Fifty Two years ago on the site of wartime allotments at High Cross near Ware in Hertfordshire, England and with no more than a small garage to work from, the company of Oakley Horseboxes was born. Today the company has a turnover in excess of £10 million and is renowned throughout the equestrian world for their high quality vehicles, which are a far cry from the first production horsebox model in 1959.
However, it was in 1947 as a boy of 14 that Brian Oakley had his original concept and first experience of building a horsebox. At school he was keen on carpentry and with his father, Charles, they constructed a box on an ex-army Ford chassis which had been bought for £40.
"When the vehicle was finished, my father sold it for £200 and since he didn't pay me anything, there was a good profit margin on the deal", Brian recalls.
There followed for Brian and his brother, Barry, apprenticeships in aeronautical engineering at De Havillland's in Hatfield (now part of British Aerospace) where they worked on the wooden frames for Mosquito aircraft. Then came a period of national service as an airframe fitter and engineer with the Royal Air Force. It meant working to a high degree of accuracy in wood and aluminium, experience which were to prove invaluable later in the construction of Oakley horseboxes.
With National Service behind him Brian decided to put his experience to the test. Armed with confidence but with hardly a penny to his name, he set up business at High Cross with his brother and Frank Lancaster, a commercial vehicle coach builder.
The first boxes were built working in the open with illumination provided by electric lights hanging from an oak tree. Planning permission to build a proper factory was turned down by the local authority, but Brian and his team struggled on working under almost impossible conditions.
Help eventually came through the intervention of the Rural Industrial Bureau which took up the case and finally obtained planning permission for a 40ft x 60ft factory. It was the breakthrough that Brian wanted.
By 1964 the company was employing six on the shop floor and producing one mahogany box a week. Orders came flooding in and by 1970 a paint shop was added, the staff increased to 15 and production had stepped up to three boxes a week.
As each box left the factory the staff downed tools, rushed to their cars or any vehicle they could lay their hands on and gave a good, long blast on the horn. The tradition still exists today, but with the type of vehicle now being produced taking around 3000 hours to build the hooting and tooting is less frequent, much to the relief, no doubt of the Noise Abatement Society.
The company went from strength to strength until a disastrous fire in 1978 completely destroyed the factory and production was badly affected for nine months. However, this set back only made Brian Oakley and his staff more determined.
While a new factory was being built, work carried on in the open once again. The customers appreciated the difficult situation and rallied in support, underlining the excellent relationship that has always existed between them and the company.
As Brian Oakley explains: "Our policy has always been to build boxes to individual customers requirements and this calls for very close co-operation from the drawing board to the finished product. Working alongside our customers in this way has helped to forge long and lasting friendships and this has been a key to our company's success".
Oakley's business now stretches far beyond these shores with boxes being exported throughout Europe, Scandinavia, the Middle East, Asia and the USA.
The leading names in Showing, Show Jumping, Eventing, Dressage, Racing, Polo and Driving have Oakley horseboxes. They are also in service with most of the countries Police Forces, Horse Transportation companies, charity organisations and they have produced many vehicles for the Motor Racing fraternity.
Today's boxes are far removed from the simple mahogany vehicles built by Oakley's 60 years ago. Now they are aluminium panelled, up to 39ft long and have 6 star hotel class accommodation. They have every modern facility including continuous hot running water, under-floor / radiator central heating, power showers, Dishwashers / Washing machine / dryers, Satellite television, Cinema surround sound DVD, satellite navigation equipment, fully equipped hand built kitchens with marble/granite worktops, hand stitched leather upholstery, on board self monitoring generators and separate water tanks and hoses for washing and grooming horses up to peak show standard.
Among Oakley's more important pioneering achievements has been to incorporate the chassis cab into the bodywork allowing easy access between the two areas, whilst retaining the vehicles tilt cab with a fully waterproof seal and the hydraulically operated pull out side extensions to living accommodations, shower rooms and horse areas.
Oakley are considered to be the foremost horsebox builders in the world with exports likely to double that of last year and a healthy order book to take the company with confidence into the foreseeable future.