Kurt Johannsen, Engineer Extraordinaire


The late Kurt Johannsen of Alice Springs ran a trucking service through the outback of Central Australia in the 1950’s. It was a trucking service with a difference, and that difference was Big Bertha, a Diamond T International ex Australian Army truck towing several “Self -Tracking” trailers over a narrow, winding bush road, loaded with 700 empty fuel drums and was really a sight to see.

He was contracted to the Shell Company to pick up all the empty 44 gallon fuel drums in the outlying station properties and return them to the Shell Depot in the Alice. In those days (C1950) the station Owners/Managers would pick up several drums of Petrol and Diesoline, then load their rations for the next month on top of them. In spite of the £ 2.00 (2 Pound) deposit on each drum, they were very seldom returned to the depot by the station, which resulted in a drum shortage.

The Diamond T was a bit different to the original unit built by International, it had a Gardiner Diesel motor and a greatly extended chassis Kurt’s development of the “Self Tracking” system is now used all around the world where road trains are used.

His other engineering feats include,

  • Concentrating Copper Ore at Jervois Range using evapourative vats when he found that the rail freight on the copper ore cost more than the price he got for the ore. The ore was dissolved in acid and the liquid pumped into a shallow, wide tank, where the natural evpouration rate of up to 1 inch (25mm) per day did the job for him. The blue crystals of pure copper sulphate were then packed into drums and railed to Adelaide.
  • He built a working Gas Producer that made its own Charcoal from wood from the side of the road, he always maintained that all he needed for travelling was a saw or a hatchet as there was always dead wood available close to the roads.
  • The big American Station Sedan with the gas producer on the back was also altered with Kurt’s genious. He built a self contained, fold-out, fly-meshed, kitchen/living/sleeping area, which tucked away into the rear of the vehicle, then the big rear door with the gas producer was shut, giving no indication as to the real nature of the car.
  • During the Lasseter’s Reef period he took off from Alice Springs in his Tiger Moth to do some searching himself but on landing at a pre-organised fuel dump on a claypan he hit an anthill and splintered the propellor. He removed the prop and trimmed the splintered end with a hatchet, then had to trim the other end until he had the prop balanced on a screw driver. Realising that he would have less thrust, he took off on full revs, well over the safe level, used up all of the clay pan and just made it into the air, and a low level return to the Alice.

Big Bertha and the Gas Producer & Station Sedan can be seen at the Transport Museum in the Alice, and the Modified Propellor, alongside a standard one, at the Air Museum, and you’ll marvel at the difference.


Source by Pete Rumball

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