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Page last updated at 17:11 GMT, Wednesday, 16 September 2009 18:11 UK
Edinburgh to London by lawnmower

400 miles at four miles an hour

A group of students have been remembering the time they made a 400-mile trip on a lawnmower that was built in Suffolk.

In 1959, they drove from Edinburgh to London to test a Ransomes Matador produced in the old factory on Ipswich waterfront.

The machine had a top speed of three miles an hour.

The journey took four days and three nights and ended with a ceremony in Hyde Park.

Watch BBC Inside Out's lawnmower video report here.

Ransomes Matador lawnmower
Tom Hudson and Hugh Tansley

Tom Hudson, Mike Smith, Mike Savage, Hugh Tansley and John Wilson, who were Hatfield Technical College students or former employees of the De Havilland Aircraft Company, wanted to test the reliability of small petrol engines.

They needed a suitable mower, so the team contacted Ransomes, Sims and Jeffries, the forerunner of today's Ransomes Jacobsen company, who agreed to help them out.

Mark Grimwade, who lives in Shotley, was an engineer with the company back then and was given the task of assisting the students in their research and selecting the right model. Mark carried out an apprenticeship with Ransomes and was involved in helping the firm relocate from Ipswich waterfront to Ransomes Europark.

"I was waiting to go to Mexico where they had Ransomes de Mexico and there wasn't a lot going on so the lawn mower sales manager said to me that he had these students who wanted to do a run to Edinburgh," said Mark.

"Ransomes lent them a mower ... and me!"

Mark Grimwade
Mark Grimwade

A Matador petrol ride-on lawnmower was chosen. Some modifications were made, including the addition of a deeper sump to the 288cc Villiers engine to provide enough lubrication and a few tweaks to make it roadworthy.

"If you imagine riding down a highway with a metal roller, it would jar and bang and be extremely uncomfortable so we put a rubber coating on the roller," said Mark.

Mark and a team of four apprentices tested a couple of prototypes, running them non-stop around Ipswich for 90 hours, which was the estimated time it would take to travel at 3 mph down the A68 and A1.

The new Nacton Road works, which is now the site of Ransomes Europark, was being built at the time and bunk beds were set up for the test team in an old army hut that was being used as the security lodge.

Taking the high road

The students arrived at Edinburgh Castle in a Bedford Dormobile, which was to be their mobile home for the following four days and nights.

The gift of a haggis was placed in the grass box of the mower to be presented to the Keeper of the Royal Parks in London, who was a Scotsman, at the end of the journey.

The Dormobile

Despite confident tests that were carried out before the team left Suffolk, Mark did take precautions to ensure everything went smoothly.

"We had two mowers prepared, the first one did the dummy run and I carried that secretly in the back of a pick up truck in case anything went wrong with the one that did the main run."

Following as straight a line as possible, the team travelled down the A68 and crossed the border into England taking the A1 to London.

This was long before the advent of dual carriageways and the convoy of a Matador mower, Dormobile and an Austin A40 pick up truck, driven by Mark Grimwade, caused considerable congestion particularly as the route ran through the centres of most towns.

"It was a fairly prehistoric creature with bits of bicycle chain flying around," said Mark. "But as long as it all held together, which it did, it worked.

"It was slightly uncomfortable because, when you think about it, now you have these lovely upholstered seats and arm rests and all the rest of it, but in the old days we just used to have a metal pan sheet like the old tractors used to have."

Four days and three nights after they left Edinburgh, the students rode into Hyde Park to be greeted by a high-powered reception committee of Royal Park staff, Ransomes top management, dealer representatives and the media.

The haggis, by then soaked in petrol, was handed over to the Keeper of the Royal Parks and a ceremonial strip of Hyde Park grass was mown.

The Ransomes Film Unit, which accompanied the team throughout the entire journey, was on hand to record the end of the momentous voyage.

Ransomes Matador lawnmower
Popping into town

On Wednesday 6 May 2009, the Operation Matador team, now in their late 60s and early 70s, arrived at the College Lane Campus of the University of Hertfordshire in St Albans, with a replica of the Ransomes Matador mower complete with the number plate and signage of 50 years past.

They then travelled to Hyde Park to re-enact their 1959 journey by mowing a ceremonial strip of grass and presenting a haggis and personal memento to the current Keeper of the Royal Parks.

Suffolk's industrial history

The successful completion of the journey was a real feather in the cap of a world renowned organisation which helped to put Suffolk firmly on the industrial map.

During its 118 year life-time Ransomes and Rapier (as it was originally known) played an invaluable part in Suffolk's war effort and in 1914 extra buildings were put in place at the firm's base for the production of shells, guns and tank turrets.

Well regarded exports included the Ransomes and Rapier cranes and draglines which were used internationally as well as in the development of the Orwell Bridge.

The modern-day Ransomes is still hugely proud of Team Matador's effort and the machine itself.

Ransomes Matador lawnmower
Read quickly or you'll miss it

"It says a lot about the quality of the equipment we built back then, a tradition that we carry on today," said David Withers, Managing Director of Ransomes Jacobsen.

"After 50 years, I'm delighted that all of the team are still with us, that we're still producing quality turf care equipment in Ipswich and we're still producing the Matador mower, albeit with some technological enhancements from the original."




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