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Gordon was built by Sir Nigel Gresley at Doncaster Works in April 1922 as an A1 with a GNR eight-wheeled tender and green livery on the Other Railway, but when he arrived on Sodor with a spare boiler and firebox later that year he was painted in the North Western Railway's blue livery.
He was built at Doncaster as an experimental prototype for Mr Nigel Gresley's 4-6-2 Pacific for the Great Northern Railway. Inevitably there were faults that needed correction so Gordon was kept hush hush and apart from test runs was never put into regular traffic or given a GNR number. He was used experimentally till all defects had been cured and the first batch of Pacifics had appeared in 1922/23. Therefore Gordon was no longer needed and was sold to the NWR along with a spare boiler and firebox.
Gordon had to be the prototype for the A1 Pacifics. He cannot be an existing locomotive like Great Northern, because he was never given a stock number or put into active traffic. He was a work in progress and had all defects cured, then the A1s were drawn up and built off the knowledge gained through his building and trials. He was sold as soon as the A1s were put into service, and therefore was not an active A1 Pacific.
Gordon is mainly used for passenger duties, pulling the North Western Railway's express, the "Wild Nor' Wester", but has occasionally pulled goods trains: he has been known to run into ditches and stop on hills to get out of doing these jobs, as he believes that these are below him.
In 1939, Gordon went to Crovan's Gate for a rebuild. His conjugated valve gear was replaced by a two-cylinder design, he received a smoother running plate (designed by the Fat Controller), Stanier underframes, "Black-5" wheels, cylinders, squared-off side windows, rectangular buffers and a six-wheel Fowler-style tender (probably flush-riveted 3500 Gallon type with horizontal strip removed). He is a Gresley/Stanier hybrid. Above the running plate he is Gresley, below it he is Stanier. This is the result of a heavy overhaul at Crewe in 1939. Gresley's conjugated valve gear had been giving endless trouble, so Topham Hatt persuaded Mr Stanier to substitute a 2 cylinder chassis of his own devising instead.
Gordon has become famous after his adventures: in 1953 he pulled Queen Elizabeth II's royal train and in 1956 he traveled to London, where he was lauded by a large crowd. Gordon did not like the visit, however, as he discovered that London's big station was St. Pancras.
In 1986, Gordon got to visit Carlisle when a diesel taking a Railtour failed.
From Tony Grigg’s notes on “The Island of Sodor”:
Number 4 “Gordon”
Gordon was an experimental engine, built by the Great Northern Railway (before the LNER was formed in 1923) in 1922 of which later became the class A3 Pacifics (4-6-2), of which the Flying Scotsman is the only other survivor. Having only been an experimental locomotive Gordon never received a number but was later rebuilt at Crewe and now has LMS under-parts. Shortly after arrival on Sodor, Gordon stalled on the large hill in the middle of the line, and hence its name.
Gordon has always been based at Tidmouth for working the Main Line, which he works with Henry, James, Bear, Donald and Douglas.
Tom Wright adds:
Gordon is said to have been rebuilt below the footplate to Stanier designs, his running plate being Hatt’s own design.
And Simon Martin & Sean O'Oconnor make a compelling case regarding Gordon's original locomotive build. Brilliantly researched and recommended reading: Gresley's A0 Pacific and the Origin of NWR's No. 4.
Gordon's important position as the engine who usually pulls the Express has made him proud, pompous and arrogant, with good reason, too; he is the strongest engine on Sodor after all. Gordon's philosophy "tender engines don't shunt" meant that he looked down on tank engines and tender engines who do shunt, but after being locked in the shed with Henry and James after going on strike he seems to have abandoned this philosophy.
Because of his rank in the social order of the North Western Railway, Gordon expects to get the important jobs and either sulks when he doesn't, or gets jealous of those who do. Sometimes, Gordon acts as a bully, particularly towards Edward, but following mis-adventures where Edward had to help him, Gordon had to acknowledge that despite being old, Edward is still a very useful engine.
Sometimes Gordon shows a kinder side and gives the younger engines advice, usually after he has had some mishap as a result of his foolhardiness. Some of his advice isn't exactly honest, though, as James and Sir Handel have discovered!
According to Sodor "historian" Martin Clutterbuck, Gordon is supposed to be an experimental prototype for Sir Nigel Gresley's A1 "Pacific" design for the GNR. Gordon was then built at Doncaster Works, Yorkshire, and tested against a similar NER Pacific in 1923. Gordon, being an experimental engine, never received a number, and was later rebuilt at Crewe with LMS underparts, new curving footplate, unique square buffers, Stanier two-cylinder motion and Walaschaerts valve gear (check crosshead in two slide bars) and a six-wheel LMS-style tender to replace his eight-wheel GNR tender, owning to various problems. Gordon has since been rebuilt below the footplate according to Stanier designs, his running plate being Sir Topham Hatt's own design.
Before his 1939 rebuild, Gordon had a Gresley 180psi tapered boiler, Gresley standard cab, Gresley curved running plate, Gresley 3 cylinder 20x26in, middle elevated cylinder arrangement, 35ft 6in wheelbase, standard Gresley 8-wheel tender and Gresley conjugated valve gear. Since his 1939, he has Gresley 220psi boiler, Gresley standard cab, Gresley/Stanier hybrid curved running plate, Hatt 2 cylinder, 20x28in cylinder arrangement, 35ft 6in wheelbase, Fowler 6-wheel tender and Stephenson valve gear.
Gordon is painted NWR blue with NWR red-and-yellow lining and the number "4" painted on his cab sides and the letters "NWR" on his tender sides in yellow. Before arriving on Sodor, he was painted Doncaster green with white and black lining. He carries his number in gold figure on his bufferbeam.