Once a byword for longevity and reliability, Gardner were the chosen engine for many a Bus operator, Haulier and Showman up and down the land and far across the world. In some peoples minds, Gardner were a victim of their own success but they fell out of fashion much quicker than it took for them to gain their enviable reputation. Mike Humble takes a look at some Patricroft perfection…
If you have ever enjoyed a whirl on the waltzers, gone daft on the dodgems or maybe just a try on the twister, there is a very good chance its all been powered by a Gardner engine. Even to this day, the engine of choice for your typical travelling showman is more often than not a 10.45 Litre Gardner 6LXB. For me, most of the fun of the fair comes from the power generation trailers rather than the rides themselves. One of my yearly rituals is to visit Horsham park, spend a bob or two on the dodgems and fill my ears and nose with the sound and smell of a showman’s generator engine.
Right up to the mid 1980s Gardner would power almost 90% of British made buses and featured on the options list for all of the UK truck manufacturers. Mobile cranes, marine craft and even locomotives featured these power units and its reputation was unsurpassed in the eyes of many a seasoned transport manager or fleet engineer. Lawrence Gardner set up his engineering business back in 1868 originally undertaking general work and fabrication contracts, indeed on their products in those early days included dentists chairs.
But it was engines it became known for and once diesel had been perfected and became an accepted method of propulsion, Gardner soon became the best regarded engine builder in the UK. In latter years Hugh & John Gardner were recognised as being the finest engineers in their field and the LX series engine first built in 1958 even to this day is often talked about as the finest heavy duty diesel engine ever produced. They were quite unique owing to the fact they were a mixed metal engine and virtually had made.
The Cylinder heads and cylinder block were cast iron while the crankcase and sump were cast alloy which gave a considerable weight saving over equivalent sized engines. Long stroked and low revving, a Gardner engine offered high levels of torque that reduced wear, reduced fuel consumption and offered an incredibly long working life. Most buses and trucks produced in Britain for many years bought in these engines and a great deal of hauliers built a solid reputation based on these economical and reliable power units.
Sadly, the 1970`s brought Foreign competition with it and the likes of DAF, Scania and Volvo simply crushed the British competition with ultra modern and more powerful trucks that were by far more palatable than home spun vehicles. Overseas lorries were also keen to exploit the only real and fatal Gardner flaw of lacking in maximum power for maximum capacity vehicles. It was a family owned company that operated to strict engineering practices, chief designer Hugh Gardner was ferociously opposed to turbocharging his engines.
His nephew Paul knew that turbocharging was the future in diesel engine technology and had secretly been experimenting with an engine, but Hugh found out about this and gave the ultimatum to either cease experimentation or he would resign. As the decade progressed, Gardner fell further behind as rivals such as Cummins, Perkins and Rolls Royce all developed reliable engines producing superior power to a Gardner. Towards the end of the 70’s even Hugh finally admitted the ship was sinking and the company was offered for sale.
Hawker Siddley purchased Gardner in 1977 which effectively made Hugh and John Gardner surplus to requirements and they subsequently retired from the board. Paul Gardner remained with the company and set to work immediately on turbocharging projects with the 6LXCT & 8LXCT producing up to 230 or 300bhp being the first fruits under new ownership. Its industrial and marine engines remained popular units but were produced in far fewer numbers than automotive or bus sector engines.
All new designs such as the 6LYT from 1986 were rushed into production and never held a candle to previous designs quickly gaining a reputation for being problematic. Further trauma followed with the company being sold to Perkins engines who really only bought Gardner to tap into the all important spares and aftersales division. The bus market effectively collapsed around this time following the transport deregulation act and new bus registrations went from a flow to a mere trickle.
By now, the remaining UK truck manufacturers were in survival mode and Cummins or Perkins were the engine of choice as their units now matched Gardners head on for economy and reliability when they were at their best. A final nail in the coffin came after the first wave of emission criteria took hold in 1992 it was just too expensive to re-engineer the long running 6LXB. Automotive engines ceased production altogether in 1994 and Perkins sold off a much shrunken Gardner to a Manchester based company called Texas Group.
Its involvement with marine engines continued before finally fading away and Paul Gardner operated a re-manufacturing operation from a site within the old Barton Hall plant in Manchester. Sadly Paul Gardner Engineering folded a couple of years back leaving just a handful of specialist companies to supply a dwindling market of customers – now mainly marine clientèle. One such company operates in Northern Ireland run by Joe McCool who mainly specialise in marine units but also undertakes automotive projects too.
Tangent Engineering are quite a rare operation owing to them solely concentrating on Gardner products. Autobritannia spoke to Joe who told us: ‘I have a passion for Gardners which goes back to my rural childhood days when I saw them used in Smiths Cranes, in drag lines and of course Foden and ERF lorries’ . His jovial demeanour has an underlying passion for what he does and he was proud to tell us a great deal of his life has been devoted to the repair and restoration of these Patricroft power units.
He proudly went on to tell us: ‘My own background is in engineering, as was my Father before me and two of my sons are engineers and share my passion, even my daughters lend a hand in the workshop. Our engines have been exported to Canada, Australia, Israel, Latvia and lots of other exotic places and my mechanics who help us have between them over 100years experience dedicated to Gardners’ .
Nowadays with ever tightening DDA (disability legislation) rules, Gardner powered buses are a rare sight on the roads – lorries even more so. As long as there is a thriving preservation scene in the bus and truck world or the travelling fairs continue to bring joy to man and boy, there will always be the chattering sound and the pale blue exhaust of a classic Gardner engine.
Joe’s wonderful work can be seen by clicking here: TANGENT ENGINEERING