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View from the Pylon

June 2011

Empty Spaces: The world of tethered cars and hydroplanes has suffered a major loss with the sad death of Gualtiero Picco earlier this week. For 30+ years, his OPS and PICCO engines have been the backbone of car and hydroplane racing and have dominated many classes. As well as being responsible for the engines that so many people have used over the years he was also a multiple tethered car champion and record holder. Everyone involved with tethered cars and hydroplanes passes their sympathies to his wife and sons.

Empty Spaces: Through Otto Stroebel and Stuart Robinson we have also learned of the death this week of Ivo Malfatti who was one of the first European tethered hydroplane champions, winning the A3 class at Vienna in 1960. He would go on to win several more championships and was a major contender throughout the 1960s. He was also responsible for the 'Flash' design that was used by so many competitors, and later run in this Country in the 'Vintage' class.

Empty Spaces: We were saddened to hear of the death this weekend of long time tethered hydroplane competitor and enthusiast from the Cotswold Club, John Whelan. OTW and the tethered hydroplane community would like to pass on their condolences to Dave and the family.

It has been a less than happy time recently reporting the passing of so many personalities from the world of modelling, tethered cars and hydroplanes. The loss of Alexander Kapusikov and Gualtiero Picco also has serious ramifications for car and hydroplane racing as so many competitors rely on the incredible motors produced by these two gentlemen.

On to lighter matters:-Those of us of a certain age will well remember the weekly antics of ‘Chuck, the muddle engineer’ in the pages of Model Engineer. Some viewed Terry Aspin’s cartoon strip as puerile nonsense, whilst others looked on it as been there, done that (or thought about it) and got the tee shirt. Chuck would always take everything to extremes or assume a literal meaning to every instruction or gadget. He would always try to think things through, but would never ever manage to escape without a disaster of some magnitude. One suspects that much of Terry’s lifetime experience of engine design and building along with a convoluted sense of humour was the catalyst for Chuck. He may have been a fictional character, but experience shows us that he was very close to the mark on occasions. The light bulb in a balloon above the head moment can often be followed by the question mark as realisation sets in. It is always lurking out there to catch the unwary.

Sums and maths are a constant pitfall, especially when it relates to engines. Bore and stroke are easy enough, but of course our friend Pi comes into it, along with squares. This can cause problem enough, but when the dimensions are in inches, and usually fractions at that, and capacities are in cubic centimetres, then confusion can reign. Sitting on the shelf is a lovely engine that started out life as a 10cc and was then converted to 15cc as it was lacking in grunt. The builder admitted some years later, that due to a miscalculation it had started at 7cc and with the 5 extra was still only 12cc. True to form he made the same miscalculation when building a 30cc that wasn’t. It gets even more complicated when working out bore and stroke ratios and then calculating them for a given capacity, which involves square roots. Add to this the conversion of capacity calculated in cubic inches into cubic centimetres, and there is the explanation for the superbly engineered, but half finished 32cc twin discovered some while ago.

Pistons that hit cylinder heads or crankshafts, and engines that only do half a turn before the connecting rod jams against the crankcase are not uncommon and can often be sorted out, but not if the basic principles and dimensions of the design are not right. We have seen two lovely engines, both twins, where a huge amount of time and engineering have been expended, but they would never have run. The first had no facility whatsoever for getting the fuel into the engine, and no sign that this had even been thought of. The second could get the fuel in, but then there was no provision for transferring it up into the cylinder. This was overcome in the end with a great deal of clever and complex engineering.

It is ironic, that no matter how highly qualified or competent we are, there is always the ‘Chuck moment’ just around the corner? To the unitiated, running a flash steam hydroplane would seem like a succession of these moments, surrounded as they often are by gouts of flame and clouds of steam. How he would have dealt with starting a steamer by flicking the prop would have been a nightmare, but that was indeed the way it was done until relatively recently. In the second article on the remarkable racing career of Bernard Pilliner, we see Mary Pilliner happily performing this task. Now that is sharing a hobby? So far as we are aware, this is the only existing pictorial record of how steamers used to be started.

