERF's favour as did the 1964 Construction and Use Regulations which permitted 32-tonne gross-weight articulated vehicles. This change in policy was one that ERF anticipated and were able to capitalise on fully. Buoyant export trade however matched growing domestic success, and although hauliers were still smarting from a 50 percent increase in road tax, ERF remained committed to technical improvement. The late 1960's saw the retirement of Ernest Sherratt (although he did stay actively involved at ERF) as Chief Engineer and the appointment of some new and innovative people into engineering roles. Eric Green came in from Atkinson and Alan Turner from Chrysler Dodge. The need for a new, stronger and lighter weight chassis design was needed by 1970 to stay in line with fierce competition and the new engineers rose to the challenge with the new 'A Series' of chassis design. This incorporated lighter but stronger chassis rails of parallel depth, lightweight split cross members, longer outboard mounted rear springs, rear axle shock absorbers and the consolidation and rationalised grouping of components like air tanks. The New A Series chassis were a huge success helping ERF to record sales of 9.7 million. Despite sharing it's redesigned 7LV cab with many rigid vehicles, the A Series was in fact only produced in numbers in tractor unit form. The old LV models, including LV tractor units, continued in production alongside the A Series until the announcement of the new B Series models in late 1974.
In 1970, ERF had tendered to buy competitor Atkinson. Ultimately the bid failed and Seddon were the successful buyers, the new company being called Seddon Atkinson. Many of the old Atkinson workforce did not like change and some moved across to ERF. One such key engineer was Jack Cooke who's influence led to the development of another entirely new groundbreaking cab. The steel framed, fibreglass paneled SP (Steel / Plastics) as fitted on the B Series models.
At the end of 1979 ERF were building 16 trucks a day, in the depth of the recession it was just 16 a week. The bottom had fallen out of the market and by the end of 1983, the Sandbach workforce had been trimmed from 1,400 to just over 600, with the factory on a two day week. An ambitious plan for a Wrexham assembly plant had to be abandoned and the Fire Engineering Division put up for sale. What's more, an agreement with Japanese truck maker Hino to manufacture 12 to 15 tonners at Sandbach was killed off by a change in the value of the Yen. ERF battled on through these difficult times. Some of the competitors were not so lucky.
The company was bought by Canadian truck maker Western Star in 1996. Peter Foden retired as chairman and chief executive of ERF Holdings in December 1996 becoming honorary life president enabling him to keep in contact with the company he and his family built up.