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The flat pack challenge

PUBLISHED: 08:11 28 March 2014 | UPDATED: 08:54 28 March 2014

John Bezzant with his flat pack tractor

John Bezzant with his flat pack tractor

John Bezzant tried his hand at building a Siromer tractor

About six months ago I took an angle grinder to an old multi gym, got myself a good set of wheels from a potato trolley and set about making a trailer to go behind my sit-on mower. After several hundred screws, bolts and rivets had been secured, my drawing on the back of an old cereal box came to life and I had myself a lovely little trailer. I soon found that my new trailer cut my work load in half. What had before been a morning’s work, taking away barrow after barrow of muck, now became a couple of hours’ work as all was loaded into the cavernous trailer. This got me thinking, if a trailer could save me so much time, could a little tractor save me even more?

I contacted Siromer tractors who kindly agreed to provide me with a tractor so that I could find out. “But you’ll have to build it,” they said. “Fine,” I replied nonchalantly, although I had reservations. When you put the concept of the flatpack with something as complicated as a tractor, you’ve surely got to be a bit masochistic or naive to tackle it. But Siromer assured me that anyone with a bit of common sense could build one of these tractors. This ruled me out, said my mother, helpfully. When the tractor arrived on the back of a lorry, and I was handed a build manual the size of War and Peace, all confidence disappeared, but I soon re-girded my loins and got stuck in.

The tractor is packed in a metal crate, and to start with, the crate was of more interest to me than its contents. It’s a well made crate with box sections and strapping that was metamorphosing, in my mind’s eye, into a trailer, several hay racks and a gate... but those projects, though exciting, would have to wait. The tractor unit is wrapped in a silver man-made canvas – don’t throw it away, even if it’s a bit torn, as it makes an excellent cover for the finished tractor, keeping rain and dust at bay.
The first task is to unpack the crate and carry out an inventory to make sure that everything that should be is there. I was going to build my tractor outside, come rain or high winds, but store all the components in an empty 8 x 6 shed. Imagine my surprise when all the bits and bobs that would eventually become a tractor filled the whole shed! I’d read an article that said anyone who can change a spark plug can build this tractor. Well, I can change a spark plug in under five minutes (even my mother with a bit of tuition could change a spark plug) but putting this tractor together was going to take a lot longer and involve lifting gear.

It’s a serious piece of constructing that requires a basic level of engineering skill. The instruction manual opens by advising you to wear overalls, hard hat, safety gloves, safety boots and goggles. Well, I can fully understand that Siromer have to cover themselves but I certainly wasn’t going to be wearing that lot. If the tractor were to fall on my head while it was being lifted, I doubt that a hard hat would help much. The next thing that the manual tells you is that you will need appropriate lifting gear, a hoist, in other words. I wasn’t going to spend £70 on renting a hoist when I had a perfectly good trolley jack but let me caution you: this anarchic approach to instruction manuals can lead to tears.
So now that I’d thoroughly ignored the safety section of the manual, it was time to get building. The first thing to go on is the wheels, front, then back. If you ever build one of these tractors, you will notice that the front axle isn’t in a straight line but angled, to fit in the crate. It obviously has to be brought into a straight line for the wheels to go on. I mention this because there’s a gaiter on the steering rod which is pushed into a recess in the base of the crate – be careful you don’t catch the gaiter when straightening the axle, as I did. Thus, I managed to damage the first thing I touched, which didn’t bode well for the rest of the build.

I got my little red trolley jack, which despite its diminutive size will tackle 11/2 tons, and started looking for a jacking point on the front of the tractor. I failed to find one. A little head scratching ensued but I deduced that attaching the front weight bar would provide me with the jacking point I required. Eight bolts later, the weight bar was on, under slid the trolley jack and up went the front end as smooth as silk. I was just congratulating myself on my cleverness when I happened to notice that, in my haste, I’d forgotten to remove the crate’s corner posts which prevented the wheels going on. Oh bother! Down went the tractor and off came the corner posts. They can be removed with an angle grinder but I’d blown mine up a few weeks earlier so I had to make do with a hacksaw.

Improvisation

The tractor was soon jacked back up and on, with the greatest of ease, went the front wheels. They’re no bigger than Mini wheels but the back wheels are a different matter. All together, they’re dirty great big monsters, and attaching them was going to present quite a challenge. One man can’t lift them, but it’s the width rather than the weight that presents the problem. I’d therefore need some lifting gear to handle the rear wheels, so I summoned my brother (he’s not very tall but he’s built like a rhino), but before we could put the wheels on, we’d have to raise the rear of the tractor a decent distance off the ground, and for that, I’d need a jacking point... and there isn’t one on the back of the tractor. I’d already figured out, however, that if I attached the draw bar, that would provide me with the jack point I needed, but when I bolted the draw bar in place, it was just millimetres off the ground, and I could hardly get my fingers under, let alone a jack.

At this point, my brother began to chuckle, but he didn’t know that I had a cunning back-up plan. I dug a pit beneath the draw bar and lined it with solid timber. The jack fitted into the pit like a finger into a glove. My brother congratulated me on my lateral thinking before pointing out that the wheels wouldn’t go on till the roll bar had been removed. He was right: the roll bar is the first thing to go into the crate, sitting underneath the tractor which weighs the best part of one ton. With lifting gear, you would simply raise the tractor unit and remove the roll bar then lower the tractor to the required height and slip on the wheels. Easy! I had no lifting gear, only my brother and now also my mother who I’d dragged away from the kitchen. I figured that if ancient man could drag rocks halfway across the country for stone circles, then I could most certainly raise this lump of a tractor using the principals of leverage. My brother placed a pole on one side of the rear axle and I placed the second pole on the other side of the axle with blocks of wood strategically placed to act as cantilevers.

