There was a lack of British-developed four-wheel-drive vehicles developed during the war and no commercial demand for them afterwards. As a result, the Army, under the time's general assumption of indigenous sourcing, was forced to develop its own vehicle. The Hathi prototype was developed in 1922 by a team of P Company under Professor (honorary Colonel) Herbert Niblett (1872-1966) of the Royal Army Service Corps Training College, Aldershot, using parts of a German Erhardt tractor. Production models were built by Thornycroft, 25 being built in 1924. Niblett was Sir John Thornycroft's son-in-law.
Although capable for its day, the Hathi was a complex and expensive vehicle that required regular maintenance if the front axle was to remain reliable. For most purposes it was soon replaced by 6×4 lorries with just as many driven wheels, but without the need for the complex combined driving and steering axle. Even half-tracks, particularly the Kégresse system, were more popular in this period.
The first vehicle was built as an experimental prototype, but its success was so great that plans were made to produce them commercially. The specification of requirements was thus drawn up in October 1923, after the prototype had been trialled. These were:
- Engine power of at least 80 bhp
- Winch capacity of 5 long tons
- Ability to cope with a 1 in 4 (25%) gradient, whilst towing a trailer load of 5 long tons
- Ability to stop and start under control on a 1 in 5 gradient (20%)
- Average speed of 22 mph over two hours.
- 20 inches ground clearance in general, with at least 10 inches beneath the axles. The vehicle otherwise to be low in overall silhouette.
- Turning circle of 55 feet. This required a short wheelbase, but the ditch and bank climbing requirements also limited the vehicle's overhang beyond its wheels. Together with the weight limit, this required an extremely compact vehicle.
- Maximum weight of 5 long tons.
Bodywork of the Hathi was typical for the time with a wide bench-seated open cab and not even a windscreen. The only weather protection was a folding canvas roof. Although the lack of cab was typical for the time, it had also been part of the requirement to maintain a low profile.
As for other Thornycrofts the radiator surround was a massive casting (in aluminium, to save weight) topped by a brass header tank with the "Thornycroft" name prominently cast into it. A distinctive feature of the Hathi, appropriately giving its elephantine appearance, was the extreme width of the bonnet. The top panels of the bonnet cover were also noticeably concave and are recognisable in photos.
Prominent spare wheels were mounted high up, on each side of the rear bodywork.
The engine was a Thornycroft GB6 11.3 litre straight-six petrol engine. As was common for the period, the cylinders were cast in two blocks of three. Valves used the "IOE" or "Inlet over Exhaust" arrangement, with overhead valves (in the head) for the inlets and side-valves (in the cylinder block) for the exhaust. Dry sump lubrication was used, to avoid problems when tilted off-road. To reduce weight, many cast components were in aluminium, rather than iron.
Four wheel drive for heavy vehicles in this period was difficult and the Hathi used a complex arrangement of bevel gears to transmit drive through the steering joints of the front axle. Rather than the common system of articulated drive shafts to the front hubs (the shaft either inside an axle casing or external), fixed shafts were used. Shafts inside the axle casing carried power to the ends of the axle, then a bevel gear drove a short vertical shaft running through the steering kingpin. A further bevel on the outer part of the hub carrier (the part moving with the steering) drove the hub itself.
The constant velocity joint used to make modern articulated drive shafts was unheard of as yet and even the simpler Hooke-type universal joint wasn't yet in common use. Thornycroft's usual practice for prop shafts at the time was to use a flexible leather disk joint. To save weight, the axle casings were cast in aluminium.
Production Hathi used single steel disk wheels with 8 studs. The tyres were narrow by modern standards for an off-road vehicle and did not have the exaggerated tread pattern now common, or the bar grip pattern used during the WWII period.
To provide a greater grip, typical experiments for the period were carried out, with double wheels and tyres fitted and with cleated tyre chains over these. The doubled wheels used a different wheel from standard, with a greater offset.
Drawbar and winch
The Hathi introduced a number of innovations that would become standard on military tractors in later years, including the well-known Scammells.
The rear towing draw-bar consisted of a multiple-leaf horizontal leaf spring, spanning the rear chassis rails. This coupled the towing forces directly into the chassis, but also allowed jolts to be cushioned.
When winching, the Hathi was fitted with chassis-mounted scotches that hinged down to hold the vehicle in place against the ground. These were stronger than chocking the wheels, quicker to deploy and also carried the winching forces directlyinto the chassis, rather than through the suspension. These were an innovation of the production Hathi, the prototype vehicle instead having used a precarious arrangement of wheel ramps that lifted the rear of the vehicle off the ground.
A single 6×6 Hathi was produced as an experiment. This was a new build vehicle, with a redesigned chassis. Once again, this was produced by P Company of the RASC Experimental Department. It was tested by the MWEE in May 1928. Double wheels were used with optional chains. As would later be used on other 6×4 vehicles, the single rear chains spanned both axles.
Although successful in its trials, the 6×6 bogie suspension was the victim of its own success. The WD's development of its patented rear bogie suspension allowed 6×4 vehicles to be built on a commercial chassis, avoiding the complexity of the Hathi's driven front axle. Such vehicles had almost as good cross-country performance as the all-wheel-drive 6×6, but at lower cost and with the use of mass production commercial lorry factories, not military vehicle specialists.
The Royal Marines also tested a single example of a half-track Hathi conversion, using tracks by the Roadless company. This was a relatively simple conversion, a Roadless speciality, using the existing rear axle of the Hathi as a combined drive sprocket and road wheel, with a two-wheel bogie and roadwheel idler ahead of this.
Use as a breakdown recovery vehicle
In 1926, at least one Hathi was converted as a breakdown recovery vehicle. A fixed jib with a small hand-operated winch was mounted on the rear deck, with the frame for a canvas tilt over it. Other examples were converted for the RAF and the Royal Navy, a naval example from Portsmouth Dockyard being the survivor today.
Eight Hathi gun tractors were procured in 1925 with Inspector General Chauvel proclaiming that "mechanization has been effected".
They were being used in the early 1930s in Northern Australia.
Hathi were still in reserve service in Australia in 1945.
- FWD, a contemporary maker of four-wheel drive lorries
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