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Oily Hands and the Smell of Diesel: Tales of a Ford Dealer Engineer in the 1960s

Oily Hands and the Smell of Diesel: Tales of a Ford Dealer Engineer in the 1960s

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Oily Hands and the Smell of Diesel: Tales of a Ford Dealer Engineer in the 1960s

268 pagine
3 ore
Sep 29, 2017


1960 saw the dawn of an era of unprecedented innovation and development in farm machinery. It was a period of rapid technical advancement, that produced machines which are the mainstay of the current very buoyant vintage tractor restoration movement. At the start of the decade, spark-ignition Standard Fordson tractors still occasionally required repair; by the end of the decade, the Fordson Diesel Major had been replaced by the Ford 1000 series. The history of these iconic brands is well-known; Oily Hands and the Smell of Diesel gives an alternative view - the inside story of the agricultural machinery repair trade. First employed as an apprentice, then moving his way up to an engineer, David Harris gives an entertaining, informative and personal account of his time spent at a Ford main tractor dealership, working on Ford, Fordson, County, Roadless and Muirhill tractors, Chaseside loaders, Claas combines and New Holland and Jones balers amongst others. Including many historical photographs, David describes the technical challenges in detail, and tells of the ups and downs of life in the workshop and out in the field. This book will be a must-read for anyone who is or was involved in the machinery industry; anyone looking to restore or repair vintage agricultural machinery and anyone with a general interest in farming and machinery history.
Sep 29, 2017

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Oily Hands and the Smell of Diesel - David Harris



In at the Deep End

Iconsider myself very lucky in that I had quite a good idea what sort of job I wanted by the time I left school. From a very young age I would spend hours browsing the toy shop shelves for model tractors, and living in Fleet, Hampshire, I could watch the goings on at the County tractor factory while walking to and from school every day. Several members of my extended family were involved with farming and as a result I spent several school holidays on various farms; I drove my first tractor (illegally!) at the tender age of 7 or so while on holiday with Granny and uncles in Worthing, so the bug was already biting. That key event consisted of a short trip along what is now the A259 from Worthing towards Ferring. The road in those days was just one lane each way with a concrete surface, grass sprouting from the joints and hardly any traffic to speak of. The tractor was a venerable spark ignition Fordson Major (often known as the E27N from Ford’s designation), and who could resist the want a go? enquiry from my cousin George! Within a few years, Farm Mechanisation magazine became compulsory reading and being a Meccano addict probably reinforced the general desire to work on something mechanical. With attendance at the county shows, spending hours climbing all over the machinery, collecting masses of sales guff as only a teenager can and reading most of the excellent Ministry of Agriculture free leaflets from cover to cover, the die was cast. Born and brought up in Hampshire and Sussex, with a fair dose of rural Gloucestershire thrown in, family circumstances meant that, come 16, my home was in West Sussex when the time came to get a job. I was lucky to have had a grammar school education and wanted to stay on in the sixth form, more for the social life than the education (the school was co-ed) but in common with a fair proportion of the baby boomers there was only really one financial choice; go and get a job! To be honest this did not bother me overmuch. I was then, and am now, a doer, and the promise of independence and proper money in my pocket added to the feeling of anticipation.

Looking back, life was a lot simpler and definitely less technological in the 1960s than now in 2017. The main means of communication was the red telephone box down on the corner and the very reliable letter post from the GPO (General Post Office) which offered two deliveries a day via the postie and his bike. Personal transport for the average teenager (we had only just been invented! The term was first used in 1957 by Bill Haley) was almost certainly the pushbike, and the local private bus service ran six-cylinder petrol-powered Bedford single-deckers of 1950s vintage, top speed 30mph and bottom gear on the hills. If London was the destination, British Railway’s Horsham station offered a regular steam-driven service to Victoria via Three Bridges; slow, probably draughty and a bit dusty but usually on time. In the southbound direction, Brighton was accessible by the now long gone single line via Steyning to Shoreham, and the main line went to Barnham, Bognor and Chichester. Not every family had a car, but we were lucky to be able to run a second-hand Standard 8. Although private car production had recovered to an extent there were still many pre-war vehicles about and also a smattering of ex-military kit, especially commercials. Several companies still had repainted ex-army 4wd 3-tonners, either Bedford or Ford, especially as lime spreaders, and the local garage ran an ex-American army Diamond T wrecker, which we thought was something special. Motorbikes were popular with the single blokes, 125cc BSA bantams at the lower end and the 350cc and 500cc single-cylinder Nortons and Triumphs for the more affluent. With radials being three years away in the future all the vehicle tyres were cross-ply and drum brakes were the norm. The MOT test was first invented in 1960 for cars more than 10 years old and this did not come down to 3-year-old motors until 1967. Everyone wanted to run a car, but the current wages meant that many could not really afford to, so prior to the test there was certainly a fair selection of dodgy vehicles on the road, both private cars and commercial vehicles. Practically anything went; the occasional bit hanging off, a nice line in rust, lights not working, cracked windscreens, no wipers and a good line in bald tyres. Having said all that, there were many fewer vehicles on the road and average speeds were around 35mph.

