The Boer Wars had taught the British Army many lessons, often coming at a high price. One of those lessons was that they needed a better and more efficient means of hauling artillery off-road than using animals, such as teams of oxen. A report for the army in 1902 recommended a general need for mechanised transportation in the army, although steam engines were still the preferred method. The preference for steam would end with trials in October 1903, when the diesel-engined Hornsby tractor built by Richard Hornsby and Sons of Grantham, Lincolnshire, won the £1,000 first prize. The Hornsby tractor, although very large, marked the start of the British Army involvement with combustion engines and, as early as 1904, the army was even beginning to look at tracked machines. All this was still being looked at for gun-haulage, and there was another internal combustion-engined machine at the time which received less attention; the Ivel light tractor.
US Patent US724513 filed 13th September 1902. Source: USPTO
The First Tractor
Designed by the innovative tractor pioneer Mr. Daniel Albone in 1902, the Ivel agricultural tractor was a small affair. It was the first combustion-engined light agricultural tractor built in Great Britain and brought mechanization to farming within the reach of more farmers than the old steam-powered machines could. In 1902, mechanization was still in its early days, but the military was open to ideas. The small size of the lightweight (just over a ton) Ivel motor tractor made it an attractive proposition for a mobile army needing to haul supplies and light field guns.
The 1902 three-wheeled Ivel agricultural tractor. Britain’s first internal combustion-engined light agricultural tractor. Source: Science Museum UK
Built by Ivel Agricultural Motors Limited, located in Biggleswade, London, this compact vehicle used a triangular arrangement of three wheels. It sat on two large steel wheels, 4 feet (1.2 m) in diameter, with steel spokes at the back providing traction and a smaller steel wheel at the front with a solid circumferential rubber tire which was narrower than the wheel. This rubber tire would help to dig into soft ground to prevent slipping from side to side and extra ‘purchase’ in the dirt for steering. On the road, this solid tire held the steel wheel off the hard road surface and, again, assisted in steering. For use on roads or for additional traction in soft soils, large rubber treads could be fixed around the outside of the steel-driving wheels.
Large rubber treads fitted to the steel wheel. Source: Classicmachinery.net
The single-seat was located high off the ground at the back on the right-hand side, next to the water-filled cooling box for the engine on the left. The steering wheel was simple and arranged on a vertical steering column with the wheel horizontal, applying steering power to the front wheel by two push/pull rods, but no power steering was provided. A belt-drive wheel was fitted to the left-hand side, which would be used for driving a variety of agricultural equipment.
Ivel tractor fitted with steel body in use pulling a plough 1903.
The engine was a small 2 cylinder horizontally opposed petrol engine located centrally on the frame of the tractor. From the early production of this vehicle in 1902, the car engines, mostly from the firm of Payne and Baynes, had steadily increased from just 8 hp to 24 hp by 1913. At the time of trials in 1904, the engine was an 18 hp Payne and Baynes petrol engine, although it was expected that an oil (diesel) engine could be substituted for any military contract production.
This power was supplied to the drive wheels by means of a simple 2-speed gearbox with a single forward and single reverse gear, ideally suited to a small machine designed specifically to draw ploughs, harrows, and other farming implements. All told, this vehicle weighed just 28 hundredweight (1.42 tonnes) maximum, making it not just one of the smallest tractors, but also the first combustion-engined tractor in Great Britain.
With the design of the light tractor behind him and export orders to the Empire and beyond for his design, Mr. Albone was doing well and, upon the suggestion of Major Palliser of the Canadian Militia, he worked out a way of fitting armor to his tractor. Major Pallister designed the armor, it was fabricated by Messrs, Cammel, Laird and Co., and Mr. Albone arranged and organized the construction. The goal was not a ‘fighting vehicle’ per se, but a means to reach and treat injured soldiers on the battlefield. There do not seem to have been any ideas for evacuating or moving wounded soldiers back to safety, and there was little space for a stretcher, but the idea of an armored ambulance was a novelty to the military.
Unlike many novel ideas which went no further than an outline on paper or even a blueprint, this design was built. Albone had his tractor clad in ¼ inch (6.35 mm) thick Cammell’s bulletproof armor plate to protect the crew seeing to injured men. The armoring consisted of covering the open-spoked wheels with a circular plate each and then the body. The armor took the form of a wedge shape coming to a sharp angle at the front. The very front wedge of the plating had two upside-down ‘V’ shaped notches cut into it to allow for the movement of the rubber tire on the front wheel. A large sloping bonnet covered the engine area, and two rectangular hatches provided access for maintenance. The entire construction of plating was bolted together onto a frame.
The cab area was roughly square, with a plate at the front sloping slightly backward. The driver, seated in the rear right, had a single long horizontal vision slot in the front. No side vision slots appear to have been provided, which would have made any kind of awareness as to the ground conditions very hard for the driver to determine. At the rear of the cab were the two large rectangular doors. Each one was hinged, forming two parts and each had a smaller rectangular piece which folded down forming a full shield from the height of the vehicle down to ground level. As both doors could be opened at once, this formed a large shield 7 feet (2.13m) high by 9 feet (2.74m) wide, impenetrable to bullets, behind which medical crew could attend to the wounded men and where they could be sheltered safe from enemy fire. When fitted with armor plating, the weight of the vehicle increased from 28 hundredweight (1.42 tonnes) to just over 30 hundredweight (1.52 tonnes).
