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'Hero' Rediscovered.

Jim Bamford and his boats

In the late 60s a young student in London bought a large boxful of Model Engineer magazines dating from the early postwar period. Being involved with hydroplane racing (life size that is) he absorbed every article, name and detail relating to tethered hydroplanes. Four of those names were permanently stored in his memory banks through their desire to ‘do things different’, and their work used as examples in essays, studies and tutorials. George Lines’ and ‘Sparky’, Stan Clifford with ‘Polyester’, Bert Stalham’s gorgeous supercharged vee twin engine and lastly Jim Bamford and his appropriately named flash steam hydro ‘Hero’. Each of these offered a radical approach to getting a hydroplane to run fast, which is what so fascinated that student.

Fast-forward 35 years, and an email to OTW from Jim Bamford’s son Rob brought these memories flooding back. Sadly ‘Hero’ had not survived the intervening years, but all Jim’s other boats and engines were still in existence, and would we like some photos? A fascinating selection of pictures and a great deal of help from Rob Bamford has enabled OTW to look back at the career and creations of Jim Bamford, a true flash steam enthusiast.

Although having no formal engineering training, serving four years with REME during the Second war working on tanks gave him the mechanical skills he was to put to such good use in his boats and engines. Jim Bamford worked initially for the Royal Aircraft establishment at Farnborough and after the war went on to the National Gas Turbine Establishment as a combustion scientist, which would explain his fascination with flash steam.

The involvement in tethered hydroplanes came after the motor cycle scrambling he had been pursuing started to prove too expensive. In September 1949 Jim attended his first ever regatta at Guildford and it was almost certainly there that he met Frank Jutton who was to be a lifelong friend, ally, inspiration and a total flash steam fanatic from the 30s onward. By 1950 the IC engined boats were unbeatable, but a few enthusiasts such as Frank, Bernard Piliner, Arthur Cockman and Bert Martin spent disproportionate amounts of time and effort in keeping flash steam hydros on the map and soon Jim was to join this small but elite band.

Jim was already fascinated by steam and decided that flash steam was to be the chosen route, but having taken stock of current practice he came to the conclusion that the reciprocating engines were far too noisy and a small steam turbine might prove significantly quieter and less obtrusive in a boat. After a great deal of research and investigation Jim set to and designed a power unit with a single wheel ‘de laval’ type turbine and a 4:1 reduction gear to cope with the predicted 60,000+ rpm, as well as a boiler and hull to suit. The result was ‘Hero’ named after Hero of Alexandria who proved the principle of the reaction turbine by building a working model some 2,500 years previously. Using his knowledge of combustion Jim also reasoned that the steam generators (boilers) currently in use were not efficient as they used up to three massive vapourising blowlamps blasting a wall of flame in to the boiler casing. He came up with a more subtle idea, which became attributed to him by name and with only minor alteration is still the method used on current flash steam hydroplanes. This was the ‘Bamford venturi boiler’. Instead of conventional blowlamps firing in to the open boiler casing he closed the front of the casing and made it into a venturi similar to a gas turbine engine and then had the fuel nipple pumping vapourised fuel into this opening which mixed with vast quantities of air and then burned inside the boiler case. The case was also shaped to allow the flames to expand round the coil before converging back to the exhaust. This was science versus brute force. The hull was hardly conventional either, being built of tin plate and a semi circular cross section with bolted on aluminium ‘ski’ type sponsons.

Diagram of 'Bamford venturi boiler'

Hero I in the 'dustbin' wind tunnel

Unfortunately flash steam hydroplanes are notoriously fickle and absorb hours of work experiment and cause endless frustration. Not only was Jim using the new boiler but he was also attempting to be the first to make a steam turbine work in a model hydro. He wrote extensively of the trials and tribulations of trying to get this combination to work but kept coming across the same problem. What worked well stationary on dry land could not be maintained on the water. Keeping the burner going at speed proved almost impossible so in an effort to overcome this difficulty he rigged up a wind tunnel in his shed door with Hero suspended horizontally in a drum and a fan driving off the prop shaft.

