The day I nearly died at the wheel

Although this story is all about driving, it doesn’t involve a bus.


This photo shows a Ford 6600 tractor when fairly new. In fact I was the one that collected it from the dealer. At the time I was working at Moortown Farm near Chulmleigh, mid-Devon during the summer holidays when I was a student at Art College. That summer’s exploits could be the subject of several blog posts!

Anyway, the farm had four tractors at the time and my duties included spraying pig slurry on the fields (which was what I was doing when I took this picture), taking grain down the road to the corn mill and, later on, ploughing and cultivating the fields once the crops had been harvested.

One of the tractors, another Ford with four-wheel-drive, was still in use but was due to be replaced by the one shown above. It had a reputation for being a gutless wonder and the farmer for whom I worked often used to say that “it couldn’t pull the skin off a rice pudding!” and I can say from experience that he was right! However, it got the job done eventually. You just had to take your time.

Theoretically it had brakes too, but they were nearly as ineffective at making the machine stop as the engine was at making it go. The brakes only worked on the rear wheels and were purely mechanical, no power assistance. I had to press really hard with my booted feet to arrest its progress!

Using the gears, on all the tractors, was not easy. As an 18 year old student who had only recently learned to drive, I found that I could change up reasonably well but not down. He didn’t explain it very well, but the farmer told me that tractors don’t have gearboxes like cars and that, if you wanted a lower gear, you had to stop to select it. If I had known then what I know now, I would have realised that double de-clutching would have been the key to downchanges on the move.

On the day in question I was taken in the farm’s Landrover up to the workshop in the village, where some repairs had been done to the farm’s plough, and told to bring the tractor back to the farm. The plough was a very heavy implement which added to the tractor’s weight considerably.

So I duly climbed into the cab of the gutless wonder, raised the plough on the hydraulic arms and headed back to the farm. My route took me down to the main A377 Barnstaple – Exeter road and then up a lane to the farm. Setting off down the long hill to the main road I naively went up through the box, assuming that I could slow the tractor with the brakes once I got to the main road.

How wrong could I have been. It wasn’t long before I needed to slow down for a bend so I applied pressure to the brake pedals (a pair of pedals on the right side of the gearbox on which the driving seat was perched). There was very little change in speed so I held on tightly to the steering wheel to help me exert more pressure. The tractor slowed enough for me to take the bend but it was still going faster than I would have liked. By now I was getting anxious, wishing that I had stayed in a lower gear and praying fervently that I didn’t meet anything coming the other way.

The gradient steepened. I now felt as though I was doing battle with the hill but my puny strength was no match for it and the hill was winning. Despite my efforts with the brakes, speed began to increase along with my heartrate. I decided that I had to do something else to bring this beast under control so I tried to change down a gear. Big mistake. Without the knowledge of how to engage a lower gear on the move, all I succeeded in doing was taking it out of gear. It wouldn’t go into any other gear, making horrible grinding noises as I tried to force it in. I tried to put it back where it had been but by now the revs were all wrong and I was stuck in neutral.

Now in full panic mode, I stood up on the brakes to use my weight as well as my strength to arrest the tractor’s headlong progress down the hill. I could sense the main road coming up and, I tell you no lie, I thought my time was up. There didn’t seem to be any prospect of slowing down in time before the inevitable collision with traffic on the A377. Mercifully there were no more significant bends before the bottom of the hill and also, by the grace of God, no other road traffic met me coming the other way.

At last the gradient eased and so did the speed of the tractor. My superhuman efforts on the brake pedals were now taking effect and I rolled to a stop about 10 yards from the junction with the A377. I slumped into the seat, breathless and bathed in sweat, watching the cars passing by on the main road, oblivious to the impending doom which had been, moments before, bearing down on them.

The acrid smell of hot brakes, ‘Fragrance de Ferodo’, wafted up from the rear wheels as I gathered myself together. I prayed a prayer of thanks to my Heavenly Father that He had spared me on this occasion and told myself not to be so foolish in future.

When I felt sufficiently composed I put the tractor into gear and pulled out onto the main road to continue my journey back to the farm. It was probably wrong of me, but I didn’t tell my boss what had happened and, as far as I know, he wasn’t aware of the carnage that I very nearly caused. It still makes me shudder when I think back to that day…

2 comments on “The day I nearly died at the wheel

  1. Mike Dan says:

    This story brings back similar memories for me! I was a lad of 17 and I visited a relation who was a farmer. As I had driven there on my litlle 125cc scooter my uncle asked if i would like to drive his tractor in one of his fields. Ok so far on the flat part of the field but it had a nasty slope which made the tractor run faster than I felt happy with. I also tried to change to a lower gear to slow it but just got neutral and it woudnt go into gear at all The tractor went faster still but with the grace of God I managed to stop it on its brakes with no harm done.I was very relieved as was my uncle! I was pleased to get back to my litlle scooter which changed gear when I asked it too!!

  2. Dave Moore says:

    A narrow escape, indeed, John. Would have deprived us of your excellent blogs!

    But there are also shades of the 1906 Handcross Hill bus crash. On July 12th of that year, a double deck bus, on an excursion to Brighton, ran out of control and hit a grass bank. Branches on a tree sliced through the top deck killing 10 passengers and injuring 24 others. I can’t find any evidence, but my suspicion is that the driver waited too long to engage a lower gear, the accepted method in those days of braking a bus, and in attempting to engage gear, succeeded only in wrecking the gearbox and then found the brakes were inadequate to halt the bus. This remains the worst traffic accident in Sussex.

    I am also reminded of the words of my late uncle, who drive 47s for London Transport from Shoreditch to Catford for many years.
    Asked if he every worried about crashing his bus, he said if he worried, he’d never get his bus out of the garage. That was not to say that he wasn’t concerned about the prospect.

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