Special feature: Sharp Spreaders

By: Lyndsay Whittle, Photography by: Supplied

It's a miracle 93 year old Alf Sharp is still around, having been run over by one of his own trucks, and surviving a rollover - but that's just part of his story

Alf Sharp

Alfred (Alf) Sharp was born in 1929 in Oratia, an outer suburb of Auckland, which at the time was about a 45-minute drive west of the central city, where in the late 1940s he began his working life at the age of 15 as a carpenter’s apprentice.

His two older brothers Bevan and Ernie, however, had established a fairly successful transport and fertiliser spreading business, which was also based in Oratia. The area was well-known right up to the 1980s for its many orchards and vineyards, making it ideal picking for anyone who could place fertiliser on the ground in the most efficient way.

Alf can’t be absolutely certain how he came to give up carpentry and become involved in the fertiliser spreading business, nor can his two sons Craig and Blair recall him talking about it. But at the age of about 25, he bought his brothers’ shares in Sharp Brothers Ltd, naming the new entity Alf Sharp Spreaders Ltd.

S Bedford spreaders

Up hill...

The inspiration to write this story came about because of a fascination I had with Sharp’s S Bedford spreaders that were often parked opposite Oratia Primary School’s football field.
One day in 1958, a brand-new S Bedford (the one pictured in this article, in fact) appeared beside the earlier 1955 model in the Sharp yard looking all bright and shiny.

...and down dale

Being a true-blue Kiwi lad, I should’ve had my eye on the ball during sports time, but those trucks were the real point of interest for an eight-year-old kid. I would’ve dearly loved to go over the road and talk to Mr Sharp about his new truck, but for this shy kid, it took a further 64 years for any such meeting to take place.

A TK Bedford kicking up a storm

I’ve no idea of what the odds are that a man who was in business in the early 1950s would be active enough to pop around for a chat in 2022, about events that took place nearly three-quarters of a century earlier. After a quick photoshoot beside Alf’s old S Bedford, which is awaiting restoration in my storage shed, it was time to get the lowdown on his interesting business life.

4x4 Dodge brush with death

Dodge and four-wheel trailer

Alf’s several brushes with death over the years left him battered and bruised, but oddly enough, at 93, he’s still standing; in fact, standing is exactly what he did for about half an hour as he recounted his many years in the fertiliser spreading business.


An Alf Sharp-designed two-axle spreading trailler

Most Aucklanders will be familiar with the area in which the following incident took place. It all happened in an area near to where the Westgate shopping development now stands, but back in the early 1950s, the area was the ‘back and beyond’.

Alf was called by a customer to spread a few loads of superphosphate and was asked to take the old 4x4 Dodge he had at the time, down to the bottom of a paddock. The farmer told him to check out the old rickety bridge, which was basically an old railway wagon chassis with a few boards on top, strung over a creek before he attempted a crossing.

Wanting to avoid any mishaps, Alf drove to the bottom of the paddock and as instructed, stopped the truck and got out to do a recce. What happened next is that the Dodge’s cardan shaft handbrake let loose, and Alf simply didn’t have enough time to get out of the way.

The result was that the truck’s C section bumper knocked him under the truck and luckily it was the 4X4’s high ground clearance that saved Alf’s life. After what would’ve been a few seconds regaining his composition, Alf dragged himself from under the truck and much to the surprise and relief of the open-mouthed farmer, emerged still being able to stand and speak coherently.

The speedy trip to a local doctor’s surgery confirmed no lasting harm had resulted and this was followed by a trip back to the farm to collect the truck and continue with the remainder of the day’s work.

S Bedford rollover

Rollovers simply came with the territory

Rollovers were considered a potential hazard that simply came with the territory, however, another incident involving one of the S Bedfords took place not on a hilly farm but on the road, although, on this occasion, it wasn’t with Alf at the wheel.

The Sharp good fortune played its hand and the driver walked away unharmed

Evidently, when the driver was making a sharp right-hand turn, a tyre blew out and over went the truck. Once again, the Sharp good fortune played its hand and the driver walked away unharmed in spite of the lack of mandatory fitting of seatbelts in that bygone era.

Modified S model Bedfords

Before we go any further with the story, by now, there will be readers who know their Bedfords who’ll be saying that the fool writing this story keeps referring to them as ‘S’ Bedfords when the photos are clearly showing 4X4 trucks, which must make them ‘RLs’, mustn’t it?

They are actually 4x4 modified S Models, but more about that later. Some readers may see by one of the photos that Sharp Bros used a Dodge in their early days but changed to Bedford as their fleet increased in size.

A lot will say that the Bedford brand was often considered to be a lightweight in trucking terms and that there must’ve been other brands that would have served them better when that question was put to Alf his answer was emphatic.

