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Too much time to ponder, a lockdown saga?

As one of the longstanding hydroplane drivers used to ask during an evening round the campfire, do you want a story or a saga luv? Inevitably it was a long and involved tale, suitably embellished along the way that would keep us amused well into the night. What follows might not provide such a degree of amusement as it is reflecting on a quite extraordinary twelve months that shows every sign of not being over yet?

2020 did not start too well, with funerals of two fellow enthusiasts in quick succession and deteriorated progressively as event after event was being cancelled, even before the first lockdown was imposed. Ironic really as we were better prepared than ever before, knowing that it was going to be a busy season. In the end, it was cancelling bookings and trying to get refunds that kept us busy and the only mileage we did was on foot with our allowed exercise each day. One aspect that had not been anticipated was that three sessions of lockdown, and a period of very restricted activity in the summer would allow almost unlimited workshop time, imagine even suggesting that previously? Yet, a year on and that was what transpired, and not a guilty conscience for the time spent at the bench.

With Covid 19 not even having entered our lexicon and knowing how many trips and events were planned, I had started work as soon as the previous season had ended to ensure that everything was up to date, completing all the routine maintenance, preparing the cars and boats, even making up the new bridles. This included putting the 10cc Denneler on a diet to get it down to class weight with the new 5mm bridle, sorting out the massive bodge that had been wrought on the crankshaft and bearings of the ‘fast lady's’ aged Swedish 1.5cc car and some remedial work on my Class 3 CMB that persisted in shedding its flywheel at every given opportunity.

There is a continuous ebb and flow of projects in the workshop, although in itself that is a grandiose term. I can identify myself with such luminaries as Ian Moore and Jack Gascoigne, along with all the others that used to appear in ME having no garage, shed or dedicated workshop area yet produced remarkable work with the most limited facilities, not that mine is as remarkable.

Tethered car or boat projects never come neatly packaged with all parts needed, neatly arranged, so the advancement of any particular project is entirely dependent on sourcing original parts or suitable alternatives, and if neither are to be found, making something appropriate. The lack of a body had held up completion of the last project that the late Dick Roberts was working on before ill health forced him to sell up, but as if by magic, John Goodall appeared at Peter Hill’s with one that looked about right and indeed, did fit, so that was another stalled project completed.

As the days shortened this was the state as just four possible projects remained on the shelf for the entire winter, all missing vital elements. The Salomon Killer car described previously needed an engine, but again John Goodall came to the rescue so that was back on track. A Redfin based car for Buckminster was a rough plan lurking in the back of my mind whilst two of John Goodall’s pan and body sets were just that with nothing to put in or on them, more than adequate to get through a normal winter, although six cars in total over four months might seem a tall order to some?

Gary Barnes Railton, Yellow Jacket power The 'Killer' 'Scrap Box Special'

Well, unlike a steam loco that can take anything from 1,000 hours to thirty years and still counting to complete, my engineering instructors instilled in us all a combination of speed and accuracy that I have maintained, although speed is now a relative term with a Unimat lathe and equally small Emcomat mill. The speed of production still comes through doing all the thinking at other times so that by the time I am at the bench I have a pretty good idea of what I am going to do, even to the extent of having a drawing, or more likely a very rough sketch. Some may find this hard to understand, but as an engineering student, our tutor used to involve us in all sorts of competitions that involved design, methods of production and speed of production. On one occasion he procured enough Stuart Turner 10V casting sets for the whole group and challenged us to see how quickly we could have one completed and running. He went home on Friday evening and by Monday morning; most of them were finished, actual time a shade under 18 hours, and that included a coat of paint and some lining.

A set of replica 2.5cc ZN body shells presented a similarly lightweight challenge. The Eureka transplant described in a Track Day Special released the PAW twinshaft for reallocation to this car where the most difficult job was drilling the fixing holes in the pan to match up with those in the mount, as the intake side of the engine is longer than the slave side. There is a drastic shortage of wheels and tyres at present, but the postal service from Latvia is superb so a quick call to Pavel and these were on hand. So, less than four days later and undercutting the 10V by nearly four hours in workshop time it was painted, and it is difficult to see how I could have spent any more time on it?

The 5cc ZN was a bit more time consuming, just as well given what was transpiring. The only real difficulty with this car is that the top of the body is in two pieces with the front half welded on permanently.

