Centenary Bulletin 7 – Off Highway – The Nodwell Story Oil & Mineral Exploration Transport

August 29, 2018


Nodwell had nothing to do with textiles and was a spin-off from Polymer Corporation activities. Because Norman G Clark was pleasing the Canadian Trade Commissioner with its Polysar Rubber sales, he was a regular caller offering Canadian products requiring representation in Australia. This eventually resulted in an association with the Robin Nodwell Co., of Calgary, Alberta, which became quite large in the ensuing few years.

Canada, like Australia, is a very large country with most of its population located around the southern border, where all the usual luxuries of a very modern society are available. Similarly, Australia has a well populated east coast, and both countries have virtual wilderness areas quite close to the main centres. The further North you travel in Canada, the wilder the terrain and, of course, that’s the terrain where they keep their oil and mineral wealth. This is also well protected by the extreme Canadian climate. People live in these remote areas all year round, but spring produces hazards which are particularly Canadian. In some areas nothing mechanical can even move until summer is well under way.

Just North of Edmonton, is a belt of Muskeg country. Muskeg is basically rotting vegetation. In some districts it extends to considerable depths. During winter, the top four to five feet freeze solid and can support practically anything without a problem. Spring changes the situation very quickly, however, and the Muskeg belt becomes unpassable to anything with a ground bearing pressure higher than 1½ psi. Bruce Nodwell was a farmer in the Edmonton area and aware of these problems but believed a transport vehicle could be built that could traverse the Muskeg areas in spring, and everywhere else for the rest of the year.

It was considered the answer had to be some form of tracked vehicle, but everyone already knew that crawler tractors did not work, as enough of them had disappeared completely to reinforce that belief. Basically, they were too heavy, but the real problem was in the steering system, which involved stopping one track. In the fragile Muskeg environment, this simply meant that the powered track immediately dug a hole and that was the end of the exercise, and sometimes the vehicle too!

The solution was indeed a tracked vehicle. The NODWELL machine looked a bit like a tray truck, with the engine at the front, drive at the rear and three axles independently sprung with rubber tyred truck wheels. The road the machine ran on was a very special sort of flexible track, built up from two heavy duty rubber belts, joined together with spring steel grouser bars.

McGrath Sandpit Trials Langwarrin

McGrath Sandpit Trials Langwarrin

The overall width of the vehicle was 40 inches on the ground, and it was claimed that, “if the machine runs over your foot, don’t worry, as it is only at about 1¼ psi and won’t hurt”. The rear drive was by two sprockets which picked up the track and moved the machine forward. However, the real breakthrough was the steering system. A controlled differential was used to slow one track and speed up the other. Under no circumstances could either track be stopped with the other turning, and therefore, it didn’t dig holes. When turning, it travelled in a curve like a regular road vehicle. The rear sprocket drive produced a nice slack track on the ground which was a perfect recipe for operation in low ground, bearing pressure conditions.

The prototype machine was sensational and generated a flood of orders.

Both three and four axle machines were built in the original batch. Both machines could travel over country where a man could not even walk and had ground bearing pressures of 1½ and 1¾ psi with zero penetration.

Norman G Clark’s first order was for an RN75 three axle carrier, with a payload of 7500 lbs (or more, if it would fit on). This machine was a display/demonstration unit and featured in some very interesting off-highway exploits.

For example, Albert Park Lake, in Melbourne, had a weed problem and the Lake Trust needed to clean it. Most boats were out of the question, as the weed clogged propellers etc. Norman G Clark offered the Nodwell as a means of transport in the lake and put in a couple of trial days driving around along the bottom. It was promoted as the only vehicle to be intentionally driven into the lake, and able to get itself out again. Norman G Clark didn’t sell the machine, however, as in the process, it unfortunately ground the weed into the bottom of the lake, which was not the result that was wanted.

The impassable terrain story was being believed, and companies developing major mining projects, with terrain problems, purchased Nodwells. Bougainville Copper started with a couple of units using them as supply transports, delivering fuel and personnel to areas which were closed to anything else. Similarly, Savage River Mines, in Tasmania, used an RN75 for the construction of the pipe line from the mine site to Port Latta. The machine was the only piece of equipment that was able to transport fuel and supplies up and down the R.O.W. in unbelievably bad conditions.