Although it only had a seat for the driver who also functioned as an engineer, a second crew member could be carried, although he would have to squeeze in the back by the water tank. There was also little space for stores or medical equipment to be carried, but this marked a significant change in military thinking.
Artist’s impression of the Ivel armored tractor. Source: Wood, Healey, and Hobson
Illustration of the Ivel Motor Ambulance or ‘Ivel First-Aid Motor’ with the rear panels in the open position, produced by Yuvnashva Sharma, funded by our Patreon Campaign
Bisley May 1904
There were no markings on the vehicle for its first test at Bisley (Surrey, England, UK) – house of the National Shooting Center – on 17th May 1904. Here, Mr. Albone showed not one, but two of his vehicles. Both were his light tractor designs, but only one was armored. Ivel was looking for a military contract and now could show, with this armored version, the versatility of this design. The first vehicle, fitted with armor plate, was demonstrated as an ambulance but was also still capable of being used as a tractor. The second vehicle, unarmored, was somewhat incongruously demonstrated by being used to power an ice-making machine, as well as the slightly more practical electric light generator and water purifying equipment. The armored tractor also showed it could haul wagons loaded with medical supplies or a wagon for the wounded holding up to 30 men. It could haul these off-road and also deal with the undulations in the terrain. The audience included military figures and a representative from the US Embassy in London.
The ‘Ivel First-Aid Armoured Motor’ during trials at Bisley 17th May 1904. Source: Motor-Car Journal and Scientific American respectively
The vehicle was driven over the testing ground, whereupon to “a severe fusillade was then poured upon the vehicle from rifles at ranges varying from 20 to 100 yards, but without penetrating the armor”. With no damage from rifle fire, the armor had proven itself, and the machine did too, achieving between 3 and 6 miles per hour.
Several small problems were noted, but overall it had been a successful trial. The vehicle had shown its potential as an ambulance and, with that belt-drive wheel on the side, the capability of supporting a field hospital with light, water, and of course, ice. A further demonstration was to take place.
Bisley November 1904
The second official showing of the Ivel Motor Ambulance took place at Bisley Barracks in mid-November 1904, under the gaze of Sir W. Taylor from the Army Medical Service. Here, once more, the vehicle was seen to move easily off-road and was tested against rifle fire, where once more the shielding proved to be impenetrable. The only substantial change to the machine since Bisley in May was that, in the second test, it had large red crosses in a white circle painted on it, one on the front plate next to the driver’s vision slit, and one more on each of the outer sections of the rear doors.
Ivel Motor Ambulance, Millbank trials November 1904. Source: Scientific American and Automotor Journal
Despite these tests and the obvious practical benefits of the design, no orders for it were made. It was 1905 and the Boer War was over, the First World War had not yet begun, and with no major wars apparent, there was little urgency at the War Office. This intransigence was challenged in March 1905 in the House of Commons by Colonel McCalmont, Conservative Member of Parliament for Antrim East, who wanted to know whether the War Office would cover the costs of trials of the ambulance. All he had requested was a formal field trial of the machine paid for by the War Office, hardly an extravagance considering that the vehicle had already been built at the expense of the Ivel company. Nonetheless, Mr. Arnold-Foster (Secretary of State for War) responded that the ambulance had been under consideration but was rejected as it was unsuited to service requirements. Further trials, therefore, were not contemplated.
The design was patented in 1904 with a filing the previous year by Edward Palliser, of Hurlingham, London. In that filing, Palliser explained the potential uses as including as a tractor for hauling stores like ammunition. It does not seem that this contemplated use was every considered by the Army who were shown it making better use of those folding rear shields as protection for wounded men. Palliser made one other comment regarding the vehicle in use as an ambulance though, he explained that these rear doors could be removed to use as a shield independent of the vehicle specifically for the Royal Army Medical Corps (R.A.M.C.).
The arrangement of armor plate on the tractor (left) and the view from the front with the shields folded out (right). Source: British Patent GB10082 of 1903
Ivel Motor Ambulance with the back doors open being viewed by soldiers. Source: Fletcher
Despite the failure of the Army to take up the Ivel Motor Ambulance, the firm still found international export success. Mr. Daniel Albone though, died in 1906, aged just 46. Without the insight and imagination of this man, the firm entered a period of decline and was wound up in 1915, just after the start of WW1, when, perhaps ironically, his armored ambulance could have provided some useful service. The fate of the Ivel ambulance is unclear. Following the trails in 1904 and the official abandonment of any interest by 1905, it was likely returned to a normal tractor and sold off. Today, only seven Ivel tractors are known to remain in existence worldwide, and the ambulance is not one of them. The Royal Army Medical Corps would have to wait many more years for an armored vehicle to evacuate the wounded as the opportunity for probably the first combustion-engined armored-ambulance was missed.
|Dimensions||2.13 m high|
|Weight||1.42 tonnes unarmored, 1.52 tonnes armored|
|Crew||1 (driver/commander) + 1 medic|
|Propulsion||2 cylinder 18hp Payne and Baynes petrol engine. (Diesel considered)|
|Speed (road)||3 – 6 mph (4.8 – 9.7 km/h)|
|Armor||¼” (6.35mm) Cammell’s bulletproof plate|
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