Transantarctic TE-A 20’s

The Transantarctic TE-A 20’s: Mike Thorne

Tim Hanson, editor of your Club’s Journal, asked me if I would write an article for the next edition. My reply was, “well I will have to get my brain cell into gear!”

What follows is a precis of chapter 14 of my book TE 20 in detail, published by Herridge and Sons in 2006. That chapter in turn was based on a report I have in my archive written in part by the late Sir Edmund Hillary, leader of the famous Arctic expedition to the South Pole late 1957/early 1958 and I.G. (Jim) Bates who was the travelling engineer on the trip. Further input was drawn from an article by tractor author Michael Williams. Also, from two important books I have on my shelves, Edmund Hillary’s autobiography and The Crossing of Antarctic – Sir Vivian Fuchs and Edmund Hillary.

Prior to the shipment of five TE-A 20s to the Scott Base on the western side of polar plateau the tractors were prepared by Norwood, a Ferguson dealership on South Island. It so happened that at the time my friend the late Keith Base had been moved from his role at Stoneleigh Abbey as a senior training instructor to Norwood’s to set up a training school adjacent to their premises.

At the time it was felt prudent that the Antarctic team should all be trained in the servicing and repair procedures relating to their TE 20, a sensible expedient! Not only. that, but the team had the opportunity to consider design and evaluate various modifications they would need to make to the standard tractors to enable them to cope reliably with the conditions in this hostile environment. Just to mention a few; temperatures of minus 30 or below, deep soft snow, deep crevasses, smooth ice, sastrugi (wind driven frozen snow ridges of greatly varying dimensions) it should also be pointed out that the Polar Plateau rises to just over 10,000ft (3048m) above sea level, thus engines and humans lose 3% of their power per rise of 1000ft (304m) of altitude due to thinning levels of oxygen. Thus at 10,000ft a petrol engined TEA20 would only produce 16hp compared with the normal at seal level of 28hp. With the engine set to run at 2000rpm max to compensate for this loss of power output the tractors governors were reset to allow the engines to run up to 3000rpm maximum speed, (Hillary noted when operating in low gear with engines running at 3000rpm, petrol consumption fell to 1 mpg (1.609km per 4.54L).

One of the three preserved TEA20s of the Antarctic epedition is exhibited at the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch, New Zealand, with Mike Thornes’ friend Keith Daniels posing by it.

Now to have a look· at what modifications had to be considered by Edmund Hillary’s team and Norwood’s engineers, so that the five Ferguson destined for Scott Base had a chance of meeting the challenges. Keith Base related a good many years ago to me that the first modification the group considered was to fit standard Ferguson tyre tracks to the rear wheels and to replace the front wheels with ski’s, thus enabling the tractors to be steered, when this idea was tried out on snow in the South Island, it was found to be totally unworkable. I remember Keith telling me that on one occasion he and his group were discussing with Hillarys team how this short coming might be overcome, so picture this group standing in Norwood’s yard scratching their heads over how to deal with this problem. Then Hillary said “why not put the f***ing . tracks over the front wheels as well and weld up the steering in the straight ahead position”. Keith told me everyone looked amazed and a bit sheepish, why had they not thought of that! Then some bright spark from Keith’s team said “well how are you going to steer it then?” Hillary’s reply was “I am going straight to the South Pole so I won’t want to steer the f***ing thing”. So this became the chosen track system. To achieve this, larger diameter front wheels had to be fitted which in turn meant that the tractors wheel base had to be extended so that the front wheels cleared the idler wheel on each track. This was achieved by equipping each of the five tractors with a Ferguson Epicyclic reduction gear box, which added an extra 4.75inch (l20mm) to the normal 70inch (l778mm) wheelbase. Although this gave the tractors an extra lower range of gears, Hillary’s report states that it was hardly ever used. It should also be pointed out that the tyres were made of a special silicon rubber which was more suited to the extremely low temperatures. The same type of rubber was used for the heavy duty electrical wiring. They were all painted red to enable them to be seen more easily.

A crevasse the survey team missed. The two Fergusons were able to recover the third.

