History of Australian road trains
Road trains in various forms have been with us since the mid-1800s and development of Australia’s sparsely populated, but asset-rich, northern regions would not have been possible without the post Word War II derivatives.
JohnFowler 7hp steam road locomotive – NSW Environment Energy and Science
Early road trains in the post-1850 era consisted of steam ‘road locomotives’, puling multiple wagons, predominantly loaded with ore or wool. These were larger developments of self-propelled traction engines that were used in road making and agriculture.
They were heavy, powerful machines, capable of pulling loads up to 120 tons. They were virtual ‘trains’ that ran on roads, without the need for costly railway-track infrastructure.
The first documented road trains operated in South Australia’s Flinders Ranges, hauling ore to Port Augusta area in the mid-19th century. They displaced bullock teams and were, in turn, superseded by railways.
In Europe, French and British engineers developed road trains for military purposes and during the Crimean War (1853-56), a traction engine was used to pull multiple open trucks. By 1898 steam traction engine trains with up to four wagons were trialled in military manoeuvres in England.
In 1900, John Fowler & Co provided armoured road trains for use by the British Armed Forces in the Second Boer War. Lord Kitchener stated that he had some 45 steam road trains at his disposal.
Internal combustion road trains
Steam, electric and internal combustion engines (ICEs) were fighting for supremacy at the turn of the century and the ICE won out. Steam road locomotives had great pulling power, but were heavy and slow, and demanded boiler fuel and water top up at regular intervals. Wood and water were scarce in arid Australia.
The first ICE-powered successor to the steam road locomotive was the Renard Roadtrain system that was invented and patented in 1903 by Colonel Charles Renard, an inventive French military engineer.
With input from Darracq and, later, Surcouf the Reynard road-train was unveiled at the Paris Salon. It consisted of a Darracq-powered four-wheeled tractor unit, coupled to as many as four six-wheeled trailers, whose centre axles were driven by a series of shafts from a power take off behind the tractor’s rear axle. Linked steering axles on the trailers meant that the entire unit tracked in the same wheel ruts.
Charles Renard was mortified by the French Government’s disinterest in his innovations, its refusal to help fund their development and rejection of his candidacy for membership to the Academie des Sciences. Tragically, Charles Renard committed suicide in April 1905: one month before his first commercial passenger unit was ready for sale.
That first Roadtrain was sold to Breteil Freres, a large dairy firm in Manche, France, in July 1905. It hauled 45 tons of butter daily, into various markets.
By 1906 a successor Renard Syndicate Ltd had been formed. A prototype was sent to London in pursuit of a higher-powered engine and by 1908 the Daimler Motor Company was supplying engines and secured exclusive rights to manufacture Daimler-Renard Roadtrains.
1910 Daimler-Renard at Farina – State Library of South Australia
The vehicles enjoyed some success in England, Germany, Hungary, America and Australia. Between four and six Daimler-Renards arrived in Australia and a derelict example was discovered in the South Australian town of Farina, in 1972. It was subsequently restored and now has pride of place at the Stories from the Road Museum in Port Pirie.
This South Australian Daimler-Renard is the only one known to have been powered by a four-cylinder engine, when the standard engine was the Daimler Silent Knight sleeve-valve six, with a bore of 185mm and a stroke of 150mm, delivering maximum power of 113bhp at 1000rpm.
Daimler’s plan was to export Roadtrains to Commonwealth countries, but increasing production costs saw pricing soar to around Stg£5000. In addition, there were in-service problems, including very high noise levels from the cardan shaft joints and loss of traction on uneven ground.
Nonetheless, the arrival of the Daimler-Renard caused a sensation in Adelaide, in 1909. The 23rd April newspaper editions noted that the Roadtrain had been imported by the Union Consolidated Copper Mines and passed through the streets of Adelaide on its way to work between Farina and Yudnamutana, a distance of 80 miles.
Despite its then-incredible hauling capacity and agility, the Daimler-Renard Roadtrain was never a commercial success and production ceased before the beginning of World War I.
The Mueller Petrol-Electric Road Train
Albury’s main thoroughfare saw an even more extraordinary display of mechanical might in May 1914, according to historian, Percy King. No less than 100 tons of fully loaded Mueller Petrol-Electric Road Train ground its way up Dean Street to the rail yards.
This 10-trailer monster was headed by a motor van that housed an electric dynamo, driven by two 125bhp, six-cylinder Daimler engines. Propulsion came from no fewer than 22 direct-current 25hp electric motors – one on each axle.
