2008 Celebrating 100 years of tethered hydroplane racing
View from the Pylon
In best ‘Top Gear’ tradition we start with the news, and unlike the type you get at 6.00pm it is thoroughly good. At the very end of October, the concrete was poured for a new tethered car track in the UK. At last there will be a chance to try out all those builds and restorations that have gone on over the years since the closure of the ‘Souldrop Raceway’. Details of the new track are in the latest edition of the Retro Racing Club newsletter, and it can also be viewed from space via Google Earth (if you know where to look?).
‘Super sleuth’ Gary Maslin alerted us to the sale of two very valuable cars
from the ‘Pioneer Club’ days, including one of the most significant British
tethered cars that has come onto the market in a long while (although he didn’t
realise it at the time). The first was Lucy Gascoigne’s MG record breaker and
the second, Jack Morgan’s Vixen. Each of these cars and their racing record has
been documented in detail and their provenance is impeccable up until 2006, and
it is doubtful if there will be any more important British cars than these
offered for sale in the near future. Further details and photo’s next month.
Stop Press- Just over £1,300 each, a shock result (except for the lucky purchasers).
Since 1908 there have been some remarkably long lived racing careers and happily, even longer lived competitors. George Noble started racing around 1910 and was still looking for the competitive edge with his designs nearly 50 years later. Stan Clifford’s career was almost as long and there are many others, whose active involvement went beyond 40 years, including the current A/B record holder, Terry Everitt. All of these however are apprentices compared to John Benson who has been building and racing boats for over 70 years, and so it is a great privilege for OTW that John has contributed the story of his boating career for this month’s Centenary Article.
In our journeys around the country we frequently see car trailers with the remains of various cars being triumphantly drawn home and speculate on the reasons and what might happen to them. Some are obviously ‘real finds’ while others come into the ‘why’ category, but in each case the new owner is ecstatically happy having not yet come to terms with the greeting they are likely to get for ‘bringing that pile of junk home’. Almost certainly, even less realistic thought has been given to the time and money required to turn the rusting hulk on the trailer into the concours, dream car of their youth. Many will reach that state having cost a totally disproportionate amount compared with the market value while others sadly will change one barn or tarpaulin for another and gently rot away until another enthusiast drags out the even more tattered remains with a look that can only mean, ‘you’d never guess what I’ve just found’. And so the cycle goes on.
Pit Box items therefore; continue to provide a tantalising reminder of what is still out there waiting to be ‘discovered’ and born triumphantly home, either to be restored to former glory, or relegated to the ever growing list of ‘round tuits’. This month then, we start with car that has travelled across the world, yet the story behind it is a telling comment on the socio-economic conditions that prevailed following WW2. Next is an engine from the 1930s that has an intriguing provenance. Finally, a hydroplane that owes its construction more to aircraft than boats, yet has more than a passing connection to the featured engine. Each has been born home enthusiastically by new owners at various stages since they were built, but then, for some reason passed on yet again, either to be cherished or quietly forgotten. And so the cycle goes on! Time for some more Pit Box updates perhaps?
Suddenly it is the end of the European season with the last of the car meetings having been held and the waders hung up for another winter. The Speedmodelcar site gives some idea of the number of meetings and the huge distances travelled, by many of the competitors in the course of a season racing tethered cars. It is good to see another British entrant on the scene with Olly Monk making the trip to Lyon. He joins Stuart Robinson, Roger James and Steve Turley as another hydroplane enthusiast that likes to keep his feet dry on occasions.
The autumn signals that OTW is now 3 years old and a trawl through the pages is a gentle reminder of how far the site has developed, both in presentation and content. Looking through what has been published during that time, it seems to be achieving exactly what it had set out to do, but in a direction and at a level that could never have been anticipated. The material that has become available and the wonderful contacts that have been made exceed any possible expectation there might have been at the start. The site would be very thin however, if it were not for the continued support of the many correspondents and contributors that provide the material, photos, information and leads throughout the year. Thanks to all of you, and keep it coming please?
One of the highlights of the year was meeting John Groves, son of the early flash steam exponent, H.H. Groves. It is fitting then, that the Centenary article this month looks ‘Beyond the Follys’ at the life and work of this influential engineer and modeller.
On the subject of ‘how much’, exclaimed in a high-pitched voice preferably, the talking point recently has been the Korn Indianapolis tether car sold on eBay at the end of September. A very nice original car, in a fitted wooden carrying case, well illustrated with a good description but no provenance, so ‘how much’? Well, as a guide, a similar car with impeccable provenance, built by Barney Korn and given to a colleague of his at the Hollywood studio where he worked came up some time ago, but this was left in the dust very quickly. There were no claims made by the vendor, but it was obvious the bidders had some ideas of their own. Unlike some auctions where the action does not happen until the last few minutes, this one steamed along, finishing at an astonishing $21,100. Yes, that is the right number of noughts, something over £12,000. ‘How much’? The only clue is that it might have been the car owned by Annemarie Korn and run by her, but as yet this is not confirmed. This must surely be something of a record?
