Brian Dye's field memories Part 8

Over the past few months I have told you stories of my apprenticeship and how I worked on Fordson and Ford tractors. I also worked on combine harvesters.

In fact I have spent more of my life in agricultural machinery with combine harvesters than with tractors.

Our electronic business was combine harvester based in its early years. My partner and I invented and developed a form of an automatic forward speed control for combine harvesters, which used load on the threshing mechanism combined with grain loss to control the forward speed of the machine.

I demonstrated and conducted all the field trials of the system. It involved harvesting from Germany to the North of Scotland, perhaps not as far as combines travel in the US but certainly harvesting in a vast range of conditions. From rye in Germany that grew to about 6ft tall then fell down in a mat, all twisted together, to wheat crops in Scotland which were harvested at night because the moisture content was lower than during the day. Claas made the combines we used. In the US they were painted blue and white and sold as the Ford combine. Most of my Claas parts books give the Ford numbers as well as the Claas ones.

These days I have moved on again and sprayers and potato harvesters are my main concern with the design and manufacture of electrical and electronic control systems for these machines taking most of my time. As I write this, on an evening in late October, I am sitting in my office after a day in the East Anglian Fens, that flat, bleak area that stretches from the East coast in Lincolnshire down to beyond Cambridge. I have been working on a prototype control system in the field.

The Fens were once under the sea but had supported huge forests before the encroachment. The soil varies from heavy silt in the north to black peat in the south. Within this peat are to be found huge trees from the ancient forests preserved by the acidic soil. If struck by a plough, even the most powerful tractor comes to a sudden halt.

The trunks are dug out of the land and can be sawn if the job is done quickly. They make great fuel for the wood-burning stove. I have used some in mine. The logs seem to burn from the inside, hardly changing shape until they fall to ash but giving out tremendous heat. If left out in the air for any time, they set hard, like stone, and even the best chain saw chain has a hard job.

The wind that blows in this area is a lazy wind straight from the arctic with nothing to stop it. There are few trees or hedges now, just huge drainage ditches. Most of the area is below sea level, the sea being held back by large banks.

This is some of the most fertile land in the UK. Farms here grow vegetable crops. These are ideally suited to the soil and conditions. A drive through the countryside here passes through fields of cabbage, lettuce, cauliflowers, onions and potatoes.

In the spring the whole of the Fens bloom with daffodils and tulips, the other crop from the fine black soil. This is why I spend a lot of time in the Fens. The same harvesters that lift potatoes can be adapted to lift bulbs and onions. But after spending a few hours working on small electrical components out in the open, pounding a keyboard is a luxury as it warms up your fingers.

As told in an earlier memory, I got my service van by default as I was prepared to work on combines. At our company, that meant day or night, Saturday or Sunday, when ever there was a problem.

Some of the farmers around our town used to grow grass for seed. This was mainly rye grass, which was cut direct by the combine.

The Claas machine was the best I have ever used for sweeping up flat crops with the minimum of cutter bar losses and grass was usually flat. The farmers liked it that way as, if the crop stood upright, wind and rain before harvest would cause the seed to be lost. The main problem with this method was that there could be damp lumps of grass that would not feed evenly over the cutter bar and into the drum. These lumps could cause stress on the threshing mechanism as they arrived at the high-speed drum that the Claas was equipped with.

I had been out all day on this particular Saturday, working on a Claas Dominant baler. This machine, at this period, was the "best thing since sliced bread". It was fast and produced a large bale that could be really crammed tight and heavy for transport. We had been out to an "operator problem". The sort that involved getting a large lump of metal from a hay turner into the plunger mechanism of the baler when baling hay.

It had been a hot and tiring day and I was looking forward to an evening out with a girlfriend. We had arranged to go to a local restaurant for a meal. When my apprentice Roger and I got back to base about 3.30pm all was quiet. It was early in the season so apart from an odd baler problem we were not expecting any major disruption to our plans for the evening. We were wrong. There pinned to my time card was a message from Derek, my manager. "Mr John is combining grass on the "40 acres" at Bradenham" it said, "his Claas Matador has sheared the drive bolts and both flanges in the front drum pulley cluster. Can you go out tonight to fix it"?

