Kemble 2010 Special Feature - Fowler Conversions

The following appeared in the Special Souvenir Programme for the 2010 Gloucestershire Steam & Vintage Extravaganza, as part of the Fowler Conversions Speacial Feature.

From Robert Herring - Chairman of The National Traction Engine Trust

When engines were in commercial use, if a purchaser could neither obtain nor afford an engine to his requirement it was common to buy what was available and convert it for his use; some manufacturers would also undertake conversions prior to sale. Typical examples were road locomotives fitted with generators for showmen. There were other conversions designed to improve performance and better the handling, a third speed added to a two speed engine, the addition of rubber tyres onto straked wheels. Sometimes rollers were converted to agricultural engines and vice versa, generally speaking unless this was undertaken by manufacturers or engineers it might not always be completely satisfactory, the gearing might not always be correct for their work, perhaps an agricultural would be too fast for precision rolling or a low geared roller was unsuitable for road work, but never the less it did happen.

In today’s modern world of preservation there is no commercial demand for traction engines and so we acknowledge that they are historical artefacts’, we would expect to preserve the heritage of these machines in the form they were built and intended.

Despite this statement some engines in preservation have been converted into a form in which they were not manufactured, the vast majority of these being rollers, they have been made into many guises; Showman’s engines, agricultural engines, tractors, but not solely these, there are others.

The Trust over many years has tried to deter people from undertaking these conversions, unfortunately with little success as they still continue.

With no mandatory powers the Trust has turned its attention to that of education. To those who persist in creating conversions. To bring information to the general public. To bring about the true history of these engines. Not to condone or promote We do though have a duty to all involved and to the public in general, as well as the next generation who will ultimately be the custodians of these machines.

We have set out to provide this information in many ways, through Rallies and their organisers, the programmes they produce and the many media outlets that cover our interests.

The Trust has recently produced an information document describing the many elements that make up the steam engine world, of which conversions are now a part.

To misinform and blatantly mislead others by the provision of wrong or false information on engine’s history is not acceptable, some conversions have been in preservation for in excess of forty years, they are therefore an important element of the preservation world but not one to which true identity should be hidden.

To convert or not to convert? That is the question. (By Derek Rayner – on behalf of the R.R.A)

The prime objective of the Road Roller Association is ‘To promote the preservation of road rollers and other road making machinery, both steam and internal combustion powered, horse-drawn and pedestrian controlled’. Many of the artefacts referred to in this statement, which are connected with the Association’s activities, are on show at Kemble today.

The Association therefore is vehemently against destroying the originality of steam rollers in order to turn them into historically incorrect items which then loose the historical link to the purpose for which they were originally supplied.

These conversions in the road steam engine world have perhaps come about as a result of attempts amongst some of the engine owning fraternity to possess a more valuable and higher status engine as it is somehow perceived that to own a four wheeled vehicle is better than owning a steam roller. This process, if unchecked, is nonsense since it could potentially see the universally loved workhorse that is the steam roller becoming a rare beast. All steam engines are very much the same and there would seem to be no greater kudos in owning one type rather than another.

One consequence of the continuing desecration of steam rollers by making them into something else is that some people are benefiting financially by so doing – making a living out of it, even! We are supposed to be in the preservation field and not making excessive financial gains from our hobby. There are reported instances where some unsuspecting new entry to steam engine ownership has bought an engine without knowing that it had previously been a road roller and paid well over the odds for something he perceived to be genuine, only to find out to their cost that s/he had been misled. Caveat Emptor – let the buyer beware – is unfortunately now the name of the game in our field.

A genuine convertible engine – of which many were built by different traction engine manufacturers - is one which is easily converted from one form (the traction engine or steam tractor) into another (the steam roller) for performing different seasonal jobs. This could be achieved in a relatively short time, say half a day - by using jacks and packing – by following the maker’s instructions. Such a machine would have been described as a convertible in the manufacturer’s build register. Some confusion exists in certain people’s eyes today in that Fowler’s, for example, built identical boilers in batches and these were later made into the customer’s final requirement, be it a showman’s engine, traction engine, a steam roller or a convertible. All of these could be produced using an identical boiler. Only by going to the maker’s historical documentation, which in general is available, can one really determine in what guise any particular machine was turned out originally.

Some present day owners of conversions are so uncomfortable with what they now own that they invent stories about their engine or attempt to re-write its history to justify what they now own or even report that ‘no history is known about this engine’ in the rally programmes. This latter statement is untrue since any true enthusiast will know - or can find out - about their engine, if they really want to.

Unfortunately the process of converting steam rollers continues even today and it is difficult to know why. Most preservationists consider that they are merely custodians of their charges for now – so that they can be passed on to future generations to learn about and enjoy. In so doing, we should not change history by converting steam rollers or even allow others to do so. This sort of thing does not happen in the other extensive motor vehicle preservation activities or in the railway fraternity.

In the world of historic buildings there are preservation orders and people get most upset if something untoward happens to such properties. Unfortunately for road steam, there is no such ethos and we are laughed at by other genuine preservationists in other fields because of this desecration of genuine historic steam rollers which continue to be turned into other non-historic objects – all for status and a quick buck perhaps!

It should not be - and the Road Roller Association, which gets little practical support from other national road steam preservation organisations in this matter, will continue to attempt to educate people of its role in life; namely the preservation of authentic and historically correct steam rollers.