Nothing quite so exotic for our ‘Pitbox’ items this month, although there is a real rarity of an engine. Gary Maslin returns to his rightful position as chief ‘Pitbox’ sleuth with a new ‘pet’ added to his car collection, while two equally talented ‘seekers’ have found a pair of very unusual hydroplanes that originated from the same source.
Two new links added to the links page (strangely enough) are for an article on tethered cars from the New York Times submitted by Scott Clydesdale and a new section on youtube, called roundthepole, containing tethered hydro videos from Tony and Sonia Collins.
Dateline, September 30th 1908, Model Engineer offices.
'Mr Marshall? You remember Mr Teague asking if he could have his hydroplane run in a circle in this year’s competition?--- Yes, I know why he wanted to do it, but it was you that made the rash statement in your editorial that it would not be to his advantage, and then added a few sarcastic comments for good measure, wasn’t it?--- Well, I have some bad news, he shattered the speed record yesterday running his boat on a circular course.--- Don’t blame me, I’m only telling you what happened, and it is not as if all boats will be whizzing round a pole in the future, is it?'
It is now 100 years since this entirely imaginary conversation took place, so this month’s centenary article, truly represents ‘The Centenary of Tethered Hydroplane Racing’.
Quite a bit of movement on the commercial front in the last few weeks with a number of boats, cars and engines changing hands and details of these will be featured in due course as they become available. We do try to pass on details of any sales, auctions or swapmeets on the horizon that might be of interest. One major collection has recently been disposed of, and this seemingly slipped under the collective ‘radar’ completely, which is most unusual and took a lot of interested parties by surprise. A pair of O&R midgets sold in September at a major toy auction for £50 engineless and £180 complete which puts the prices currently being asked for Nylint replicas into perspective.
The ‘Pitboxes’ are having a bit of a ‘holiday’ by travelling overseas this month, although two of the subjects are now firmly resident in this country. Eagle eyed Eric Offen identified the origins of the large hydroplane motor in last months ‘teaser’ from the very minimum of clues shown, so engine 'Pitbox' can now reveal all about this impressive ‘lump’. The boat and engine in the hydro ‘Pitbox’ are very closely related to the motor above, so make an interesting ‘paired offering’. By way of testing Eric’s powers of observation further, Ron Christensen has submitted photos of a very rare commercial model from a most unusual source for the car ‘Pitbox’. The motor should give a clue to the country of origin and the manufacturer of the car.
'Pitbox' submissions have regularly featured M&E cars that have come onto the market and these do seem to be the most numerous of the commercial cars to appear, with 22 having come to our attention in a relatively short period of time. A selection of these has been put together as an M&E 'concours' and thanks go to contributors for providing photos and details.
The first weekend in August saw European Championships for both tethered cars at Stryi in the Ukraine and hydroplanes on the purpose built lake at Stara Zagora in Bulgaria. The trip to Bulgaria was a personal success for Norman Lara of the Victoria Club, who added a Gold medal in A3 class and a Silver medal in A2 to his already impressive tally of championship medals.
It may seem that OTW has a bit of a ‘bee in its bonnet’ over the correct description, history and provenance of items, but it is clear that there are those with a far more ‘cavalier’ attitude to accuracy and truth, which means that people get ‘had’ sometimes. What follows is a cautionary tale that illustrates these points exactly. Names of those involved have been withheld to avoid ridicule.
Two reproductions of relatively rare engines were obtained from a known and what was thought, reliable source. They were passed on to a third party and then one of them sold on yet again. Then the trouble started. When the engine was taken apart it was found to be cobbled together from a variety of parts, none of which matched each other or the engine. The piston was from something else altogether and to avoid the skirt hitting the crankcase, a longer conrod had been made by the simple expedient of drilling two holes in a piece of aluminium plate which was then hacksawed into an approximate shape. Now with the wrong piston and long rod the transfer ports were never uncovered so the engine could never have run. Of course, the cylinder head had also been modified to give the piston clearance. Further dismantling revealed that there were no crankshaft bearings of any sort either. Net result an expensive paperweight! Now, there could not possibly be two examples of this type of naughtiness could there? You are there already with this? Of course the other engine was exactly the same. Two expensive paperweights, along with much embarrassment, and a salutary lesson learned. What is even more worrying is that these motors continue to be sold with the knowledge that they are total rubbish.