Social life for us lads centred around four things; buying the latest (vinyl) record, trying usually without success to attract a young lady, and meeting up in Horsham either to go to one of the two local cinemas or spending the evening carefully spinning out a couple of pints in the local pubs. Either of the latter occupations usually ended up in the fish and chip shop but any endeavour after 9pm required one to have independent transport of some sort as the last bus out was 9.05pm, the alternative being, in my case, a four-mile walk home.

There were other forms of entertainment for country-orientated types. I bought my first shotgun at age 17, a lever action Greener 20 bore, and spent many happy hours after rabbits and pigeons on a local farm. I biked over to Haywards Heath, paid £1.5s (£1.25) for the gun and a box of twenty-five cartridges and brought the weapon back strapped to my crossbar. The only trouble encountered was not, as you might expect, an enquiry from the local policeman but a chewing from my mum for not telling her first! Sea and lake fishing were also popular pastimes, both venues providing good sport with plenty of fish to catch. Out came the trusty bike for excursions to the local ponds with an annual rod licence for 7s 6d (£0.375) if I remember rightly. Apart from the licence the only cost was the occasional set of hooks and the effort to raid the garden compost heap for worms. The favourite sea venue was Newhaven West Arm, however that meant a two-hour train journey and a mile walk from the station, although the sport was almost guaranteed. It all may seem a bit primitive now but we were happy, there were plenty of jobs available at all skill levels and the country was definitely on the up.

Weekends and holidays

Living on a farm for two years from the age of 14 without doubt fed my desire to work with agricultural machinery. Church Farm was a typical Sussex Weald mixed privately owned enterprise; about two hundred acres of varied soil types from half-reasonable loam to some flinty ground that was solid chalk about four inches down, plus several patches of traditional woodland. Pigs were a main enterprise, plus feed barley, hay for the owner’s horses, potatoes for sale and home use and the occasional trailer load of logs for the farm cottage fires. Staffing consisted of the farm manager, one tractor driver (my uncle Richard) of whom more later, one stockman and casual labour as required. The tractor fleet was limited to three Fordson Majors, the youngest about 3 years old and the other two a bit more venerable. They were hard used and although well maintained did not enjoy much in the way of cosmetic care; all in all the typical workhorses of a 1960s farm. My contribution was to spend every possible hour not tied up with school work (or fishing!) driving the Fordsons on a variety of tasks, sometimes paid but often voluntarily for fun. Trailer work collecting logs, hay turning, loading bales or picking up spuds all taught me how to drive a tractor safely and effectively, under the friendly guidance of the farm manager. The more I learned and experienced the more I became convinced that a career with agricultural machinery was the way to go and alongside this, unconsciously, my lifelong affinity to Ford and Fordson was established.

I originally thought that I might become a straightforward farm worker but there was a basic flaw in that plan. Those that know me are aware that I am designed like a fishing rod; long, thin and wider at the bottom than the top, and the following will perhaps demonstrate the problem. The farm ran a venerable Massey Harris 726 combine with the separated grain going through a rotary sieve and into bags rather than into a tank. At the age of 15 I volunteered to bag up on the platform to give the usual incumbent a break; filling the sacks was easy enough and I soon learned how to gather and tie the sacks securely. The snag was that the bags were the infamous West of England 2½cwt hessian sacks. These were the standard receptacle for grain coming off a bagger combine, the name coming from the usual practice of hiring sacks from the suitably named West of England Sack Company. The idea was that each sack held four bushels and this volume of wheat weighed on average 2¼cwt, in modern terms 252lb or 114kg. I soon realised that with a lot of effort I could wiggle the full sacks across the platform and down the unloading chute but as for lifting them on a trailer afterwards; not a hope. Later in the week loading straw bales on to a flatbed trailer showed up another aspect of my membership of the seven-stone weakling brigade. I was alright loading up to about three high on the trailer by lifting alone, but emulating the farm manager chucking up the bales to seven high on the end of a pitchfork was way beyond my abilities. All in all, I loved the countryside, the machinery operation and the minor repairs but was just not strong enough, at least at the age of fifteen, for the many physical demands of the farming life. Add to this my fascination for all things mechanical and it was an easy decision to head towards the repair side.