The wheels were four feet (1.2 metres) in diameter, wooden spoked and banded with 10-inch (250mm), flat-iron tyres. The combination measured 216 feet (66 metres) long and weighed 43.5 tons (39.5 tonnes). Top speed loaded was 6-8mph (10-13km/h) and petrol consumption up to two gallons per mile 470L/100km).
Imported from Germany by sheep breeder, R S Falkiner, of Hay in late 1913, the Road Train’s inventor, Major W A Mueller and two assistants came to Melbourne to assemble and commission it.
The venture didn’t start well, because the then-astronomical cost of the train was £13,000 (around A$1 million in today’s money), plus import duty of around a third of that amount. There was a court battle over the amount of duty that saw it reduced substantially, but legal costs went against Falkiner.
The ‘shake down’ journey was hauling 50 tons (45.4 tonnes) of cargo to Edmondson & Co at Wagga Wagga – some 277 miles (446km) away.
The journey north in January was beset with problems that included a broken crankshaft, failed clutches and broken valve rollers and stems that damaged pistons and cylinders. Also, overheating was a constant issue in summer heat that the designers did not envisage.
It was three months after the Melbourne departure when some cargo was off-loaded at Albury. The depleted road train finally reached Wagga in May, but ongoing unreliability remained an issue.
As war clouds gathered, Mueller and the German crew departed, rather than risk being detained in Australia, as hostile aliens, during the imminent hostilities.
It was February 1915 before the road train was seen in Hay and began its intended task of hauling wool to the railway, for despatch to Sydney.
Inevitably, the engines gave out after the road train became bogged in the sticky goo of the ‘black soil plains’ around Hay, stranding 250 bales of wool that had to be offloaded.
The road train was eventually railed back to Melbourne and stored temporarily. However, it was totally destroyed when the warehouse burnt down. (It’s tempting to think the Mueller Petrol-Electric Road Train might have been sacrificed for its insurance value…)
Red Cliffs and District Historical Society
It’s not known how this massive tractor unit was named, but In early 1915 Frank Bottrill commenced construction of this monster, in Melbourne. He designed it as a replacement for the camel trains that carried wool and other heavy loads in sandy terrain.
Fabrication and assembly of the huge prime mover and two trailers was carried out by Bottrill over a period of 12 months, with casting and machining done by A H McDonald Co of Richmond, Victoria. Financing was provided by Ralph Falkiner, who had already spent a great deal of money on the failed Mueller project.
Big Lizzie was massive, measuring 10.36 metres long, 3.35m wide and 5.49m high, while weighing a hefty 45 tonnes. The tractor’s payload was 10 tonnes and its two road-train trailers – 9 metres long, 3m wide and 2.13m high – could carry 35 tonnes each. It had a vast running circle of 61 metres.
Power came from a 60 hp (44.7kW) Blackstone, water-cooled, single-cylinder crude oil engine that had a bore of 228 mm and stroke of 450 mm, giving a displacement of 18.4 litres. It drove through a four-speed forward and two-speed reverse transmission to 2.13-metre-diameter drive wheels. Peak power was produced at a very low 215rpm and road speed was 1-3mph.
More information can be found in Ron Maslin’s book: Big Lizzie – The Story of a Man and a Machine, but here are a couple of interesting quotes:
“It was started by compressed air stored in a cylinder adjacent to the engine and ignition was by a hot bulb heated initially by a large blowlamp. Fuel was injected simultaneously into the hot bulb and the combustion chamber by compressed air and a compressor pump was built into the engine and driven from the crankshaft.
“The steering gear, which was rather advanced for the period in which the machine was made, is unlike the turntable type steering of traction engines and wagons, more of the automotive type. It uses king-pins, knuckles and tie rods of massive size.”
Frank Bottrill 1912 ped-rail patent
Frank Bottrill realised that Big Lizzie’s massive drive and steer-axle wheels would sink into soft ground, so he fitted redesigned dreadnought wheels to his tractor. His patented design, with sequentially-ovelapping road plates was lodged in 1912 and had already proved its worth on prior McDonald tractors.
In 1916, Big Lizzie left Richmond, with a plan to be in Broken Hill by early 1917. The route chosen through Victoria was via Kilmore, Heathcote, Elmore and Echuca, where it was proposed to cross the Murray River into NSW.
Big Lizzie’s right of passage was granted on the condition that Bottrill paid for road damage en route and he was also up for repairing a bridge near Kilmore.
When Big Lizzie reached the flooded Campaspe River, a delay of three weeks was necessary, while de-snagging and earthworks below the weir near Elmore were done, to provide a crossing.
