Mike and Julie Blenkinsop take a look at two iconic Post Office vehicles, including one that proved to be extremely useful in the snow!
In all the years of the postal service, one issue was always at the fore – ‘the mail must get through’, and this applied to the telephone side, too. So, if weather conditions brought down the infrastructure, the PO had to have a vehicle to help the technicians fix it.
One of the great difficulties for the telephone engineers was accessing some of the rural infrastructure, especially in the winter when the snowstorms arrived; the ferocity of the winds could wipe out a series of telegraph poles with ease, bringing down the lines. Another hazard was ice on the line; the weight of freezing water would force the wires to the ground. It was imperative that engineers reached affected sites, so the PO took on a small fleet of Snow-tracs.
Large, snow-tracked vehicles, like the Tucker 743, were generically known as ‘Sno-cats’, and generated great excitement when they were built for the Antarctic expeditions of the 1950s. André Citroën had shown the benefits of his tracked Kegresse system when linked to a car, way back in the 1930s, when the little Citroën half-tracks were used on expeditionary adventures all over Africa as well as in the Middle and Far East. The full-track vehicle, used in a civilian role in the UK, was a relative rarity.
The first real, successful attempt at providing a lightweight people carrier on a tracked frame for the UK market, and which went into low-volume production, came from Aktiv-Fischer via the vehicle’s designer, Lars Larsson, with his ST4 Snow-trac. Built over a 23-year period between 1957 and 1980, it was powered by a Volkswagen 1,200cc, four-cylinder, boxer, air-cooled, petrol engine (an industrial version of the engine used in the basic VW Beetle car), which had variable power output from ‘tweaking’ over its life, pushing out 36 to 54hp, depending on specification. We think that the engine changed over the years as many owners’ reported having either the 1.5 (1,493cc) or the 1.6 Volkswagen engine.
It had the ability to move over the top of snow with a ground pressure of only 0.75 lbs per square foot, where the weight of a man would find himself up to his waist in snow after just a few steps. It was only the size of a car, being 12ft (3.6 metres) long and just over 6ft wide (1.9 metres), and the only access was via a large, single rear door. It had a traditional steering wheel, rather than the usual levers employed by tracked vehicles, and used a device called a ‘variator’, which increased or decreased the speed of the drive-belts to each track side, rather than using a braking system to manoeuvre the vehicle, although the twin fabric-reinforced, rubberised tracks could and did stretch.
The whole vehicle weighed only 22.3 cwt, but it could carry one ton, pulling a sled carrying the same again with an overland top speed of 15mph. There are, at least, four variations of track drive, some with only a double bogie; some have an extra, large guide wheel and a military version, has a 10-bogie wheel variant. Built in Sweden and originally imported into the UK by racing driver Innes Ireland, it sold for around £1,900 and was initially tested in the Lammermuir Hills, in Berwickshire.
Many people will have never seen or heard of these little, Swedish personnel carriers, but records show that around 2,315 were built and they became a thriving export market, especially to Canada and Alaska. At least 200 were sent to Scotland for sale and many went to the utility companies that needed year-round access to infrastructure equipment, no matter where it was.
Their chassis numbers during the first four years from 1957 had five digits. Number 59129 was the last one in 1960 before the new, simple numbering system took over, becoming 130 onwards in the same year. The final ST4 leaving the factory in 1980 should have been 2315, the last of a batch of 50. Although only four were made in 1957, eight years later they had produced 200 in 1964 alone. One example charts the progress of the build rate by describing a particular Snow-trac as being one of 75, exhibiting chassis number 2006, built in 1977.
The military, either the Royal Marines, the Royal Navy or NATO, took batches with canvas-covered roofs and on some, mounted the L6 120mm Wombat anti-tank recoilless rifle; most were used for training in Norway and the Arctic Circle. The REME Museum (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers) at RAF Lyneham, has shown the significance of this machine to the Army by giving it a prominent diorama in the main hall. In Inverness, the Scottish Police used some for mountain rescue work; OST 359J, a 1971-registered Snow-trac, has been recorded being transported by the usual Series Two Land Rover.
