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Submitted Article
More Memories of a Field Service Engineer
by Brian Dye

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]

Most of my working life, I have been associated with combine harvesters. During my years as a service engineer, I worked on them at least one day, every month of the year.

Each engineer had a group of harvesters that he looked after. You did the winter storage check, overhauled the machine in the slack periods and then were responsible for the working of the machine throughout the harvest period. On looking back to this period of my career I realise that the company and management promoted a feeling of “ownership” by the way it gave you this responsibility. These were “your” combines.

Our harvesting year started with grass in mid July, then moving on to winter and spring barley, peas, wheat and beans. Occasionally we would have to set a harvester for different crops such as sugar beet, cabbage or turnip seed.

Our dealership expected its staff to be able to demonstrate and set up combines for work in all conditions as well as repair them. We young mechanics loved this approach and, after a repair to a machine had been completed, always took the machine a round or two to ensure everything worked. When I first started working on the machines in the early 1960’s, my company sold the Claas machine, but in the 1950’s it had also sold Massey Harris machines. Over the years I worked on most machines from the Marshall combine, Massey 726 and 780 and the occasional 21!! Allis Chalmers Allcrop 80’s and Gleaners also passed through our hands and we were agents for Ransomes combines. (The Claas machines were also sold as Ford combines in the US, Ransomes went out under the Ford name to other markets in the world).

All had their supporters. Some farmers had Massey machines and would here nothing of the advantages of the Claas machine. It was not until crop yields started to rise that the Massey started to become problematical.

Working on this wide variety of machines was a fantastic grounding for me. Whilst I have always worked with Ford dealerships, my first love has always been combines. Combines were the reason I left the dealership as I will tell in later stories and, over the years from 1975 through to 1996 I worked part time for a British organisation called the Agricultural Training Board training operators to drive and set a wide variety of machines.

Farmers formed themselves into Training Groups to get training on all aspects of farming for themselves and their staff. A Training Organiser ran this Group. They identified areas in which training was needed, then booked instructors to carry out the training.

Instructors were drawn from the agricultural industry and trained to instruct by the ATB. They then passed their skills on to the trainee.

I would spend a day with them, going through the combine and its workings, advising on crop settings then, when the machines were harvesting, would go around each area with the Training Organiser and visit machines in the field. There we would analyse the grain loss and advise on settings if needed. We averaged about 10 combines a day from mid July till early October. Over the harvest period I would see between 500 and 600 combines at work. This was really hard work but I loved it! We would start at 8 a.m. from the home of the organiser then work through until 9 or 10 p.m.

I covered an area from Southend near London in the south of England, out to Berkhamstead in the west and as far north as the river Humber.

This sometimes meant a drive of two to three hours before and after each training day. I was lucky as my wife Ann, being a teacher, had the summer holidays free and could accompany me on some of the long trips, reading in the car or chatting to the Training Organiser through out the long day, then driving me home in the evenings when I was totally shattered after chasing combines on foot and doing the analysis on the straw and sieve losses.

At least 95% of the training organisers were women, mostly farmer’s wives, and they were wonderful at their job. We made many friends over the years. In fact the other Sunday, we all went out for a meal together, an event that is becoming a regular yearly meet. As my life working in agriculture, unfolds, we shall return again to the many stories of combines from these years. However, for the present I must take my thoughts back to my early days at the dealership.

One of the first things I learnt was that a farmer has no sense of humour when the sun is shining and his combine is broken down.

Mr Jones lived just on the other side of Norwich, our local city, about 30 miles from the depot. He had a small farm of around 100 acres, which like most of the farms around this area, was a mixed crop and cattle farm. He grew malting and feed barleys and feed wheat. Some of these crops were used to feed his stock for milk and beef production, the remaining portion sold to local millers and feed merchants.

I mentioned earlier about the problems with the Massey combines. The 726 and 780 were produced in Scotland at Kilmarnock and based on the Massey 21. This machine was rather narrow with only about a 2 foot wide threshing cylinder, straw walker and sieve system. Whilst crops were yielding 1.5 to 2 tons per acre and the straw was short, these machines were very good. But our crop yields were increasing in the 1960’s and with a longer straw; the Massey Harris was having a struggle to sort the crop.