“Right, we’ll raise the tractor,” I said to my mother. “And you pull out the roll bar.” “What’s the roll bar?” asked Mother. I pointed, Mother nodded. “Right, push,” I instructed my brother. I expected to feel quite a lot of resistance but to my surprise, we raised the tractor a good eight to 10 inches off the ground with no more effort than you need to raise a see-saw. Mother grabbed the roll bar and pulled it straight out. (Not bad going, she’s over 60 and the roll bar weighs more than 40kg. Who needs lifting gear when you’ve got a mother?)

I didn’t forget the corner posts this time, mainly because my brother reminded me. In fact, I cut away most of the rear part of the cage so that none of it would get in my way. I knew very well that the jack wouldn’t be able to lift the tractor unit high enough for the wheels to go on – fully extended, the jack would only take us halfway and so my brother and I would have to make busy with wooden chocks and axle stands to bear the weight of the tractor while I removed the jack and built up the ground beneath it with blocks of wood.

Raising the jack in this way would lead to an increase in its maximum extension. Using a trolley jack to its limits like this is not for the faint hearted – there was quite a bit of movement, the tractor unit swaying from side to side with each pump of the jack’s handle. Mother closed her eyes, convinced that the whole thing would soon come crashing to the ground, but my brother and I were quietly confident. We’d shored up the gable end of a house before, with wooden props, and kept it all in place while we fitted new lintels, so the tractor was nothing in comparison to that. Eventually, when the rear hubs were about two foot off the ground, they were ready to receive the wheels. Once they were on, the tractor was pushed off the crate and up to the side of the shed where the rest of the build was to take place.
Getting the wheels on with a trolley jack was, without doubt, the most challenging and most dangerous part of the build. It really is important to follow the instructions and use suitable lifting gear. All heavy lifting operations carry a potential risk, so if you’re not experienced in this kind of operation, get the help of someone who knows what they’re doing. The next stage of the build is far less physically demanding and anybody who can use a spanner can accomplish it. This phase involves attaching the body parts, mud guards, bonnet, that sort of thing. Very simple, very straightforward and not worthy of further comment.

The electrics

The wheels had been the sweaty part of the job, the body work a breeze, but now came the brain teaser: the electrics. Some instructions for connecting the electrics are given in the build manual but they’re far from extensive and sadly, lack illustrations, which means they do little more than point you in the basic direction. This part of the build took longer than expected, generated an awful lot of beard scratching and required me to trace a number of wires back to their source to find out what they were. Some wires that were supposed to be labeled, weren’t, and some were a different colour to the one given in the manual, which frustrated me a lot at one point when I was being told to connect a blue wire that was actually white. With patience, not my strongest suit, and a lot of trial and error, I finally figured it all out. The main thing to remember is that even if you get it royally wrong, you won’t do any serious damage and the second thing to remember is, don’t connect the battery till you’ve finished working with the electrics or you may get a shock in more ways than one.

Once the wiring is done, you’re almost past the finishing post. A few more nuts and bolts, the seat and some water in the radiator has it ready to go. A word of warning – don’t put anti-freeze into the radiator until you’ve first tried it out with water. There are several drain points on the radiator and the manual doesn’t tell you they might still be open, so it’s best to check that the radiator will hold water. Ready to roll
After about 12 to 14 hours of challenging construction, with everything now finished, the little red tractor was ready to be tested. I climbed into the seat (nearly doing myself a mischief on the gear stick), placed the key in the ignition and gave it a turn, expecting to hear a spluttering sound as the engine burst into life. But there was nothing, not a sausage. Instantly, I thought I must have got  the wiring wrong, but I’d been so careful to check and double check every connection.

I tried the lights, the horn, the hazard lights and none of it worked. Surely I couldn’t have connected everything incorrectly! There was obviously no power coming through from the battery, even though, when I checked it, it still had plenty of power. Why wasn’t it coming through?
I contacted the dealer: apparently, this was a common problem. In their quest to protect the tractor from rusting, the manufacturers had applied so much paint to the chassis that the earth lead from the battery can’t earth. I would have to scrape to bare metal beneath the connection point for the earth lead. I did this, then tried the horn which, sure enough, let out a loud toot, making Mother jump and  the dogs bark. It worked! I jumped back into the seat, avoiding the gear stick this time, stuck the key back in the ignition and turned it... the key bent. It’s made from very soft metal. Fortunately, there was a spare which I turned very carefully... white smoke issued from the exhaust, the engine grunted a few times then leapt into life. I’d done it, I’d turned this pile of bits into a functioning machine and that made me feel quite pleased with myself!

A job well done?

Well, building the tractor was fine, if you’re that way inclined, but was it worthwhile? Financially, building the tractor as opposed to buying one ready built will save you about £750 but with the cost of oil, anti-freeze and grease, just about £700. After hiring lifting gear, you would save just over £600, so building the tractor yourself does bring a financial saving.
The build is also not something everybody could do. You need to be mechanically and electrically minded to carry it out. It’s not a walk in the park, but achievable, certainly. If you have a mechanical bent and you enjoy playing with spanners, it’s a project well worth doing. You will save some money and derive a great deal of satisfaction from reconstructing something that was deconstructed thousands of miles away in China. For fans of programmes like Scrap Heap Challenge, in fact, this build is a must and I’m glad that I’ve had the opportunity to add it to my engineering repertoire.

Please note that Country Smallholding and Siromer Tractors, while fully supporting free thinking and entrepreneurial spirit, strongly recommend, in the interest of health and safety, that all instructions supplied are followed carefully.

This article is from the December 2006 issue of Country Smallholding magazine.
<< To order back issues click the link to the left.

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