Swinnerton Engineering is a family owned agricultural engineering firm based at Warton in North Warwickshire. Established in 2014, the company has since built a reputation as a significant force in the business of tractor transmission repair. Simon Henley reports.
Business partners Tom Swinnerton and Richard Aldridge started Swinnerton Machinery back in 2014. Working out the back of a Mercedes Benz panel van, their decision was to paddle their own canoe in order to build their own company. Little did either of them know they would soon discover a small but significant niche in the agricultural engineering market.
Tom Swinnerton is a farmer’s son, who left home to work in the agricultural engineering business. As a young man he gained valuable experience working for a local agricultural and plant hire contractor, where he predominantly rebuilt engines and transmissions.
Richard Aldridge started his career at Case IH dealer Startin Tractors, located at Twycross in Leicestershire. For the next decade he honed his skills working on Case IH and New Holland tractors and combines. Following his tenure at Startin Tractors, he spent another two years working at the Hinckley depot of the John Deere dealer, Farol.
“We started the business focussing on Mercedes-Benz Unimogs,” recalls Mr Swinnerton. “Buying, selling and repairing Unimog’s was okay, but it was a limited market and increasingly we would find ourselves working on the more mainstream brands, with a particular focus on Case IH tractors.”
Mr Swinnerton’s and Mr Aldridge’s enthusiasm was given a major boost in December 2015, when the company was joined by agricultural engineer, Chris Wilson. Mr Wilson had previously worked at Hallmark Tractors in Ashby-de-la-Zouch. He had started his career at the former Ford dealer in 1971, and worked there until he was made redundant following the closure of the Ashby depot in October 2015.
Rather than accept early retirement, Mr Wilson decided to take a gamble and join the team at Swinnerton Machinery. With a well respected engineer like Chris Wilson on the team, there was an immediate boost to the confidence of the business, which would soon elevate it from man-in-the-van status to establishing a permanent workshop facility.
Since then, Swinnerton Machinery has established itself as one-stop transmission shop for all types of tractors and farm equipment. Mr Swinnerton says: “When Chris Wilson joined us, people just kept asking us to rebuild gearboxes. Initially this was quite difficult, as we were struggling for workshop space. With any type of transmission work, you must have a dedicated area of the workshop because everything must be kept spotlessly clean.
“In December 2016 we moved into a workshop on my father’s farm in Warton, which incorporates a dedicated transmission repair facility. Transmission workshops need to be as close to sterile as humanly possible. Components like bearings, clutch-packs and gear synchronisers do not mix with dust or grime.
“Our mantra is to keep the work we do affordable,” adds Mr Swinnerton. “Any profit is reinvested into equipment, which over the years has included an industrial floor cleaner, oil collectors, turn-over stands, two purpose-built 360 degree overhead workshop cranes, bespoke work benches, which we built in-house, and a 50 tonne Dennison press which came from the former Massey Ferguson factory at Banner Lane in Coventry.
“Last year, we procured a Better Engineering hot wash parts cleaner, which was formerly owned by Rolls Royce aerospace in Bristol. This high-specification parts washer will cope with large transmission castings, and can be programmed to apply a high-grade anti-corrosion coating to protect the parts while they await reassembly.”
Today, there are seven experienced engineers employed in the workshops at Swinnerton Machinery, which prides itself in being able to tackle virtually any type, brand or make of tractor transmission, in machines dating from the 1960s to the present day. Mr Aldridge reveals more about the type of work the company does.
“We are continually seeing a greater number of people who are rebuilding or restoring 25 and 30 year old classic tractors,” adds Mr Aldridge. “However, as our reputation as transmission and axle specialists has become established, we are handling a wider variety of work rebuilding manual gearboxes, semi-powershift, powershift and CVT units on modern tractors.
“The service we offer includes everything from transmission/transaxle service and maintenance, to diagnostics, repair and complete overhaul or replacement. Increasingly, we are approached by farmers who own a 10 year old tractor with 8,000-plus hours, who want to invest money in refurbishing the tractor, instead of replacing it.
“This trend has arguably been driven by the cost of new tractors, which have essentially doubled in price during the past 10 years. Trading in a five year old 200hp tractor for a brand new model can currently cost in excess of £50,000. In this day and age, this just does not stack up. For less than half of that amount, you can have your old tractor’s entire transmission and running gear overhauled, and this is what we are increasingly finding farmer’s want us to do.”
The workshop at Warton is a hive of activity. Here, there are wall-to-wall tractors in various states of disassembly, either waiting for their gearboxes and axles to be removed or refitted. Colour, size and brand does not matter here. In one corner you might find a 60hp Deutz-Fahr in for a differential rebuild, while in the other you might find a Case IH STX 325 missing its powershift ‘box.
One of the most significant developments Swinnerton Machinery has made during the past few years, is the introduction of a rebuild/replacement service for the owners of tractors with continuously variable transmissions (CVTs).
Having gained a reputation for working on out-of-warranty Case IH CVX and New Holland AutoCommand tractors over the years, the team at Swinnerton Machinery has expanded its repertoire to include John Deere AutoPowr units and Fendt Vario gearboxes.
“During the past 18 months or so, we have seen an increase in the number of CVT models which require repair,” says Mr Swinnerton. “These have included several older Fendt and MF tractors and some newer JCB Fastrac 4000 Series models, all of which are equipped with Fendt Vario units.
“The Fendt Vario transmission has been in service for over 25 years. This transmission is very reliable and extremely durable, but like any CVT, the service life can be affected by the way in which it is used.
“The flexibility of the Vario design frequently sees the transmission operated in high-range, when it should be used in low-range. Because the CVT will continue to operate in high-range, from the driver’s seat the tractor’s performance may not seem to be affected.
“Internally, running in high range under a continual heavy load applies tremendous strain on the transmission pump and the gearbox components, creating very high operating temperatures, even to the point of overheating. And it is this continual overloading which will shorten the life of the transmission.”
He continues: “What is important to remember, is this applies to any brand of tractor with a CVT. It is not just the Fendt Vario. Maximising the service life of any CVT starts with regular maintenance, however, observing the correct operational procedures to prevent overloading or overheating are also critical.
“Richard and I have often commented that providing operator training for this type of transmission could save some farmers and contractors thousands of pounds. Another way in which expensive transmission problems and repair bills can often be prevented is by avoiding DIY diagnosis and repair of tractor transmission systems.
“Something which might appear to be a simple fault, can often be the tip of a much larger iceberg,” reveals Mr Swinnerton. “We have seen transmissions which farmers have spent thousands of pounds trying to unsuccessfully diagnose and repair, only to end up rebuilding or replacing them at additional cost.
“Modern transmissions frequently have complex electro-hydraulic operating systems, which in themselves can create problems. If you have a tractor or telehandler which develops a gearbox fault, get it professionally diagnosed by your dealer or a local transmission specialist. From our experience, DIY transmission repairs are rarely 100 per cent successful and can be very costly.
“We are farmer’s working for farmers,” concludes Mr Swinnerton. “Our goal is to provide the best service possible. When it comes to transmissions, transfer boxes, differentials or axle repairs, my advice will always be to get the job done professionally. Trying to save a few quid in the short term, might end up costing thousands in the future.”
During the past 18 months or so, Swinnerton Machinery has repaired several early-production JCB Fastrac 4000 Series models (above) which are equipped with the Fendt ML180 Vario units.