More Memories of a Field Service Engineer|
Introduction: The author worked for one of the largest Ford tractor dealerships in England as a trouble-shooter on tractor engines, hydraulics and combine harvesters from 1963 to 1972. In 1972 he became a dealer manager and finally left the dealer net in 1975 to run his own electronic design and manufacturing company. [Editor]
As the company was situated in the center of one of the largest mixed agricultural areas in England, we sold and worked on a large variety of agricultural machines. We were agents for Fordson, Ford, County and Roadless Crawlers, Case (the old LA's), New Holland, Claas combines and Ransome combines, plows and implements. I worked on tractors, combines, balers and Webb Grabs (and the occasional muck spreader when I had upset my line manager).
I had not been long employed by the company having served my apprenticeship with a Nuffield and BMC dealer and was about 21 years old, young and keen. I had just been granted a Field Service van too.
In our company a Field Service van was a fairly high accolade. You were the companies representative when you went onto the farm. You were expected to be an expert on everything you went out to. The farmer was usually in a muddle and it was your job to get him out of it as fast as possible. You also had a reputation to live up to. The older Field Service engineers were the tops. They had years of experience on tractors and were asked for by name. The farmer was disappointed if Billy, Ted, Dick, or Roy were not available and Brian, Fred or Ronnie turned up to repair their tractor. And they would tell you that you were only second best and did you really know what you were doing as you were so young.
Where we young ones scored was with combines. The older fitters were married. This slowed them down a little over the weekends and working late. We young ones had no commitments and would work all hours of the day and night to get combines operational. Gradually we were accepted but it was still galling to go to a farmer for whom you had worked late into the night repairing his combine, to be asked " where's Billy" when it came to putting a clutch in his tractor.
I was in a more difficult position than the other young fitters. I was not a time served Fordson apprentice and I got my service van by default rather than by earning it. One of the service van fitters had left and I was the only one on the staff in the workshop who was prepared to work on combines. So I was given the chance.
One morning, about two months after I had been appointed to Field Service the senior manager George called me into the office. "What do you know about Webb Grabs?" he asked. "Nothing" I replied "What's a Webb Grab?". "You will know all about them when you come back" George said "you’re demonstrating one we have sold at 11 o clock to Jones Farming Company. You have got to train the operator to load muck and sugar beet." then he handed me the instruction book.
The Webb was a 360 degree loader that mounted on a subframe under the tractor. There were two pins to hold the lower part of the machine and the third point or center link was a hydraulic ram. The driver sat about 6 feet in the air, behind the main boom, with a bank of levers in front of him to operate the grab. As the machine slewed, he rode around with it. The main boom was about 8 feet long with a further 6 foot dipper boom on the end of this. At the end of the dipper could be attached a range of buckets or grabs. It was basically a back hoe but with one advantage.
It could slew 360 degrees.
All day long, at 15 rpm, if the driver could endure it.
This meant that the load could be picked up from all around the tractor power unit, slewed and dropped in any position. The machine had a reach of 14 feet and at that distance could lift a ton. It could dig to a depth of 10 feet and this could be extended to 14 feet with an optional extension on the dipper.
When in operation, the machine stood on two legs that extended outwards and downwards from the base of the machine. When these were extended, the rear wheels of the tractor were lifted about a foot from the ground and in work, the machine stood on these legs and the front axle of the tractor.
This then was the monster I was to demonstrate and train an operator to drive. The machine was new. In fact the one we had sold was only the second one that the manufacturer had sold. It had been delivered straight to the farm from the manufacturer after they had fitted it to a new tractor. There it stood, next to a huge heap of muck, on a new Ford 5000 tractor, its orange paint-work gleaming in the late October sunshine. A new Atkinson muck spreader and two drivers were waiting. I summed up the situation. I could try and bluff my way out of this or I could admit to them I knew as little about the machine as they did and we could work on things together. I chose the latter.
Luckily the two were prepared to work with me. As long as I sat on the seat and pulled the levers so they could see what happened. We started the tractor and the muck spreader was placed along side.
The first thing to do was extend the stabilizer legs. I pressed the L\H pedal. The leg shot out. (Well it seemed to from where I was sitting. On top!!). The left hand side of the machine rose into the air about two feet. Imagine sitting about 6 feet in the air and suddenly developing a lean of 2 feet. The tractor had daylight under one rear wheel and a rather squashed tire on the other. White and shaking I pressed the R\H pedal. This time the opposite leg shot out. The machine came level. The tractor had not overturned. I operated the slew lever. Around we went like a roundabout. Panic!! I had forgotten to raise the boom high enough to clear the bonnet and the side of the tractor was approaching at high speed. Push the lever the opposite way and the machine changed direction. The grab on the end of the boom was pivoted in four directions. Whilst I am slewing right all was well. When I slew left, the grab continues swinging right. Narrowly missing the bright shiny bonnet of the new tractor. You should have seen the drivers face. Nearly as white as mine.
We played around for a short period and gradually got the hang of the controls. Then came the moment of truth. I extended the boom, dug the grab in and closed it. Then started to lift. At least I felt some movement, I then realized that I was getting closer to the muck heap rather than the grab coming towards me. At 14 feet, one ton of muck plus the tear-out force is enough to overcome the weight of a Ford 5000. A shout from the driver and I looked around. All four wheels of the 5000 were off the ground and we were standing on just the digger's legs. Gently the boom was lowered and the tractor returned to the ground. A grab full of muck from closer to the tractor was taken and placed carefully in the spreader.
Gradually through out the day we mastered the beast. She could still catch you out though. As you slewed with an extended dipper and full grab you could suddenly find that your stabilizer legs were some feet above ground and the machine had developed a lean.
Over the next few years I came to love those diggers. Once you got used to the controls the digger and tractor could be safely laid over on either side and recovered. It was really impressive at demonstrations to fully extend the boom, jack the machine over to one side on the stabilizers, then rotate at full speed. The driver goes up and down as the machine rotated around the angled king post. Great Fun!!
The Webb company mounted a sugar beet cleaner / loader on the front of the tractor with the hopper over the bonnet. All you had to do was pick up a grab full of beet, about 15cwt, lift, slew and open the grab without stopping as you deposited the load in the hopper. Then continue to slew and there you were, ready for the next pickup.
I was contracted to Webb by my company to carry out warranty repair work on the diggers throughout East Anglia, and at the end of the diggers life, due to the emergence of safety cabs on tractors, the staff at Webb presented me with the production drawings of the machines that had evolved from that first machine I (attempted) to drive on that sunny October day.
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