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Articles By Mike Rooth

Steam Tractor, Part I

Someone once labelled me as a "railhead",whatever that means, I forget whether it was the LRO list or not. I get the idea that this involves a rahter rigid set of parameters,so I wouldnt agree.

Many years ago,two blokes over here,both owning steam traction engines decided to bet a barrel of beer over whose was the fastest. Out of this race grew a (then) English phenomenon of "The Traction Engine Rally".I'll try to describe the English Traction Engine, because it was very little like Mr Cases American offering. If you imagine a locomotive boiler,and bolt an oblong plate either side the firebox(outside,Maloney),put a large cylinder block on top of said boiler,just behind the smokebox,with the large flywheel running in bearing housings in the top of the bolted on plates(called hornplates,thought you'd like that Bill).Put an axle in the hornplates as well,geared from the crankshaft via one or two intermediate shafts. The wheels,instead of the round spoke versions on American engines,had flat spokes,"palmed" at the outer ends and rivetted to the wheel rims, and cast into the wheel centres.Coal and water were carried in a bunker/ water tank bolted onto the back of the hornplates.Steering,wagon type, *not* Ackermann was via a worm and wheel arrangement onto a shaft laid across the firebox front,and thence by chains to the front axle.And you thought the Land Rover had vague steering!

There are various types.The largest by far are the twenty ton ploughing engines,the next down termed "Road Locomotives" mainy run by heavy haulage contractors,either single cylinder or two cylinder compound machines,often used in tandem,one engine weighing in at about ten to twelve tons,with a solid,as against spoked flywheel,and a deeply bow roofed canopy covering the footplate and cranksaft,but not the motion work.Its showman's counterpart was a real dandy,with an all over canopy, brilliant paintwork,twisted brass canopy supports(called "Olivers",I dont know why),side sheets round the motion,with decorative brass stars attached,and a dynamo bolted onto rails attatched to an platform bolted to the smokebox.If anyone has ever seen the old British film "The Iron Maiden" you will know what I mean.

The Agricultural Traction Engine is a farmers tool,usually,but not always single cylindered,no canopy,spoked flywheel,at about eight tons. The speed merchants were the delighful five and much rarer three ton steam tractors,for "light" haulage work.Some of these were indecently fast at about thirty MPH,*plenty* fast enough for something with no brakes!

I got involved with the then local rally,simply because it was held on a sixty odd acre field owned by a lifelong friend of Fathers whose own father was a ploughing contractor,and whose address was in fact "The Steam Plough Works" in a local village.All the sons weree brought up in steam,and the surviving ones are still much happier with it than any modern offering.

In those days,the rally was fun.The week previous to it,all the stock would be removed from the field.This included old Captain,the retired grey farm horse,who could see no good reason why he should be evicted without giving everyone some much needed exercise.The fact that normally we kids could go and sit on his back with no trouble didnt seem to enter the calculation.Finaaly,he gave in,and stood looking ill fed(not true) over the fence into the rally field.

The area designated as the show ring was rolled,and the tents arrived, the biggest,of course,being the beer tent,to which,knowing the host family,yours truly had access.

Steaming up was *not* a ten minute affair.The previous day,the winter sheeets would be taken off the engine.The smokebox door was opened and the wildlife evicted.The motion work was then degreased,polished, and lightly oiled,by dint of climbing along the wooden footboard bolted on brackets down the right side of the boiler.This was a feature of ploughing engines only,because the extra st of gearing for the drum set the crankshaft much further forward than any other type.Out came the oilers,so the each bearing could have its share,and steam oil was persuaded into the cylinder lubricator.Steam oil,by the way,makes 90W look like water.It is pumped directly into the steam chest by a ratchet driven pump on the total loss principal.The engine was put into full forward gear via the reversing lever(Johnson bar to you lot) and the roed gears put into neutral,*and pinned there*.