The PO used them mainly to access its repeater and transmitting stations, invariably situated in out-of-the-way, highland places for the best transmission signals. The ‘cats’ were positioned in five geographically strategic depots and staffed by specialist drivers; it was in one of BT’s highly impressive little vehicles that I first appreciated just what it could do…
From 1977, I was a professional commercial and press photographer running my own business. One of my best clients was Post Office Telecommunications, which had recently split from the GPO. On January 25th, 1979, I got the call to go into Swan House in Newcastle, to cover a photographic assignment for the North East regional POT house newspaper, published by the POT public relations team. It was planning a trip to check on the transmitter out in Castleside, near Consett, in County Durham. The plan was to trailer a Snow-trac with a series two Land Rover, then off-load it to access this station. A blue sky, freezing cold, snowy Durham day saw the engineers, myself and PR team George Aitkenhead (Newcastle) and Anne Crowther (Leeds), crammed into the intimate cabin structure of JLO 55D, a 1966 ST4.
The driver is the only one facing forward, behind a conventional steering wheel, while up to six passengers sit, facing each other, on bench seating. Some of the excess kit was placed in metal bins which run down both sides of the cabin, above the tracks. We arrived at the station with little except the base building and transmitter being visible, as the little Volkswagen engine slowly dragged us through the soft snow, the driver casually announced that we had just driven over the 12-foot high security gates surrounding the site! The ride was surprisingly smooth and quite comfortable.
I encountered the Snow-trac again in 1985, on another assignment for the company (now British Telecom), when it was brought out for a PR promotional shoot which involved sponsored ‘Brownies’ spending ‘Lend-a-hand-day’ at Felling Depot, cleaning BT vehicles including the Snow-trac, which was much more photogenic than a Commer PB engineer’s van.
The Gas Board, Scottish Power and the BBC also ran them. Reports suggest that they were a vehicle with high maintenance demands with around three dozen grease nipples which had to be regularly accessed – probably after each assignment – due to the time the ‘cat’ was idly parked-up between jobs. They changed little from 1965-1979. Japan placed a large order with the Aktiv-Fischer company to get staff and guests around their Winter Olympics site in Sapporo in 1972, and these were all painted red.
Fortunately, quite a few have fallen into private hands for preservation, both in the UK and in cold countries like Norway, Alaska and Canada. One of the ex-Royal Marines prototypes, 22 RN 38, which was used for evaluation purposes, belongs to a lady who owns two examples in the south-west of the UK. They were described on their ID plates as ‘Carrier, full-tracked FFR (fitted for radio) LHD Aktiv-Fischer ST4.’ There appears to have been a variation in track suspension systems. One uses three double-bogies, in effect, six small road wheels, while the other uses two bogies, utilising four wheels with a large diameter wheel ahead of these, next to the sprocket drive. An ST4 18 RN 29, carrying the chassis number 1447, appeared on eBay recently; the chassis number dates it to one of a batch of 115 built in 1970. On the modelling side, in 1966, the Matchbox company made an attractive model of the ST4 Snow-trac in red, numbered 35, in its classic 1-75 range, replacing the long-running ERF horsebox.
We started this piece with a mention of the Tucker 743 Sno-cats used in the 1958 Trans-Antarctic Expedition, and our photograph shows one of the few survivors, Sno-cat ‘C’, at The Beaulieu Motor Museum (now the National Motor Museum) near Southampton circa 1960/62. It arrived there following a nationwide tour of Britain, sponsored by the lubricant company BP. There were three of these Tuckers on this 2,000-mile polar expedition, accompanied by a pair of Weasel full-track, personnel carriers and an adapted Muskeg (the latter Muskeg and Weasel are a lot smaller than the Tucker, more the size of a small car).
There’s an interesting story which is relevant here. At some time after the photo was taken, it was decided that the museum no longer wanted to display the Tucker for one reason or another, so it was offered for sale and was bought for scap by a dismantler, who duly came with his truck to collect it. It was being driven to his yard when a passer-by, driving in the opposite direction, saw it, immediately turned around and pursued the truck, eventually stopping it and coming to a deal with the driver, on the spot, to buy the Sno-cat, as he recognised its historical importance. It was, subsequently restored and we believe that it’s now a valuable exhibit in the Science Museum in London. This tale was related by Peter Fuchs, son of the great polar explorer, Sir Vivian Fuchs (1901-1999) in one of his talks on the subject.
Our final contender is the Bedford telephone pole-erector unit (PEU). Telegraph poles had been carried on the sides of Karrier CK3s and Morris Commercial CV11 linesman’s vehicles when necessary, but the Post Office Telephones division needed a vehicle which could not only carry a quantity of poles, but also assist engineers to place and erect them.