The continuing problems with the turbine proved too much and so Jim reverted to reciprocating engines for a while and proved the effectiveness of the boiler principle. ‘Hero’ always provided interest and excitement and occasionally would get Jim on to the results list, but the hull was marginal on buoyancy with the extra weight and usually ended up sinking at some stage. By the end of 1953 he was fed up with drying out the power plants and decided to have another look at a turbine but this time using the ‘Stumpf’ type blades. Whilst power might have been questionable, speed wasn’t as the turbine wheel burst on test destroying the whole engine so he promptly set to and built another complete turbine having it ready for its first test just after Christmas 1953. This engine looked more promising and Jim decided that it deserved a newer hull.

The new Hero was designed specifically to avoid excess lift and tendency to flip and instead of semi circular had a Vee cross-section. A wide planning wedge towards the bow and a small wedge at the stern did the business although bowing to pressure he did add sponsons for a while. This hull was made from 1/16th ply and reinforced to such a stage that Jim could hang his 12 stone from the boat when it was suspended form its bridles as he had "a morbid fear of the boat coming off the line".

The first trial of the new Hero took place in a small pond behind the house and what a trial it turned out to be! With everything at full pressure there was a blinding flash and Jim was dowsed in burning petrol/paraffin vapour. He fled up the bank of the pond followed by the boat "roaring like a jet plane". Realising he was ‘somewhat burned’ he put the fire out, dumped the boat in the shed and drove to the hospital for treatment.

He spent a week in the hospital wondering whether 400 hour of work had been negated, but ‘on escaping’, found that little damage had been done other than to the prop. The cause of all this was a brazed joint in the fuel line that had failed.

Trials soon continued, and for the first few regattas of the 54 season Jim plus safety goggles persevered with the turbine, ‘Hero’s both as John Benson captioned one photograph. Like the previous turbine, however it showed promise but would not run consistently so a conventional engine with piston valves replaced it by mid season.

At the Grand regatta of that year "Hero lapped at high speed throwing water 10ft in to the air but did not complete the run on either attempt."

After four years of unremitting effort Jim Bamford abandoned the turbine as a power unit and concentrated on reciprocating engines from then on. In his own words "while not achieving any success on water had a lot of fun". He was being far too modest, as he had actually achieved a great deal, with the first and only turbine ever to record runs in a tethered hydroplane.

His turbines ran consistently at 95,000+ rpm and reached a top speed of around 55mph with the best official ¼ mile run of 32mph at St Albans in 1954. A lasting legacy is the ‘Bamford venturi boiler’, which in tests he carried out managed to produce steam at around 3000 psi.

 Left: Hero II with vee-twin piston engine

It might be assumed that all the incredible amount of work involved with building the flash steam power plants and hulls would be enough to keep any one person occupied, but amazingly, while all this was going on, Jim also built a series of IC engines and boats which he raced alongside the two versions of Hero. His first was a very conventional scow type hull with additional aluminium ‘ski’ type sponsons. The power unit was a 15cc, single cylinder four stroke that he had built and the boat carried the initials JAB prominently on the bow. Although not numbered this was to be the first of three JAB boats.

Never one to be totally conventional Jim added a front ‘wing’ to the boat to try to counteract the lift produced by the very wide hull. Others were also experimenting with similar devices but quickly they were banned although no modern tethered hydro would run without a rear ‘wing’. JAB (1) was not spectacular, but reliable so the name Bamford appeared on result sheets more regularly than with Hero.

Wanting to be even more competitive a modern two stroke motor was then constructed, modelled on George Lines’ ‘Sparky’ design. A new and smaller scow hull, JAB 2, was built to house the much lighter two stroke, but by this stage the scow really was outdated as a competitive shape which led to Jim’s most distinctive and successful boat of the 50s JAB 3 or ‘Spikey’ as it was known to the family.

