Over the years, Scammell produced some of the most iconic heavy haulage and recovery tractors in the world, as Mike and Julie Blenkinsop explain.
Scammell, like many vehicles from this period, started up using the manufacturer’s own family name. Originally, G Scammell & Nephew were a coachbuilding and wheel-wright company, operating from the Spitalfields area of London. During the years following the First World War, the business expanded to include the manufacture of adventurous vehicles for that period.
The company produced its first, articulated wagon in 1919, but it wasn’t until 1922, that Scammell Lorries Ltd was formed. This coincided with the firm’s move to the works in Tolpits Lane, Watford, where it would remain until the end.
In 1927, the Pioneer – a chain-driven, six-wheeler powered by a four-cylinder overhead valve 80hp petrol engine – was being developed by the company for the burgeoning Middle Eastern market. The man behind the design of its innovative suspension on its double bogie was Scammell’s director of engineering, Percy G Hugh, and his brilliant, young designer, Oliver D North.
The management had high hopes for it in the heavy haulage sector, which was beginning to demand tractors with greater strength for larger, indivisible loads. This gave Scammell and Oliver North, the chance to build super-heavy haulers capable of moving 100-ton loads; a feat unheard of before. Two, four-wheeler tractors were built, the first for MRS (Marston Road Services) to move out-of-gauge locomotives for Kitson, the steam locomotive builder of Leeds. These were Scammell chassis numbers 1428 and 1429, with compatible trailers. Vehicle 1429 was released on February 27th, 1930, and was billed out at £3,100, plus its new, compatible trailer; a total cost of £4,900!
While the two tractors were built with the original, four-cylinder engine – with 80hp on tap (upgraded to 86hp later) – this was changed when a new engine was offered in 1932. This was an engine that would change the face of commercial transport; the legendary, Gardner 6LW, 102hp diesel. This was the beginning of the ‘dream team’, Scammell and Gardner.
Haulier, Edward Box, bought the original ‘100-tonner’ from Marstons, while the second one – BLH 21 – had, by then, been built and had gone, via HE Coley, to Pickfords, who subsequently acquired the Box company. So, both KD 9168 and BLH 21 (fleet number M1679) had progressed to running in Pickfords livery. Incredibly, both vehicles have been preserved – KD is in the British Commercial Vehicle Museum at Leyland, Lancashire, having been initially restored and rallied by the late Jack Hardwick, from Ewell.
The second example, BLH, which became known as ‘Leaping Lena’, is now in the care of ‘Bruv’, kept somewhere on the premises of Rush Green Motors, in Hertfordshire. Both vehicles’ original, thirsty engines, which ‘supped’ petrol at a rate of around one gallon to every mile, were replaced by Gardner diesels. One of the famous Scammell photographs from the 1930s was the promotion department’s image of a Pioneer chassis/cab with its front wheels 10 feet up the side of the factory wall; a party-trick utilising the early Pioneer 6×6 drive, which made this feat possible.
However, it wasn’t until 1936 that the Ministry of Supply awoke to the potential of the Pioneer, and placed an order for a quantity of R100 heavy artillery gun tractors to pull its six and 7.2in Howitzers, which weighed-in at more than 17 tons each! This would be the beginning of a long association between Scammell and the military. The Pioneer was the first Scammell lorry to have a name, rather than just a number or weight designation; about 120 Pioneers were in service by the outbreak of hostilities.
The heavy-artillery Pioneer differed from the others produced later, in having the standard, three-man cab, supplemented by a steel-panelled, sheltered body to take the rest of the nine-man crew required to handle these mammoth guns. The army ordered 786 of these gun-haulers and, after the war, some were re-designed as ballast tractors, losing their rear bodywork for an open, concrete-ballasted platform over their bare chassis.
Extra living space
While the recovery and heavy artillery tractors had normal cabs, the next Pioneer model – the tank transporter – had an extra living space added on to the existing cab, for recovery crews. Records show that 548 of these were built during the war. The three models differed in that, while the recovery and artillery tractors had a short wheelbase chassis of 12ft 2in, the tank-transporter tractor had a long wheelbase version, at 15ft. Although rated at 30 tons, the Scammell would routinely carry Sherman and Cruiser tanks, weighing well over the permitted weights – often being 50% overloaded – but the Scammell just kept on going!
The tank-haulers were originally designed at a payload rating of 20 tons, using a flat-bed Scammell trailer running on 10.50 x 20 wheels, but were quickly uprated to 30 tons (TR/MU30) by coupling them to the new Shelvoke and Drewry-built, inclined-bed semi-trailer. Only four of the first batch of Pioneer fifth-wheel tractors were mated with the original trailer, incorporating the knock-out rear bogies.
The Pioneers became known as ‘Coffee-pots’, a nickname created from the large, raised water reservoir ‘pot’ perched above the radiator-cap. This was positioned so that the radiator cores were constantly supplied with water, keeping them ‘topped-up’ whatever abnormal angle the vehicle found itself at when on rough ground. Often, wisps of steam would come from the top, reinforcing its coffee-pot image. These were not evident on the very early Pioneers, as it wasn’t until 1929 that the Still-designed radiator system made the topping-up process possible
A friend to all
While the slow-revving Gardner, with its power and reliability, made it a friend to the tank-transporting crews, the Scammell suspension system made it the darling of the artillery and recovery teams. The Pioneer was built with a semi-elliptical spring, hung transversely and upside-down across the front chassis, pivoting in a fulcrum bracket, which allowed the front wheels’ impressive degrees of articulation.