The first prototype used an Austin WF chassis in 1964, registered 414 DXV, followed by a Bedford civilian S type on single rear wheels, but it was the diesel-powered Bedford RSHC5 4×4 chassis which was assessed as the ideal base for this self-contained vehicle, and these were delivered in 1965. (The Simon works yard photographs were dated June 6th, 1965). Bedford was able to respond quickly to offer its vehicle for the basis of the new machines, as it was already supplying the British Army with thousands of Bedford RL 4×4 cargo trucks. Even so, the chassis was reinforced to take the extra weight that this new role would inflict on it as a post-hole borer and pole erection unit.
We believe that Strachans was involved in creating some of the bodywork structure, after which this formidable piece of equipment was fitted-out by Simon Engineering with its Polecat unit at the Dudley factory in the West Midlands. Others used the King Tel-e-lect system. Both consisted of a rotating, hydraulic arm, supporting an extendable, powered auger drill. The drill was operated by a hydrostatic motor which allowed pole installation in just 15-20 minutes. The borer/drill created a 12in diameter hole which could penetrate to a depth of 11ft 6in at a radius from the centre-point of between 13.5 and 21ft, although a PO document states that its maximum distance was 17ft.
They were allocated to telephone area managers on a needs basis; if an area was responsible for a high number of poles, they may have a three-machine allocation, if not, only one. They often worked with a Commer VCAW Rodding and Light Cabling Unit. At this time, up to 100,000 telegraph poles were being located and relocated around Britain every year. Engineers were given an additional, week-long course at the Home Counties Regional Training Centre, to learn about the safe and efficient operation of this complex vehicle.
There was also an electrical underground detector supplied to locate subterranean services to prevent the drill splitting unseen cables. The Bedford had a crew-cab pod added directly behind the two-man cab for a third team member. Two lockers to store equipment and tools ran the length of the remaining chassis, on both sides of a full-length gangway. A couple of pole bolsters were set on to the cab roof and on the top of the lockers to carry the telegraph poles; the front support also doubling-up as a rest for the derrick when travelling stowed. Three poles weigh around half a ton and these were strapped to the unit at top and base; we believe the supports could carry three banks of poles weighing a ton-and-a-half!
The ‘R’ was ideal, with good cross-country capability, as the location situation for a telegraph pole could be anywhere. The original vehicle, registered ELP 773C, was used at the PO training centre in Bletchley Park for on- and off-site training. One of these 11-ton lorries was shown at the Royal Show in Stoneleigh, Warwickshire, in July 1966. Following trials, the subsequent contract for 102 vehicles was split between King and Simon Engineering, which had developed its ‘Polecat’ design. One series of numbers was PO 200288 to 347, suggesting that 60 were built in that contract. We think the 102 vehicles were consecutively numbered in the ELP xxx C range. Although a few were delivered in the old green livery of Mid-Bronze Green (BS 223), the Bedford was one of the first in the fleet to receive the new telecom livery, all were finally re-painted into Golden Yellow (BS356) as the colour became standard in September of 1968. As the vehicles aged, even before Post Office Telecommunications branched off from the GPO, some Bedford pole erection units were arriving on a new chassis.
The successor to the RL, with the same or similar equipment was mounted on a Bedford TK-based, KHMC70 chassis, TUL 264S (fleet number 77-735-00-16) with King auger equipment and was one of an order of 17, built to replace the RS Polecats; this particular vehicle having been preserved in the British Telecom Technology Showcase fleet. Along with the telephone pole erecting unit, the Bedford KHM chassis was also used as a cable-pulling vehicle, dragging heavyweight cables down manholes and through the infrastructure. However, for some reason, many were never requisitioned as one 1977 example came up for sale through Eastwood Commercials, a Birmingham-based dealer, in May 1989, which was described as being ‘never used’. It was a 16-ton Bedford KM heavy-duty, cable-puller with an 8,000 lb hydraulic winch with only delivery mileage, and sold for only £5,250! BT still needed its auger facilities, but moved to a lighter weight, Ford Cargo chassis and a Leyland Freighter T45 for heavier work.
Just six fascinating examples from the fleet when the Post Office Telecommunications Company took its vehicle manifest into privatisation, heralding a new name onto the roads of Great Britain in 1981 – British Telecom.
Later in 1986, the Royal Mail side would split again into three divisions of Royal Mail Letters, Royal Mail Parcels (ultimately Parcelforce) and Post Office Counters.
If you are interested in finding more information on the many standard and specialised vehicles used by the PO, join the Post Office Vehicle Club at: wpovehclub.org.uk
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