Applying the principles adopted for the second Hero the hull was two tapered vee sections joined at the engine bay. Viewed from the top, the boat resembled a squashed diamond with the bottom cut off. Solid sponsons on outriggers formed the front planning surface while the rear relied on the prop for support. The whole deck was absolutely flat although a formed aluminium coaming was added to the foredeck later to keep the water out of the intake. JAB 3 regularly recorded class wins and had numerous places to its credit. It soldiered on for many years long after it was outclassed, but kept winning through reliability and being able to handle rough water.

Jim did build a more advanced version of the engine with a twin piston arrangement for forced induction but the records cannot provide any information on its performance. His final IC motor was a 15cc twin two stroke engine for JAB 3, but to quote "it was all revs and no go", even when tried at a later date in a more modern hull. As a design, JAB 3 still remains one of the most unusual and intriguing boats of the 50s.

Although more successful with IC motors Jim Bamford’s ambition was still to be competitive with a flash steam boat so around 1960 he came up with a completely new boat ‘Beebug’. The hull was now a conventional three point hydro similar to virtually all the IC boats of the period although wider to accommodate the bulk of the steam plant. A vee twin reciprocating engine in the bow drove a conventional skeg mounted prop and three quarters of the boat was boiler.

Not his normal venturi boiler this time but a three burner variation with a parallel casing and unrestricted exhaust. With a more conventional hull, and burners at the stern, most of the previous problems were resolved and soon ‘Beebug’ was running faster and more reliably than either of the ‘Heros’ had ever done.

Beebug set up for a test on a water brake

By 1963 Jim had taken the British ‘A’ class record at 60.4 mph and was proving very difficult to beat. He won the Mears Trophy over 1000yds and the Crebbin Trophy was almost permanently resident in the Bamford household.

‘Beebug’ reigned supreme for much of the 60s but by early in the 70s a new boat was on the cards, but this time less conventional. ‘Inferno’ as the new boat was called, could not be described as pretty as it was an open, vee bottomed, plywood box with two aluminium ‘ski’ type sponsons bolted on the sides and two after sponsons at the rear. A single cylinder engine was placed just inside the transom driving a surface prop on an outrigger, a system that is now universal on every offshore racing powerboat, but first seen on tethered hydro’s 35 years ago.

The boiler was an even stranger affair with a burner and combustion tube almost a foot long before the circular boiler casing that led to a gapingly large exhaust. ‘Inferno’ was well on the way to matching speeds obtained with ‘Beebug’ when Jim gave up racing. Like several others at the time he was not happy with the introduction of piano wire lines instead of flax and his worst fears were realised at Wicksteed Park when JAB 3 broke loose and injured a spectator.

After some 25 years of intense building, experimentation and competition with tethered hydroplanes, interest waned and Jim Bamford hung up his waders. He continued to work with steam but through model engineering, building a steam lorry and a ‘Sweet Pea’ locomotive that he ran on the track at Guildford.

Originally Jim belonged to the Aldershot Club and his boats carried the prestigious AT 1 registration but he later became an integral part of the Kingfisher Club that was formed in the early 70s and created its own pond and facility behind the Old Ford Pub in Aldershot. Sadly Jim did not have too long to enjoy the more relaxed type of steam activity as he died in 1984 aged just 63.

Right: From top Hero II : Hero I : JAB III : JAB II : JAB (I)

Too often the relics of a career in racing are dispersed, or even worse, destroyed, but fortunately Jim’s son Rob was not only interested in tethered hydro’s and flash steam but positively enthusiastic to the extent that most of the boats and engines described have been preserved in the family with a view to having them all running at some stage. Rob did attempt to run ‘Inferno’ but it proved too temperamental so he then set to and built an ‘A’ class steamer of his own. Pressure of work precluded too much development with this boat, but by way of a diversion he then produced a ‘C’ class steamer, which must be the most difficult of all the disciplines to succeed with. It is to be hoped that time will allow Rob Bamford to restore all the boats to running condition as well as complete the development of his own ideas.