The ‘Centenary’ articles over the next three months are returning to the earliest days of tethered hydroplanes and the pioneering competitors of the first decade of the sport. For this month there are two extensively revised and greatly extended versions of previous offerings. Thanks to the generosity of John Groves and Ken Lawton for allowing us access to family archives, we have been able to add a great deal of material, information and detail to the stories of Fred Westmoreland, and his best known hydroplane, ‘Evil Spirit’. Happily, most of the illustrations have been replaced with original photographs, many with Fred’s own annotation.
M&E Models of Exmouth were unusual in that their cars and bodies have serial numbers. A very nice ‘Special’, with a full set of numbers and an unusual motor provides a ‘double header’ in car ‘Pitbox’ and again proves the worth of looking for obscure or inaccurate listings on ebay.
By way of an interesting diversion, and another ‘double header’ the engine ‘Pitbox’ discovers the ‘Little and Large’ of tethered hydroplane motors, while hydroplane ‘Pitbox’ features a boat that is something of a mystery at present but might yet turn out to be an ‘Important Find’.
The value of the Experimental and Model Company Maseratis has been reduced dramatically by the number that have found their way on to the market. Indeed, OTW has become aware of another three of these cars in the last month alone. This, in turn, has provided sufficient material for a new manufacturers page for E&M.
Another landmark has been reached this month with the tethered car record going over 340 kph for the first time. Having crept towards it in decimal points over the last few seasons, the mark was well and truly beaten in Tallinn by Mats Bohlin, with a run of 341.392 kph (212 mph). This is all the more remarkable as it was achieved with his home built MB 10 engine. Coincidently, it was exactly 60 years ago in July 1948 that Gerry Buck made the very first 100 mph run in Britain, also with an engine that he had designed and built from scratch.
Also just on 60 years old is the subject of a new OTW diversion, an engine test. Dick Roberts has been testing vintage and reproduction engines for many years and he arrived at a recent Old Warden event with Rowell 60 to bench test. Although built around 1948, this motor was new and unrun up until that point, but the test had to wait, as there were complaints about the level of noise that this lovely racing motor produced. Dick eventually carried out the tests for SAM Speaks magazine, and kindly offered the article to OTW to reproduce to go with the recent Rowell articles. We are grateful to Dick and SAM 35 for the opportunity to use this material.
The last few months have seen considerable activity in the market place. An advert in a classic car magazine revealed an extensive collection of British tethered and rail cars for sale, both commercial and home built. OTW was privileged to be able to view this varied selection that included three complete and different versions of the M&E car. The ubiquitous ‘Special’, one of only four ERA bodied versions that have come to light and a very rare ‘Challenger’. Considering that the Challenger was one of the two standard bodies supplied with the kits, it is strange that this is only the second that has surfaced, and it is in splendid condition as well. Any collection such as this will inevitably give rise to questions about originality, and all these cars were original and period, although of necessity some had motors and other parts fitted where they were missing. Importantly the owner was totally upfront about where he had obtained them and what had been done in the way of renovation. Unfortunately, not every vendor is of the same calibre as this one, but that is a different story.
The ‘centenary article’ this month moves away from the ‘record breakers’ to a couple that epitomise what the sport is about. Jimmy Jones, along with his wife Ethel, was an active competitor for 56 years, building numerous boats and engines during that time. He competed all round the country, helping and encouraging others along the way and one of his boats that has survived provides the basis for an appreciation of his long involvement with tethered hydroplanes.
The first ‘Pitbox’ article of the month is another true ‘attic find’ and maintains Gary Maslin’s enviable record of fascinating discoveries. The vendor of this ‘lot’ had been clearing out the attic of the house he had moved into and found the bulk of a tethered car and an assortment of other pieces. It transpired that the gentleman that originally owned the house had built and raced tethered cars in the past and this was one of his projects that was never finished and presumably, subsequently forgotten.
Another full house of Pitbox items is completed with a boat and engine built by Harry Sharvell, another leading competitor from the South London Club. The boat still carrying Sharvell’s registration number is another wonderful example of the semi scale ‘launch type’ hydroplanes that were in use up until the second war. The superbly engineered four-stroke motor was built for a smaller sized boat and engine of boat that became the 'C' class in the late 30s.
Actually, it is more than a 'full house' as we are able to provide an update on a previous item. A year ago, Alan Thompson, Chairman of the South Shields MYC submitted photos of 'Vamp', a lovely vintage hydro. With a name, it should have been possible to positively identify the boat, and through a strange series of circumstances, that is precisely what has happened. This is where it became exciting as the true significance of 'Vamp' was revealed.