Frank Bottrill was unable to cross the Murray at Echuca because of floods and he could not get permission to cross the approach bridge to the town, so he headed for Swan Hill, on the south side of the Murray.
He arrived at Kerang in January 1917 and spent five months carrying out modifications and repairs. In October 1917 Big Lizzie arrived in Mildura to find the Murray River in flood, so completing his journey was out of the question for several months at least.
Bottrill sought scrub-clearing work for Big Lizzie in the area, while he waited for conditions to improve.
By August 1920, Big Lizzie had commenced clearing scrub for a proposed 6000-hectare irrigation area of Red Cliffs that was to provide 700 Soldier Settlement blocks for veterans of World War I.
A gang of up to 16 men was employed to handle four heavy cables that were attached to large numbers of trees and stumps. Repairs to damaged cables were carried out on the front platform of Big Lizzie, which was equipped with blacksmith’s forge, anvil and toolbox.
Clearing work at Red Cliffs was completed in 1924 and Big Lizzie was driven to Western Victoria to find more work clearing land. (By this stage the Broken Hill dream was over.)
However, the relocated scrub-clearing venture was not a success and Frank Bottrill and his wife later abandoned Big Lizzie on Glendenning Station.
In 1938 the Blackstone engine was sold and moved to Pyramid Hill, where it was used to drive stone-crushing equipment until 1942, after which it was broken up for scrap in 1945.
In 1971- the year of Red Cliffs Golden Jubilee – a committee was formed, to negotiate the purchase and return of Big Lizzie to Red Cliffs. Big Lizzie and one trailer now hold pride of place in Barclay Square, Red Cliffs.
The AEC Roadtrain
Government Roadtrain with four trailers – the last two locally made
If there’s one thing we learnt from Sir Humphrey Applebee (Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister TV series) it’s that bureaucrats are always on the lookout for cheap ways of doing things.
At the 1927 British Colonial Office conference it was determined it would be more cost effective to develop a land tractor or road train than to invest the money required to build railways in remote areas of the British Commonwealth. It’s important to note that these conclusions were drawn by people who’d never seen a monsoon or a sand dune!
The design specifications for the land tractor were created by the British Overseas Mechanical Transport Committee and funded by the British and South African governments. However, when it became obvious that even this shortcut to a ‘railway’ was going to be quite expensive, another 25 Commonwealth counties, including Australia, contributed finances.
The precise design brief has been lost over the intervening 90+ years, but it seems that the Brits had woken up to the fact that the 100+tons train weighs hauled by trains could not be replicated off rail tracks – particularly as the requirement was for rough-road or off-road capabilities. As a result, the design called for a real-world payload of around 30 tons.
The first prototype was constructed by Leyland Motors and subsequent units were built by AEC’s wholly owned subsidiary company, Hardy Motors. The specialist trailers were produced by RA Dyson & Co of Liverpool.
The first AEC Roadtrain was completed in December 1930 at a cost of Stg£12,000 and was powered by a six-cylinder petrol engine. Production units had a 130bhp (97kW) six-cylinder AEC diesel engine of 8.8-litre displacement, driving through a four-speed manual transmission and three-speed transfer case.
The AEC Roadtrain consisted of an eight-wheeled prime mover and two eight-wheeled trailers, making the entire train 21.84 metres long. All wheels had single tyres and traction was applied to all eight wheels through four differentials.
The steering axles on the prime mover were the first and fourth axles, so it pivoted around the centre two axles when turning.
The eight-wheeled trailers were self-tracking, being fitted with bogies at each end that turned in opposite directions, allowing the trailers to run in the tracks of the prime mover. Each bogie was fitted with a turntable connected to the other by a spring loaded linkage.
This prototype completed 5500 miles (8900km) of laden and unladen tests at the War Department’s grounds at Farnborough, UK. On completion of the trials the unit was shipped to the British colony of Gold Coast (now Ghana) for further trials before it was put to work.
It was used to carry agricultural produce, bags of salt, cement, pipes, timber, livestock and…people. The Roadtrain completed more than 80,000 miles (130,000km) before it was sold to the Gold Coast Government for Stg£2000 in 1934. It is believed the petrol engine was later replaced by a diesel engine.
The second Roadtrain was built by AEC at a reduced cost of Stg£7000 and was scheduled to go to South Africa, which country had been involved in funding the program from the beginning, but the Government of Australia committed to pay Stg£2000 over the next two years to the British Overseas Mechanical Transport Committee, so it was re-routed to Australia.
