Tractor & Construction Plant Wiki

A Steam tractor Garrett engine BJ 5510 at Belvoir castle show 2008

A traction engine is a wheeled steam engine used to move heavy loads, plough ground or to provide power at a chosen location. The name derives from the Latin tractus, meaning 'drawn', since the prime function of any traction engine is to draw a load behind it. They are sometimes called road locomotives to distinguish them from (railway) steam locomotives – that is, steam engines that run on rails.

Traction engines tend to be large, robust and powerful, but heavy, slow, and poorly maneuverable. Nevertheless, they revolutionized agriculture and road haulage at a time when the only alternative prime mover was the draught horse.

They became popular in industrialised countries from around 1850, when the first self-propelled portable steam engines for agricultural use were developed. Production continued well into the early part of the 20th century, when competition from internal combustion engine -powered tractors saw them fall out of favour, although some continued in commercial use in the UK into the 1950s and later. All types of traction engines have now been superseded except the ones using internal combustion (tractors), in commercial use. However, several thousand examples have been preserved worldwide, many in working order. Steam fairs are held throughout the year in the UK, and in other countries, where visitors can experience working traction engines at close hand.

Traction engines were cumbersome and ill-suited to crossing soft or heavy ground so their agricultural use was usually either "in the belt" – powering farm machinery by means of a continuous leather belt driven by the flywheel – or in pairs, dragging an implement on a cable from one side of a field to another. However, where soil conditions permitted, direct hauling of implements ("off the drawbar") was preferred – in the U.S., this lead to the divergent development of the steam tractor (US Terminology).


Limits of technical knowledge and manufacturing technology meant that practicable road vehicles, powered by steam, did not start to appear until the early years of the 19th century.

The traction engine, in the form recognisable today, developed from an experiment in 1859 when Aveling and Porter modified a Clayton & Shuttleworth portable engine, which had to be hauled from job to job by horses, into a self-propelled one. The alteration was made by fitting a long driving chain between the crankshaft and the rear axle, and this set the basic design for the next 60-odd years.

Development of traction engines, and indeed all forms of steam road transport, was severely hampered in the UK by a series of government acts that favoured non-steam vehicles. The slow speed resulting from traction engine gearing is in part due to the severe speed restrictions imposed by government policies.

Right through to the first decades of the twentieth century, manufacturers continued to seek a solution to realise the economic benefits of direct-pull ploughing, and, particularly in North America, this led to the development of the steam tractor. British companies such as Mann's and Garrett developed potentially-viable direct ploughing engines, however market conditions were against them, and they failed to gain widespead popularity. These market conditions arose in the wake of the First World War when there was a glut of surplus equipment available as a result of British Government policy. Large numbers of Fowler ploughing engines had been constructed in order to increase the land under tillage during the war, and many new light Fordson Model F tractors had been imported from 1917 onwards.

The last new UK-built traction engines were constructed in the 1930s, although many continued in commercial use for many years, while there remained experienced enginemen available to drive them.

From the 1950s, the 'preservation movement' started to build up as enthusiasts realised that these lumbering beasts were in danger of dying out. Many of the remaining engines were snapped-up by enthusiasts, and restored to working order. Traction engine rallies began, initially as races between engine owners and their charges, later developing into the significant tourist attractions that takes place in many locations each year. It has been estimated that over two thousand traction engines have been preserved.and in the UK many many more.


See: steam engine for a description of how the actual engine worked

Although the first traction engines employed a chain drive, it is more typical for large gears to be used to transfer the drive from the crankshaft to the rear axle.

The machines typically have two large powered wheels at the back and two smaller wheels for steering at the front. However, some traction engines used a four-wheel-drive variation, anadvdsmlkajf


dskfd some experimented with a form of caterpillar track.

A simple animation showing the steam cycle of a traction engine, the operation of the valve gear and the reversing mechanism, may be found here: Animation (Flash) showing the steam cycle and reversing mechanism of a traction engine
    – NB contains embedded music, which can be turned off! (Accessed 23 Apr 2007).

Types and usage

Traction engines saw commercial use in a variety of roles between the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries. Each role required a machine with a different set of characteristics, and the traction engine evolved into a number of different types to suit these different roles.

