IT is almost as if Sunters had never existed.

As a chronicler of the company notes in a recently published book, the name of the famous heavy haulage specialists is not commemorated in any lane, drive or street on the housing estate now occupying the site of the depot in Boroughbridge Road, Northallerton.

Sunter Bros Ltd, it seems, has been airbrushed out of the history of the North Yorkshire county town which served as its base for just short of 50 years.

Yet there can be few of the older local generation who have not seen, or been held up by, some of the gargantuan industrial loads carried by this family firm which can trace its roots back to Swaledale.

I can remember newspaper photographers rushing out to grab pictures of an outsize boiler, a nitric acid container, a ship's propeller, a module for the offshore oil industry and even the retired steam locomotive Mallard as the consignment inched its way through a town centre or crawled along the A1 with a Sunter rig in charge.

It was the reporter's job to work up a caption or a story by ferreting out such details as vital statistics. The snapper's joy knew no bounds when a load was confirmed as a record breaker and his exclusive picture could be used big.

While our roads seem less colourful and interesting without so many of them, not everyone was happy about such travelling spectacles hogging so much space at only a few miles an hour faster than a snail.

Archives scoured by Mr Tony Eaton for his book Sunters: High, Wide and Mighty have yielded a letter fired off to Head Wrightson in 1963 by a travelling salesman who got stuck near Thirsk behind an abnormal load being carried by Sunters for the Teesside firm. The delay cost him a sale in Boroughbridge and his tirade, tempered with a bizarre sense of humour, included this: "Can you imagine what would have happened if Good Queen Bess had caught up with you on her way to York?

"You would have been arraigned for obstructing the Queen's highway and preventing free passage of her subjects on their lawful occasions. She would have had your 'head right off son' (sorry about that) and Master Sunter would have dangled from the gibbet in Thirsk for aiding and abetting."

Photographs show not only a pub sign being saved by an inch as an awkward load was shoe horned through Ripon city centre, but an unfortunate Sunter driver struggling through London traffic because he had been misdirected by his police escort (were those officers kicked upstairs to permanent desk jobs thereafter?).

As Mr Eaton says: "I dedicate this book to all motorists who have had the misfortune to be held up by high, wide and mighty loads on the Queen's highway, to all the fascinated bystanders who witnessed the movement of such loads and also to the men who manoeuvred those monstrous charges with such skill, dexterity and endurance."

All this high-powered super haulage is a world away from 19th century Reeth, where two Sunters from Gunnerside, George and Alice, were married at the Wesleyan chapel in 1890.

George worked as a carrying contractor for a lead mine and bought and sold calves. Alice was widely known for her literacy, her cookery skills and a beautiful singing voice.

Of the couple's ten children, it was the eldest boy, Tom, who laid the foundations of the haulage company as it became known. After overcoming life-threatening problems with diabetes, the former bus driver bought a Model T Ford with which he delivered his first commercial load, a sideboard from Hawes to Newcastle for £5.

Two lorries enabled him to break into the local timber transport business, in which he was joined by his brothers, Len and Joseph. By 1937 their growing haulage operation, with several staff, had moved from Gunnerside to Northallerton.

The war years saw expansion because vital materials had to be moved, but peace was accompanied by nationalisation of the road haulage industry. Its stultifying effects were felt for a few years by Sunters, who had taken advantage of another opportunity by buying a fleet of coaches with which they ran seaside trips and ferried Catterick troops to home leaves.

Only after the haulage industry was freed from nationalisation were Sunters, helped by compensation from the then Conservative government, able to start the expansion which placed them in the major league.

Over the next 30 years, the rigs which turned in and out of the depot below Northallerton railway station represented a veritable drum roll of international names specialising in pulling power: Diamond T, Atkinson, Volvo, Scania, Foden, AEC, Mercedes and Scammell.

Then there was the formidable Rotinoff, which was not a breed of dog but a specially ballasted heavy tractor unit designed by a Russian-born engineer of that name. This was used by Sunters in 1958 for the milestone contract which put them among the top three heavy hauliers in the country alongside Pickfords and Wynns.

Twelve massive heat exchangers built by Head Wrightson were taken by seagoing tugs to the Blackwater estuary in Essex, from where Sunters delivered them to Bradwell power station. The logistics of the operation were daunting, for if anything had gone wrong Sunters would have been sued for millions.

The next three decades, however, saw drastic changes which led to the end for Sunters. Tom, the driving force, died in 1963 and the following year saw a merger with Bulwark United Transport.

The boom in North Sea oil led to a dramatic increase in the size of loads, but market forces meant that by the 80s, Boroughbridge Road was too remote from the business the firm needed to survive and the writing was on the wall. The name and the traditional livery of red and grey disappeared in a merger with Econofreight in 1986.

The depot was closed and sold off as part of the deal. According to Mr Eaton, it left a bad taste in the mouths of staff who had known better days and felt that, from a human angle, the transfer could have been handled with more subtlety and thought.

Human interest runs deep throughout the story. The Sunter brothers could be hard taskmasters and trade unionism was anathema to Tom, but the company had some loyal staff on the payroll for years.

There are colourful stories of life on the road, including brushes with the police and logistical problems that needed sorting at remote locations in the days before mobile telephones, but Mr Eaton does not overlook office workers who played important unseen roles in planning routes and preparing wage packets.

Dispensing anecdotes and dry facts in almost equal measure, he stresses that his is not intended as a definitive history. "I decided that the story was to be told in a light and social style without too much emphasis on the internal machinations of big business, boardroom meetings or high technical specifications of vehicles and equipment."

l: Sunters: High, Wide and Mighty (ReCall Publications, £14.95), available from local shops or (postage and packing extra) Tony Eaton, 50 Turker Lane, Northallerton (01609 774439)