21 May 1999

TIPPING TATA

PACKS A LOT

FOR THE PRICE

GOT any old scrap, Guvnor? Although the rumbling of a tip-bed truck usually heralds the arrival of a slightly shifty dealer, take a second look – now Tata has worked over the Loadbeta and given it the dropside treatment, that might just be your neighbour pulling into the yard. Boosting the chances are added 4wd (a first for the Indian maker), and a cracklingly competitive pre-VAT price of £11,914.

For this you get an Indo-Anglo hybrid, whose chassis/cab unit gets a GB-made aluminium dropside bed and electro-hydraulics at Tatas Bridlington base. The conversion is neatly done and sits over a heavy 3.25mm-wall chassis.

&#42 Engine, transmission

After our first Tata experience (1995) we asked for more power from the Peugeot-derived 2.0 litre diesel. Well, its here: Turbocharging and intercooling takes the indirect-injection units output from 68hp to 90hp, and hikes torque from 87lbf ft to 141 lbf ft. Big increases both, but the Loadbeta still wont set your trousers on fire.

Loaded or empty it plods along in an uncomplaining way, with the engine considering after each gearchange and usually deciding to give things a go. Its a fatalistic, middle-of-the-road sort of powerplant, surprisingly quiet and smooth apart from a mid-range patch of tingle and exhaust resonance, imparting to the Tata the phlegmatic outlook of a beast of burden.

Given enough space the 1700+kg truck will manage a faintly hectic 80mph. More happily it cruises at 70, with long or steep main road hills forcing a shift from the overdrive fifth gear. On byways the Tata wont be hurried, but thats not too often an irritation on a rural beat. The only real shortcoming is a lack of pulling power from rest which, together with a high first gear, can give the clutch a hard time under load.

In 95 we slated the gearbox. Again the makers have obliged, ditching the awkward dogleg-into-first pattern for a more conventional gate. Theres a jump into third that the motor sometimes has to work at plus audible evidence of slack (raising the question of how the transmission will age), but otherwise the driveline is much improved – shifts are now light and crisp and the middleweight clutch easy to manage.

&#42 Accommodation

At this end of the market dont expect the high life. The doors clang shut on a cabin that looks and smells like the inside of a vinyl factory. Apart from the seats cloth panels, plastics of varying degrees of shininess either make up or cover everything. Nothing quite fits (the floor linings curl, the panel gaps wander) and some of the textures are frankly peculiar. Styling comes straight from the mid-seventies, right down to early Montego steering column stalks and a tiny, unreadable-in-sunlight LED clock. An unexpected find in this perfectly serviceable, all-manual environment is a small rotary switch for 4wd/low range engagement, of which more later.

Yet its not all hair-shirt stuff. There are two surprisingly soft seats (the drivers version of which squeaks like a sackful of mice over bumps), strong ventilation from a noisy fan and, beyond the slab-faced, decidedly non-airbag steering wheel and its up/down adjustable column, a modern instrument pack. Most of the limited space behind the seats is taken up by a jack and toolkit, the latter moderately comprehensive. Narrow door bins have a can holder, theres a small cubby in the dash and shallow trays on top.

Tall drivers can find enough headroom. But unless youre happy with the seats back set ramrod-straight, be prepared to drive with your knees more or less round your ears – the Tata offers 75mm less distance from clutch pedal to the cabin back wall than a Mitsubishi L200, and that takes its toll on legroom.

&#42 Ride, steering, handling, brakes

One look at those mighty rear leaf springs and all anatomical parts clench automatically as the first big pothole looms. Yet the impact never comes; somehow the Loadbetas front torsion bars and Stone Age rear axle draw the teeth from Englands minor roads and rough tracks. Irrespective of surface the body wriggles, its fair helping of vertical bounce filtered by soft seating on its way to the driver. Through a series of deep ripples the front end is a mite frisky, but even unladen thats as bad as it gets. Adding the full tonne payload makes the body squeak on its blocks and flattens the ride to a slow pitching. Overall, comfort is higher than in most mainstream pickups and a bonus in this bargain one.

The steering. Ah, the steering. Heavy even with power assistance and always letting out small belt-slip or hydraulic squeals, its ponderous, dead and limited in lock. Travelling straight ahead you can twitch the wheel 50mm either side of centre and the Tata doesnt deviate.

In fairness it does stay on line once persuaded into a bend, which takes a fair heave at the wheel as the steering is low-geared about the centre. After substantial body roll – despite anti-sway bars front and back – youll find reasonable dry-tarmac grip slurring into mushy understeer. Dive in too fast and the rear end gives serious thought to sliding. Caught unawares in the wet, an unladen Loadbeta could be entertaining.

Braking comes from discs up front, drums at the back. No ABS of course, just reasonable stopping power from a servo-assisted pedal. The 1,400mile test truck pulled left on light braking and juddered its pedal in harder stops, feeling in need of attention under Tatas three-year, 60,000mile warranty.

&#42 Loadabilities

A steel lattice underpins an aluminium dropside bed. Power for 40deg tipping comes from a Fenner 12V motor/pump, sending oil to a three-stage ram on command from a cab switch.

As the 2130mm x 1710mm bed sits over the rear wheels its completely flat and open – a blessing diluted only by the resulting high loading height – so sliding stuff in and out is easy. The rear corner posts are fixed, though, so you cant have a true flatbed. Anti-luce pins hold the dropsides in place, hiding neatly in recesses but jamming when weight rests on them.

Detailing is neat and ladder stops are built in up front, but the practicalities could be better. The rear cab window definitely needs a grille or it wont be long for this world; theres a shortage of rope hooks above the wheels; the wire-rope tailgate supports should be swapped for adjustable-length chains, and we managed to shear one of a pair of pop rivets holding each support rope bracket. Bolts here would be stronger.

The Tata carries a full payload with no complaint. The engine needs to think a big longer but is still up to the challenge, while the springing still has travel in hand for tracks, railway crossings and the like. Just watch the extra body roll into bends – the load mass is carried high – and the already-low spare wheel and exhaust, which get perilously close to the deck through dipping gateways. Once on site the hydraulics hoist the platform smartly and controllably, suggesting plenty of spare lift capacity for agricultural overloads.

&#42 Off road

The Tata normally powers its back wheels. A basic 4wd driveline (a low-range box but no windup-preventing centre diff or traction-boosting axle locks) is worked from a dashboard thumbwheel, with lights confirming whats engaged and what isnt. All-wheel drive can be shifted in and out on the move and you need no lamp to know when its in; the extra growling and vibration is enough. Automatic front hubs take their time releasing once 4wd is off, generally needing a short spell in reverse to unlock.

Ground clearance over sharp crests is OK. The same doesnt hold elsewhere – the plastic front spoiler cracked in deep ruts and the low-slung exhaust, the spare wheel and fat hubcaps are all variously at risk. Up front the lower wishbones plough through rut walls but seemed none the worse for it.

Low range can crunch into engagement but once there produces a big speed reduction, letting that steady, non-peaky power pull the Tata up hill and brake it down dale. Despite limited movement in the leaf-sprung rear axle the truck managed our usual off-road terrain, though had the chalk been less benignly dry and grippy things might have been different. All told, a Loadbeta should master normal farming.

&#42 Sum-up

Early UK Tatas were an easy target for jokes. This ones plastic cabin will still raise eyebrows; shortcomings in both legroom and the steering still need to be sorted, power is still only adequate and the test cars brakes raise the reliability question. But with the kindly ride and quiet interior now backed by a better powertrain and the versatility of 4wd, a bargain-price Tata (in tipper form or otherwise) deserves a hard look.