In New Guinea, the Department of Works had an RN75, which was used everywhere as a supply vehicle on major works projects. This machine, more than any other, completely endorsed Norman G Clark’s claim that a Nodwell would go anywhere. When the Markham River Bridge was to be constructed, they ordered another RN75 as a supply vehicle. This machine was duly delivered to Lae, and the designated driver was given a period of instruction and turned loose to drive it to the bridge site. He headed down the main road at top speed, and on arrival at the river, drove down the bank and into the water. Obviously, there had been a substantial rise of the river level since he was last there, because both he and the RN75 disappeared completely into twenty feet of water. So, we all found out that an RN75 didn’t float, and wasn’t much use in deep water. A couple of Cat D7’s and a big crane recovered the machine, which, fortunately for us, had already been paid for. After some expensive engine and transmission repairs, it was back to paddling around in mud and the shallows. Warranty was considered suspect on this machine for evermore.

By then, however, Norman G Clark knew that in swamps and muddy, slushy conditions, a Nodwell was the answer. They also knew it didn’t float, and that travel in snow and ice were a pushover. They inherited a model RN110, which the Australian Antarctic Division of CSIRO were using in Antarctica as a supply vehicle, transporting people and fuel, and had behaved immaculately since delivery. Norman G Clark enjoyed supplying regular spare parts. About fifteen years ago, the vehicle wintered in Melbourne, where it was rebuilt, given a new coat of paint and sent back to Antarctica in the spring.

OMET Nodwell Unloading at Mount Dare Station

OMET Nodwell Unloading at Mount Dare Station

Mud, snow and ice were no problem, but what about sand? Nodwell had about as much access to sand in Canada as Australia had to snow and ice, and really didn’t know. They told Norman G Clark, however, that the US Army, who had a fleet of Nodwells, had trialled a few machines in the Arizona Desert. What they didn’t say, was that their trials were mainly on flat country and in a straight line.

Anyway, Norman G Clark started a campaign to get to the desert operators and made their own trials in the McGrath sandpit at Langwarrin, near Frankston. It was quite staggering where a Nodwell could go. However, it was only when they got the Australian Army interested, and they turned up with some Tank Corps Officers, that we really found out what the machine could do. The Army traditionally were much more interested in what equipment couldn’t do, rather than what it could do, and the trials were conducted accordingly.

Stability was the top priority. They tried to tip it over and, amazingly, couldn’t do it. It was one of the very few Nodwells that has ever been driven across a 35 sand side slope, with the high track clear of the ground by two feet, while still proceeding. The Army gave up testing, but unfortunately, didn’t buy one.

Norman G Clark’s first desert order was from Companie Genierale de Geophysique, a Queensland based French mineral search company, who were about to conduct a geophysical search for oil in the Simpson Desert on behalf of Aquitane petroleum.

They ordered 2 x RN110 and 4 x RN75. We told Robin Nodwell what it was all about – early delivery is important – but don’t do anything until there is some money on the table.

The typical Canadian response was to get stuck into production and, while Norman G Clark was trying to get some money, and even a written order from Serge Leveque of CGG, the Canadian stars were loading six Nodwells on a ship bound for Melbourne. The bad news arrived by cable on a Wednesday, in time for Norman G Clark to ring Serge in Brisbane and tell him he was lucky because his machines were on the way! His reply was “John, we have decided that we do not need these machines, and our order is cancelled”. He was advised that he was looking down the barrel of the biggest law suit imaginable, and Norman G Clark would be in Brisbane tomorrow to pick up the order and the cheque. The meeting was less than cordial. Serge conceded that they still had to perform the Aquitane survey and would have to have the Nodwells but could not consider owning them. He went on to say, “however, if you were to own the machines and operate them for us as a transport contractor, then we would be happy to hire them at a favourable rate.”

It was obvious that this was all Norman G Clark were going to get, so we said “Okay, we want a twelve-month contract at 10% of the capital value of the machines, paid monthly in advance, and each month CGG will be billed for parts used for maintenance. Norman G Clark would maintain a Service Manager on site for the period of the contract, and CGG would have to supply operators to be controlled by Norman G Clark’s Service Manager.

