I Went To England And Came Back Obsessed With These Miniature Steam Engines


My fellow Autopians, Have you ever seen something and instantly known from the very bottom of your soul, from the depths of your very essence, that you absolutely, positively, without question, had to have it? Well, that happened to me a few weeks ago when I attended the Hunton Steam Gathering in Hunton, England. 

The Hunton Steam Gathering is a two-day festival of vintage farming equipment, antique cars, motorcycles, as well as a display of falconry [Ed note: I assume that’s where you drive Ford Falcons? – MH]. If you’ve never seen a big bird come down out of the sky at well over 100 mph and swoop down 3 feet off the ground to grab a target then you need to see a falconry display. It’s truly impressive. [Ed note: Nevermind – MH]

The show features dozens of vintage tractors, old cars and bikes, fire engines, and commercial vehicles but the stars of the show are the traction engines. I’m talking about these:


These truly massive steam vehicles were common on farms 100-120 years ago and would travel from farm to farm doing various jobs since they were too big and expensive for every farmer to own one. They would often work in pairs on opposite sides of a field by pulling a plow back and forth on a wire between them. Here’s a good example of how that worked:

They came in all shapes and sizes and not all were used for farming. Some were early road going trucks:


Ever wonder why they call them steamrollers?


They were also made for fairs and carnivals and would travel between towns pulling several cars containing animals, rides, merry-go-rounds, and other attractions. These were much fancier and were meant to attract attention as much as be functional.


Highly decorated with a canopy bearing the name of the carnival owner or company, they included a generator mounted on the front and a winch on the back that would be installed when arriving at the next town to help pull rides into place and put them together. Once everything was completed, the generator would power lights and various electric motors on the rides.

Check out this line-up:


But while these engines blew me away, they didn’t elicit the kind of gotta-have-it reaction in me that I got from these next babies, partially because these gigantic machines are seriously expensive and require a flatbed truck to haul around. I’m talking about these puppies:


Can you believe that? Miniature, Steam, Engines! Waaaaaaaaaa! Imagine arriving at a party like that hauling a keg of beer behind you. Actually, the keg in that picture is the water supply for the boiler but what if it were a keg?! Party on!

There were several dozen of these things and they came in all shapes and sizes. I didn’t count them, but 54 different miniatures were registered for the event with three of them being non-steam driven. The sizes of these toys are denoted in inches: 3”, 4”, 6”, etc. where the inch number refers to the scale relative to a foot, i.e. 2” of miniature machine length equals one foot of full size length. A 2” model then means it is 1/6th scale, a 6” model means it is ½ scale, etc.


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At first, I thought these might have been used for smaller tasks around the farm such as moving hay or other lighter fare but apparently they were always meant to be toys. For a while you could get them in a kit form with various parts arriving every month or so until eventually you had the whole thing. Presumably you would be assembling the bits you received as they arrived. Once completed, the unit would need to be certified by an inspector licensed through the insurance industry to inspect and give their stamp of approval. 

The certification process included verifying the blow-off valve was set to the right pressure and would indeed pop off at the right time as well as over-pressuring the boiler by 180% to ensure structural integrity. These kits may still be available but all I have found so far are fully assembled engines. 

Unfortunately, toys like this don’t come with toy prices. A fully assembled 4” miniature can run over $20,000. Check this out: Steam Traction World. This is a seriously deep rabbit hole so be careful. I’ll meet you at the bottom.

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57 Responses

  1. This makes me wonder… is there anything stopping someone from making a steam-powered kit car? As in, one that you could register and take out on the road and do car stuff with? Obviously it would exist for novelty value only as I don’t imagine it would work as well as an internal combustion or electric drivetrain, but could it work well enough? And if it did, could you put plates on it and drive it around?

    1. In the UK most of these traction engines are or were road-registered, although most travel by low-loader for ease.

      There’s (I think) a Thornycroft steam truck still run by an outfit in Portsmouth, and as other commenters have said there’s various home-made steam builds from mini engines to the steam-powered Land Rover.

      Blondihacks on Youtube has just built a steam engine from scratch, and it’s still a huge hobby scene especially among British men of a certain age.

    2. Actually, there is a steam powered kit car available – the Lykamobile Series 2, it’s somewhere on that Steam Traction World site Huibert linked to, I think they go for $16,000 or thereabouts. Saw one (or a kit very similar to it) at a steam show in Maryland two summers ago and just had to look it up. Man, if I had the garage/barn space…

    3. Nope, I doubt you even need a boiler certificate, although I’d consult the antique steam car community. Back in the early 70s Popular Mechanics or a similar magazine had an article on a home built steam car that used a modified Evinrude outboard motor as the engine.

      1. In the UK I’m pretty sure a boiler certificate is compulsory. Even if it’s not, if you’re operating it in public you really should get one. Have a quick search for “steam boiler explosion” to see why.

      2. Hi as the organiser of the miniatue steam section at this event I can asure you that all these miniature steam engines have a current boiler test and hold public liability insurance to the value of £5000000 ,all engines are hydraulic tested every 2 years and steam tested every year.

    4. Steam powered cars were not uncommon 100 years ago. Stanley Steamer built many steam cars many of which still exist. Check out Jay Leno’s Garage. He has one. Also, there was a company in the 30’s called Doble that tried making a steam powered car. Jay Leno has one of these as well and did a show about it. They never really took off since it takes so long to start the car from cold. Awesome low end torque though! Like electric motors, steam engines make their highest torque at zero RPM. That’s why diesel electric locomotives were able to take over from steam locomotives (one of the many reasons!).