With the cylinder drain cocks open to release any pressure,the six foot or so flywheel was pushed round by hand to ensure everything was free.At this point the farms water tank trailer arrived behind a tractor(little grey Fergie,what else)and we filled the boiler to half a gauge glass through the manhole(inspection) cover on the barrel and replaced the manhole,*not* forgetting to dog it up tight! More water went into the the bunker tank,drained for the winter. Now we could light the fire.A great pile of nominally dry straw was shoved into the smokebox,while dry or kerosene soakd wood was bunged through the firehole door.The straw in the smokebox was supposed to promote a bit more draught through the firebox. At this point,if you had any sense you ran for it!Choking clouds of smoke *everywhere*.Particularly if some clown had forgotten to take the cap off the chimney.Since you needed a ladder to get up there this was a frequent(read invariable) occurence.Once the fire had caught,you added coal in smaal but frequent quantities.The advantage of being host was,of course,you got the best coal. Some hours laterwith pressure showing on the gauge,the blower could be put on.This was a small wheel valve that allowed a jet of steam up the chimney,and drew the fire.One of those instances that expended energy,to gain energy,almost unique to the stam engine. At about forty pounds,with the boiler rumbling like a contented horses belly,the regulator(throttle) could be opened,still out of gear,and for the first time the lovely deep "tum,tum,tum" of exhaust could be heard.Blower off,since the exhaust was now taking over and drawing the fire.The cylinder drains were still open at this point,to blow out condensate,rather than punch the cylinder cover clean across the yard!Tip.*Always* wait until someone is underneath the drain outlets, the result is very worthwhile!Shut the regulator,lever into mid gear, and feel the bearings for heat.They never *did* overheat,but you checked nevertheless.

*Now* we've got to get her across the road,with her mate right behind her.Try the injector,shut the water pump bypass to get a little more into the boiler.Water pump works,the bloody injector NEVER works. If you havent come across these evil little beings before,they are a Victorian invention,with no moving parts,which,using boiler pressure, put water into the boiler against its own pressure.Unfortunately,they wont work when warm,and frequently had to have a bucket of cold chucked at them to get them started.the *proper* way is to open the water valve first,let some out of the overflow,THEN open the steam valve,but it takes too long.
Engage road gear.Push the reversing lever into full forward.Band brake on the steering fully tight.These were old engines,and the steering was distinctly....well..peculiar.For one thing,they went the *opposite* way to the wheel,and for another,the worm and wheel system wasnt current when they were born,and they had a horizontal drum under the bunker, with a huge ring gear,with a vertical steering shaft with the wheel at the top,and a little gear at the bottom,which engage the big ring gear.The drum had chain round it which was connected to the front axle. The steering didnt kick back,it had a boot like a brontosaurus with piles,and it would throw the steersman clean off the engine if the bandbrake on the steering shaft wasnt always a bit "on".

Open the regulator.WHOOF....WHOOF..whuffwwhuffwhuffwhuff.Twenty tons heaves itself out of the shed.After the initail effort she would "tum tum tum" across the yard with very little noise apart from the straight cut gears grinding,and the steel wheels on the yard. The motion flashes round in front,an unbalanced single throw crank and its massive big end,the valve eccentrics tumbling next to it, grey haze from the tall chimney right in front,and *God help anyone in the way*.Down the bank towards the road,chck that there's enough water in the boiler to cover the firebox crown on the downslope, coast to a halt on the kerb.The gate to the rally field is diasgonally opposite,and the right hand engine is immediately behind.The guy across the road says he cant see anything coming or hear anything either (Must remember to ask him about his glasses and hearing aid).Throttle wide open,both steersmen grunting with the effort of bringing her round to the right a bit,whistle blasting,drain cocks wide open,blowing steam all over,up the bank....ohhh that gatepost...*just* clear,into the rickyard,left a bit,MIND THAT HOLE,ease the throttle,stop.Good job about that hole,if the left front wheel had gone in,all four feet of wheel,it *would* have chucked the steersmen off.No2 grinds to a halt alongside.Bank the fire for the night,and cover the motion up.OUT of road gear,reversing lever in mid gear,cylinder drains shut.You should *really* leave these open for complete safety,particularly if you suspect the regulator of leaking sneakily,but these old girls have no such vices and can be left fot the night with no worries.Anyway,the most damag they can do is to wrap the tarpaulin round the motion overnight,which is a right pig if it happens,but they are well brung up engines and will be OK.
Tomorrow,the rally.

Christ! I'm running to installments these days...Be volumes next! Incidentally,if you're all bored witless by ancient steam,say so.I just thought it brought something of a new dimension to off road driving.They *were* the first thing I ever drove at about fourteen to fifteen.


Last modified April 30, 2005. 404 Not Found

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