Heavy metal rumblings

Jul 18, 2017 Boating history ,General Interest ,Technology

For more than a century Gardner diesels have been hard at work powering boats all over the world and, in the process, gathering groups of hard-core fans, writes Lindsay Wright. Images by the writer and supplied.

In old school atlases, much of the planet was printed pink. It covered the real estate purloined by Britain to build her empire. The real power behind the empire though, was provided by Gardner diesel engines.

“They crop up all over the place,” says Auckland’s Gardner agent Dave Shaw. Gardner was established as a general engineering company in 1868 and produced its first diesel engine in 1903. Today there are about 75,000 Gardners operating in at least 58 countries worldwide.

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Real Gardner folk keep immaculate engine rooms and will cock a finely-tuned ear as a boat enters an anchorage. “Gardner,” they’ll say smugly, and then launch the dinghy and row across for confirmation and a gander around. Many have the bronze Gardner name plate screwed to a wheelhouse bulkhead.

The legendary engines began when Mancunian engineer, Lawrence Gardner, started the eponymous outfit from a small workshop at Patricroft, UK. He was eventually joined by two of his six sons – Thomas and Edward.

The brothers recognised a market in the marine sector and, in 1902, produced a model 4KM which produced 75hp at 500 rpm. The engine came in one, two, four, six and eight cylinder versions, and ran on a variety of fuels with varying horsepower.

They incorporated an ingenious governor which stopped the ship’s propeller from racing when it broke the surface in rough weather. They were bolted to a Gardner-built reversing gear, a huge piece of machinery that came in two sizes – 2UC and 3UC – to handle any available horsepower. They were replaced by Twin Disc models in 1975.

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Gardner gearboxes were legendary. I recall one Stewart Island fisherman nicknamed, for obvious reasons, ‘Flat Batteries.’ Almost every morning we’d pass him a tow line. Once we got to about five knots he’d slam his Gardner into gear and close the decompression levers until his venerable engine was running smoothly on all six cylinders, then cast off and get about his day’s cod potting.

Thomas, the design genius of the Gardner family, was the brain behind a relatively small internal combustion engine that ran on diesel directly injected into the cylinders. This innovation became commonplace among diesel engine manufacturers.

But within a couple of years the engine had been modified with lightweight aluminium componentry and became the renowned LW series Gardner which remained in production for 42 years. Examples still power vessels all over the Pacific and elsewhere.

The first numbers in the designation signify the number of cylinders and the remaining numbers the model designation.

Britain’s first diesel-powered car was a 1925 Bentley which Gardner engineers re-engined with a 4LW (68/75 kW@1700rpm). The cross-bred vehicle won four consecutive Le Mans 24-hour endurance races and caused an Italian opponent, Ettore Bugatti, to sniff that: “Bentleys were the fastest lorries in the world.”

The car averaged 129 km/h using 21 litres per 100 km of diesel. It was estimated that the cost of diesel was one seventh what it would cost to do the same mileage with petrol. In the 1950s, a Gardner powered XK150 Jaguar almost halved that consumption at a Mobil economy run in the UK.

Meanwhile, on the marine side of things, Gardner gained experience in using aluminium alloys from a six-cylinder unit it developed and supplied to the Italian navy in 1918 for powering torpedo boats.

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The company’s quality construction, economy and reliability caught on among fishermen and boat operators, public services and port authorities and WW2 provided the impetus to build specialised powerplants. An ultra-lightweight LK series was developed for mini submarines like the ones which helped sink the German battleship, Tirpitz. It also powered generator units for anti-aircraft searchlights and a variety of small harbour defence craft and utility vessels.

The Gardner factory at Barton Hall grew to covers several city blocks with a workforce of 3,000, many of them women. Females had tackled most production jobs during the war and many continued working post-war.

The company had a reputation for enlightened treatment of its workforce. A large canteen was built and clubs for soccer, cricket and lacrosse were formed and pitches laid. There were tennis courts, a bowling green and a rifle range.

For less sports-minded workers there was a reading room and a social club that hosted meetings of dramatic and operatic societies. Heady stuff for class-obsessed England at the time.

Gardners powered most of the British fishing fleet and the Royal National Lifeboat Institute (RNLI) was mostly manned by fishermen. So, when the RNLI went looking for engines to power a new design of roll-over lifeboat, their skippers opted for Gardners. The 80 6LX engine was adapted to continue operating upside down – or during a roll-over.

Like most English colonial countries, New Zealand imported a range of Gardners. The engines were installed in shunting engines, trucks, earth moving machinery, coal mines, sawmills and boats.

But in the post-war years the engine market began to change. Gardner’s stock-in-trade, the road haulage industry, began sourcing the new models produced by Cummins, Caterpillar, Detroit, Scania and other engine builders.

Despite their frugal fuel consumption, reliability and longevity, the Gardner market began to dwindle. A new series, the LXB, was introduced in 1966 which wrung more horsepower from the design. Turbo-charging was added in 1979, after years of observation by Gardner engineers, and aftercooling appeared in 1987.

