I live alone and no longer drive a car, and whilst I have the kindest and most generous neighbours imaginable, I just can’t call on them every single time I need some little thing. This necessitates me telephoning for a taxi once or twice a week to take me into town to collect the mail and purchase any essentials. I know all the taxi drivers by name – and they too are terrific – but for the most part, it just plain irks me waiting for and getting around in taxis.
I have horses and I have an old jinker (the two-wheeled horse-drawn equivalent of an open-top sports car), but you can’t stuff many bags of feed or eight-foot fence posts into the back of a jinker – well not without the horse sacrificing critical traction.
I also have workshops in which I can shape wood and forge metal, so last year I decided to build myself a three-spring wagon (the four-wheeled horse-drawn equivalent of a ute or pickup truck). Progress was predictably slow though inevitably thoroughly enjoyable.
I gleaned the primary dimensions of the wagon from nineteenth-century horse-drawn vehicle manufacturers’ brochures and managed to fill in the blanks by scouring the internet for old wagon images. Most of the major components such as the rubber-tyred wooden wheels, brakes and turntable were purchased new from an Amish coachbuilder in North America.
I began by setting up the two axles on trestles – the appropriate distance apart, square and parallel with each other – and then measured up the lengths of the reaches (the two slim, flexible diagonals that connect the turntable/front axle with the rear axle). The axle caps and turntable block are made from hickory whilst the reaches are made of ash with 1/8″ thick steel straps bolted to their undersides (fig.1).
The reaches are bolted to the turntable at the front and clipped to the rear axle using ‘reach ends’ (figs. 2 & 3). The reaches are also braced to the outer ends of the rear axle with 5/8″ round iron ‘wings’ whose ends I forged to suit their junctures with the reaches (fig. 4) and the rear spring chair mounting bolts (figs. 5 & 15).
The gear and wheels were fitted up to check the fit (fig. 5) before stripping it all down for painting.
Some hex head bolts and hex nuts were used for ease and speed of fitting things up, but during final assembly, any hex fasteners were replaced with traditional square nuts and either square head bolts or coach bolts as appropriate.
The wagon body and seat are made of acetylated pine for lightness, stability and longevity. I tongued and grooved the floorboards and screwed the side and front boards to them. The raves (the angled side extensions), dashboard, tailboard, transoms and seat are also of acetylated pine (fig. 6).
I have arc, MIG and TIG welding capability; however I didn’t want telltale electric welds spoiling the otherwise authentic looking ironwork, so any welds required were forge-welded. To that end, I also made a couple of simple dies so I could forge authentic tapered round-bar to flat-bar transitions from various diameters of bar (figs. 7, 8 & 9).
Twentieth- and twenty-first-century bolt heads typically bear manufacturers’ identification and tensile markings which are absent from nineteenth-century fasteners, so along with employing square nuts throughout, any bolt head markings were linished off (fig. 11).
I spent many hours researching three-spring wagons before embarking on this project and one aspect that consumed a disproportionate amount of time was identifying traditional colour schemes. Heavier delivery wagons seem to have been painted virtually any colour the individual or company chose. British agricultural wagons (along with all manner of threshing machines and other agricultural implements) were traditionally painted in red lead and blue lead, whilst in Australia and North America, agricultural and light delivery wagons were painted in black and various shades of blue, green, red and yellow.
I found a number of images of locally built three-spring wagons in what appeared to be their original colours, and in particular, three wagons with a common livery of primrose yellow wheels, black gears and red/maroon bodies.
Consequently the gear and shafts received four coats of black whilst the wheels gleaned six coats of yellow due to its annoyingly not-totally-opaque properties (fig. 13).
Brakes are a necessity on a wagon for holding the vehicle steady and taking some of the load off the horse on long descents, but traditional mechanical brakes are bulky, heavy and not incredibly efficient. Braking is the one area where I conceded to twentieth-century technology and installed hydraulic brakes on the rear axle (figs. 14 & 15).
The body received six coats of red paint, again, due to its somewhat translucent character. When dry, the body was attached to the gear, at the front, via a forged 3/4″ diameter body hanger that is in turn clipped to the front transverse spring (fig. 16), and at the rear, to a pair of forged 1-1/2″ x 5/8″ body hangers that are clipped to the rear side springs (fig. 17).
Where possible, I employed salvaged parts in the wagon build including the malleable iron steps (fig. 18) and the swingletree clevis and coupling (fig. 19).