Agricultural (general purpose) engine

The most common form in the countryside. They were used for hauling and as a stationary power source. Even when farmers did not own such a machine they would rely upon it from time to time. Many farms would use draught horses throughout the year, but during the harvest, threshing contractors would travel from farm to farm hauling the threshing machine which would be set up in the field and powered from the engine – a good example of the moveable stationary engine.

U.S. (agricultural) traction engine

Favourable soil conditions meant that U.S. traction engines usually pulled their ploughs behind them, thereby eliminating the complexities of providing a cable drum and extra gearing, hence simplifying maintenance. American traction engines were manufactured in a variety of sizes, with the 6 horsepower Russell being the smallest commercially made, and the large engines made by Russell, Case, and Reeves being the largest.

Ploughing engine

A Fowler steam ploughing Engine NR 1213 at Wymswold show 2008

John Fowler & Co. Ploughing Engine - the winding drum is mounted below the boiler (the 'drum' on the side is actually a hose for refilling the water tank). A lockable tool box may be seen on the front axle; the 'spud tray' would be mounted in the same way, behind the axle. A ploughing engine is a distinct form of traction engine, characterised by the provision of a large diameter winding drum driven by separate gearing from the steam engine. Onto the drum a long length of wire rope was wound, which was used to haul an implement, such as a plough, across a field.

The winding drum was either mounted horizontally (below the boiler), vertically (to one side), or even concentrically, so that it encircled the boiler. The majority were under-slung (horizontal), however, and necessitated the use of an extra-long boiler to allow enough space for the drum to fit between the front and back wheels. These designs were the largest and longest traction engines to be built.

Mostly the ploughing engines worked in pairs, one on each side of the field, with the rope from each machine fastened to the implement to be hauled. The two drivers communicated by signals using the engine whistles.

A variety of implements were constructed for use with ploughing engines. The most common were the balance plough and the cultivator - ploughing and cultivating being the most physically demanding jobs to do on an arable farm. Other implements could include a mole drainer, used to create an underground drainage channel or pipe, or a dredger bucket for dredging rivers or moats.

The engines were frequently provided with a 'spud tray' on the front axle, to store the 'spuds' which would be fitted to the wheels when travelling across claggy ground.

The man credited with the invention of the ploughing engine, in the mid-nineteenth century, was John Fowler, an English agricultural engineer and inventor.

Ploughing engines were rare in the U.S.; ploughs were usually hauled directly by an agricultural engine or steam tractor.

Steam tractor (U.S.)

In North America, the term steam tractor usually refers to a type of agricultural tractor powered by a steam engine, used extensively in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Steam tractor (UK)

In Great Britain, the term steam tractor is more usually applied to the smallest models of traction engine – typically those weighing seven tons or less – used for hauling small loads on public roads. Although known as light steam tractors, these engines are generally just smaller versions of the road locomotive.

They were popular in the timber trade in the UK, although variations were also designed for general light road haulage and showman's use.

The most popular of these designs was probably the Garrett 4CD, meaning 4 nominal horse power Compound type.

Road locomotive

Fowler Heavy Steam road Locomotive "Kitchener"

Designed for haulage of heavy loads on public highways, it was not uncommon for two or even three to be coupled together to allow heavier loads to be handled.

The characteristic features of these engines are very large rear driving wheels fitted with solid rubber tyres; three-speed gearing (most traction engine types have only two gears); rear suspension; and belly tanks to provide a greater range between the stops needed to replenish water. All these features are to improve the ride and performance of the engine, which used to be used for journeys of hundreds of miles. Most road locomotives are fitted with a winch drum on the back axle. This can be used by removing the driving pins that secure the rear wheels, allowing the drive train to power the winch drum instead of the wheels.

A number of road locomotives are fitted with a crane boom on the front. The boom pivot is mounted on the front axle assembly, and a small steam engine is mounted on an extension to the smokebox in front of the chimney. The small steam engine is used to power a cable winch for raising and lowering a hook. These road locomotives can be used to load a trailer as well as haul it to a new location. They are often referred to as 'crane engines'.

A particularly distinctive form of road locomotive was the Showman's engine. These were operated by travelling showmen both to tow fairground equipment and to power it when set up; either directly or by running a generator. These could be highly decorated and formed part of the spectacle of the fair. Some were fitted with a small crane that could be used when assembling the ride.


Main article: Steam roller

Another distinct form of the steam traction engine, used for road building and flattening ground. Typically designed with a single heavy roller replacing the front wheels and axle, and smooth rear wheels without strakes.