Along with a pair of back-bogies using a walking-beam principle, which could give two feet of lateral travel, the Pioneer exhibited phenomenal cross-country performance. The front wheels were covered by ‘cycle’-style mud-wings, which were attached to the axle and not to the vehicle’s bodywork. Consequently, the wheel-travel took the wing with it, which resulted in the wheel never being in a position where it would foul the bodywork, even on very rough ground.
While the development of the six-wheel Pioneer was in its early stages, an interesting by-product came out of Tolpits Lane, in the form of a 4×4 version of the Pioneer built for the Royal Navy as a tractor for hauling heavy, coastal artillery around. Only one is believed to have been built as a prototype, which was delivered to the Admiralty on March 20th, 1939. After demob, it survived with the Rose family in showground use, being photographed at the Epsom Derby Fair in May 1966, in an unkempt state, devoid of any front wings.
A later photo, from the summer of 1970, showed it still working and exhibiting a great improvement in its condition. Now fitted with a long-reach girder crane, limousine-style, red-painted bodywork and branded under Rose’s Pleasure Parks, it had lost some of its Pioneer ‘look’. It was also equipped with square-cut, box wings, yet still retained the coffee-pot radiator. I know that RMB 627 was offered for sale as late as 2004, so there’s a good chance that it still exists.
Although the artillery tractor was a great asset to the war, the Pioneer recovery tractor was probably the most-productive vehicle for bringing back the casualties of war for repair. As such, the coffee-pot Scammell was seen all over the world, and must have been a welcome sight for countless stranded crews stuck with an unserviceable vehicle as they waited for help.
While the Pioneer’s cab was built from mahogany and plated with quarter-inch (6mm) steel plate, its rear body was of basic wood construction within a metal frame, and allowed for containment of all sorts of recovery chains and shackles with a Morris 2.5-ton crane set into the centre of the framework. The thickness of the bodywork metal provided little or no protection, even against light, small-arms fire.
At the start of the Second World War, there were estimated to be about 120 in British Army service, but another 1,500 were turned-out from Tolpits Lane during the hostilities, serving the military well. The crews loved them, depending on their reliability and legendary ability to recover anything from anywhere; even with its painfully slow top speed of 22mph. An interesting aside to the popularity of the Pioneers – particularly the gun tractors – was that many serviceable examples had been lost in the hasty BEF (British Expeditionary Force) evacuation of France, much to the obvious delight of the Germans. Pictorial evidence exists of Pioneers used all over Germany, by the Wehrmacht, right through the war to the point where they were photographed leaving Czechoslovakia on German plates, full of troops surrendering to the allied forces in 1945!
The design process started back in the 1920s, when only a square-shaped, open-cab had been offered, which could never be described as pretty. After a short time, an improved box appeared to give the driver some weather protection; this had the appearance of a small garden shed. Aesthetically, it was awful!
Sometime in the early 1930s, Scammell employed a talented designer as its chief engineer, the aforementioned Mr North, who was able to inject personality into the vehicle. The original, square-shaped cab of the Pioneer was re-developed with a slightly angled windscreen area, which made all the difference. The tapering nose, culminating in the bolted-on ballast box of weights, gave it a mean, heavyweight image. The ballast box, capable of holding nearly half a ton of concrete, kept the front end on the ground while towing or lifting.
Scammell produced the Pioneer in three major forms, a recovery tractor, a heavy artillery gun tractor (HAT) and a 20/30-ton tank transporter. Contemporary documents show the heavy artillery gun tractor was more expensive, at £2,800, than the tank transporter tractor, which cost the Ministry £2,000. The tank transporter had an extended cab to accommodate the extra crew, while the HAT had a side-door entry to the cargo section, for its crew.
Only one complete Scammell Pioneer tank transporter, with matching inclined semi-trailer, was believed to have survived, but evidence has emerged that suggests that there may be two. About 15 years ago, WFX 402 was up for sale at around £40,000, complete with fantasy load in the form of a Czechoslovakian OT 90 (licence copy of the Russian BMP1) armoured, tracked personnel carrier. It was virtually perfect and took part in many road-runs in the south of England.
A unique combination
It was restored over a long period between 1978 and 1996, at high cost, by Roland Hopper in the East Anglia area. As a virtually unique combination, I’m sure that it’s now worth considerably more than its Millennium price! It’s now in the safe hands of well-known military vehicle collector, John Myers, from Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, who also has a rare Pioneer ballast tractor and an Explorer.
John, who is the head of Myers Build and DIY, runs the restored 1943 tractor which now carries the civvy registration, SFO 993, and the military registration H 5306730, having been converted from its tank-transporting, fifth-wheel status to a ballast tractor in 1953. An equally beautifully-restored Explorer recovery tractor carrying the very impressive army registration 01 BD 00, is also part of John’s collection. He completes this part of his manifest with a Scammell Constructor plant tractor, 83 BL 27/CSU 668, but more on that later.
Of course, everyday, new restoration gems emerge from storage all over the world. Typically, as we started to write this article, a new rusty, but complete, Scammell Pioneer TRMU/30 tank transporter tractor emerged for sale. This 1943 machine was being offered in the UK for £6,000, as a running restoration having retained its Gardner 6LX engine. Then, as if to accentuate this point that one doesn’t know what’s hiding in all those out-of-the-way barns and storage hangers, up popped another one. This time it’s the Scammell Pioneer Tank Transporter prime mover, with a modified Dyson acting as the typically inclined trailer, which surfaced for sale in Powys, Wales.
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All images © Millhouse Archive, except where otherwise indicated.