This deal was agreed, but the twelve-month period by Gallic negotiation standards was reduced to eleven months. Norman G Clark were to fit the drill rigs to the RN110’s and deliver the machine to Finke in the Northern Territory, which was no problem, as that had been included in the original costing.

Back in Melbourne next day, the ANZ Bank was less than excited when they learned what it was all about, however, there wasn’t much of an alternative as the die was cast. Norman G Clark was in the transport business. The wholly owned company was Oil & Mineral Exploration Transport (OMET). Col Waters was its only employee, and John Clark was the fill-in Service Manager when Col was on leave.

The deal with CGG was no surprise, as this was a time when the Commonwealth Government was subsidising mineral exploration. For every ten dollars CGG spent, they got back twenty, so why the hell would they want to own machinery. In retrospect, if Norman G Clark had doubled their price, CGG would have considered it. Norman G Clark really needed the business and were probably being cautious. It was still a good deal!

The machines duly arrived in Melbourne, and the parts that CGG had to supply eventually all showed up. The Mayhew 1000 Drill Rigs were nothing like the units CGG had proposed, as they were about five feet longer and about 1-1/2 ton heavier. There was also no way they could be carried on a standard RN110, as per the originally proposed model. The machine would be carrying quite an overload and the bigger drill simply made it impossible.

Norman G Clark went back to CGG and told them that they had delivered the wrong drills and they would have to change them. Norman G Clark were informed that the lighter models were already in the field and were unavailable. CGG were then informed that if Norman G Clark had to use the heavier rigs, they would have to modify the carrier and that would be at their expense. Of course, they agreed, so Norman G Clark started mounting the first rig. A very large mud pump was part of the system. There was also no intention of using it, as there isn’t much water in the Simpson Desert. They took it off and lowered the load by about 3/4 ton. They eventually had the modified rig attached to the vehicle and did a test run. On raising the mast, the whole assembly tipped over backwards about 35 degrees, only being stopped by the drill base hitting the ground.

Obviously, this was not an acceptable situation, and the only alternative was to add more weight to the front of the vehicle to compensate for the overhung rear load. This wasn’t very attractive as they were already way above the theoretical maximum. So, working on the philosophy that, if it will fit on you may as well take it, they added an RSJ across the front of the machine and four cast iron weights. The all-up weight was nearly double what it should have been, and there were now serious doubts about engine power. The thought of getting halfway across the Simpson Desert and running out of power was not appealing.

A test run in the sand at McGraths was sensational, and they even managed to travel uphill with the mast raised.

The machines departed for the Simpson Desert, and six machines arrived in Finke, NT, in good shape. Twenty-four hours later, Norman G Clark headed out with Mount Dare station as the target destination for the first night. That day, the temperature exceeded 115 degrees F, with absolutely zero humidity, it was a sign of things to come, even though the locals advised that it was a cool day.

Sand Dunes in the Simpson – OMET Nodwell

Next day, on the way into the desert, the party had its first view of Simpson Desert sand dunes. These were very impressive but, as they found out later, were only the sandpit models which were about 100 feet to the crest and ran continuously for hundreds of miles.

The dunes are formed in a wave shape by the prevailing wind, which blows from west to east. The western approach is a reasonably gentle climb of about 25 degrees to 30 degrees to the crest. The eastern side provides a descent of 70 degrees to 80 degrees which, to a driver seemed like straight down to desert floor level. On the level, you head east for about a quarter of a mile and then encounter the next dune. This goes on for a couple of hundred miles. The only variation is that the dune crests get progressively higher, up to 400 feet off the desert floor!

The Nodwells behaved perfectly in these conditions, simply driving up the western slope and descending the other side in a controlled, slow slide with the machine track almost buried in the sand.

After the third day, they discovered that neither the US Army or Robin Nodwell, knew anything about sand handling, and that earlier experience in a US desert and the Langwarrin sandpit, was nothing compared to the real Simpson Desert. The Simpson sand had quite a thick, hard crust. Because of its low ground bearing pressure, the Nodwell sat on top of the sand in the flat sections and left only the imprint of the grouser bar as it progressed. Uphill was a different story and they simply drove over the dunes without any problem. The heavily overloaded RN110’s were the best. The reason was that when they approached an uphill slope, the grousers dug in and immediately broke through the hard crust and got down to dry sand. This was a much nicer medium and a very easy passage over the most difficult obstacle in the desert.

