Brian Dye's field memories Part 15

It was a beautiful Norfolk late spring morning. It was a Saturday and we only normally worked until midday unless there was a breakdown. I drove into work feeling glad to be alive. Parking the car and walking up the workshop to clock in I was greeted with jocular banter from all my colleagues, as it seemed everybody was in a happy mood. Just a little change in the weather and the sun shining has that effect.

I threw the van keys to Roger and he went of to start VVF885H, our new Ford Escort van, and fill her up with petrol. We were really pleased with this new vehicle, it was powerful and smart after AAH188B, the Anglia van we had been used to.

The Anglia had done over 100,000 miles which was pretty good considering the loads we carried and the terrain we crossed. The van had to get to the machine wherever it had broken down and not all were situated near the road. Only a few months previously we had a job on a Standen Solobeet sugar beet harvester. This was a single row lifter with a tractor lifted up about four feet and bolted onto it to provide power through a system of chains and belts. It was a really good machine. It would travel in conditions which a normal tractor towed machine bogged down and, being a tanker, carried the lifted beet to the field headlands before unloading into trailers. This meant that a one-man operator could both lift and cart his beet crop, a great advantage to the small farmer.

A Ford Dexta 3000 power unit had a lift failure and the machine was stuck in the crop. We had to take the van to the Solobeet to get tools etc, close and handy and also to transport the lift back to base for repair. We had to get to the machine early in the morning whilst the land was still hard with frost, take the lift off, back to base and repair then wait for the next morning frost to put it all back together.

This we did but the return journey across a fifty acre field, after the job was completed, as the frost was going out of the land really tested driving skills and was a bit like the round Britain rally forest stages, with the van slipping and sliding and falling into the wheel tracks of the harvester.

I have always had a high regard for the suspension on Ford vehicles. I think that over the years I had on the service vans, I only had one spring break and considering the loading that we put on these little vehicles, that was a pretty impressive record.

The new Escort van was a luxury compared with the Anglia. The Escort had a 1300 cc cross flow engine. This meant that we could now make use of all the four gears in the box to their full. On the Anglia, fourth gear was a little superfluous. It was faster in third gear than it was in top due to the full load of tools we carried. Then, when we dropped the Major engine into the back along with the tools we were a bit overloaded to say the least.

To give you some idea of the overload that we took as normal, I once loaded the gearbox, rear axle, hydraulic lift and both axle shafts, housings, final reduction and inboard brake units from a Ford 4000 into the back of my Anglia van. This meant we had everything from the flywheel back to the rear wheels, less the tinwork, complete and inside.

I once drove 100 miles with a shaker shoe from a Claas SF combine tied to the roof with red baler string and the four straw walkers inside but sticking out the back doors by a couple of feet.

Then there was the common job in the harvest. If a combine engine failed on the Claas combine, it was mounted on top behind the grain tank. The first job was to get it to a level where it could be loaded into the van. This was usually with the help of a tree and a block and tackle. Once it was down it was manhandled into the back of the van and blocked to avoid it rolling about. Not that you managed any high speed cornering with that load.

A Perkins or Ford 6 cylinder took up all the length of the load area and again the doors were tied together with string. This may sound very dangerous but in all the miles we service fitters drove, only one person ever lost an engine out of the van (guess who, but more of that in a later memory) and no one had an accident.

The Escort also had another advantage, in theory, over the Anglia. It had servo-powered brakes with front disc. This should, on paper, have been an advantage. You should now be able to stop!! In practise it was a major hazard. When you braked now, even gently, the front wheels locked and slid.

The first time Roger and I took the new Escort out to a job was a frosty morning. The roads were very icy so I drove with great care. I did not want to bend the Escort on its first day on the road. We approached a “T” junction just outside the village of Neatishead. I gently laid my foot on the brake and immediately lost the ability to steer!! Luckily I was only travelling at about 5mph and gently struck the opposite bank without doing any damage. It was certainly a learning experience and, driving the Escort, one had to be aware of this locking of the front wheels in many normally encountered road conditions. But today, in the warm spring sunshine there would be no icy road problems. Whilst Roger filled the van I went to the office to find out what part of Norfolk we would be going to today and what problem would be facing us. Usually it was only a little local job, which would mean we would be back by mid morning and ready to clock off around noon.

Derek said, “Do you mind a late one today?” I thought for a minute, I had got nothing planned so I said, “OK what have we got”? “A day by the sea at East Runton. Mr Giles has got a Cat D2 he needs starting”. “That shouldn’t be too bad, where is his farm”? “Actually it’s on the beach, he’s a crab fisherman”!! “Oh bother”!! (I think my reply was a bit stronger than this but as this is a family site……) “Well you’ll get a nice fresh crab if you’re lucky”!!