The new Fordson Major was introduced in autumn 1951 and the diesel-powered version soon made up the majority of sales. Even at its original 37hp the tractor was seen as being capable of pulling three furrows in reasonable going. With thanks to J. Fermor

Many farms utilised their Fordsons for a variety of tasks in addition to fieldwork as here, cutting up firewood on a winter’s day. With thanks to J. Fermor

Big decisions

July 1960, O levels over, it was time to get a proper job, and living just outside Horsham in West Sussex, the choice boiled down to two possible employers. One was Massey Ferguson dealers Walter A. Wood Ltd and the other Ford dealers Gilbert Rice Ltd, but being biased towards all things Fordson as previously explained, Gilbert Rice was the obvious first choice. It was amazingly simple really; I did no more than call in to the agricultural depot on the Bishopric (the main road out of Horsham westbound towards Guildford) one Saturday morning, walked into the workshop and asked Mr Phipps, the manager, if there were any vacancies. The net result was an interview, with Mum in tow because I was under 18, about a week later with the depot manager, Mr Charman. I regret to say I remember very little of the interview but it must have gone alright, because a full five-year indentured apprenticeship was offered within a few days, which guaranteed that Rice’s would employ me for five years while training, the only restriction being that I agreed to stay on another two years after qualifying. That was seven years sorted then! Pay wasn’t over-exciting; from memory, something around £2.50 to start with for a five-and-a-half-day week and two weeks paid holiday a year, but it was guaranteed, and there was plenty of overtime at time and a half during the week, plus double time on Sundays. The working day was 08.00 to 17.30 with an hour for lunch, plus four hours on Saturday morning. That works out at 46½ hours a week so about 13 pence an hour (6p) less tax and national insurance. Jumping forward to 1965 and as fully qualified my rate was 6 shillings (30p) an hour, so about £13 pounds 80 pence a week, again less deductions.

Being signed up as an indentured apprentice was seen as a very positive move by a youngster in 1960. If all went well I was guaranteed seven years’ employment plus the chance to come out the other end as a fully qualified engineer. The downside, however was that pay was not particularly good, but there was plenty of overtime.

My first ever job at Gilbert Rice was to remove a belt pulley similar to the 1960 unit shown here, pictured in 2016, from a new machine and fit a blanking plate in its place. The task was not quite as easy as I at first thought. With thanks to P. Austen

The workshop

Gilbert Rice Ltd owned and ran three sites in Horsham. Springfield Road depot offered a body shop, battery shop and two prestige car agencies, plus much of the company administration, and Worthing Road depot carried the Ford car and truck main agencies. The Bishopric depot covered all things agricultural, principally the main dealerships for Fordson, Ransomes, Claas, Jones, New Holland and McConnel. The site consisted of a considerable concrete yard, on slight slope away from the road, a petrol forecourt and the depot buildings. The single-span workshop was of steel frame and sheet design, accommodating offices, stores and enough working space to pack in at least two combines plus about six tractors with room to work. Aluminium-topped steel benches were sited along one long wall and the workshop office and a separate welding bay took up the other side. Double sliding doors at the yard end and on the office side completed the layout. This, in hindsight, was a fairly new set-up when I joined, built about 1956 originally for the truck department, making for a good working environment, except for heating. The story goes that the place was built with innovative electric heating embedded in the concrete floor, but someone had let a County Crawler track go and the resultant impact had broken the cabling. Despite several trenches across the posh floor they never did sort it and eventually the holes were filled in and a blown air unit was slung from the roof.

The first day of my working life

In the manner of a teenager I had sorted out my new career without too much consideration of logistics. It was high summer and the weather was fine so the plan was to rely on my trusty bike to travel the four miles to Horsham, without much consideration about having to do the journey every day both ways in rain, snow or pestilence. I was very lucky that Alan Wright, one of the engineers, lived halfway and he generously offered to give me a lift in and back each day, so just two miles’ travel morning and night on the bike then. He was to be a good friend and guide, especially in the early days.

There I was, the first day in the workshop, new boots, new overalls and new lunch box. I didn’t know anyone or anything, so it felt like the first day at school! After brief introductions I was put immediately with one of the older apprentices who had the unenviable task of showing me the ropes. My first ever experience of the real machinery world was being told to remove the belt pulley from a brand new Fordson Major and fit a blanking plate while my mate carried on with the rest of the PDI (Pre-Delivery Inspection). I had to borrow the relevant spanners from my mentor; it was lucky that I had a rough idea which spanner was which so didn’t see much of a problem; just undo the ring of bolts and take the unit off. Unfortunately, what clever clogs didn’t know was that the gearbox oil level came halfway up the pulley housing, so as I removed the bottom bolt oil poured out on to the floor. I had the common sense to bung the bolt back in smartish and ask advice but not before several of the assembled populace had a good laugh at the new boy’s expense. I learned two important lessons immediately; I didn’t know it all and if I asked, staff would willingly explain the right way to do things. There were also several firsts; how to clean up spillages and tools, get a new gasket from the stores, drain and refill the gearbox oil, tighten bolts properly and a major (sorry) realisation that I did not have the strength to either lift the pulley easily or screw in the bolts tight enough. Not bad going for the first hour at Gilbert Rice!

Gilbert Rice Ltd agricultural depot from the road as it was in 1961. Three combines on display, from left to right; a Ransomes MST 52 trailed bagger machine, a Ransomes 801 self-propelled tanker and a Claas Mercury SP. With thanks to C. Charman

A disaster


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