Edgar Westbury apologising for delay in
sending 1954 ME medal & certificate

Letter accompanying record certificate &
mentioning Crebbin Trophy plinth

'A' Class Record 60.4mph on 6th Oct. 1963 with Beebug

OTW is indebted to Rob Bamford for all the information and photographs that made this article possible and the ‘young student’ is equally grateful for the chance to rekindle his interest in Jim Bamford’s boats.

Jim Bamford and his engines

OTW recently had the pleasure of visiting Rob Bamford who gave us a conducted tour of his father's many boats and engines. The following pictures give a detailed look at the huge variety of engines produced and illustrate the high quality of engineering evident throughout. Thanks to Rob for his time and patience in giving us this insight into one man's passion for tethered hydroplane racing.

Jim Bamford expended a great deal of time and energy trying to build successful and competitive Flash steam hydro's powered by turbines. If the turbines failed to produce the speeds expected he would  remove them and run the boats with conventional reciprocating engines. Jim would devote just as much time and thought to developing these and ultimately they were to prove faster than the turbines.

All the turbines were based on a single rotor, often with multiple steam jets. With the turbines running at 100,000+ RPM, reduction gearing was necessary to run the prop at realistic revs while  the fuel and water pumps required an even slower speed to work effectively. This unit was used in the second 'Hero'

The deLaval turbine disc required each blade to be cut precisely and Jim used an ingenious piece of machine tooling to create these. The rotors needed to be perfectly balanced and the bearings friction free. This is one of many rotors that Jim produced during his experimentation.


In 1953 Jim changed tack and tried a 'Stumpf' type rotor with the blades milled directly into the edge of the disc. The rotors were far easier to make but were not as effective as the deLaval. Both types lacked efficiency as they relied on steam velocity rather than expansion.

 Remains of the casing after the 'Stumpf' rotor exploded at high speed.

In between the forays with turbines Jim would try conventional reciprocating engines. These were more established and gave more reliable running. This unit is an open  crank uniflow type with a piston valve inlet. Large gear is for running pumps at reduced speed.


Jim's most successful flash steam engine was this vee twin used in Beebug to take the British Record. The complex fuel, water and priming pumps required on a flash steamer can clearly be seen here.
This engine is seen on the cover of 'Experimental Flash Steam' (Benson & Rayman).

The 'venturi boiler', all that is left of 'Hero 1 or 2'.

The burner is at the left with exhaust at the right.

Jim Bamford's experimental nature is also evident with the IC engines that he built and raced as a distraction from the problems encountered with the flash steamers.

15cc OHV four stroke originally powered JAB 1 and  for a while, JAB 2. Engine is machined from bar stock. Camshaft, contact breaker, oil and fuel pumps are across the rear of the crankcase driven by skew gears from the crankshaft. Oil tank below the motor. Parallel valves restrict combustion chamber development.

Surely the most common of home built racing engines is the 15cc, rear rotary valve two stroke motor  based on George Lines' 'Sparky II'  This version, now in JAB 3, has 360 degree inlet and exhaust porting. Some idea of the unconventional hull design can be seen here.


Twins have never found particular favour in tethered boats as the power characteristics are not suited. This inline version featured porting based on a Maico moto cross motor that turned out to be too extreme for boat use. It is seen here in a later '3 point' hull in an attempt to overcome problems in getting the boat away.

Experimental 'split single'. This motor has a second cylinder, seen here to the left that forces the charge into the power cylinder rather than relying on the crankcase compression. Principle was used on racing motor-cycle engines but frictional losses probably outweigh any gains in the smaller size.

Update:  August 2014 Thanks to Rob for copies of MPBA letters above. Additional original photos courtesy of the Westbury family