Wednesday, 19 March 2014

“The Age of Mechanical Ploughing Has Arrived” – A Tale of Two Tractors (Part Two)

A "Cyclone Agricultural Motor" (also known as a
"Sharp's Agricultural Tractor") being demonstrated in 1908
[Source : "The Implement and Machinery Review", 2 June 1908

Note Feb 2016 : My very grateful thanks to members of "The Classic Old Tractors" Forum who identified an image which I had previously thought to be the British "Cyclone" but was in fact a 1918 (but still family owned) American "Moline" Model B (refer to newspaper reference). Unfortunately it appears that there are no extant photos of my family owned "Cyclone".

This Blog follows on from my first article in this series, "The Age of Mechanical Ploughing Has Arrived - The Demise of the Trusty Draught Horse".

The honour of owning the first “Motor Tractor” in Southland New Zealand lies with Mr Robert McNab of Knapdale near Gore who imported and demonstrated an Ivel machine at the Gore Show as early as December 1904. But the following story is still unique in demonstrating the true pioneering spirit - and dogged perseverance - of a forward-thinking southern farmer from the Antipodes. While this particular Blog is the story of one tractor, it also explores one which never got off the drawing board.

The purchaser of the above "Cyclone Agricultural Motor", being my Great Great Uncle Mr William Watson, owner of the 800 acre ‘Mayfield’ estate at Heddon Bush in Southland, was well known as a very progressive farmer. The new "Agricultural Motor" [i.e. tractor] evidently piqued his interest but obviously not enamoured with what was then available, and despite the risks and expense, he appears to have proceeded to take matters into his own hands.

If you only wish to read about the "Cyclone Agricultural Motor" just skip down to the next image on this page.

We know that by late 1907 William Watson had personally arranged for specifications to be drawn up for a 25 h.p. “motor” from Messrs 'Mitchell & Dewar', Engineers of 144 St Vincent Street Glasgow who had been "...appointed Consulting Engineers to the Automobile Gas Producer Syndicate". The engine (one assumes a smaller demo version), which was to be initially demonstrated in a "gas producer car", was to be based on the gas suction principle, a system patented as early as 1891 and successfully used in stationary engines. William received the specifications around late July 1908. But was this a tractor or simply a powered wagon?

One has to remember that a "tractor" was then referred to as an "agricultural motor". The correspondence clearly tells us is that it was intended to be mobile, a powerful engine (at least 25 h.p.), and to be used for agricultural purposes. We do know that by October 1908 'Mitchell & Dewar' now intended trialling the gas producer engine in a "motor wagon" on a hill paddock on his brother John's property at Stonehouse south of Glasgow. But perhaps rather more conclusively, after William had purchased an "Agricultural Motor" in July 1909 the Engineers in Glasgow were promptly advised “that he has got supplied meanwhile”. There is yet one more convincing clue which I will highlight further on in this article. I can only assume that William became interested in the gas suction engine because of its higher horse power rating, most "tractors" then only being rated at no more than 20 h.p.

Concurrent with the original 1907 enquiry, William's brother John also consulted "The National Engine Company", who, "...poured cold water very plentifully over the suction principle of motors and said that supposing I got a firm undertaking to build one for us we were to have nothing to do with it they said it would give us no end of trouble. I may say I do not agree with them as I cannot see why suction gas works so satisfactorily in stationary plants and cannot be the same with a motor..." His brother does however urge William "...not to be in too great a hurry in coming to a decision...".

The latter firm had themselves been building suction gas engines, but as from mid 1908 were now solely producing diesel engines under a new name. This fact alone should have sounded a word of warning!

But by October 1908 we now find that William had not only now ordered new specifications from 'Mitchell and Dewar' but also from 'Murray', a rival Engineer (almost certainly Mr Murray, co-owner of "Murray. Workman & Co." at the Craigton Engineering Works). His brother writes that "[the] new draft to specification is to be £50 more than Murrays but then it is to be 15 horse power more or 40 horse power altogether which is a big difference from the first one." As to what type of engine 'Murray' proposed using is not recorded.

While William was "very anxious to get on with it", 'Mitchell & Dewar', perhaps fearing their client could go elsewhere, generously suggested that William obtain "...the opinion of an independent Engineer for our own satisfaction", no doubt believing their own [agricultural] 'motor' would be the preferred option. But the independent advice given was, "....would Murray not be a good man to look after the building of it. He is a practical Motor builder." It is just infuriatingly annoying that these tantalising plans are no longer extant.

I do note that by August 1908 William was well aware of the “Marshall Agricultural Motor” being landed in New Zealand but for whatever reason he still continued to pursue his own plans rather than ordering any sort of "motor" from a New Zealand supplier with servicing agents, not to mention an availability of spare parts. We also know that the Sentinel [Steam] Road Motor was already in operation in the district for cartage which, due to Government regulation, was normally limited to 30 miles in order to protect the Railways. There is no further mention of the "motor" until 1909.

But a surprising turn of events led to a very sudden change of mind. William evidently held off making a decision as, after an absence of 26 years, he decided to revisit Scotland, the land of his birth, in the summer of 1909. While in Glasgow he had meetings with the respective Engineers, being "Mr Murray at Craigton" and a "Mr Dunlop" in Glasgow. But it would appear that still nothing would or could be ready for him in time and that he would have to leave for home “empty-handed”.