Some traction engines were designed to be convertible: the same basic machine could be fitted with either standard ('treaded' or tyred) road wheels, or else smooth rolls – the changeover between the two being achieved in less than half a day.

Relatives of the traction engine

A number of other steam-powered vehicles share design features with the traction engine, usually because the same technology was re-used in a new application.

Portable engine

Main article: Portable engine

A portable engine is a type of self-contained steam engine and boiler combination that may be moved from site to site. Although bearing a strong family resemblance, in both appearance and (stationary) operation, the portable engine is not classed as a traction engine as it is not self-propelled. However, it is included in this list because the traction engine is a direct descendant.

Steam wagon

Foden Steam lorry RY 9259

These were the earliest steam lorries and came in two basic forms. The earlier over-type designs resembled traction engines by having a cab built around a horizontal boiler with a round smokebox and chimney (eg Foden). And they resembled lorries in having a load-carrying body and being built around a chassis (so they cannot really be called traction engines).

The more modern under-type designs have the engine under the chassis (although the boiler remains in the cab), and generally resemble lorries rather than traction engines.

Early examples of either type had solid tyres, but various developments, including vertical boilers, enclosed cabs and pneumatic tyres were tried by companies such as the Sentinel Waggon Works in a bid to compete with internal combustion engine -powered lorries.

Steam lorry manufacturers

Sentinel steam lorry works No.7651

Many traction engine builders also built forms of steam lorry, but some firms specialised in them.

John I. Thornycroft & Company was an established marine engineering company that successfully spawned the Steam Carriage and Wagon Company for the production of steam-powered road vehicles. They supplied steam lorries to the British Army, commercial steam wagons and vans, steam cars (for a few years), and buses – London's first powered bus was a Thornycroft double-decker steam bus.

Manufacturers who specialised in the construction of steam lorries include:

Steam lorries were the best road lorries of their day. The Sentinel S4 was easily capable of attaining 60 mph at a time when petrol lorries would be lucky to achieve 35 mph, the Sentinel DG's could reach 40 mph (considerably more than their listed speed) and the Foden lorries were limited only by speed limits placed on them – the makers even offered alternative gearing capable of twice the speed limit although they were still not as fast as the Sentinels.

Steam lorries on film

The 1975 Disney film One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing featured a steam lorry in a (literally) supporting role. It was used as the 'getaway vehicle' for the theft of a large dinosaur skeleton from the Natural History Museum. It was involved in a lengthy chase sequence through the streets of London – as a result, the steam lorry, and the dinosaur, featured prominently on the film's posters and video/DVD case artwork.

The lorry was based on an 'unusual' prototype, a long wheelbase undertype, with a small vertical boiler mounted to one side of the cab, and no windscreen.

Why road steam disappeared in the UK

Road steam disappeared through becoming uneconomical to operate, and unpopular with British governments. By 1921, steam tractors had demonstrated clear economic advantages over horse power for heavy hauling and short journeys. However, petrol lorries were starting to show better efficiency and could be purchased cheaply as war surplus; on a busy route a 3-ton petrol lorry could save about £100 per month compared to its steam equivalent, in spite of restrictive speed limits, and relatively high fuel prices and maintenance costs.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s successive governments placed tighter restrictions on road steam haulage, including speed, smoke and vapour limits[1], and a 'wetted tax', where the tax due was proportional to the size of the wetted area of the boiler; this made steam engines less competitive against domestically-produced internal combustion engined units (although imports were subject to taxes of up to 33%).

As a result of the Salter Report on road funding, an 'axle weight tax' was introduced in 1933 in order to charge commercial motor vehicles more for the costs of maintaining the road system, and to do away with the perception that the free use of roads was subsidising the competitors of rail freight. The tax was payable by all road hauliers in proportion to the axle load; it was particularly damaging to steam propulsion, which was heavier than its petrol equivalent.[2]

Initially, imported oil was taxed much more than British-produced coal, but in 1934 Oliver Stanley, the Minister for Transport, reduced taxes on fuel oils while raising the Road Fund charge on road locomotives to £100 pounds a year, provoking protests by engine manufacturers, hauliers, showmen and the coal industry. This was at a time of high unemployment in the mining industry, when the steam haulage business represented a market of 950,000 tons of coal annually. The tax was devastating to the businesses of heavy hauliers and showmen, and precipitated the scrapping of many engines.[3]

