There are three machines which seem to have acquired mystical status for fans of earthmoving equipment in New Zealand – The Euclid TC-12, Euclid 16TDT, and this month’s subject, the Vickers VR180, Vigor and Vikon series. By Richard Campbell
Vickers, (later Vickers-Armstrong) made a very solid name for itself during WWII building tanks and munitions, plus one of its parent companies, Vickers-Supermarine, also built the legendary Spitfire and Seafire fighter aircraft.
With such a pedigree, it was no surprise that following the war, Vickers were heavily involved with trying to rebuild the Empire!
A major problem was that England was practically bankrupt and owed the USA mega-millions so importing new earthmoving equipment from the USA was not really financially viable. So, a decision was made to develop an indigenous track type tractor.
This would solve several problems: keeping their workforce in labour, save a vast amount of money by not importing equipment from the USA and also taking on the Americans at their own game!
Overseas sales of British equipment would provide much needed revenue for Britain’s war- ravaged economy.
Initial design studies were begun very early in 1946 and by 1950 a prototype tractor had been assembled and tested to the satisfaction of the engineering staff.
Production of the first machines known as the Vickers Model VR180 commenced in 1952.
Drawing heavily on its experience building tanks, Vickers engineers came up with a unique design to the extent that the VR180 resembled no other track-type tractor then currently available anywhere in the world.
The VR180 was very innovative for the time and displayed a number of advanced ideas which were not available in other contemporary tractors.
Going along with the “Buy British” concept, all of the components used were of British design and manufacture including the matched line of attachments which were developed for the machine – blades, cable control units, winches, hydraulic controls, towed scrapers etc.
Size-wise, the Model VR180 fell in between the two most favoured track type tractors available in Britain at the time, The Caterpillar D7 and D8, tipping the scales at approximately 16 tons without any attachments.
The engine chosen for the VR180 was a Rolls-Royce C6SFL six-cylinder, supercharged diesel which had an output of 160 horsepower.
It was available in naturally aspirated (C6NFL) or supercharged versions (C6SFL).
It was an unusual engine in the fact that it featured dry sump lubrication and a high number of aluminium castings (for the time) and could maintain constant full pressure lubrication of vital engine components even at extreme operating angles.
Coupled to the engine was a three-speed constant mesh transmission with high/low splitter of Vickers’ own design, driven through an 18-inch single plate Borg & Beck clutch.
This setup gave the VR180 a top speed of nearly 10 mph when its rivals could only manage about 5½ mph!
The tractor chassis was manufactured in two sections which were bolted together – a front hull which contained the engine and clutch and a rear hull which held the transmission and final drives.
Vickers sales literature stated that the machine could be separated for maintenance by two trained technicians in two hours.
However, by far the most radical feature of the VR180 was its undercarriage.
This was heavily influenced by Vickers’ experience in tank design and incorporated a sprocket and three idler-sized road wheels per side with no carrier rollers.
These units were all fully articulated and allowed the Vigor to literally envelop obstacles in its path without lifting the track off the ground and therefore losing traction.
All the undercarriage was isolation mounted via rubber bushings to absorb shock including the sprockets.
Track bushes contained a small quantity of oil to mitigate pin and bushing wear and rubber washers were fitted in the track link bosses to exclude dirt.
Normal track chain would not fit the VR180 due to the unique design so Vickers had a captive market for replacement undercarriage components.
For the operator, the VR180 had a wide, comfortable seat, great visibility and a very clutter-free deck. A foot throttle/decelerator was also a feature of the machine, something normally only seen on machines with a powershift transmission.
The VR180 acquired the name ‘Vigor’ sometime in the early 1950s along with a horsepower increase to 180hp, and as production progressed, several sales options were made available to purchasers.
These included a torque converter drive option and during 1960, substitution of the Rolls-Royce C6SFL engine with the more powerful 210 horsepower Cummins model NT6-BI six-cylinder turbocharged diesel although it would appear from sales records that most purchasers preferred the Rolls-Royce engine.
So, what went wrong?
With all these goodies, it would seem (on paper) that the Vickers VR180/Vigor was the ideal tractor for all conditions.
Exported to most of the British Commonwealth and South America it failed miserably to penetrate its largest potential market – the USA – due to the already overwhelming dominance of Caterpillar, Allis-Chalmers and International Harvester.
Adding to the machines woes was the fact that it also had a number of very annoying faults which were never satisfactorily addressed and these shortcomings had also made their way across the Atlantic to American ears.
For a start, it was not the most stable bulldozing platform and finishing blade work was made difficult due to the design of the undercarriage and how the blade was attached to the tractor.
Although fast and a good scraper tow tractor, the machine loved to shed its tracks!
This was due to very rapid deterioration of the rubber seals in the track bushes allowing it to snake badly at speed, even when comparatively new.
Also, in certain applications, the individual bogey units could easily turn over on themselves in uneven terrain, inevitably resulting in a thrown track.
Due to some operating stresses, the machine is also known to have parted company with itself at the joint where them two chassis halves were bolted together resulting in a very sudden stop!
These were all serious shortcomings to which Vickers should have paid immediate attention but didn’t (perhaps as a suitable fix could not be found?).
Manufactured from 1952 until 1961, approximately 920 VR180/Vigors were built before the type was officially discontinued.
Vickers also manufactured a slightly smaller version of the tractor known as the Model VR110 Vikon which weighed around 13½ tons bare and was powered by a four-cylinder 148 horsepower Rolls-Royce C4SFL diesel engine.
It was a D6-sized machine and introduced during the latter half of 1956.
Only 21 were ever manufactured before it too was also withdrawn from production.
The New Zealand connection
Around 26 Vickers VR180/Vigors were imported into New Zealand by the NZ distributor for the brand, Dominion Motors Corp (later Domtrac).
The majority of these machines were imported for the Ministry of Works who used them extensively throughout the North Island especially in the Wellington region.
Some of these machines were ‘loaned’ to Clifton Collieries for stripping operations in the Northern Waikato.
Several were also sold new to private contractors, most notably Graeme Craw of Auckland.
There are several preserved examples in Australia, the UK and New Zealand, and even a ultra-rare VR110 Vikon model is preserved here.
For the model collector
Praise be, as there are several versions of the Vickers VR180/Vigor available to 1:50 scale, all manufactured by Black Rat Models in England.
Unfortunately, that is where the good news ends as these are very expensive little beasts and you will need really deep pockets to afford one.
They are however, highly detailed exceptional little gems and come in a variety of configurations including cable and hydraulic blade operated variants.
All represent the Rolls-Royce powered versions of the VR180/Vigor.
Currently there are no models available of the Vigor’s smaller stablemate, the Vikon.
Black Rat Models are available from Buffalo Road Imports in the USA.
Brief Specifications – Vickers VR180 Vigor (1955)
Engine: Rolls-Royce C6SFL 6-cyl, inline supercharged diesel rated at 180 flywheel horsepower at 1800 rpm
Clutch: Borg & Beck 18” single plate
Transmission: Vickers 3-speed constant mesh with high/low splitter
Top Speed: 9.7 mph
Steering: Conventional clutch & brake
Brakes: Contracting band
Tracks: 51 section, sealed
Std.Track Shoe: 22”
Length: 14’ 8” (bare)
Width: 8’ 6” (bare)
Height: 9’ 11” (top of exhaust stack)
Operating Weight: 16 tons (bare)