Our Pitbox engine was one of those lovely coincidences where an item on ebay turned into a much bigger story, including connections to an article we published nearly five years ago. For a fuller explanation of this engine and its Bournville links, go to an update on Faro, Ken Williams’ record breaking ‘A’ Class boat. The 30cc hydroplane appearing this month was a product of the Model Engineering Exhibition at Alexandra Palace and as yet we know little about it, which is somewhat frustrating as it bears both a name and club registration number. For the car, we have stretched the definition a bit, as it is not a car, but a piece of British tethered car racing history.

Some while ago we mentioned that the Bristol Society was producing a book to celebrate their centenary. Geoff Sheppard has kindly passed a copy to us now that it has been published and it is an utterly fascinating read. Although it concentrates on the Society and all that it has achieved over the years, plus a few traumas along the way, it is the chapters on the tethered car and hydroplane activities that proved to be absolute gems. If you can get hold of or borrow a copy, then it is a superb record of a part of the Bristol Society history that is now well, just history. A fantastic effort by everyone involved.

In common with much of the rest of the country, Essex was in the path of some seriously strong winds that put paid to any chance of a days racing at Althorne. The meeting at Hull had already succumbed to another case of nesting wildlife so the net waterborne activity this month has been zero, so no reports. Still, it gives Norman time to finish his new boats???

The tethered car aficionados have been hard at it though, and congratulation go to Steve Turley who achieved a lifetimes best run in Hannover with his 5cc car. Steve competes regularly with both hydros and cars but his speed of 283.469 (176mph) is an incredible achievement and establishes a new British record in that class. Results from all tethered car meetings can be found on the speedmodelcar website.

Well, if you are reading this then everything has gone according to plan and it has all been done by the miracle of 'broadband'. If not then it is back to 'dial up' and some head scratching.

May 2011

In an interview in 2010, shortly before his death, Norman Phelps remarked on how the flourishing of the Victoria Club was in direct correlation with the heyday of skilled trades. This was probably reflected throughout the world of tethered car and hydroplane racing and many other similar sports of the time. It does not necessarily mean however that to be successful, one had to be an engineer or toolmaker, although many were, and still are for that matter. One intriguing aspect of our ‘delving’ is discovering ‘what people did for a living’ as well as gaining some insight into the facilities and skills they possessed. There were a few, especially in the car world, ‘of independent means’ that could devote all their time and resources to racing and a very small handful that derived their income from associated businesses. For most though, the engine, boat and car building came after a full days work, and what a variety of trades and professions have been represented over the years. The toolmakers and engineers already mentioned, jewellers, mechanics, surgeons, doctors, teachers, blacksmiths and butchers, and so the list goes on. It might be thought that such diverse backgrounds and resources could be grounds for discontent, but none of this seemed to matter. Oddly, it is winning that can create the problem. We have come across numerous instances right from the 1930s through to 2010 in tethered cars, hydros and even straight running, where people have decided not to go to meetings or regattas, because X or Y will be there and ‘they always win’. The convoluted implication is that because they win, in some way they have an unfair advantage, which of course might just be true if the person in question is Mr Picco. Even then, with the very best equipment in the world, he still has to make the same decisions as everyone else, and get them right, which is the way it should be and what keeps everyone at it. Mind you, it all gets a bit technical when the barometric pressure in Morecambe Bay determines the speed of an F2A plane in Manchester, as happened at the recent Euro Control Line Championships.

What it usually comes down to is knowledge, experience and years of dedication and hard work. Nowhere is this more clearly illustrated than in the pursuit of speed with flash steam. There are no short cuts, as anyone involved over the years will confirm. Just getting a steamer to run is difficult enough. To get it to run quickly is a never ending round of experimentation, aggravation, refinement and occasional success that drives the process on. Edgar Westbury made no secret of his admiration for the flash steam brigade, and we share his enthusiasm in this. He constantly talks in glowing terms of the innovation and progress made. Over the next months we are extremely lucky to be able to feature the lives and work of two great enthusiasts who moved flash steam into the modern era. We start with Bernard Pilliner and his ‘experiments, trials and tribulations’.