This means that holes have to be cut in the sides of the body to finangle the axle through and this is a drop axle so it has to be attached to a mount with absolutely no way of marking anything out accurately. The originals were all pre drilled as were the supplied axle and mount. I have seen one original ZN where the owner became so frustrated at this process that he cut monster holes for the axle to slide straight through in one piece. Probably the longest job on any car now is the tank but with a Broadbent folder and a set of mini benders it is a doddle, unless of course it is tapered in two directions and has curved sides as well, but I will come to that later.

As related in a past Retro Reprint, standing for eight hours a day sticking packets of giblets up chickens bums or invigilating exams for five hours allows plenty of thinking time, so by the time the second ZN was complete the design of the Redfin was clear, even having done a bit of geometry for front suspension. Observing some of the earlier antics of twinshaft cars I decided to make the chassis much longer and then I added a bit more for luck. Front suspension with a damper was essential and then how to make a chassis that was rigid enough yet gave enough ground clearance? Now having said that I work fast, that does not mean that I take an easy way out, in fact often it is the reverse as I will often look for a more complicated solution if I feel it is more effective, elegant or in keeping or just plain perverse. Hence the Redfin car started out as a 8mm thick piece of aluminium plate milled out to just 4mm with a ball nosed cutter to provide sufficient webs and ribs. Now, if a ZN is quick, a plate chassis twinshaft is even quicker, partly because holding it for drilling, tapping or machining does not require any ingenious or time consuming set-ups. Now I have to own up to my bete noir, body work, I hate it, don’t have the facilities or materials, anything remotely smelly has to be done outdoors so relies on fine, warm and windless weather, not unduly common in this neck of the woods. So, unless I can do it in balsa or metal it tends to get left or sub contracted. As our diesel fuel is a bulk can that resides at Gt Carlton there was no chance to see if the motor would start, although most reports seem to comment on how easy it was, but the storm clouds were gathering.

Replica 2.5cc ZN PAW twinshaft Replica 5cc ZN ETA 29 Redfin based Buckminster car

Our first 10-day event in France had already been cancelled by the time we headed off to the FEMA car inspection and registration day, and as we are all too well aware, a week later we were into Lockdown 1. Suddenly, there were another three months of uninterrupted workshop time and very little on the bench. The daily exercise route did occupy a couple of hours a day, I know it was supposed to be just one but in the course of the three months we walked over 500miles, the car by comparison moved not an inch. Now desperation was setting in and the search for parts and possible projects gained momentum, was there anything at all left in the scrap box? The prevailing situation and results of the delving resulted in the Wasp like creation was described in the ‘Lament from a Lockdown Workshop’ and then a series of coincidences had parts arriving from all directions. Sadly, most of these were from the collections of our departed colleagues, being sold off, either on ebay or via personal contact, but oddly, one was a more or less complete car that I had sold many years ago and was able to buy back off ebay for much less than I had sold it for originally, so this became a donor for the ZN 5cc.

Prior to the first lockdown period I had been having long conversations with Peter Hill who had been tasked with disposing of the late Keith Bragg’s entire collection and workshop. Most of the complete cars, trains and a good many collectable engines had already gone as they represented significant sums, but what there was left were a large number of part completed and odd collections of items that had been earmarked for projects, but never got much beyond that stage. Only one of these was a tethered car, an Auto Union that had not progressed further than a body and a selection of bits, so that was added to my box awaiting collection, as were a selection of books and magazines by the hundred. Peter’s calls were prefaced with an announcement that ‘I’ve just found----- and put in your box thinking you might be interested’. Amongst these was half a Dutch, live steam tram, a couple of Bowman boats, one in need of extensive renovation and a selection of bits for an IP, electric powered diesel shunter. Not at first glance of great interest, but what is not widely known is that as well as his foray into tethered car items in the 1990s, Ivan Prior’s prime business was kits for model locomotives, railcars, carriages and more. At one stage he produced a range of live steam locos and other industrial locos. For a short while he manufactured a small diesel shunter that had an OS 10 providing the urge and it was a replica of this model that the odd parts were for as well as a large bundle of photos of the original, so in the box these went as well.