This information meant the tractor we were going to get going was used to launch and retrieve the crab boats from the sea. They were driven deep into the salt water until just the exhaust and air intake were above the water, towing the boat trailer, the boat was latched onto the trailer and then the tractor pulled the load up the beach to where the fishermen unloaded it. The tractors that were used for this were all ex-farm tractors, usually bought cheaply at local sales. Their life on the beach was limited as the salt water and salt air did tremendous damage to the tinwork and electrics. Diesel Majors with belt pulleys or Field Marshals were the favourites as these could be hand started and the electrics dispensed with. The Marshal was easy to start with its massive starting handle or starter cartridge but the Major? Started by hand?

The Major, even with a badly worn engine will start as it passes the first compression. They are known for this. We always used to say that if it had to turn over three compressions and did not start there was something badly wrong. The fishermen used to wrap a rope around the belt pulley, put the pulley into gear, then pull start the tractor like a lawn mower. I was amazed when I saw this done for the first time. One strong man on a rope and away she went. I had seen it done using the starting handle. Tie a rope to the starting handle, pull the engine to just on compression, then, strong man on the rope to pull it over compression and (once again) away she goes. Please note: I do not advise these methods, I am only relating the practises used on this beach. They are still used today.

The Cat D2 was a rarity on the beach. County crawlers and Roadless J17 crawlers along with the odd E27N with half-tracks could be seen in all the little fishing villages around the coast. I mentioned earlier in this story the Standen Solobeet. I have even seen a bare chassis, all the harvesting components removed and this one powered by an MF 135 used for pulling the boats in. At least this machine meant that the tractor was high out of the water when they backed up to the boat. But a Cat D2? This tractor was highly prized even in those far off days. It also had a major disadvantage. It was started by a donkey engine. This donkey engine was a “V” twin mounted just in front of the driver. If it were being used as normal on the beach, this would mean that it was being continually immersed in seawater then left outside during the winter.

As we drove to East Runton, Roger and I cursed our luck (and Derek) as we contemplated the job that was waiting for us. A tractor, constantly immersed in salt water, with a petrol donkey engine that had been left outside on the beach since the end of the previous crab fishing season. We had to get it going. Suddenly the day had started to get darker in spite of the bright sunshine.

When we arrived at the beach it seemed all our fears were realised. On the side of the road down the cliff to the beach was this heap of rust under a tarpaulin. It had the odd bit of yellow paint attached so from this we surmised it must be “our” Cat. We pulled the van in close to allow others to pass us on the road and took of the tarpaulin. Underneath she did not look too bad. There was a lot of rust and corrosion but less than I expected. With a liberal coating of penetrating oil on all parts of the donkey we started to see what was required. At least the engine turned over. But there was little compression. We stripped the plugs and magneto drying them with our trusty blowlamp, cleaning and polishing the points and resetting them. We then discovered that we could get a weak spark at the plug lead. How do you test for a spark? Get your mate to hold the end of the lead while you pull the engine over! HeHe.

The donkey engine was started by a rope wrapped around a starting pulley. With the plugs out I pulled her over a number of times. We then fitted the leads to the plugs and held them against the metal of the engine and pulled the rope. A pale blue spark flicked across the plug gap. This began to look interesting. We filled the tank with fresh petrol that we had brought with us. There was plenty of diesel in the tank so the owner had filled it up when he decided to have a try and get the Cat started. I took a pencil to the plugs. This was a trick taught me by my old friend Jack. If you coated the electrodes of spark plugs with graphite from a pencil it seems to improve the spark! Then some petrol down each bore with an oil can, pull the engine over once or twice and screw the plugs back. Now we really mean business!!

With a mighty tug I pull the rope! Next thing, I am flying backwards with a little bit of rope in my hand. Never put your faith in a piece of rope that has been left outside wrapped around the steering levers of a Cat by the sea. We braid together a few lengths of red polypropylene baler string, tie a big knot in one end and find a short piece of wood to act as a handle at the other. About fifteen pulls later I decide to take a breather and remove the plugs again. When we take them out they are wet with petrol. A good sign! At least fuel is flowing! We re-graphite the plugs then heat them up to very hot with the blowlamp. A few more pulls on the rope to clear the fuel from the cylinders then the plugs back in and a sharp tug on the rope. This time there is a sharp jerk on the rope as the engine backfires. But at least she has shown some life. Another wind up and sharp pull!!