The pursuit of speed inevitably creates records, yet it is the first that tend to get remembered and none more so than the first to 100mph. Arthur Wall’s 10cc boat that first achieved this in 1972 is no more, but the first 5cc to break the magic mark is very much still in one piece and is our ‘Pitbox’ hydroplane this month. The engine is just a set of castings but represents the very end of an era, when things had very definitely ‘moved on’. Our car is another one we know little about, other than that it represents the very peak of the all-British 10cc tethered car and illustrates the coincidences mentioned last month. The chassis, body and motor were separated many years ago, yet thanks to the help of John Goodall, all three elements were able to be reunited.

Steve Poyser has asked us to express gratitude from him and the family for all the messages of  sympathy and condolence they have received following the death of Stan Poyser in March. 

March/April 2011

Empty Spaces: We were saddened to hear of the death on the 25th March of long time tethered hydroplane enthusiast and flash steam exponent Stan Poyser. Stan had been of immense help to OTW with his very detailed articles, access to his archives and willingness to answer our numerous questions. We extend our sympathies to Beryl, Steve and the Poyser family.

The second of our six week editions should have us back to publication around the first of May, which does not coincide with an International or any other regatta this year, so that is one obstacle to the plan removed?

A recent sale gave a stark reminder of the pitfalls that can result from the well known ‘round tuit’. We have touched on these before, as we are probably all guilty to a greater or lesser extent. The ‘round tuit’ can take many forms and usually involves a project where the intention to build, rebuild or restore never quite happens for whatever reason. In all too many cases it is because there are dozens of others already in store and more will be added, as it is almost impossible to turn down an opportunity or bargain. There are barns, orchards, warehouses, gardens, hangars and tatty tarpaulins all around the country sheltering innumerable objects that the owners have collected with the best intentions but that is as far as they will get. These are usually untouched by human hand so remain viable at some stage in the future, always assuming that rust rot, corrosion and general deterioration have not taken too great a toll. Where it all starts to go a bit wrong is the project being abandoned part way into the task. This is often after partial or complete disassembly leaving anything from a small box to large crates of assorted bits. With the passage of time, house and workshop moves, parts go missing get mixed up and memories of what and where everything was can fade. One half of OTW developed very itchy fingers earlier in the year when viewing a selection of home built hydro motors in their component parts. The fear is that they will never be put back together and important items will eventually lost, which has happened to us in the past and is where this story started.

An enthusiast had a small collection of motors, some mundane, some more interesting, but had, at some point disassembled them all. Whatever he was going to do with them, he never got ‘round tuit’ and passed on. A family friend offered to clear out the workshop and sell the items, which is fair enough, but as he had no knowledge of model engines, just lotted up what he saw. The large bits like crankcases were listed individually, but smaller and similar parts were put together as job lots. So, if you bought all the lots, you would have most of the parts for all of the engines, but to get most of the parts for any one engine, you would still have to buy the big lump, plus as many of the mixed lots as you could identify bits in. No one was going to win with this, but it does serve to show the dangers of taking boats, cars and motors apart, but not putting them back together pdq!

Finding a car or boat without its motor, while satisfying on the one hand as it is something that has come to light, is disappointing as a vital element is missing. More often it is the motor that surfaces with the other half lost destroyed or still waiting to be discovered. On very rare occasions, both parts might turn up and be reunited, which stretches odds and coincidence to extreme levels. Mind you, these strange coincidences do occur as our hydro ‘Pitbox’ this month proves. Twenty five years after that great sage of the hydroplane world R.T. Pole described the boat in his Historic Hydros series in Model Boats, it turned up without anyone being aware that it was still in existence. In view of this remarkable discovery, we have another ‘Pitbox Special’ that includes R.T. Pole’s original article and further photos and information.

