Five manuals and a lot of tea ... how to make a flatpack tractor
It might seem intimidating but self-assembly Chinese vehicle proves popular down on the farm
The world's first flatpack tractor arrived this week in Staffordshire not quite flat, but very well packed. More than 1,200kg of Chinese metal, plastic, fibreglass and rubber - as well as several hundred nuts and bolts and odd-looking heavy black lumps - were jammed into a metal cage on the back of a trailer. A steering wheel and engine could be seen but there was no clue that this £2,950 mountain of parts would ever climb a hill or spread muck.
Bob Bramley, a retired primary school headteacher who now rears sheep and pigs on a five-acre smallholding, was nonplussed but excited when it arrived. He had seen a fully built flatpack tractor at the Royal Agricultural Show the week before, and his wife, Paula, had told him to buy one because she feared that the brakes on their old grey Massey Ferguson were not good enough.
Both agreed the 20hp Chinese tractor was unbelievably cheap - about a third of the price of a similar European or American model. So Bob paid with a credit card and lots of little bits of the Chinese economic miracle were now in the Staffordshire hills, all the way from the Jiangsu Yueda Yancheng Tractor Manufacturing Company at Yang Cheng, just outside Shanghai.
Job 1. Lay 150-odd loose parts out on the grass behind the stable. Identify weight bars, battery box, air filter, roll bars, wheels, electrics, fuel tank, mudguards, bonnet, hosepipes, exhaust pipe, toolbox, air filter, battery leads and lots of other bits and bobs. Scratch head and make tea.
Job 2. Read the instruction manuals. These include a 105-page parts list, a 25-page maintenance manual, a 68-page operators' manual, a 36-page engine parts catalogue and a 70-page volume on how to put it all together. In English.
Job 3. Attach wheels and roll chassis off trailer. Hold breath.
Job 4. Make more tea.
"I'm normally a bit of a plodder, a bit pedantic," said Mr Bramley, reaching for the screwdrivers in the tractor's toolbox. "But I've always been practical. I do basic servicing of engines. I see this is as a process of familiarisation. Normally I would go very slowly, have a lot of breaks, put grease on all the nuts, take my time and enjoy it. When you put your own tractor together you are really seeing how it all fits together, so if you get a problem you know how it works."
That's the theory. Happily for Mr Bramley, Jeff Howard of Siromer tractors, the man who wrote the flatpack's manuals and who negotiated 50 changes with the Chinese factory to make it suitable for Britain, had come along with Jonathan Yates, a mechanic.
In less than an hour, the two professionals had put on its wheels and moved on to the exhaust. Bob was left weighing up long and short bolts for the mudguards. "Does this one go there, or that one?" he asked. As the professionals pressed on with the skid unit and bonnet, Mr Bramley moved on to the electrics. The manual was disconcerting: "The Chinese sometimes make changes to the wiring which can take a while to filter through to this manual ... they also occasionally change wire colours."
"A mechanic can build one of these in about a day. It's a no-nonsense, traditional design. We had someone put one together in two hours. Others take two weeks. Realistically, people put them together in a weekend," said Mr Howard. "We've never had anyone who could not put one together.
"We had a 70-year-old woman buy one. I thought she'd need help but she didn't. People have tractor parties. Someone buys one, their mates come round and they put it together."
The flatpacks have been selling almost as fast as Mr Howard can import them, and there are now more than 1,000 in Britain. They are so cheap that they are knocking the bottom out of the secondhand tractor market. Old British tractors are being sent to China to be broken up and recycled and returned as new tractors. "They're very popular with smallholders, but everyone wants them - schools, lifeboatmen, glider clubs, seaweed collectors, helicopter companies ... we've exported them to Zimbabwe, everywhere. There's someone in the Hebrides who launches a whale-watching boat with one. There's a window cleaner who goes round with one in Liverpool and a farm college buys them for the students to practise building them."
Back on the lawn after three hours, Mr Bramley was grappling with the roll bar and was not put off by a knob which said "Die" on it.
"It's like one of these Ikea kits or Meccano, isn't it? It's quite logical really. It's just a big bolt-on job. Realistically, this is a two-day job for anyone who can change plugs," he said confidently.
The last job was the seat, which was wrapped in plastic and came in its own puddle of water. "You can always tell the weather in China when they pack them up," said Mr Howard.
Near 5pm, after seven hours and several lengthy breaks, Mr Bramley filled his little red tractor with diesel and water and switched it on.
There was a puff of white smoke and off they went like a rocket round the paddock, proud as can be. "Now I can bake my own bread, rear my own pigs and build my own tractor," he said. "Not bad for a primary schoolteacher."