Ratcliff Palfinger is one of the best-known names in the tail-lift industry. Tail-lifts tend to be associated primarily with heavy trucks, but how important is meeting the needs of light commercial vehicle operators to your business?

We view it as a very valuable sector of the market. We expect to sell more than 1,600 tail-lifts suitable for LCVs this year compared with getting on for 1,300 in 2006. So far as we're concerned demand for tail-lifts for 3.5- to 6.5-tonners is booming and if we're honest it's helped to keep our factory in Welwyn Garden City — we make about 95 per cent of the tail-lifts we sell in Britain in this country — ticking over.


Is that because sales of tail-lifts for heavier vehicles are being disrupted by a shortage of new truck chassis thanks to long lead times?

That's very much the case. I would have to say to our credit though that one of the reasons for our success in the LCV market is the amount of work we've put in over the past few years developing our 500kg-capacity Flexi-Lift column lift range. It allows us to offer customers pretty much anything they want within a modular construction, including steel platforms, aluminium platforms, galvanised mesh platforms, folding platforms and a variety of platform sizes. What's more, you can have Flexi-Lift with fixed or hinged ramps on the end of the platform, hinged side ramps, hook-in side ramps, roll stops and safety gates.


How big do you think the total annual UK market is for tail-lifts for light commercials?

Around 6,000 units, but that's a very rough figure. We're the number two player in the sector. One thing that's stimulating interest in tail-lifts for 3.5-tonners is the number of operators trading down from 7.5 tonne — we make a range of tail-lifts suitable for 7.5-tonners too — to 3.5 tonnes because of difficulties getting drivers as a result of the change in the driver licensing regulations some while back.


Vehicles grossing at 3.5 tonnes are of course used to deliver heavy items such as full oil drums and to transport palletised loads. You may need a tail-lift to help you get such cargoes on and off, and health and safety regulations impose a limit on the amount of weight an individual can be expected to lift in and out of a vehicle unaided. So if I want a tail-lift for a panel van — a Ford Transit, say — what would you recommend? 

If you need to make use of the entire cargo area then I would recommend an underfloor commercial cassette-type lift like our RUL300C. You shouldn't have ground clearance issues with it and it has a 300kg lifting capacity. We offer one with a platform that's 725mm wide and with Transit you can have a platform that's 1,200mm deep with a heavy-duty step. Other vans with longer rear overhangs allow you to have a platform that is 1,350mm deep.


What if I want to keep stowing the spare wheel under the vehicle — it has to be stowed elsewhere if you fit a cassette lift — and I don't need to utilise the whole of the load area?

Then you can specify a twin-pillar internal lift such as our RTC350. It will lift 350kg and comes with a platform that's 830mm wide and from 800mm to 1,250mm deep. It's a good standard size for the sort of boxes, cages and drums that the driver might encounter every day of the week and the platform is stowed inside the doors.


How about a lift suitable for a Luton or a box-body on a 3.5 tonne chassis?

That's the application Flexi-Lift is designed for. As I indicated earlier, it can be pretty much tailor-made to suit your requirements. What's more, it's easy for the bodybuilder to install — it's pre-wired and the power pack is in the beam so all the bodybuilder needs to do is bolt it into place and connect it to the battery — and it has a price advantage over chassis-mounted lifts. Something else we offer is a U-frame Flexi-Lift. Its columns do not extend below the lower beam, which means there is no need to move the light clusters, and ground clearance is increased.


Can Flexi-Lift be fitted to a dropside?

Yes it can, and with the same range of options. We find that dropside owners regularly opt for galvanised mesh platforms to reduce wind drag or for platforms with aluminium planks if weight is an issue. They often like folding aluminium platforms to make it easier for the driver to see over the platform through his rear view mirrors when it is stowed and because it blends in nicely with the body's side boards. Folding platforms can also allow a bigger platform size to be achieved.


Is there anything you can offer tipper operators?

Within the Flexi-Lift range we've got the Tip-Over and the Tip-Through. In the former case the platform lowers to vehicle floor level in its stowed position allowing the load to be discharged as the body tips. With the latter you remove the two lower platform pins allowing the platform to swing open as the body tips so that the load can be tipped through it.


How much weight can you save if you opt for aluminium rather than steel?

Take a standard RQ510 Flexi-Lift, for instance. It has a steel platform and weighs from 190kg. The RQ517 Flexi-Lift, however, has an aluminium platform in a galvanised steel frame and that weighs from 150kg in total. Then we've got the all-aluminium RQ518 Flexi-Lift and that weighs from 115kg. Incidentally, we're the only manufacturer to make a fully anodised all-aluminium lift as a standard model.


What does choosing alloy do to the lift's price?

The RQ518 will typically cost you around £300 more than the RQ517.


What's the price of a tail-lift fully installed?

A reputable bodybuilder would supply and fit a 500kg capacity lift for from around £1,600 for the base model to up to approximately £2,000 for something really sophisticated.


What are you up to on the passenger lift side of things?

We unveiled the C-Thru in 2006, it went on sale earlier this year, it's gaining in popularity and we're expanding the range. It's got a vertically split mesh platform to ease movement through the vehicle's back doors and improve vision rearwards. Customers are looking for more lifting capacity — more and more people are using heavy electric wheelchairs — and bigger platforms and in response we're further developing our standard RUL300 range to accommodate their needs. It already includes the RUL350A which, like the C-Thru, will lift 350kg. On average we sell over 1,200 passenger lifts annually. It's an important market to us and we're currently looking to strengthen our sales team.


Where can I get my tail-lift serviced and how much maintenance is it going to require?

We've got 44 agents nationwide and many of them are large companies with their own networks, so our coverage is really comprehensive. Our agents have got mobile engineers who will come out to your premises and they work round the clock. We recommend a service once every six months and a six-monthly thorough examination of the tail-lift by a competent person as stipulated in LOLER, the Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment Regulations 1998. Although it is not a legal requirement, we would also recommend an annual weight test.


Operators should remember too that under PUWER (the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998) only competent and trained people are permitted to operate, repair and service a tail-lift. So what warranty do you offer on your lifts?

Twelve months parts and labour, and extended warranties are available. Contract maintenance agreements are available through our agents.


Many operators fear that if they use the tail-lift regularly during a delivery run, they'll flatten the vehicle's battery and they won't be able to re-start the engine. Aside from installing a second battery — assuming that there is space on the vehicle — can anything be done to prevent this from happening?

You can always have a re-start protector fitted. It's installed when the tail-lift is first acquired, but can be fitted retrospectively, and ours gives the driver an audible warning so that he knows when his battery is running out of juice. If he ignores it, then the tail-lift will stop working. He'll have to start his engine and let it tick over to put some juice back into the battery.