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Although based at Sowton Trading Estate, Vapormatic's roots are in Budleigh Salterton. Ron Foster an engineer who had designed and developed a device to convert tractor petrol engines to run TVO or tractor vaporising oil, a form of kerosene, joined forces with Arthur E Lea, a former Shell Sales Executive to manufacture and market the device. The 'Vapormatic' conversion kit could be retro fitted to the engine, reducing the cost of fuel to run the tractor.
The push for greater agricultural output in the post war period meant farmers were keen to increase production, and converting their tractors to run on diesel was very cost effective, as TVO was available at a low rate of duty. The system worked by having two tanks of fuel for the tractor – the first contained petrol which was used to start the engine, which was then allowed to warm up. Once hot enough, the supply would be changed to the TVO through the conversion kit. One problem with the conversion was that if the engine cooled down for a tea break, it would have to be restarted with petrol.
The kits proved popular, and during the 1950's the company expanded by exporting around the world. New products were added, such as wing carriers for tractors, Matic plough shares, safety devices and various spare parts. Inevitably, as old tractors were replaced with new diesel machinery, the market for the conversion kit dropped towards the end of the 1950's. During the 1960's, the company developed an international network of dealers to supply spare parts for the many new tractors being purchased around the world. In 1963, The Vapormatic Co (Ireland) Ltd was opened in Dublin, and in 1964 they opened in France and Melbourne, Australia.
Investments were made in information technology with the introduction of an IBM System 3 computer in 1973. Soon, the company had outgrown its Budleigh Salterton site and a five acre, green field site at Sowton, adjacent to the M5 was purchased, and in 1977 a warehouse for the storage and distribution of parts, office accommodation and development areas was opened.
Colin Malcolm Brook, a former employee went into partnership with Pankhurst Engineering in Exmouth, in 1965, to make spare parts such as linkages and linch pins for tractors, under the name of Sparex. The business quickly became a success, and their range of products was expanded.
Grovewood Securities Ltd, part of the Eagle Star PLC purchased Sparex, and then in 1977 they acquired Vapormatic. In 1984, Eagle Star were taken over, in turn, by British American Tobacco.
In 1985, further warehousing was added to the site and Vapormatic Canada was formed, by purchasing the local Agriparts Canada. The machinations of company ownership rose again when Vapormatic became part of the Wolseley PLC in 1986 and the introduction of an improved stock keeping system. In 1987, the company won recognition by being awarded the Queen's Award for Export Achievement. Through the rest of the 80's and 1990's Vapormatic formed bases in Spain, the USA, Zimbabwe, and Mexico. Further investments in information technology have been made and contracts for supplying third party parts signed. In 2000, the company celebrated its 50th anniversary, of the first sales of Vapormatic conversion kits for tractors.
Sparex, are also still going strong from a site at Exeter Airport. They manufacture and provide over 25,000 different items for a large range of tractors and diggers, including parts for vintage tractors such as the Fordson.
Source: Vapormatic web history, various other websites, and conversation with Bill Nichols..
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