Fowler's Snaketrac

David Fletcher MBE, former Tank Museum Historian, presents another in his series of exclusive articles inspired by the extensive archive of unique historic documents and photographs held at The Tank Museum.

11th December 2013

John Fowler and Co. of Leeds was probably the greatest manufacturer of steam traction engines and similar vehicles in Great Britain.

One among many but probably the greatest in terms of size and product range, they reached their peak during and after the Boer War and continued to build magnificent engines up to and after the Great War of 1914-1918. However business was declining, the internal combustion engine was making quite an impact and Fowlers were always on the lookout for new products that would bring them to the forefront again.

The Snaketrac was one such idea. It had no direct military connection at all but was aimed at the commercial market. However it was based very firmly on tank technology which, after the First World War was very topical.

Philip Johnson, who had served with traction engines during the Boer War had also been a Fowler’s employee and during the war had made a name for himself as a pioneering tank engineer. So much so that by the end of that war he had been given the task of designing a new family of high speed tanks to replace the slow old wartime machines.

Johnson based his designs on a system of tank suspension using wire rope and springs along with laterally flexible track which curved as a tank went around corners. This culminated in a design known as Snake Track that had a ball and socket joint attached to each link. And that was the track system the Snaketrac was designed to run on.

Fowlers had actually been involved in Johnson’s tank programme. They built the prototype on a modified Mark V tank in 1919 followed by three of the production tanks, known as the Medium D, a little later, so they already had some experience of the peculiarities of Johnson’s design.

The Snaketrac itself was built using the boiler and steam engine of a Fowler type A9 light tractor, although Fowlers were keen to point out that customers could have the Snaketrac device fitted to any size of Fowler engine they wished.

None ever did and although the firm offered a petrol engined version in 1923 they do not appear to have sold any at all, so all the money spent on development was wasted, which was the same with most of the unusual ideas that Fowlers tried at this time.