This time the donkey engine bursts into life, first on one cylinder then on the other and, with a little jiggling of throttle and choke we manage to get both working as they should. We leave the engine running to warm the water in the main engine. Both engines share a common cooling system so by getting the donkey warm it will be easier to turn over the main engine. We bleed the fuel system whilst we wait and check that fuel flows to the injection pump.

The engine is nicely warm and the donkey is thumping away happily. Now comes the moment of truth!! On the side of the main engine are two levers. One to operate the decompressor the other to engage the starter clutch. Decompressor in, I slowly feed in the clutch. The donkey, which had been chugging away happily, stops dead!! Roger and I both think of new words to say and of places we wish we were!

We know that the main engine is free, because we had turned it with the cooling fan so its rope around the starting pulley and try again. This time the donkey bursts into life at the third pull and settles down. We give it more throttle and I slowly, with great care, feed in the starter clutch. This time, the donkey engine dies to the point of stall but then picks up and starts to swing the main engine. It sounds loaded but manages to turn the main engine at a fair speed. We had noted that it had little compression when we tried it initially, so with power down on the donkey engine, we were going to have to be careful when we took off the de-compressor and tried to start the main engine.

We left the donkey spinning the main engine and had a cup of tea. It was a really beautiful day and the ideal place to be. Although it was late spring, the surrounding cliffs turned the beach into a suntrap and by midday, people were moving onto the beach. It was near lunchtime so we decided to leave the donkey working whilst we had a sandwich. Mr Giles walked down the beach road as we sat in the sun with our lunch and was really pleased to here the engine plonking away. “When you get the main engine running and you try to move her, you will find that the tracks are rusted solid. Just rock backwards and forwards until she will just move. Do not worry about any seized rollers, just take her onto the beach and run her about in the sea for a little while. The salt water will soon free them up”.

During the late morning the beach had gained a few holidaymakers, including a couple of rather attractive young ladies in rather revealing bikinis. Remember this was in the late 1960’s. Girls were not usually displaying their assets to all and sundry in those days. At least not on Norfolk public beaches. After a quick sandwich and cup of tea came the moment of truth! With the donkey engine running hard we open the main engine throttle, release the stop mechanism and slowly close the decompressor. The donkey labours but does not stall, rust and debris fly out of the main exhaust followed by first white then grey then black smoke as the main diesel fires up. At first it will not run on its own and we have to leave the donkey engaged to keep it running but it gradually picks up speed and is soon running happily on its own.

We shut down the donkey, its job done for the moment. Now we try and move. There is lots of creaking and cracking from the tracks and the big engine dies down. De-clutch and select reverse thanking the owner for locking the clutch in the released position over the winter. At least that is not stuck. Try to move backwards, again much creaking and cracking but a little movement. After about half an hour we eventually have enough movement to try for the beach about 15 metres away. Once on the beach it is about 300 metres to the water. We both squeeze onto the seat and go off for our afternoon play in the water.

As we start to move onto the roadway a blast of a horn startles us and a new Mini Moke flashes past and onto the beach. Two “Hooray Henries” on their way to impress their girl friends with their new all terrain vehicle. A Mini Moke was a “fun” machine made by BMC. It was a basic chassis with a Mini engine in the normal position, a bit of a bonnet, windscreen and seats and, on certain models, a second Mini engine driving the rear wheels.

As we trundled our Cat to the water, the two lads with the Moke were tearing up and down the beach with the bikini clad girls hanging on and shrieking with laughter. “All right for some” I mutter to Roger as we splash around in the sea with the Cat. After about half an hour we head back up the beach and take the Cat back to its parking place. The main engine is sounding much happier now and the tracks seem to be a lot freer. We pull her into the little park by the road and shut down the main engine. Mr Giles is waiting for us and watches as we go through the start procedure on the donkey to check it will still start. It has far more compression now it has been run and starts after a couple of pulls on the “red string” starting rope. Then on to the main engine again and this starts easily. Mr Giles is happy. We chat for a while as we sheet down the Cat and load up our tools, plus a couple of nice crabs that Mr Giles has brought us. Then there is a shout from the beach.

The Moke is bogged down on the edge of the water! One of the young men is revving the engine and the other is pushing with the aid of the two girls. But they are making no headway. Roger and I start off down the beach to lend a hand but a quiet word from Mr Giles stops us. “ Don’t worry lads, the tide is coming in. It comes under the sand first and makes quicksand-like bogs in the sand. That lot have just found one. They have been on holiday here all week. Tearing up and down in that contraption and making other's holiday miserable. We’ll just let the water get a little nearer to them then I’ll start up this old girl and go and offer them a tow. At a price of course!!!”

Of course.

Does not do to upset an old Norfolk fisherman, we thought as we drove home that Saturday afternoon.


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