Adding TK Bedfords to the fleet

A fleet of TKs in the ’60s

Alf says he once observed a competitor’s Bedford operating in some fairly steep territory, and it ran rings around the truck he was using at the time. He goes on to say that the S Bedfords served him so well that when the TK was introduced in about 1960/61, he had no hesitation in adding one to his fleet.

An early-model TK on a job in West Auckland c1963

One of the TKs wasn’t as lucky as Alf was on one occasion in the mid-60s though, as he admits that he pushed it a little too far and realised it was going to roll. There wasn’t going to be enough time to open the door and bai lout, so he lay across the seats and waited for the inevitable to take place.

A long wheelbase (KELC3) Bedford with the Waitakere Ranges as a backdrop

When the rolling was over, he wasn’t as lucky as he was when his truck ran over him 10 or 15 years earlier. This time the gear lever damaged his spine, fortunately not badly enough to cause complete loss of function to his extremities, but nonetheless, this time a trip to the hospital was the order of the day.

Inventor and innovator

Alf preferred an Autocar transfer case over an original GM version

Alf always was and still is the kind of guy who forever has his thinking cap on. You’ll recall earlier in this article the debate about whether his Bedfords were S or RL models. Of course, the manufacturers produced the R for the four-wheel-drive market, of which various country’s armies, including the New Zealand Army, were large purchasers.

An earlier 1954–55 S Bedford

In fact, 2000 RL 4x4 Bedfords were manufactured for the British Civil Defence when the threat of the Cold War loomed large. Dubbed the ‘Green Goddess’, mobile pumping units were pulled back into action during firefighters’ strike in England in the 1980s, which surely gave the brand some serious credentials.

Serious clout or not, Alf figured that he could produce a 4x4 Bedford by taking a 4x2 S (these were actually SLCG Series to give them their full title) and place a front diff under them, using an Autocar transfer case, as he believed them to be more robust than the standard GM case.

Fertiliser spinner

Two TKs stop work for a quick photo opportunity

Other innovations included driving the spinners that spread the fertiliser via a direct drive from the PTO (power take-off) rather than following tradition in which spinners on early models were belt-driven, either of the vehicle’s driveshaft or a ‘donkey’ (auxiliary) motor.

Alf says a lot of early donkey motors were Ford Tens, however, Alf decided to get really flash and install an MK1 Ford Zephyr with no muffler, a contributor he reckons towards his increasing lack of hearing.

While he didn’t say so in as many words, the straight-piped Zephyr donkey motor must’ve led him to conjuring up the idea of the PTO-drive version of making the spinners spin. However, water-cooled engines had a propensity for overheating, so to overcome this problem, Alf fitted an air-cooled VW engine on one of his TK Bedfords.

Concertina tarp 

Look closely and you’ll see it’s not a semi-trailer

One of the jobs in a fertiliser spreader’s day’s work that pleased Alf the least was having to climb up onto the hopper and cover the load with a tarpaulin. This was a necessary chore, not because of any health and safety regulations of the day but an imperative because in dry weather, the stuff blew everywhere and on rainy days it became sodden, making it impossible to spread.

Alf’s answer to this problem was to design a concertina-type tarp that ran on rails either side of the hopper, and to keep it rigid, he had semi-elliptical hoops sewn into the fabric.

This, in turn, was connected to a system of ropes and pulleys that could be moved forward and aft by means of a crank handle. Somebody improved on the system about 60 years later and has created a standalone business from the concept, well done Alf.

Ferguson 185 tractor

The Massey Ferguson 185 prior to the ‘Alf’ modification

About a decade after the rollover in the TK Bedford, in 1979, Alf bought a brand-new Ferguson 185 tractor from CB Norwood to replace an ageing Nissan Patrol spreader to meet the kiwifruit industry’s growing needs.

Alf had a one-of-a-kind PTO-driven trailer built by using a Thames Trader diff (turned upside down) to mate up to the tractor, as it had the same ratio as the Fergie. A complicated mechanism dreamed up by Alf gave the tractor/trailer unit 4x4 capability, along with driving the spinners through the Ferguson-patented ‘Live-Drive’ system.

The entire set-up gave the Ferguson incredible pulling power, with a three-tonne capacity.
As clever as the design of the machine was, it did have one drawback. In low range, it would freewheel on a downhill run, requiring a great deal of attention from the operator.

One dewy day in about 1985 when Alf would’ve been nearing 60, the tractor unit cut loose on a downhill slope and jack-knifed, leaving Alf with no other option but to jump clear, thus using up another of his ‘nine lives’.

Sometime later, a similar incident occurred, and once again Alf somehow or another managed to escape unscathed, leaving one very confused magazine writer wondering how this article ever came to be written.

While Alf’s body admittedly is showing some signs of wear after the better part of a century— and why wouldn’t it after everything he’s put it through—one thing can’t be denied, and that is he’s still as sharp as a tack. Some might say ‘Sharp by name, sharp by nature’. Alf, you’re an inspiration to us all.

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