This was the polite way of saying " Go and fix this now". I saw all my hopes of a pleasant Saturday evening disappearing. Still there was a slight chance we could get the job done in time for me to have a quick bath and clean up and still get my young lady to the meal. Derek had kindly drawn all the parts from stores and so we loaded the van and off we went.

The Matador had an infinitely variable drum speed. From about 750 rpm up to around 1300 rpm all hydraulically controlled from the driving seat. The drive to the drum was via two sets of pulleys made up of four independent flanges each. Two of the pulleys were mounted, one behind the other, on the drum shaft. One of the flanges, from each set, was keyed to the drum shaft with a very long tapered key, the other was sleeved over the boss on the first flange and pushed by a pair of small hydraulic rams. These rams pushed on a bearing mounted on the inner flange and against another bearing mounted against a ledge on the spinning drum shaft. The second movable flange on the outer pulley was connected to this movable flange by three huge bolts.

The second set of four flanges was driven directly from the engine by a large flat belt. These were also controlled by hydraulic rams. As the rams forced the four rear flanges together, the drive belts rose higher up the pulleys on the rear and, because the valve on the front rams were opened, the belts moved lower in the pulleys on the front ones which drove the drum. This increased the speed of the drum. If oil was pumped into the front rams, the belts moved higher up these pulleys and lower in the rear ones, thus causing the drum speed to decrease.

The three bolts and flanges that had fractured were in the front pulleys. A large lump of damp grass had jammed the drum and they had both failed under the shock load. The repair involved drawing the large tapered keys to get the damaged flanges off, and to fit the new bolts. There were two keys and they were fitted extremely tightly. We had a special tool to remove the keys, made by Claas of special steel. It was a long tapered thing about 18 inches long. It was placed behind the head of the key and the front surface of the outer flange then thrashed with a hammer. If you were lucky, the key drew gently out. If you were unlucky, the head came off the key and you were faced with a problem. The drum shaft had to be taken from the drum and return to a press in the workshop. The drum shaft could be then pressed from the flanges. The second method was to use pullers on the pulley flanges after first drilling out the key with a hand drill. In those days we did not have power tools or generators in the vans.

You can guess what happened on that Saturday evening can't you.

Yes! The keys came out with no trouble!!!

We quickly fitted the new bolts and fitted the new flanges and all the belts. The driver started the machine and was soon back harvesting. Time was slipping away though. We threw everything back into the van and tore off the field and back to base. It was then an frantic drive home, a quick bath, clean clothes then back to pick up my girlfriend from her home some four miles away. Arrived just in time looking suave and sophisticated (well I thought so) to whisk her off to a meal at a special coastal restaurant and spend a pleasant evening with good food and wine.

The sequel to the story came later. A few days after this occurrence I was due to take my annual holiday. I always tried to get it in between the hay and grass harvest and the main grain harvest that started at the end of July. On the day I was due to start my break, we were driving back to base with not a care in the world, listening to test cricket on the wireless when a blue light started to flash in my mirror. A speed cop!!! I had been caught speeding!!! The cop booked me for doing 70 mph in a vehicle restricted to 40 mph!!! This was a bit over the top as the van was going in for major service as it was only running on three cylinders due to burnt valves and we were travelling up hill with a full load!!! I think I upset the cop by telling him that if the other cylinder had been firing, his fancy car would not have been able to catch us!

Some weeks later I was brought before the magistrates for the offence. We brought with us evidence of the condition of the vans engine. Derek came with me as a witness to the fact that the van was not capable of the speed the cop had booked me for.

The chairman of the bench (chief magistrate) was none other than Mr John! He listened to the evidence then asked me if I had ever driven over 40mph in the van before. I said yes I had. I got fined 20.00 and no endorsement on my licence. Had the cop been believed I could have looked forward to a substantial fine and a driving ban, but then I had driven over the limit and not been caught before.

We returned to base.

Shortly afterwards Derek got a call from Mr John. "Sorry we had to fine Brian this morning" he said " but at least he was honest. He was doing more than 40mph on my field after fixing my combine the other Saturday evening"!!!

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