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George Sayell

How not to build a model car body. A light-hearted look at a project that didn’t go to plan.

After meeting Peter Hill and colleagues at Old Warden in 1997 I decided I wanted to participate in tethered cars and built the Masco Kitten based car, now famous and known worldwide as ‘Girl Power’. A full account of this was published in the Retro Racing Club magazine no. 17 (July 2000).

My next car was to be based on the Vic Smeed ‘Scorcher’ design, but again re-designed to avoid wherever possible the use of wood in the construction and with an aluminium U section chassis. This project was almost immediately put on the back burner when in 2000 Peter left Souldrop. The opening of his new track at Great Carlton gave an immediate impetus to complete this car. The rolling chassis, powered by a D.C. Spitfire, was completed and trials commenced. During the early development I found that with rear wheel drive the vehicle was unstable, changing to front wheel drive cured this problem. This ‘car’ became a regular at Great Carlton proving to be ‘steady and reliable’ to the point of boring the crowds, much like its predecessor.

After a while comments were made, not least from ‘OnThe Wire’, that it needed a body. This fact had not escaped me.

My first thought, based on my experience with Girl Power, was to use an Aluminium/Dural sheet of suitable thickness with the intention of making a one-piece body whilst avoiding joints, as my experience of soldering aluminium with Girl Power was not encouraging, having nearly reduced the metal to ashes. The chassis length-width proportions ruled out a single seat racing car design, and so I decided to style it along the lines of the aero-engined specials.

Many hours were spent on the CAD (1957 vintage) laying out designs. Many packets of cornflakes were consumed in order to build card mock-ups and each design rejected on the basis of aesthetics.

My limited experience of attempting to panel beat Dural and not having a source of soft aluminium necessitated ‘thinking outside the box’. I boldly decided to make a one-piece body using fibreglass, somewhat reluctantly when thinking back to my kit-car days and the somewhat grotesque appearance of certain marques.

The normal procedure is to make a full-size model of the outside of the finished article, make a mould from it and then produce the body from that with gels, releasing agents, etc. As my body was to be a sliding fit over the chassis some skill would be needed to ensure the thickness was within the required tolerance. I also felt that this ‘longwinded’ procedure was more suited to a production run than a ‘one-off’.

As ever I was sure I could find a better way and had one of my sometimes brilliant but more often misguided ideas. Why not make a wooden model of the inside of the body and fibreglass over it, with one thin skim of P38 lightly sanded, and finally painted?

How simple it sounded! I discussed it with my good friend and fellow tether car enthusiast Pete Hughes and we both decided this was the perfect solution to the problem, quick and simple. (I was later to learn from an article in Retro Racing Club magazine no. 16 (April 2000) that this was tried in 1957).

No more CAD, I just built up a wood block to the general shape, such that it would encompass the engine and other mechanics, and set about carving it. The style was to be similar to the Napier 24L Bentley racing car I used to see at the VSCC race meetings, a large single seater with a ridiculous engine.

Having finished the block I had to consider how I was going to release the mould from the block. There were 2 ways of doing this; greasing the block, or covering it with the plastic of a Sainsbury’s shopping bag. Engineering trials were carried out by fibreglassing over pieces of wood prepared by each idea and also with a third piece both greased and covered.

All ideas were successful and it was decided to both grease and cover the body block, a belt and braces approach and a rather messy way of doing it. In order to release the mould from the block I also had to consider the shape. The block was fixed to a base plate and a number of cuts made so that sections could be removed in turn after the fibreglassing operation. So far so good.

In keeping with the style an aero-engine exhaust system was needed. Brass manifolds and stubs were soldered up. Support plates for these were made and fixed to the wooden block to be included in the fibreglassing.

To say that the fibreglassing did not go to plan would be a gross understatement. The material did not readily ‘stick’ to the plastic, it did not readily mould itself round the corners or into the cockpit cavity, the grease was everywhere and a level of frustration set in.

In covering the block in stages some areas received more material than others and it became evidently clear the mould would require more than the expected thin skim of P38! Encouragement from my good friend gave me the fortitude to persevere and I plodded on.

Eventually it was time to separate the mould from the block. By removing the block in sections this was easily achieved, the belt and braces ‘releasing agents’ had worked.

The nascent body was a sorry sight, the shape had been lost, it was uneven and far from attractive, but one which fitted the chassis perfectly. All was not lost.

During the fibreglassing stage we had visited the Bristol Model Engineering Society show at Thornbury. On one stand was a large wooden block in the process of being finished as a Bentley body by an elderly gentleman. I asked him about panel beating to learn that he was going to make a beaten copper body, "It’s easier to join, simply solder it in parts". He also advised me that my fibre-glassing problems were caused by not using sufficient resin with the matting. How I wished I’d met him earlier!

Many hours were spent in the garage, alternatively putting on layers of P38 and then sanding them off until in time a reasonably presentable body was achieved. Then, on ‘final’ sanding, another problem became evident, there were surface pinholes! Initially these were treated by another coat of P38 and further sanding but it became obvious the problem was ‘deeper’ than that. Investigation revealed that the pinholes led to large soft cavities, again a result of faults in the fibreglassing. Each of these had to be excavated, treated with resin and re-finished.

Finally a presentable shape and surface emerged. A brass radiator surround and grill were then made and preparatory fitting carried out. These, and other adornments were to be installed after painting. Aluminium lugs for body/chassis retention were fitted and at last it was ready for painting.

Having done repairs to car bodies and built a kit-car I decided to stick with automotive finishes and made a trip to Halfords to purchase Grey Primer and Paint aerosols. After many coats of primer, rubbing down between coats and then several coats of bright yellow (a Rover colour) a reasonable finish was obtained. All I had to do now was to apply decals and fuel proof, then install the fittings.

The jinx returned with a vengeance! The first coat of the two-part mix of Aerokote Gloss went on well. This was rubbed down and the second coat applied. Inexplicably this reacted with the first coat causing a ‘cracked’ finish. So yet more rubbing down and the big decision ‘where do I go from here’? I decided to give a 3rd coat, expecting the inevitable but giving more finish for the final rub down and polish with Brasso. This improved the surface and many hours were then spent with Brasso and elbow grease to give a reasonable result.

All that was left to do was fitting out which did not give any more problems.

The body went straight onto the chassis and the car was then ready for sign-off by the Chief Engineer and ‘shakedown’ tests.  The completed body is readily taken off the chassis for servicing and refuelling. It weighs 480gms, giving a total all up weight of 1400gms. I have named the car NIKE after the Greek Goddess of Victory, and it becomes a fitting stable mate to Girl Power.

Having completed the project, which took many more hours than expected, would I do it again? There are two answers to this question:

Yes, it is a perfectly feasible method. The problems were caused by not using sufficient resin with the matting and in compatibility of materials in the finishing.

No! Despite using a simple mask I probably breathed in sufficient fibreglass and P38 dust during sanding to cause serious lung problems in 30 years’ time, not to mention the effect of the fumes!

But, I still have the wood block. Supposing I were to purchase some copper sheet and suitable tools, I could make another body in polished copper…….

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