The steering problem was unique but very expensive. They experienced enormous tyre and track belt wear, fitting over 200 H.D. truck tyres which, thankfully, were paid for by CGG and the Australian Government.

The CGG experience in the Simpson Desert has left an indelible mark on Australia’s centre. The grid produced by the Nodwells is still visible today, nearly 50 years later. It is known by all who travel across that inhospitable landscape as “The French Line” and is quite prominent from an aircraft at 30,000 feet. It is a reminder to all of the Norman G Clark expedition in the 1960’s.

As an aside, Col Waters collected many extra-terrestrial tektites in the desert. These are the result of a meteorite shower and are quite unique. Col gave these small black glass-like particles to Robbie Clark on his return from the desert.

After the Simpson, Hunt Oil Co. of Texas, USA, arrived in Australia to search for oil in the Great Victoria Desert. They got a nasty shock to find that they couldn’t use regular equipment as planned. They subsequently purchased 8 x RN75 Nodwells, then headed east from about 200 miles north of Laverton, to the SA border.

This area harbours some of the most destructive wood product imaginable. Hunt Oil and Norman G Clark found out the hard way. The desert is literally covered with a scruffy small tree with no leaves, and few branches spaced so that a vehicle couldn’t be driven between them. They had to be knocked down to provide a track. This tree is Mulga Bush, and the desert variety was dry and as hard as iron. It had to be hit very hard to be broken or dislodged from the ground. If it is hit hard enough, the wood shatters into strong needle-sharp spikes, which can go right through sheet metal and can cause great damage.

Hunt Oil figured that their Nodwells would solve the problem and turned them loose to bulldoze their way through the scrub. The best performance was two miles, with some of the others not even getting out of camp. Every machine had six flat tyres, track belting with big holes in it, radiators punctured, plus sumps and other engine parts broken.

It was a disaster, so Hunt Oil purchased eight 14 footlong 12″ “I” beams, welded them on the front of the machines, and had another go. This time they did a little better, but by the end of the day, they still had about 40 flat tyres and badly damaged tracks. Obviously, there had to be another solution.

Norman G Clark tried solid polyurethane tyres, moulded onto truck rims, but they were only part of the solution. In the end, the machines wound up with double thickness track belts, solid wheels and tyres, and armour plate welded over everything. They were so heavy, they could hardly move.

Hunt Oil just kept ordering replacement parts and there were literally miles of track belting and hundreds of solid wheels marking their ‘progress’. The cost was enormous, but they kept on operating, eventually getting clear of the Mulga area into more manageable conditions.

Soon after, Norman G Clark experienced trouble making contact, and it transpired that Hunt Oil had decided to go home. They simply left everything in the desert and caught the first plane out!

The most sophisticated Nodwell operation was a result of the development of the NSW snowfields. Ansett-Pioneer had a very modern bus terminal where they delivered skiers in their highway coaches. The skiers, though, had the fun of walking up the mountain to their accommodation. This was not too popular, so they decided to purchase 2 x RN110 Nodwells. Ansair built two beautiful coach bodies and hung them on the machines. The theoretical payload was more than exceeded by the bodies, and to then add thirty passengers plus luggage was too much. After getting them bogged on a regular basis, they gave cross country travel away and stuck to travel on prepared tracks. Eventually, the traffic volume was too much for the two machines to handle and they were withdrawn.

The last Nodwell buyers were BHP, Western Mining and the Antarctic Division. BHP took an RN110 to a site about twenty miles down Macquarie Harbour, Tasmania, for a mineral survey. It was in regular operation for about a year and is probably still there.

Western Mining bought an RN75 for Kambalda, WA, and the last that was heard of it was that it was bogged in the middle of Lake Lefroy. It too is also probably still there.

The Antarctic Division bought two RN35’s, which were small machines, and fitted Antarctic Survival Bodies, which were really too heavy. They were not a success and were returned to Australia and wound up at Mount Buller, a Victorian ski resort.

Altogether, there were 28 Nodwell’s sold – some of them being the same machine twice – but they contributed their share to development in different parts of Australia and were basically a success.