Diesel (glow really) shunter Two exhausts? Dutch steam tram

Readers may wonder at this assortment, but with a dearth of specific car material then boats and trains are never far away as an interest, so as soon as restrictions allowed, it was a day trip to Gt Carlton and a car full of goodness knows what? Not really part of this story, but these did keep me occupied for a while as the techniques, materials and steam had not been explored for many a year, but here a few, very lucky quirks of fate and coincidences, came to the rescue. My collecting and building has very much concentrated on British cars from the 40s and early 50s, primarily because that is what plans, parts and renovations projects are available here. From the late 50s until 1979 there was no British involvement in international tethered car racing, so no examples of cars or parts from that period made it to the UK, yet as a ‘racing man’ it was this period of development that fascinated me.

In 1960 cars had wheels outside on almost totally rigid axles, and were of American, proto style with side exhaust engines. Ten years later it was streamliners with tuned pipe, rear exhaust motors, wheels inside the body and full suspension front and rear that were the norm, plentiful abroad, but again almost non existent here. In a conversation with my mentor in Switzerland he told me of a car that his father had bought in the 1960s with the intention of turning it into a tuned pipe car, but had never got roundtuit, would I be interested? A deal had been agreed but the cancellation of our Spring Tour meant that it could not be collected, but in a magnanimous gesture he said that he would mail it and hope it would get through customs. Remarkably, and despite the difficulties with the postal system at the time, the package arrived, along with a period MOKI S5. I had made the decision previously to keep it as a side exhaust motor, so game on.

Faced with a project like this where no plans exist and everything has to be fitted round what is already there it is a trawl of our archives and t’internet’ to see how similar cars have been built. What was obvious was that there was not a lot of room for anything, especially as it all had to be enclosed by a speed cowl type body, prevailing at the time. Not only that but there was a dearth of holes in the pan so all the additions had to match up with these. A quick measure of the crown wheel that was already fitted gave me a module of 1.5 and by a stroke of luck in the spares box was a pinion of the correct module and angle, result. Short work to make a collet and re-purpose an existing flywheel, but with no facility to run a Unimat in reverse, getting a good fit relies on a bit of trial and error. A trial fit of the motor revealed something extremely odd that took some figuring out. For some entirely and unknown reason, whoever had machined the pan originally had set the drive side bearing far deeper into the ear than the other side by nearly 1/8" offsetting the crown wheel by a similar amount. This meant that the engine would have to be on the skew with the gears meshed properly, couldn’t be right, could it? Set up the pan on the mill and sure enough, the mounting holes for the motor and the cut-out for the crankcase were machined at an angle, so this was the way it had always been. It would have required much welding and re-machining to rectify this, so that is how it is, gears mesh at a slight angle but run smoothly enough.

The time consuming bit was the fuel system and in particular the knock off. In the 60s there were were variety of devices in common use, the old fashioned rotary one, tube crushers and spring loaded piston style, the choice was dictated by how much space there was. Several cars of the period had the knock off within the fuel tank but in the end I could make a piston type that would fit in the very limited space. With such a close fitting body in mind, the fuel tank had to be tapered both in plan and side view and with rounded corners top and bottom on the outer side. Having been brought up in the days of tinplate work as a normal activity this was a bit fiddly but with a few basic dimensions fitted OK. Not a lot of room anywhere so the body had to be pretty tight fitting and having seen a Hungarian car with a body similar to what I envisaged the choice was either blue foam and GRP or carved Lime. With an inherent dislike of GRP it was the Lime and as most of my carving chisels have not seen a whetstone since retirement I resorted to my usual trick, machine it, so time for another short diversion methinks?

As a student in London I almost took up residence in the machine shop where we had every possible metalworking facility, but for our exhibitions we had to show the use of wood as well. Now some produced entire bedroom or dining room suites or similar, all exquisitely made to a standard I knew I could never match, but what I did have was engineering skills, so all my woodworking projects, large and small were produced using these techniques. The result, instead of hours of carving a block of lime it was on to the Emcomat and an hour with a ball nosed mill until the bottom half fitted the pan and all the internals. Next the speed cowl and a boring head produced the hole for the cylinder and a mill the basic streamlined shape. Already I can hear the howls from the traditionalists yet a bit of carving and sanding and there it was, ready for sealing and painting. Unusually, the pan was already painted so this was retained and for the top I went for Swiss red but it needed some identification so with a little trepidation I asked if I might use the original owners SMCC number. Having gained permission for this I decided to add his name as a tribute to both him and a project that had been waiting to be completed for around fifty plus years.