    5. Even if it’s not required a boiler inspector should take a look at anything like that. The consequences of boiler failure are catastrophic and can kill people a good distance from the blast. Even a Top Fuel engine or tractor pull diesel blowing up is nothing compared to a steam explosion.

  2. Plenty of the antique farm equipment shows I’ve been to (Portersville, PA, Nittany Mountain, PA, Etc.) have both the full-scale engines and the smaller 1/2, 1/3, 1/4 scale every year. At the Threshermen’s Jubilee in New Centerville, PA, they even have a tug-of-war with people vs. the scaled down engines, starting with kids on the smallest, then adding age groups as the scale engines get bigger.

  3. Somewhere, in an alternate history Autopian:

    “I say, chaps, this Locomotopian update is absolutely top shelf! Mssr. Mees went to the quaint village of Fotherington-upon-Torchworth to review “internal-combustion” vehicles that operate by exploding benzine within tiny fireboxes. How positively strange! This is the content I like to see from the Locomotopian!”

    (Pictured: Huibert Mees riding a 1cyl gas mower)

  4. I’ve never seen any miniature steam engines but I’ve found a lot of events advertised as tractor pulls also have a lot of vintage farming equipment, some of it steam powered. I’ve seen stuff from tractors all the way to lumber mills and construction equipment. So even if, like me, you’re not a huge fan of tractors rolling coal and deafening you as they pull a sled it might still be worth stopping by. Some of those old farmers will tell you all about their machines and even let you run some of them.

  5. “If you’ve never seen a big bird come down out of the sky at well over 100 mph and swoop down 3 feet off the ground to grab a target then you need to see a falconry display.”

    Oh I have! While driving even!

    I had just stopped at a 4 way intersection when there was an explosion of *something* in the air a few yards just in front of the car. A moment later my GF and I saw feathers and down floating away from the epicenter. We looked over to the right and saw a wild peregrine falcon on the lawn with a pigeon in its talons beginning to partake of its kill.


  6. All the awful news about our shitpile of a country and its dreadful government, and that one four minute video made me proud to be British again. Out in’t countryside. Watchin’ t’steam engines. Right good, that is.

    1. Well, your “shitpile” country provided me with a fantastic 3 weeks and gave me an amazing wife 25 years ago so you won’t hear me complaining. In the video, listen carefully to the announcer in the background. The guy gives some of the drollest commentary, delivered with a thick Yorkshire accent. It was the icing on the cake!

  7. I have a 1″ scale (1:12) traction engine. It can just about pull a kid or a very light adult. I’ve used it a few times at shows to belt drive a small lathe and turn brass parts. It is not quite as much fun as a larger one, but on the plus side, it’s light enough that I can lift and carry it by myself.

    A note about full size traction engines in the UK: while some might be trailered to shows, some drive there under their own steam as most of them are still road legal!

    1. You might be right about that but I did see a long line of flatbed trucks parked out back of the show. Also, I’m told that the full size engines can be up to $1,000,000 so probably not something you want Joe Blow crashing into by accident.

      1. It’s also because most traction engines would struggle to reach double-digit mph speeds.
        So unless you live right next to the show, and are happy to cause massive traffic jams, driving them on the road is not fun.

  8. In the US one can get kits to build miniature steam engines though I’m not sure about steam traction engines as described above per se. There are several YouTube channels where they build such engines. Blondihacks’s YouTube channel is one of the best ones out there; she has built a few small model steam engines & currently she’s building a larger model steam engine which is testing (or even exceeding) the limits of her home hobby machinist equipment. It’s impressive how she manages to work with what she has on hand with a lot of ingenuity & a lot of humor. Quite entertaining & educational, highly recommended!

    1. I’ll second the Bloindihacks recommendation. Great stuff, and even if you don’t want to build a steam engine, Blondihacks covers a lot of ground as well including making tooling, fixtures, beginning machining, and more. Excellent topics, well narrated, some fun, and none of the mugging I have seen (and bailed on) elsewhere.

  9. I went to an old steam festival in Finland years ago where they had 20 ft or so steam powered boats you could go for rides on. Typically it was 6-8 guys (this was the 90s) sitting around the center mounted steam engines watching them puff while a couple miffed looking wives stared out across the beautiful lake at the scenery.

  10. Neat. My grandfather collected old John Deeres and had a couple steam engines before he died. He traveled all over the US hauling hit-and-miss engines and steam parts to shows in his ‘78 F-250. I think my mom’s cousin has the only remaining steam engine of his, and I have his old JD70. Steam traction was such a different way to farm with machinery, and historically it occupied a fairly short era.

  11. Miniature traction engines are new to me but are a logical extension of 7 1/4″ gauge miniature railway engines (1/8 or 1/5 scale). Live steam is common but expensive at that scale so a lot of the fleet at places like Train Mountain or Power Land uses small gasoline or diesel engines or battery power.

      1. See this worthless character: ~ ?
        I think it should become the “sarcasm” character. No one uses it in text, it’s on all the keyboards, and if we agree to use it for sarcasm people won’t miss out that quotes, italics, or whatever are supposed to mean “sarcasm”.
        That way:
        ~no one will ever mistake sarcasm for an opinion held by the writer.

        1. In school, we actually did exactly this in email and conversations over the university’s proto-IM system (this was many years back).

          Like ~great job I’m sure that’s the answer~

          Worked really well (no ~ there)

      2. That’s why it’s in quotes. “Cool” = not really cool. Imagine me putting two fingers of each hand in the air and doing the air quotes thing while reading that. Old school way of indicating sarcasm before /s was cool. Also, I am not cool.

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