Traction Engines as Railway Locomotives

Several traction engine builders (such as Aveling & Porter and Fowler) built light railway locomotives based on their traction engines. In their crudest form these simply had flanged steel wheels to enable them to run on rails. More sophisticated models had the boiler and engine mounted on a chassis which carried railway-wagon style axles. The rear axle was driven from the engine by gear or chain-drive. These unusual locomotives were sold to small industries for use in shunting and marshalling duties, although they also found favour with engineering firms engaged in the construction of mainline railways for hauling men, equipment and materials over the partly-constructed line.


  • spud or lug – strip of angled metal that could be bolted to the driving wheels to provide greater traction on soft or heavy ground. Spuds were often required on ploughing engines when moving across farmland.
  • strake – name for the diagonal strips cast into or rivetted onto the wheel rims to provide traction on unmade ground (similar to the tread on a pneumatic tyre).
  • Nominal horse power– NHP is the typical way that traction engines are rated. However, it has long been accepted that nominal horse power understates the actual power of the engine. There are many ways to estimate the actual horse power but none of them gives an accurate answer, for example, a 4NHP engine is said to be approximately 36HP; however a 4NHP engine can happily pull a laden 8-wheeler lorry while a diesel engine of 36HP cannot. Thus, many have resigned themselves that this debate will never be settled and, while NHP gives a very appropriate way of rating traction engine, it may never be converted accurately into diesel HP.

Modern use

Although no longer used commercially, traction engines of all types continue to be maintained and preserved by enthusiastic individuals and are frequently exhibited at agricultural shows in Europe (particularly the UK), Canada and the United States. They are often a main attraction in a live steam festival. There are still a lot of working steam engines working for a liveing all over the world.

Steam Buses

A Steam bus operates commercially around Whitby in North Yorkshire, carrying tourists round the old town. This is the believed to be the only Steam bus operating a regular commercial service in the UK. There are other but not on a regular service.

Working model engines

Main article: Scale Model Steam Engines

Model traction engines, powered by steam, are manufactured by several companies, notably Mamod and Wilesco. Larger scale model engines are popular subjects for model engineers to construct, either as a supplied kit of parts, or machined from raw materials. These can vary from 1" to the Foot to 6" to the Foot (1/2 Size)

Traction engines in popular culture

On film

See also: Steam rollers on film
  • The 1962 film The Iron Maiden featured a showman's engine as the film's star, along with many others, at the annual rally at Woburn Abbey.

In fiction

See also: Wikipedia > Steam rollers in fiction
  • Trevor the Traction Engine is one of the non-railway characters featured in The Railway Series of children's books by the Rev. W. Awdry. Appearing in several of the books, the traction engine was originally 'saved from scrap' by The Vicar of Fictional locations in The Railway Series Wellsworth with the help of Edward the Blue Engine. Trevor has also appeared in a number of episodes in the TV spin-off Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends.
  • In the book Gumdrop and The Farmer's Friend, by Val Biro, the vintage motor-car Gumdrop is rescued from a snowy ditch by "The Farmer's Friend", a traction engine belonging to a local farmer. Some months later, the two vehicles are instrumental in thwarting a pair of car thieves.
    The end-papers of the book include a simplified cut-away drawing of the traction engine: a single-cylinder, 6 NHP Fowler light tractor, built in 1903.

On television

  • Fred Dibnah a steeple jack from Bolton, England was known as a National Institution for the conservation of old traction engines in Great Britain. His television series, Fred Dibnah's Made in Britain, shows him touring the United Kingdom in his rebuilt, 10 ton Aveling & Porter traction engine. In the series he visited many industrial sites associated with industrial heritage of Britain's manufacturing industry..


See Steam Machinery Manufacturers

See also

References / sources

  • Wikipedia for base article, then expanded for preserved machines
  1. "Motor Transport. The New Legislation", The Times (06 April 1922). 
  2. "Motor Taxation. Vehicles Using Fuel Oil (Letters)", The Times (24 March 1933). 
  3. "Tax On Heavy Oils", The Times (09 March 1934). 

External links


  • Social Impact of Road HaulageTimeline including early development history of steam-powered road vehicles (from Hampshire County Council Museum Service)



Further information


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