A "Cyclone Agricultural Motor" (also known as a 
"Sharp's Agricultural Tractor") being demonstrated in 1908
[Source : "The Implement and Machinery Review", 2 June 1908

But visiting the large Royal Agricultural Show at Gloucester England in June 1909, William was “very taken” with a demonstration of the “Cyclone Agricultural Motor” at work. This 'motor' could be used for “ploughing, cultivating, mowing, and hauling loads along common roads, &c.” A crankshaft on the driving pulley enabled a belt to drive “such machines as pumps, dynamos, threshing machines, chaff cutters, &c.”

By late July 1909 William had personally visited the manufacturers at 30 Moorgate Street in London, finally decided on a purchase, then completed all the necessary finance and export paperwork to have it shipped out to him in New Zealand. Holding existing overseas funds (from exporting mutton, lamb and wool) would have expedited the process. The price “on board” was UK £300 (around £26,500 in today’s UK values or NZD$53,250 in New Zealand values), being less than what the “Gas Suction people wanted for theirs” (yet another clue that William's plans had been for an "agricultural motor"). William promptly asked his brother to advise the Engineers “that he has got supplied meanwhile”. His brother wryly noted, “I have lost all confidence in them [and] I have grave fears the Suction Gas Motor will end in smoke.” His words were indeed prophetic as their motors did not succeed.

As for the “Cyclone Agricultural Motor” itself, we know that it was exhibited as a “new implement” in the “General Agricultural Tractor” section of the 1909 Royal Show, earning the company a Silver Medal. I believe it to have been a 20 hp Aster-engined machine built to the design of Mr. Wilfred Sharp, being shown at various British agricultural shows during 1909. These "tractors" are also referred to as "Sharp's Agricultural Tractor" after the designer. The engines were made to a French design under license at Wembley. Significantly, and allowing for depreciation at 20% p.a., the overall cost of motor tractor ploughing was estimated at a commendable quarter of what it would have cost had the equivalent amount of work been done by horses. 

A "Cyclone Agricultural Motor" (also known 
as a "Sharp's Agricultural Tractor") shown in 
1908  with a cutter bar attached
[Source : "The Implement and Machinery Review", 2 June 1908

William arrived back home in November 1909, the “Cyclone” following close on his heels. In December 1909 William’s Nephew Thomas, who had personally observed the machine in operation at 'Mayfield', wrote that it is very light, maybe too much so. His Father helpfully wrote back suggesting, “If it is light, you will just have to give it less to do”. This was of course counter-productive to the overall efficiency of the machine. The lightness of the machine would have limited its pulling power and was obviously a weak point. There may also have been reliability issues including mixed success in varying local ground conditions. And being privately imported, most parts for a non-standard engine would have to be sent for and shipped from England, a turn-around of perhaps three months. 

And therein ends the story of the “Cyclone Agricultural Motor” as I have no surviving family or published record of what became of it. It may have been better suited to a smaller scale farming operation but then economies of scale would come into play. Undoubtedly William sold it, but probably at a loss.  

But what William did next - perhaps out of sheer frustration - is not surprising. The Blog title gives a clue as to the next episode of this story which will be continued in my final Blog in this series. I shall be using original photographs and a period report in my possession.

As to the "Cyclone" Company itself,  we know that one of their machines took part in a trial of “Motor Tractors” organised by the Royal Agricultural Society for the 1910 Royal Show. But by June 1910 the “Cyclone Agricultural Tractor Company Limited” had gone into receivership. I believe (although I cannot conclusively confirm this) that they may have struggled on to 1912 but were officially struck off the Companies Register in June 1913. This no doubt accounts for the scarcity of information relating to this early brand of motor tractor. I do not believe they ever manufactured their own engines. They faced stiff competition from other established manufacturers such as “Ivel Agricultural Motors Ltd” who are credited with building the first successful British tractor as early as 1902.

A "Cyclone Agricultural Motor" with a cutter
bar attached. Pictured in 1912
[Source :]

I would also surmise that the 'Cyclone' was the only one of its kind ever imported ever into New Zealand so this story needs to be told. I have found no reference to this make in the on-line "Papers Past" scanned newspapers database. This lack of any report may also be a case of William not wishing to advertise the fact that the machine turned out to be less than successful. That is not to say that as more newspapers are scanned and placed on-line that some reference may yet turn up.

To read the third and final part of this Blog series please click HERE.

Copyright : The content of this blog, including images, may not be reproduced for commercial purposes without the express permission of the writer. Excerpts may however be freely quoted for non-commercial use subject to suitable acknowledgement being given, including a link back to this page.

Bibliography / Rārangi Pukapuka :

  • Watson Family Papers and Photographic Collection (held by the writer)
  • "Papers Past" [National Library of New Zealand / Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa]
  • Dunedin City Libraries / Kā Kete Wānaka O Ōtepoti (McNab Room Resources)
  • The Standard Cyclopedia of Modern Agriculture and Rural Economy” (Volume 9), 1908-11
  • "The Implement and Machinery Review", June 1908
  • A Century of Farm Tractors 1904-2004” (NZ), by RH Robinson
  • The London Gazette”, Jun 1910 & June 1913
  • Motor Transport”, lliffe & Sons, 1910

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