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2019 Created by The Old Machinery Magazine

John Sparks: The Pioneer of Live Steam Traction Models in Australia

John was born into a farming family in the UK, in 1934, and as a lad of just seven years old, he would be kept home from school at various times to assist his father with his steam engines doing contractual work for other farmers. They would thresh corn, cut grass to make hay, and bale hay, especially during the War years as petrol wasn’t available.

 

 

John’s father, also named John (Snr), used his engines to drag the logs into his yard, where he would cut them up and make fence posts, as well as wooden gates and tables. People would travel for miles to buy John Snr’s products. Over the years, he owned a Sentinel steam truck, a Robey portable steam engine used for driving his saw benches, a Forster steam tractor, a Fowler steam roller, and and two Aveling traction engines. John Jnr, as he grew up, wanted his father to buy a Showman’s engine but his father said, “No son, you cannot earn money with them”. 

John Jnr immigrated to Australia in 1965 and settled easily. At first, he worked with earthmoving equipment, building the Tullamarine Airport, near Melbourne, Vic, before he progressed to working for another company digging dams for farmers and helping with the building of the duplication of the Bacchus Marsh Bypass Freeway, and the Hume Freeway bypass in Broadford, Victoria.

While working for this company, he met his wife Margaret, in whom he confided that his dad had never forgiven him for moving to Australia. One of the engines originally owned by John Snr, is now in the Thursford Collection, a museum in Thursford, Norfolk, UK. 

Margaret sent to England for plans so John Jnr could build his first steam engine, which happens to be the Showman’s engine he always wanted. He still has this engine and it is his pride and joy. John dealt with the Live Steam Company in England in order to purchase all of the rough cast parts from them to build this machine. As John was working full time, this engine took him nearly eight years to build.

 

 

^ Father and son, John Snr and John Jnr Sparks.

 

While in the process of building this engine, he bought a lathe but soon discovered that it wasn’t big enough, and one day, during a conversation with Margaret’s brother, Russell, about the problem, Russell suggested he go to night school at Heidelberg TAFE to learn more and use the bigger machines to make his parts. Russell was a teacher himself at that same TAFE and he organised for John to go every Thursday night, which he did for four years. All of his teachers got interested, and assisted where they could, while he learnt a great deal from their exceptional knowledge.

Once the Showman’s engine was finished he joined the Tullamarine Steam Club and the inspector at the club passed it, so he obtained his first steam certificate as well, which gave him a thrill.

John was now at a bit of a loss with nothing to keep him busy, so Margaret bought a couple of steam magazines including The Old Machinery Magazine and the Model Engineer, where she found a 6’ scale Burrell traction engine model that a deceased gentleman had started. It came with part of a boiler, the wheels without rubber, and a couple gears which were rough cast. It was a good price but it was up in NSW. John rang and bought it over the phone, before hooking the trailer on and completing the long trip from Wallan to Grafton, and back.

^ John Sparks Snr working with timber and producing the products he was renowned for.

 

Once back, he was again happily occupied for hours in his shed which has all the comforts of home, with air conditioning, a heater, and a fridge. John originally had a 30ft x 20ft shed but decided it wasn’t big enough, so another 30ft x 20ft shed was attached to the original one. The sheds are all fully insulated and lined. This was good forward planning as he would need the room for all the others to follow.

This machine took him around four years to build, and once finished, they started going to steam rallies with them both. John made a lot of friends who also wanted to get involved in steam, and many people would contact him over the years, for his advice and assistance. 

Next, came the Locomobile steam car. Out of the blue, John had a phone call from a gentleman, Dane Bade, who asked John if he would build a steam car for him that he wanted to source from Model Works, who supplied kits in England. John contacted them and got all the information needed.

Margaret suggested that John build one for himself at the same time, so the order went in for two kits, which took John around 18 months to build both of them. However, the company ceased business before John could receive all the parts, which he had already paid for. He overcame this problem with the help of the new Steam Traction World, who were able to source the parts he needed.

