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'Vamp' A Pitbox special

The discovery of a vintage hydroplane is always exciting, but unless there is some feature that can positively identify it, then origins, builder and past can only be guessed at. A name gives that extra level of anticipation, as there is always a chance that it will provide a key to unlocking the past of the particular boat. The delightful tradition of naming tethered cars and boats gave an identity to each that could usually be followed through magazine articles, results and photographs. While the cars became anonymous relatively quickly, it was not until the late 60s and early 70s that the bulk of boats lost their names. The name was to provide the key in this case.

In 2007, Alan Thompson, Chairman of the South Shield Model Yacht Club, sent a set of photographs of a lovely vintage single step hydroplane called ‘Vamp’. From elements of the design of the hull and engine, it appeared to date from around the very early 1930s and the motor seemed to be a water-cooled version of one of the ‘Grayson’ variants. The known history of the boat then conspired to misdirect research until one of those ‘chance happenings’. On a recent visit to MPBA historian, Peter Hill, we were trawling through a sheaf of papers and amongst them was a photocopied picture of ‘Vamp’. Peter’s extensive knowledge and archives were to provide the  identify of this superb boat.

During the late 1920s and through the 30s the South London Experimental Power Boat Club, along with Victoria MSC was a hotbed for tethered hydroplane racing and development. Prominent members included Lionel French, Fred Ford, Harry Sharvell, Mr Oakley, a certain Edgar Westbury and a Mr Sharp.

F.N. Sharp competed for many years, regularly featuring in results and the ME Speedboat Competition. His scow ‘Mona’ was the best known of his boats, both for its success in the ME competition and subsequent theft, along with its engine, but an earlier, less well known boat was none other than ‘Vamp’. Although a regular competitor, Sharp was better known for work with engines, with many of his fellow club members and numerous others around the country using motors built or inspired by him.

In the late 1920s Sharp was building engines from castings provided by Economic Electric of Fitzroy Square London. In September 1930, Model Engineer published an article by him with a detailed description of how to build one of these 25cc OHV type B6a single cylinder four-strokes from the EE castings. To illustrate the article he used two of his boats, ‘Zulu’ with an air-cooled version of the motor, and ‘Vamp’ with the water-cooled variant. Also included are a number of trophies and prizes, presumably won by these two boats. This was the confirmation that the boat from South Shields was indeed the original ‘Vamp’ built by F.N. Sharp.

The date of the article would infer that ‘Vamp’ was built around 1928/29 and the photos show that it has remained unchanged since then. It still has the water-cooled motor and even the ‘snubber’ on the bow. It seems likely that ‘Vamp’ would have been used primarily for straight course or steering events and ‘Zulu’ for ‘round the pole’, but until speeds became excessive, many boats were used for both events and certainly 'Vamp' has a tether plate just above the name.

The original identification of the engine as a Grayson variant was not far out, as Sharpe became Chief Designer to Gray’s of Clerkenwell who, in the 1930s, marketed the engine as the 'Grayson' in 25cc and 30cc versions. The motor then predates the 'Grayson' significantly as it is an original Sharp.

Late in 1929, an identical motor was marketed by Bond’s as the ‘Super Boat Engine’ and by Gamages in the water-cooled form, but whether this was early badge engineering and who was actually manufacturing the motors is not known.

In the photograph from Model Engineer, Zulu is shown with a conventional carburettor and float chamber while Vamp has the earlier surface carburettor with a very long intake pipe. Also to be seen in 'Vamp' is a large wooden cased trembler coil and these features indicate that the engine is a very early model and that 'Vamp' could be even earlier than believed.

Left: Surface carburetter, petrol evaporates in the lower chamber and is then sucked up the long black inlet tube. Throttle control via a strangler on the bottom end of the tube and is rotated by the red control wire.

Right: Ignition advance and retard is the primary control on a spark engine. The contact breaker is moved via the rod and lever with the notched quadrant setting the degree of advance.

Cooling water is circulated by a pump, that is gear driven from the prop shaft.

‘Vamp’ now joins Chrysis as a survivor from the 20s, with the advantage that it still has its original engine, and is far better preserved. It has to be one of the most significant discoveries in a long while, and for OTW it has been a great thrill to be able to identify the boat and piece together some of its history. There is every intention that ‘Vamp’ will again take to the water at some stage, which would be a remarkable achievement as it would certainly be the oldest tethered hydroplane in running condition.