Every summer brings one particular sultry Sunday in northeast London when Carter’s Steam Fair rolls into town, and history turns back one notch on the dial. It only lasts a weekend, before the whole shebang packs up and the historic rides and vintage British trucks roll on to another park in another town, but for 48 hours, the golden age of the fairground comes back into full Technicolour view.
The Carter’s story started in 1977, when show promoters John and Anna Carter purchased the Jubilee Steam Gallopers, a fully mechanical steam-powered carousel from 1890, complete with galloping wooden horses on candy-cane poles and a bellows-operated pipe organ soundtrack. Over time, one vintage fairground attraction became many, and today, Carter’s tours the country with a show-load of late-Victorian marvels, towed by a similarly venerable fleet of fairground tractors and vintage trucks.
Classic truck capers
As someone who has always been captivated by the idea of buying a classic British truck and modding it out to create the perfect overland vehicle, it’s the vintage trucks and tractors at Carter’s that particularly catch my eye whenever the fair comes to London. Painted in whirlygig colours in rich gloss paint are vehicles from a string of forgotten British marques: Atkinson, Foden, Scammell – museum-pieces from an age that was golden for British mechanical engineering as well as for the fairground trade.
Pride of place in the Carter’s collection are a pair of stocky, pugnacious-looking Scammell Showtracs, purpose-built fairground tractors brought into service between WWI and WWII as travelling fairgrounds made the transition from steam to the internal combustion engine. Scammell of Watford started life as a coach-maker in Spitalfields, but switched to producing specialist trucks in 1914, finding lucrative business producing heavy-duty tractors for the British Army. Scammell was eventually absorbed into Leyland Motors and the last Scammell truck rolled out of the workshop in 1988.
The northern connection
Carter’s employs a fleet of similarly solid-looking tractors and haulage vehicles from Foden Trucks, another dignified British marque. Foden of Cheshire can trace its origins back to 1856, when the company started producing heavy agricultural machinery in Sandbach at the dawn of the motor era. Unlike Scammell, Foden rode out the transition from steam to diesel through civilian contracts, and its vehicles became the workhorse of British freight delivery before the UK motor industry fell into decline in the 1970s. The Ministry of Defence sailed to the rescue, keeping Foden alive with military contracts until operations finally fizzled out in 2006.
Another late but loved British marque in the Carter’s fleet is Atkinson of Preston, a pioneering Lancashire steam-wagon maker. Founded in 1907, Atkinson found its first success making steam-powered trucks to keep the home front ticking over in WWI, and the company sailed through the changeover to diesel producing civilian trucks and buses as Britain picked up the pieces from WWII. Later, as the British motor industry stalled, Atkinson joined forces with geographical neighbour Seddon of Oldham in 1974, before being consumed, and later abandoned, by Iveco in 2004.
Any one of these mechanical marvels would, with a bit of heavy welding, make the perfect starting point for the ideal overland vehicle. So, while wandering through the melee of families and the fairground fug of candy floss, diesel fumes and steam, I urge everyone to take a moment to appreciate not only the candy-apple fairground rides, but also the veteran vehicles which pull them.