I’m sure one of the reasons North Wales is such a great place for spotting vintage tractors at work is because it is a relatively poverty-stricken little country. I don’t mean that we can’t afford shoes here, but rather that Wales, and indeed Britain as a whole, has become an expensive place to live in recent times, and many small agricultural contractors find it makes more sense to continue using their old machines than to pay for state-of-the-art, modern machinery. We do have modern farms and machinery here, but if contracting work isn’t your main income, then it makes sense to make do and mend when it comes to machinery.
Much of this region of North Wales is woody. While the bulk of timberwork goes to large contractors with cutting edge forestry harvesting equipment, a certain amount of private work is usually available for the regular guy who is in possession of some reliable old kit.
I suppose the bottom line is that most tractor enthusiasts love nothing more than a spot of winching, and if you can make a bit of cash out of it, so much the better. It is always nice to feel that your vintage tractor is earning its keep and continuing to do the job it was intended for. Much of this old equipment is still fully capable of a good day’s work.
One timber tractor that I know personally is the 1952 Unipower Forester that belongs to my brother Pete. Regular readers of my column will by now be getting to feel that they know Pete quite well, as I’ve featured some of his tractors in previous articles. Pete and I tend to share the same (excellent!) taste in tractors, so I feel that his little collection includes some great examples of good old British tractors, which is what inspires me to share them with you folk over there. The Unipower Forester is quite unusual in that it is one of those machines that looks for all the world like a truck, but is in fact classed as a tractor.
There aren’t many of these handsome beasts around. I had certainly never seen one before, but Pete had, and he’d been dreaming about them for a good few years before he managed to track down this particular model. “I never thought I’d actually be able to own one of these,” he says, adding that this is one machine he will be hanging on to no matter what.
The first time I clapped eyes on the Unipower was when Pete rang me to say that he had bought this “amazing machine” and he was in the process of driving it from where he had bought it in England back to his home here in North Wales. I told him to ring me back when he was approaching the Conwy Valley where I live, and I would come out in the car to see him pass on his way home. Receiving the warning call I drove to the appointed spot and waited and waited, reflecting that Pete must be absolutely exhausted, not to mention partially deafened, from having driven a timber tractor all the way from England.
After some time there came a powerful rumble. Along the main road towards me came a beautiful sight of a truck with attitude, and there was my brother behind the wheel with a beaming smile on his face. For someone who lives in a woodland and likes quirky old tractors and cool-as-they-come trucks, this machine really was a dream come true. My first thought was, “but surely this is no tractor?!?” However, I was wrong: It is officially classed as a tractor, and with a fairly tiring top speed of about 30 mph it had probably been no picnic to drive it the 130-plus miles from Derbyshire, England, to North Wales, avoiding all the motorways – because in this country tractors are not permitted to travel on motorways.
While Pete parked up for a well-earned break before embarking on the rest of the journey to his home I walked admiringly around the Unipower, sighing and saying “ahhh” lots. It really is a splendid machine. It has great sweeping curves and a long bonnet to die for (you call them hoods I believe). Although it was made in 1952, the design is that of a much earlier vehicle – for instance it has wooden window frames that are more reminiscent of a nice old fishing boat than a timber tractor. It has all of the loveable charm of a vehicle from a bygone era, but there is nothing remotely fragile about it. It looks like it means business, and it still looks more than capable of a good day’s work. Which, as well as its heavenly appearance, is exactly what Pete bought it for.
This Unipower completes the set for Pete. He now has a fully operational set of vintage timber-handling machines. As well as this machine with its powerful winch and vast towing capacity for transporting the wood home, he also owns an old rack-bench for sawing the timber into planks. The leftovers are used for firewood on the stove, so nothing goes to waste. The really great thing about these vintage machines is that they hold their value, which is something that new equipment will never do.
