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This engine finally gets some traction

By David Chapman

If you’ve been putting that project of the back shelf spare a thought for someone who has taken 20 years to get a full head of steam. DAVID CHAPMAN reports.

COLIN McConnell is a patient man.

Very patient. Incredibly patient.
And he had to be.
In a project that would span two decades, Colin would patiently, painstakingly, build a four-inch scale working model of a 7hp Fowler A7 steam traction engine in spectacularly intricate detail.
Amazingly he had to wait six years just to obtain all the blueprints which would guide him through the meticulous machining of more than 1000 individual parts to complete the build.
His fastidious devotion to his craft has always pumped through his veins.
“I was always interested in steam engines,” Colin said.
“There was one for sale for $3000 when I first moved to Echuca — and I nearly bought it there and then.
“But it was a lot of money. You could have bought a house for $10,000 back then.
“Plus I had nowhere to store it or drive it.”
Now Colin has lived to regret his conservative financial approach, considering such behemoths are these days worth $100,000-plus.
His interest though was picked up on by people in the paddlesteamer community which led him to a local solicitor and steam engine tragic.
“I went to his house and he got up on a ladder to pull out a magazine from this tall bookshelf,” Colin said.
“He said ‘this is what you need’.”
It was a model engineer’s magazine from England, and within its pages was a blueprint for a section of a model Fowler traction engine.
The magazine offered a blueprint in each edition as a step-by-step guide to build a three-inch model engine.
The magazine Colin was given was halfway through the build, which meant he had to write and subscribe to get the back issues.
“I had to wait two months for each magazine to come out from England and it took me six years to collect all the magazines I needed,” Colin said.
“I took each one in to the photocopy shop and had the designs blown up so I could see them properly.”
They were for a three-inch model so Colin had to make the necessary adjustments to turn it into a four-inch model, which is a third the size of the original engine.
Using the blueprints, he then set about making patterns of each piece he needed, relying on spare wood lying about his place.
“I sent the wood patterns to the foundry which sent back the castings and I machined them,” Colin said.
And how many parts did he have to go through this process with?
“A bloody lot of them. There would be over 1000 pieces,” Colin said.
“I made everything from bits of steel lying around.
There’s no such thing as scrap.
The only scrap I have is the swarf in the bin.
“A mate of mine had a welding ticket for the boiler I was renting when I started, then bought a house had four kids and then had to wait until the kids left home before I could finish it,” Colin said.
He remembers the night he finished it.
“I was about to take it to the Horsham steam rally in October 2009,” Colin said.
“I was working the night before trying to get it finished and it wasn’t running properly, so I was fiddling around with the valve settings.
“At 9pm I just bolted it all back together and thought ‘that’s it, hopefully it will run alright when I get there’.
“I got to the rally and started it up and it all worked.
I haven’t had to alter a thing on it since that day.”
Colin’s model engine takes about an hour to get up to steam.
It uses 20 litres of water an hour, and a bucketful of briquettes.
“Briquettes create less smoke and plus coal is a bit of a dirty word these days,” Colin said.
Colin’s model steam engine — named Bette after his mother-in-law — has done 700 hours of work so far and proves a hit at steam engine and machinery rallies.
“I take trailer rides on this,” he said, adding he gets more adults wanting to ride it than kids.
“It goes at walking speed,” Colin said.
“It has a high and low gear — slow and slower
“To go in reverse you reverse the engine, not the gearbox.
“The governor controls the steam engine at 200rpm.
When under load it keeps the engine at 200rpm and gives you more steam.”
The original engine on which Colin’s model is based was built in 1902.
“It was a threshing engine.
It would sit at the front of the barn and farmers would put the grain stook through the machine to get the seed out.
“They’d even use the straw in the machine itself to keep it going.
“They were also used to tow logs out of a forest and were used in sawmills.
“This is able to pull a car.” Colin’s knowledge of steam and mechanics was inherited.
“My father was always good at building things,” Colin said.
“He was the first to own a Lincoln arc welder powered by an A-model Ford engine.
“He built ploughs, graders, and a post-hole digger from a diff out of an old motor car.
“We had to. We had no money to buy new equipment.
“Farmers in the district brought all their broken equipment to us for my dad to fix.”
The grounding saw Colin embark on a trade as an engine reconditioner in Kerang.
After working in Cobram, he moved to Echuca and was in business with Jim Bourke in Engine Clutch and Brake.
Colin then started restoring vintage cars and making bits and pieces — pistons, conrods, gearbox housings.
“This is my hobby,” he said pointing to the steam engine.
“It’s all good fun. It keeps me out of the pub wasting money. I’d rather put it into this that’s worth something.
“To buy this in kit form in England would be £30,000.
“I built this for under $10,000. If I sold it it would be worth $40,000.”
The model weighs three-quarters of a ton and Colin has made some modifications to its 1902 big brother.
“The original one had steel wheels but on the model it means you’re vibrating while you’re sitting on it,” Colin said.
“I’ve put rubber strakes on the back wheels to make the ride a bit smoother. It has always amazed Colin how the original steam traction engine was built.
“In 1902 they didn’t have know how or the gear we have today,” he said.
“They weren’t able to machine their pieces. They would have been castings straight out of the foundry.”
Colin’s love of steam engines is straightforward.
“I like steam — it’s gentle and quiet,” he said.
“It gets into your blood once you get started. To see a full size engine, it almost feels like it’s alive.
“There’s nothing really complicated about it.
“I’ve never had any trouble with it, never had to fix anything.
“I went to an engine rally and a guy was trying to crank a petrol engine and I said ‘stick a match in it, that’s all I have to do’.”
When he is not showing off his model engine, Colin spends his time on miniature trains — either taking people on rides around the railway track or building them for customers.
He has been involved in Campaspe Valley Miniature Railway for 20 years with the group offering rides on the first Sunday of each month at Rotary Park.
“We can do 30 to 40 rides sometimes and then as many as 200 to 300,” he said.
“It’s Echuca’s best kept secret. Only visitors to the town see the sign and decide to go for a ride.”
Colin’s love for steam will be fuelled next year when the Miniature Traction Engine and Road Steam Rally comes to Echuca.
“It’s in Sydney this year and next year it will be in Echuca in October,” Colin said. Until then, Colin is more than happy to attend other heritage days and show off his Fowler A7.
“I spend most of my time talking about it, the whole aspect of steam engines,” he said.
“I just love getting out and having people come up and talk about it, see them take a ride on it and just enjoy the experience.”