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New models – the 6LYT, 6LXCT, LG1200 and others – were introduced to compete but to many diehard owners they weren’t real Gardners and they preferred to stick with the engines they already owned and would rebuild them as necessary.

Thousands of older model Gardners were still quietly throbbing about their business throughout the Pacific Islands and other parts of the world under the stewardship of doting owners and skippers.

Elsewhere in England, Dave Shaw was working out his diesel engineer apprenticeship. He worked for the local Gardner agent, and spent a fair bit of time at the factory. “I got to appreciate the way Gardner did things – there were no cut corners – quality was paramount.”

He emigrated to New Zealand in 1980 and built a reputation among aficionados as “Mr Gardner New Zealand.”

During those last few decades, Gardner ceased to exist as a family company and passed through two or three owners before being acquired as by Texas Group plc as a specialist outfit to manufacture componentry for aerospace industry clients.

But as the supply of new Gardner models dried up, older engines came back into popularity. Dave Shaw’s diesel business now focuses on older, rebuilt engines.

“The L3 and LW series normally need a rebuild at 50-60,000 hours – depending on the type of work they’re doing and their maintenance regime,” he says.

“A lot of 2LWs were used to haul ore in South African mines – and then they were suddenly in demand to drive narrow boats on the English canals. So people went to South Africa to buy them up and ship them to the UK for a rebuild.”

A fisherman in New Plymouth bought several cashiered NZR shunting engines to provide a store of parts for the 8L3 Gardners used in his trawlers. When he died they came on the market and were snapped up by Shaw who checked them over, replaced any worn or suspect parts, and shipped them to Egypt.

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“There are 1,200 Gardner-powered boats in Port Said,” he says, “and another 1,400 in Port Alexander – so there’s a regular demand for them in Egypt. We’ve shipped six containers full of engines there.”

Gardners are still the power option of choice for most Hong Kong junk owners and several rebuilt engines go there. Dhow skippers in the Middle East also favour Gardners and have taken several engines.

“See,” he answers my question, “you adjust the oil pressure with this screw. It should have five or six threads visible – any less it normally means the engine is getting worn.”

Likewise, engine operating temperature can also be controlled so the engine can operate at optimum temperature and oil pressure.

Gardner stories are legion. Dave has talked with a fisherman who ran a crankshaft bearing on his hard-worked 8L3. He knocked the shaft out at sea and wrapped his leather belt around it, then steamed home. I imagine the boat coming alongside the wharf with the skipper using one hand to hold his pants up and the other to operate the controls.

But everyone has a Gardner story.

The Picton trawler, Amuri, had a 5L3 which was renowned for “nipping up” – that is, temporarily seizing, if too much power was applied before it had warmed up. The only solution was to drop the anchor, wait until it could be turned over, before restarting and taking it easy while the engine warmed.

The New Zealand government’s research trawler, RV James Cook, ran two 8LXB Gardners and another Gardner powered the sail training ship Spirit of New Zealand until recently. Fullers’ recently-retired ferry, Bay Belle, ran from Paihia to Opua for decades with the same Gardner and direct-drive 3UC gearbox.

Many Pacific Island marine departments deployed Gardner-powered vessels and kept stocks of spare parts which, being Gardner, were never required and today they’re a treasure trove of machinery for rebuilding engines.

“Over the years we’ve learned who’s got what,” says Shaw, “and I can normally give them a ring and negotiate a price. But saying that, Gardner assures me that they will continue making the parts as long as there’s a demand for them.”

He moves to the back of the workshop and whisks away a dust cover like a magician producing a rabbit from a top hat. “It’s a 2LW I found at the Vanuatu Marine Department.  I’m doing it up for myself, they’re quite rare – I’d like to take it home with me but my wife says no.”

He recently sourced an 8LXB from Captain Cook Cruises in Sydney. “They bought it 35 years ago as a back-up for one of their other Gardners – but never used it. The old/new Gardner is destined for a fishing boat in Bluff.  “All the new engines are computer-controlled – fishermen don’t want that shit,” he says. “They want an engine that goes every time and one you can fix if things go wrong.”

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Another Gardner trait is stingy fuel consumption. When they were tested for compliance to EU pollution requirements, the 6LXB returned 203 grams per kWh – this from a 32-year-old engine design. Modern engines strive for 203-204 grams per kWh.

A few months ago, Shaw had a call from San Diego. A customer there had bought a boat with a 6LXB Gardner which hadn’t been started in 30 years. “Being American, he didn’t know what a Gardner was. I told him to give her fresh oil and fuel filters and hook up a battery. She cranked over once and fired up. He was ecstatic – he thought he’d bought a lemon.”

I think my favourite Gardner would be 8L3B – dunno what I’d do with it though. Polish the brass?

Just like Gardner owners the world over.