Another Form of Motoring

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When I discovered a vehicle with seventy-eight wheels and seven engines I felt that it was necessary for me to find out more about it, for anything with wheels and engines has always fascinated me and this was surely the biggest and best yet. This transporter to end all transporters belonged to Robert Wynn and Sons of Newport, Monmouthshire, and was engaged in moving a vast piece of electrical machinery from Surrey to Dorset, the whole road-train weighing 245 tons and measuring 165 feet long. At the front was an ex-U.S. Army tractor unit, powered by a supercharged 6-cylinder Cummins diesel engine giving 340 b.h.p. and this drove through an 8-speed epicyclic gearbox to shafts running fore and aft. Orthodox front-wheel-drive is used, but the two rear axles have final drive by chains from a centre differential unit. Not content with eight forward speeds the gearbox provides two in reverse and gearchanging is done by flicking a positive-stop lever like a motorcycle gearchange, a pneumatic system operating the selectors and bands in the gearbox. On the instrument panel is a large diameter dial like a rev.-counter on which a needle indicates which epicyclic gear train is in operation. On the back of this tractor was a simple four-cylinder petrol engine for driving a winch gear for a small crane or towing cable. This front tractor was attached to the front of a vast Crane-Freuhauf trailer comprising two bogey units, each with 24 wheels and six steerable axles. Between these bogey units sat a dropped-frame chassis which carried the load, the ends of the girder frame pivoting on the centres of the bogeys. Each bogey had mounted on it an air-cooled twin-cylinder engine driving a generator, the current from which drove four small motors which in turn drove hydraulic pumps, the hydraulic system being used to raise or lower the bogey suspension, like a Citroën DS, or to steer the six axles by means of a hand control. On the rear bogey unit was a cabin in which an operator rode, so that he could uncouple the automatic steering linkage and steer the rear bogey independently if required. A second 340 b.h.p. Cummins tractor was attached to the rear of the trailer, it also having an auxiliary motor on its back, and bringing up the rear and looking quite small was an ex-U.S. Army Diamond-T six-wheeler lorry, this pushing on the rear of the second tractor. There were seven men in charge of this leviathan of the road, led by Bill Pitten, who drove the leading tractor unit. With him was the leading “look-out” man, in the cabin on the rear of the trailer was the rear-bogey steersman and a second “look-out,” while a third rode in the Diamond-T.

One often hears the dulcet tones of Robin Richards of the B.B.C. motoring unit giving warnings of such heavy loads being moved, and advising Motorists to take alternative routes, and now and then I have come up behind such things, but the opportunity never presented itself to take a closer look until a reader, who is involved in these movements, put me in touch with Mr. John Wynn. Arriving at the appointed time, everything was ready to go; there were four 650-cc. Triumph-mounted mobile police at the ready and the day was fine and clear. However, some 20 miles down the route all was not well, for a section of road had recently had some culverts laid under it and the Borough Surveyor had demanded that Wynns laid half-inch thick steel plates over the surface to avoid damage. The steel plates had not arrived so we could not start, for once on the move a giant road-train like this has to keep going, for parking places are few and far between. As the whole thing is steered and controlled by hand signals between the seven men there is no question of moving after dark, and as the reinforcing plates were late in arriving our departure was post-poned until the following day. Once this lot moves all normal traffic has to come to a standstill until it has gone by, and during my day’s motoring on it I was able to watch the reaction of other road users. They ranged from incredulity, through apathy to admiration. Elderly ladies who were asked by the mobile police to drive up on to the pavement, or into a driveway looked somewhat bewildered, commercial travellers in their Vauxhalls and business men in their Zodiacs drew off the road with “rather you than me” looks at the driver, while drivers of such things as articulated AEC tankers pulled well off the road and looked up at us with envy and admiration for chaps doing a really big commercial job. One pedestrian complained bitterly and one cyclist was positively rude, but the amazing thing was the number of people who came out of shops, garages, small factories, building sites and so on to watch this impressive procession go by. Without question, its passage along the highway provided immense pleasure and interest to a great many people from all walks of life. The road tax paid by the big tractor units is as much as £521 per year, and we motorists are ticking about paying £17 10s. a year, and now the Government are threatening to charge a road tax of £15 a mile for such loads!

There is no question of obeying road signs with a vehicle this size, which is why each trip has to have special sanction from the Ministry of Transport as well as clearance from local police, Borough Surveyors, Water Board, Railway people and so on. As we progressed along the route, sometimes at 1 m.p.h., sometimes at as much as 20 m.p.h., various representatives from local authorities appeared to see it safely over their water main, or under their railway bridge, or over a weak bit of road, and it was rather like the Queen Elizabeth going down Southampton Water. Some roundabouts had to be taken on the wrong side, islands passed on the right and the occasional keep left sign or signpost had to be removed, all of which had been pre-planned before the trip began. One bridge was cleared by less than one inch and another failed to clear, which involved lowering the trailer on its suspension until ground clearance was a bare half-inch and we crept in first gear at a pace that could not actually be measured as a speed, with a half-inch clearance top and bottom. At another point the route turned right at a crossroads that was too tight to negotiate normally so the whole affair was driven straight on, instead of turning right, then reversed back and to the left down the side turning and then forwards up the proper route, all of which involved some clever manoeuvring and shuffling of the three tractors as well as some very skilled steering of the two trailer bogeys by means of their independent hydraulic system.

No doubt many people are delayed by the moving of such a vast load and the even tempo of a lot of traffic is disrupted, but next time you come across such a movement, spare a thought for the chaps in charge of it. They were working fiat-out all day long, with no tea breaks or scyving off for a cigarette, just a short lunch break, and they had to tackle any job from driving, to being a fitter, a hydraulics man, when a pipe on the trailer burst, to acting as traffic police, look-out men, maintenance men and a “heavy gang” for moving parked cars that were in the way. There was something very akin to a team of racing mechanics about the crew of this big transporter, for they are away from home for days on end, they can never be sure where they will spend the night, hours of work do not enter into their problem, they have a job to get done and they go on working until it is completed. There are no union rules or nonsense about “I’m a driver, I don’t lift things.” When something has to be done they all muck in and lend a hand, and the number one driver commands their respect in the same way that a chief mechanic does. The team-work that got this 165-foot monster through some very difficult bits of the route was a joy to watch and it was done with no shouting or flapping, in fact it all looked too easy, but it only wanted one member of the crew to stop pulling his weight and it could have got itself inextricably jammed. Driver Bill Pitten and his crew of six of Wynn’s Transport are no novices to the game, so all went well, but take it from me, if you see a mobile policeman waving you into the side of the road because Wynns Heavy Haulage is approaching, then move well out of the way for these things are big and every inch counts, but more important the lads on the job will appreciate that extra bit of room.

I have always admired people who do an impressive job of driving, from Jim Clark to the driver of an articulated lorry who backs into an alleyway in one move with two inches on either side. When I have seen these really big transport road trains in motion I have been filled with admiration, but now that I have travelled with them I can really appreciate the incredible job they are doing. Such things as transformers, ships propellers, boilers, and steel structures have to be moved and British Rail will not touch anything so vast and heavy, but firms like Wynns and Pickfords are prepared to tackle the job. If they didn’t we would not make much engineering progress, and just as some people wonder why men become racing mechanics, I suppose there are those who wonder why men join a transport unit such as the one on which I rode. Fortunately there are still people left who are prepared to tackle something different.

D. S. J.