Meccano model of epic proportions

ENGINEER'S DREAM: Graham Shepherd and his Meccano machine
ENGINEER’S DREAM: Graham Shepherd and his Meccano machine

IMAGINE having the single largest land vehicle on earth in your living space. Rhodes University retired maths lecturer Graham Shepherd’s family know how it feels.

For the past half-decade, the world’s largest Meccano model of the monstrous German-built Krupp Bagger 288 bucket-wheel excavator has been under construction in their Grahamstown home.

One car was evicted from their double garage for part of the construction, while their lounge, dining and television areas were slowly taken over by the unbelievable hulk of a contraption.

Happily the fantastical Meccano version of the real- life 13500-ton Leviathan machine – which is reportedly 96m high and 220m long – is a one-in-18 model.

Even so, the high-ceilinged home only just accommodates the towering 5.2m-high structure that stretches about 12.5m across their thankfully open-plan living spaces.

“It was a bit mad,” Shepherd admits. “But I wanted a challenge for my retirement.”

And a challenge it proved to be.

If he had used original Meccano parts, he says it would have cost him about R2-million. So instead he made about 99% of the parts himself at about a tenth of the cost. But the parts are faithfully identical to Meccano. It required that he have about 40000 mild steel pieces laser-cut for him.

He then painstakingly precision-drilled about one million holes into the parts – the equivalent of drilling through about 1km of steel. “I drilled, cleaned and painted the parts for over a year.”

During the five-year erection process he used about 75000 bolts, the same number of washers and about 85000 nuts.

Finally a team of 11 volunteers helped put the large assembled arms and bucket wheel onto the main assemblage.

Perhaps the most astonishing thing of all is that the model is a working one and functions exactly as the original.

The real Bagger 288 uses its eight-storey-tall impeller to excavate up to 240000 tons of German coal a day – which is then conveyed via conveyor belts to feed power plants.

That was enough coal to fill a line of trucks stretching the 200km from Grahamstown to Jeffreys Bay, Shepherd said.

His model is neatly lined with electrical cables linked to a control panel. The bucket wheel with its 90 scoops turns, the conveyor belts hum along, and the cranes actually work. Even the 10 crawlers are faithful to the real thing – and can transport the 1300kg machine across the floor.

So what do you do with such a magnificent machine? Shepherd is hoping to sell it to Meccano or perhaps Krupp. If he does, it will be disassembled into manageable parts, crated and sent to its destination.

In the meantime, the celebrity of his model has spread across the world and has featured on Meccano social networking sites, in Meccano magazines and in popular media.

His next retirement project will probably prove far more acceptable to his accommodating wife Eileen and the rest of the family. “I am going to remodel our dated kitchen.” – Adrienne Carlisle

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