The five tractors bound for Scott Base were shipped from Norwood’s depot by road to the dock where they were loaded onto the Endeavour. They were each given female names, no doubt to compensate for the lack of female company on the trip! The two tractors below deck were Daisy and (Sue, now displayed at AGCOs manufacturing facility at Beauvais), the three on the deck were Liz, Aggie and Gert. Also on board were some other pieces of Ferguson equip­ment, a Lincoln 200amp mounted PTO driven electric arc welder, a hydrovane, 60cuft compressor, a winch, forklift, a blade terracer and a post hole digger, perhaps used to bore holes in the ice to erect flag poles! Each tractor was also fitted with an automatic pick up hitch for low level towing of sledges. At first the tractors cooling systems were charged with neat glycol anti-freeze but when that ran out kerosene, was substituted which according to Jim Bates worked perfectly.

The luxury of asolid fuel AGA in the galley of Shackleton Base.

The tractors and equipment were off leaded and eventually driven over to Scott Base, where Jim Bates and one of his team, Murray Ellis, built a large garage workshop. It was here that further modifications were made, including the fitment of simple roll over bars and a rudimentary cab to protect the drivers somewhat from the harsh weather. The front axles were strengthened by welding a length of angle steel between the lower part of the swivel tube and the rear end of the radius arm. All the Fergusons and the two Weasels were fitted with short range two way radios to aid communication between drivers. Also the tractors heavy duty batteries were moved closer to the engines in an attempt to maintain efficiency. A heat shield was fitted above the exhaust manifold just below the petrol tank to provide some insulation because they had found that when the engines were revving flat out the petrol in the tank started to boil!!! The caboose they were towing which was the radio shack and sleeping quarters was heated by having a large radiator which in turn was heated by passing the tractors exhaust through it before being discharged outside, making sure there were no internal leaks!

The three TE-A 20’s with the radio ‘Caboose’ en route to the South pole. © Cliff Dickey, NSF

Hillary and his team set out from Scott Base 011 the 14th October 1957 using three Fergusons and one of the American army Weasels to establish food and fuel dumps along their route. A few days into the trip the Weasel broke down but the team were able to repair it. This began to happen more frequently and these problems had escalated so Hillary decided to abandon it and carryon with just the three Fergusons.

It should be mentioned here that coinciding with Hillary’s trip Vivian (Bunny) Fuchs and his team had set out from Shackleton base on the North West of the Polar Plateau with two Sno-Cats named Rock-n-Roll and Able, two Weasels named Rumble and Wrack & Ruin, a Muskeg tractor called Hoppalong bearing an emblem of a kangaroo and bringing up the rear another Sno-Cat named County of Kent.

Hillary and his team finally reached the South Pole station at 12.30 on the 4th January 1958 and they were met by the two commanders of the American base, Dr Hawk and Major Margesson. Hillary wrote “on the circle of drums and flag poles that make the South Pole we were greeted by a battery of cameras and friendly faces”.

Sir Vivian Fuchs’ Sno-cat Rock-n-Roll in trouble.

Bunny Fuchs and his team arrived mid-day on 20th January 1958. Edmund Hillary recalls how all these vehicles were parked up next to our three Fergusons. “I have to admit that there was quite a contrast in the vehicles. Edmund Hillary and his team were the first people to drive to the South Pole and this was achieved with three Ferguson tractors.

On his arrival at the South Pole, Hillary sent an appreciative telegram to Banner Lane, Coventry “Despite quite unsuitable conditions of soft snow and high altitudes our Fergusons performed magnificently and it was their extreme reliability that made our trip to the South Pole possible, thank you for your good wishes – Hillary”.

A summary of major modifications in addition to the fitment of full tyre tracks.

  • Fitment of Epicyclic reduction gear box.
  • All electrical leads covered with silicone rubber.
  • Heavy duty starter motor.
  • 110amp hour batteries.
  • Strengthened front axle.
  • Crude cab with short range radio.
  • Tractors painted red to make them highly Visible.
  • Silicon rubber tyres all round.

© Michael Thorne, first published, Ferguson Club Journal, Issue No.96 Winter 2020/21