Edward Stobart, the trucking legend who brought the phenomenon of "Stobart spotting" to Britain's motorways, has died from heart problems at the age of 56.
Mr Stobart turned his father Eddie's agricultural seeds business into a multimillion-pound haulage empire and quirk of British culture.
"Edward built Eddie Stobart into the iconic brand and business we know today," his brother William Stobart, who now runs the business, told staff yesterday with "great sadness and regret".
Edward Stobart took over the business in the late 1960s and within a decade spotting the green-and-red livery of Eddie Stobart lorries had become a favourite way to while away long journeys.
As a sign of the company's cult appeal, Twitter was flooded with condolences and messages of appreciation within minutes of the announcement of Mr Stobart's death in hospital in Coventry.
Mr Stobart famously bucked what he called the "shifty image" of lorry drivers by introducing a uniform of collar, tie and a green jacket. But his masterstroke was to give each of his lorry cabs a female name. The first was named Twiggy, after the model, and later there was a Tammy and a Dolly, after singers Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton. Today, the 2,250-strong fleet includes a Joyce Amy, an Angela Rachel and a Mandy Jane.
Mr Stobart ran the company for more than 30 years before selling it to his brother William in 2003. But he had long since handed over the privilege of naming new lorries to members of the official Stobart fan club, set up in the early 1990s and now boasting 15,000 members.
The company says the only way to participate in the christening of Stobart trucks is to join the club, but the waiting list of suggested names is running at between 18 months and two years. Occasionally, naming rights are auctioned for charity, the most lucrative netting a cool £20,000 in 2008. The fan club also produces "Steady Eddie" merchandise, selling everything from T-shirts to the Eddie Teddy and bringing in an estimated £1.5m a year.
Rather than collecting the individual fleet numbers, less committed spotters may simply shout "Stobart" on seeing one of the lorries, or keep a running total of the number seen on their journey. But fans are now so prevalent, Stobart-spotting has become a quirk of British culture.
The company has a biography The Eddie Stobart Story, by journalist Hunter Davies. It has been celebrated in song. The Wurzels' "I wanna be an Eddie Stobart driver", released to celebrate the company's 25th birthday in 1995, made it into the Top 100. There is even a spoof version: "I wanna join the Eddie Stobart fan club." And for younger fans, there are three series of Steady Eddie cartoons, featuring Steady Eddie himself and friends Loretta Lorry and Rick van Rental.
Edward Stobart hit the headlines last May when he was banned from driving for 20 months for drunk-driving his Mercedes. His barrister said Mr Stobart recognised it as "one of the stupidest acts he has ever undertaken". Mr Stobart is survived by his wife, Mandy, and six children. His father, Eddie, now in his 80s, is still going strong.Reuse content