It ended up being a bigger job than he originally thought as he had to get the boiler passed by a special inspector, as well as requiring involvement with another company to get the boiler certificate. This took a long time and thousands of dollars. He then obtained club registration so that he could drive it on the road, and he has been known to drive it to his barber to get his hair cut! 

 

 ^ The Foden truck sports Schaye’s name.

 

Dane on the other hand, was never able to take his car home, as he took ill. It stayed in John’s shed for nearly eight years, before Dane’s family asked John to sell it on their behalf, which he did, to a steam enthusiast in Bendigo. Following the building of Dane’s car, John received a call from a Tom Talbot in Western Australia, who had built a steam car but couldn’t get it going. He wanted John to work on it for him and, of course, John said yes, so Tom freighted the car over to him. Within half an hour, John had rectified the problem. He rang Tom who asked if he could leave it in John’s shed until he could come over, as he wanted to see it going properly. He travelled via Victoria on his way to New Zealand for holidays and was able to view the car running. However, Tom had only been home from holidays for a couple of months when he passed on. His wife, Beth, asked John if he could sell the car which, eventually, was sold to Dick Smith.

Dick experienced some trouble with it once he took it home to his farm, just out of Canberra, so he rang and asked John if he would fly up and fix it. Of course, John was only too happy to assist, and once again, he got it going. While all of these builds were happening, John would also attend the Great Dorset Steam Rally, held in the UK every August, where he admired many models, and made a lot of friends, mostly from England and Ireland. 

While there on one of his trips, he saw a Foden 4’ scale model truck. He came home and told Margaret about it and they decided that he should get the kit to build one. He again contacted Steam Traction World, who had been so helpful previously, sourcing the missing parts from the old company. They sent out the kit for the truck, which took about eight months to complete.

By this time, he thought that he probably owned enough engines, however, his youngest daughter, Michelle, and her husband, Sean, led him to think again. John had put all of the grandchildren’s names on the car, truck and engines, so when Michelle and Sean became the proud parents of twin boys, that left John with one engine short - so Pa had to build another one. That is how the last machine came into being which is 4’ scale Burrell single crank compound engine. This was not a kit so he had to have all the parts rough cast and shipped from England.

 

 

That engine should have taken around 12 to 18 months to build but John and Margaret took a trip to Europe and the UK for seven weeks. Then, only two months after arriving home, John had his second knee replacement which didn’t turn out as well as expected. He still suffers badly with both of his knee replacements, but it doesn’t seem to stop his steam adventures.

During one Great Dorset trip after building his 6’ scale Burrell, he saw the beautiful fairground organs, and became immediately enamoured with them. After discussions with Margaret upon returning home, they decided to buy one. John contacted a company named Alan Pell, to have one built, which took nearly 14 months to arrive. It was air freighted out from England, and he now has so many people wanting to hire it that it was worth the wait - truly delightful. 

The family now attend many rallies, old machinery and truck events, and have so many clubs wanting them to attend. They are out and about for many weekends during the year, and thoroughly enjoy the lifestyle.

John and his engines have created much interest over the years, so much so that many of the models and engines being seen around at shows and rallies belong to guys that originally spoke with John. John always carries a briefcase full of brochures for Steam Traction World and happily hands them out, along with advice when required. 

John has definitely been a pioneer of steam models in Australia, and he and Margaret would like to thank their family who have always supported them, and now join them in their love for steam. There is Michelle and Sean Moore, with Liam (7), Chloe (6), Matthew and Joshua (both 4), and Jo-Ann Sutton and their oldest granddaughter, Schaye Brown. Liam can tell you a lot about the workings of the engines after listening to his Pa and Dad, and drives the 6’ Burrell around, and Schaye drives the truck whenever she is visiting.

*John Sparks Jr.

 

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The Old Machinery Magazine wants to hear your thoughts, stories and opinions - send a message to news@tomm.com.au to say hello! 

 

 

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