Back though to those wooden window frames that reminded me so much of an old fishing boat: Well, it’s a funny thing, but the old 4-cylinder Gardner diesel engine has had many other applications. It can frequently be found powering various different makes of classic busses, and was often used in boats. When Pete and I were kids we spent a lot of time in the harbour at Conwy. Our parents had a little fishing boat, and it was there that Pete remembers hearing his first Gardner engine. As a mechanically obsessed little boy he would sit on the edge of the quay and watch the larger fishing boats come in with their haul, marvelling at the sound of those lovely, rhythmic 4-cylinder Gardner engines as they chugged their way gently but powerfully into the harbour. It’s funny how life can go full circle sometimes, isn’t it?
Anyhow, you probably have old vehicles that look something like this over there in the U.S. I grew up watching The Waltons, so I know there are some lovely old farm trucks in your country. In fact, my family has always tended to describe a nice “easy on the eye” truck as being “the sort of thing that wouldn’t look out of place on the set of The Waltons.” But for all that, the Unipower is as British as they come: It was made by Universal Power Drives LTD of Middlesex, England, with production beginning way back in 1937.
A few weeks later, when Pete had the Unipower settled in at his home, which is appropriately in the middle of a forest, I went to have a drive in this charming machine. By then he’d also bought a heavy-duty trailer from a similar era as the Unipower, enabling him to carry several tons of timber home if need be. He had also managed to undertake a few timber extraction jobs with his new piece of kit, so he was a happy man. I couldn’t wait to try out the Unipower on the tracks around Pete’s house, but I also felt a bit apprehensive – I really had never driven anything much bigger than a Land Rover before, and after all, this was Pete’s beloved toy.
As I sat behind that big old wheel for the first time, Pete explained that there was something important that I should know before setting off on a jaunt in this machine. The throttle, that is, the accelerator (or the “gas” as I believe you call it?) wasn’t where it should be: It was in between the brake and the clutch. “Oh,” I said gravely, thinking, “perhaps this isn’t such a good idea after all.” I’m used to cars where the clutch is on the left, the brake is in the middle and the “gas” is on the right. The Unipower has the accelerator somewhere in the middle, between the other two pedals. Quite a dangerous set-up if you ask me, especially if you instinctively go to stamp on that pedal when you want to stop quickly.
Weird as it felt, I concentrated hard and managed not to hit the “gas” instead of the brake. I did at one point try to accelerate by pressing down on the brake, wondering, as we slowed almost to a halt, what on earth was wrong. But at least out of two possible mistakes I had made the safer error!
I felt wonderfully invincible as I chugged around the forest in charge of this mighty beast, even if I was driving like a complete granny. Because I’m only 5 feet 1 inch, I couldn’t actually see where the wheels were going. I was scared stiff I might hit the “gas” if something came quickly around the corner toward us. Lovely as it felt to be behind the wheel, I did feel a little over-horsed, and the fact that the steering is rather heavy brought home to me how tiring a machine like this could be to drive all day. Before power-assisted steering, men were men, and you really did have to be quite macho to handle driving a truck day after day.
With there not being so many of these old beauties left, I suppose some might say it’s a shame to use it for work. But the bottom line is these machines don’t come cheap, and if they can earn their keep, then why not?
Pete has managed to find the history of this beloved vehicle of his, and it has been busy for all of its life. It started off working for a firm of timber merchants in Norfolk, where it was used for timber extraction and for haulage. Later it went to Bedford, got changed around somewhat and spent several years there as a yard crane, used primarily in the restoration of ancient churches. Finally it was converted back into a timber tractor, and now, with Pete as its owner, it doesn’t work hard for sure, but it does at least earn its keep. Winching a few trees up slopes on weekends hardly taxes a machine like this, and I like to imagine that old vehicles are a bit like people’s bodies: If you give up working them, they’ll soon start to seize up, so it’s best to just keep on going! FC
Josephine Roberts lives on an old-fashioned smallholding in Snowdonia, North Wales, and has a passion for all things vintage. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.