Following some local testing in early 1934, the Roadtrain set out in April from Adelaide to Alice Springs via Oodnadatta, under the command of Captain (later Brigadier) E M Dollery, Chief Inspector of Mechanical Transport for the Australian Defence Department, with a British crew comprising Captain E C Roscoe, two driver/mechanics and a local cook.
The Roadtrain covered 1100 miles (1800km) of unmade roads in three weeks, carrying fuel and supplies for the trip. Captain Dollery reported:
We tracked over trackless wastes of sandhills. Some days we only progressed two or three miles. We drove a car ahead to reconnoiter the most practicable routes and we usually had to make our own tracks to consolidate the sand, then we winched the trailers over one by one.
When we reached the Hugh River we had to cross it 11 times in 22 miles, each crossing involving a different tactic.
This was a completely new development in motor transport and all the innovations were novel to us. It was the first time too we ever had a vehicle driven on all eight wheels, with a braking system that acted on the rear trailer first and so on back down the trailers to the prime-mover itself.
But of course, the most striking part of its design, in regard to Australian conditions, was its ability to negotiate sharp turns.
In Alice Springs the road train was loaded for its first commercial trip, with a load of timber and corrugated iron for the first building to be erected in Tennant Creek: a pub.
The Government Roadtrain, as it became known, was purchased by the Australian Government later that year and remained in central Australia. Operated by the Department of the Interior, the Government Roadtrain was used to supply outback regions, supplementing and leading to the demise of the cameleers who had before then been responsible for supplying outback Australia.
The Afghan and Pakistani cameleers charged two shillings and sixpence per ton per mile, but the Government Roadtrain could charge as little as six and a half pence per ton per mile.
During the dry season, May to October, the Government Roadtrain was used to supply remote communities and isolated cattle stations in the Victoria River, Wave Hill and Borroloola regions.
During the wet season, November to April, the Government Roadtrain was used in central Australia, carting supplies to goldfields, cattle, windmills, boring equipment and supplies to remote cattle stations, wool from remote sheep stations and building material to outlying communities.
An additional two trailers were built for the Government Roadtrain and in government service it covered over 1,280,000 miles (2,060,000km) carrying loads of up to 45 long tons (46 tonnes) – well beyond the original design specifications – before it was sold to a timber dealer in 1946.
One Roadtrain is known to have been exported to Russia in 1935 and there may have been a second one, as well.
The Australian Government Roadtrain at the National Road Transport Hall of Fame in Alice Springs is believed to be the only surviving AEC Roadtrain example.
Australian Kurt Johannsen is recognised as the inventor of the modern road train in the early Post-Word War II years. He had a background in remote area road transport around the Red Centre, having driven his own trucks since age 15.
Provided with some financing and inspired by the tracking abilities of the Government Roadtrain, Johannsen began construction of his road train design, using a War-surplus ex-US-Army Diamond T M20 tank-transporter prime mover that he named Bertha. This truck was powered by a Hercules DXFE diesel with peak power of 185bhp (138kW), driving through a four-speed main box and three-speed auxiliary.
In Kurt’s first road train this prime mover towed two self-tracking trailers. Both wheel sets on each trailer could steer and could negotiate tight and narrow tracks and creek crossings.
In the 21st century it’s logical to think that Kurt’s Diamond T and post-War Lend Lease American trucks were the forerunners of North American brands getting into the Australian road transport scene, but that’s not what happened.
Although the USA had been Australia’s powerful ally in the Pacific theatre of World War II, our roots were firmly embedded in Great Britain and the Commonwealth. Before the War and afterwards, British vehicles dominated the Australian car and truck market. There were some North American trucks on Aussie roads, but not many and their mainly petrol engines were very thirsty.
Kurt Johannsen’s road train showed what could be done, using modern trucks up front of multiple trailers, but when the ex-army US trucks wore out the next commercial road train generation was all-British: Thornycroft, AEC, Leyland and Foden.
Two specially-built Rotinoff Viscounts also hauled roadtrain trailers around the Outback.
The British trucks had preferred diesel engines – albeit low-horsepower by today’s standards – and bullet-proof hub reduction drive tandem axles.
It wasn’t until the late 1950s that US-origin trucks began to make their mark with diesel powered road train specification trucks – mainly Macks and Kenworths – that displaced underpowered British models.
The Brits no longer make trucks, but European high-horsepower prime movers – Volvo, Scania, MAN and Mercedes-Benz – have taken some road train business away from the North Americans.