Some Massey’s had a Chrysler 6 cylinder side valve petrol engine but this was replaced with either a Morris 4 cylinder side valve, petrol / kerosene engine, the same as was fitted to the early Nuffield tractors or the beautiful Austin-Newage overhead valve 6 cylinder petrol / kerosene engine as home produced units became available. (I think that what I call a “side valve” engine, you call a “flat head” engine). The Austin - Newage was an industrial version of a car engine that powered the luxury Austin cars of the time. I owned on of these, (bought second hand I hasten to add, some years later). The engine used to purr like a contented cat!!

An Austin - Newage, powered Mr Jones’s Massey-Harris 780. On the Massey machine the engine was mounted underneath the combine threshing area. All the rubbish that leaked from this area fell on the engine. Mr Jones had made the fatal mistake of not cleaning the build up of chaff and rubbish from around the kerosene vaporiser at least three times a day! The build-up caught fire. Luckily the farm staff managed to save the combine but all the wiring was burnt out.

On these Massey combines the cutter bar was raised by an electric motor with the aid of huge springs. With all the wiring burnt out the cutter bar could not be raised so the machine was left in the field for us to repair. My apprentice, Tony, and I drove down to the machine with our Ford Anglia van laden down with cable and insulation tape. We were going to rewire the whole machine, making up new wiring looms as required. There was one major problem, the 780 were built in the early 1950’s and the wiring information was non-existent.

At least in our dealership.

We were going to have to make up everything from scratch. This would be no real problem if it were not during the harvest. As always, the problem had occurred on the one good day in a “catchy” season.

We cleaned off all the burnt wiring. All that was left were copper conductors, no coloured insulation. Tony installed the new parts, regulator, solenoids on the starter and on the cutter bar lift mechanism, new light and starter switches and the ignition coil and distributor on the big Austin engine. I worked out the wiring and fitted the new cable, binding everything with lots of insulation tape.

It was really bad working under the combine, fitting oneself between the angle iron frames and getting black sooty gunge dropping on you. To make it worse, the combine had been harvesting winter barley and there were lots of the harn (the long sharp bit that is attached to the grain) to get in your shirt and down your neck. The temperature was up in the 80F’s too.

We struggled on!

This Christmas (2000) we were given a jigsaw puzzle! The picture on the box gave no clue to the picture the puzzle made!!! It was supposed to be like that!!! Just to give you a little challenge!!! It was no challenge to some one who had been sent out to that Massey nearly 40 years ago!!!

The added incentive on THAT day was the farmer who came back every half hour and asked, “How are you getting on”? then stamped off with his ears gently steaming when the reply came back “We’re getting there. Slowly”.

We worked through without any lunch. Just getting the odd drink of tea or lemonade from the bottles we carried with us. Then about 3pm we were ready.

It was then I made my big mistake. I climbed out of the maze of metal framework around the engine after making the last connections and said to Tony who was on the seat “Right, fire her up, and when the smoke from those wires clears, we will see where we went wrong”. Unfortunately I had not seen the farmer approaching from behind me. All I saw was the look on Tony’s face as Mr Jones went ballistic. His face went purple!! He threw his hat on the ground and jumped on it!! He used language that I had not heard before. (He could have taught my old friend Jack a few choice words). He ranted and raved about a company who sent out totally incompetent fitters in the middle of harvest. I stood there in total shock. I had only made a joke!!

Luckily at that moment Tony pressed the starter and the great old Austin-Newage fired up and ran like a dream. There was nothing like the sound of that six-cylinder motor crackling out of that straight piece of drainpipe that the Massey called an exhaust. Tony tried the cutter bar lift and that worked too!!! The ammeter showed charge!!! We had cracked it and all was well.

Mr Jones calmed down quickly once the machine was into work, but I had learned that before you make joking comments, find out who is listening.

Especially on a harvest field when the farmer has been waiting most of the day, in the sun, for his combine to be repaired!!!!

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