The very purposeful homebuilt hydro motor this month will look very familiar to regular ‘Pitbox’ visitors, yet it is not quite what it appears as it is only one third of the capacity of the version featured in June 2010. The car is another mystery item, as apart from knowing its geographic origins, we have very little more information apart from the identity of its engine and current owner. The 'Coxheads Flyer' tethered car we featured in October last year has been sold via ebay for £1220, which does seem to confirm that commercial items are valued more highly than home built ones, irrespective of quality.

This month sees the concluding half of our look at ‘Belvedere’ Smith and relates how his life and circumstances were to change dramatically in a relatively short space of time.

We are indebted to Mark Mansell for two super ‘Workbench’ articles he kindly put together. The 10cc motor he described building in such detail has created so much interest that it has been updated and transferred to a permanent page.

Thanks to the generosity of the supporters of this venture, we now have access to an extensive archive of photographs, both old and contemporary. Many of these have provided the illustrations in our various articles, but there are many more that deserve publication. To this end, we are introducing a new feature, which will be a rolling 'Photo Album' of related images, to replace the galleries that are electronically defunct. The 'Photo of the Month' will continue as normal.

February/March 2011

One of the great advantages that OTW experiences from internet publication is the availability of our content either through regular readers or those that arrive by accident, or now more likely Google. (Other brands are available) It was always hard work establishing a readership for a printed periodical as there was always the seemingly unsolvable conundrum that to sell your magazine it had to be know about and the only way it would get known about was if it was sold? Now OTW and every other website is only a keyword away in a search engine. In turn this has provided us with much of our material, and in a wonderful variety of forms. We continue to be most grateful to our regular ‘providers’ but where it can get somewhat ‘interesting’ is the new contact who has just found the site and has a question, an item, or can provide details about something we have mentioned that sets us off on another new adventure. A few months ago, Gregg Westbrook over in the USA saw a reference on the site to his great grandfather. After contacting us, we realised that here we had a mutually beneficial opportunity. We could furnish details about his relative’s activities in the very early days of model boat racing and engine building, while he could provide material about his private and later life. After a considerable exchange of emails it was down to some serious research. Here again the t’internet provides access to material that would previously only been available after numerous visits to London and a great deal of time and expense. That does not necessarily mean it is easy, as trying to establish the exact background of someone named Smith in London 130 years ago is something of a thankless task. Sometimes there is a stroke of luck, such as Alison (Smith) in our local library who became so involved that she used her own credit card to access the 1911 census and with her very last credits found the person we were looking for. Occasionally there is the brick wall though; such as finding the one page we wanted in a census was the only one out of out of millions that had not been transcribed.

This is of course half the fun and a good deal of the frustration, but it is what emerges that makes it all worthwhile and, hopefully, produces an interesting, and with a bit of luck, informative article. The result of all the above is a fascinating story of one of the earliest pioneers of the use of internal combustion engines for model boat racing. Many reports from the beginning of organised boat racing in this country contain references to W.J. Smith, his boats and engines, so it is with great pleasure that we can present the first of two articles detailing the life of ‘Belvedere’ Smith.

It was a Pitbox item that set all the above into motion, which is a very satisfactory outcome indeed, but sometimes what is featured starts off as a mystery and remains that way despite the huge body of knowledge out there. Often though this knowledge can identify a hitherto unrecognised piece of history and a story will evolve. This month in an OTW ‘first’ we feature three Pitboxes all of which have a common origin. The hydroplane had existed as a rumour but with no details and eventually turned out to have an intriguing tale to tell. The car started as an ‘any idea what this is’ enquiry but yet again a remarkable story evolved. The engine represents the very beginnings of a much more complex investigation that could be ongoing for some while yet. To give each of these items the space they deserve, there is also a ‘Pitbox Special’ looking at these three fascinating pieces of work from the ‘North London Maestro’ Arthur Weaver.

The page detailing the current hydroplane classes and records has been updated and Jim Free has very kindly provided material explaining the differences between the airscrew classes, which has also been added. The tethered hydroplane calendar has now been confirmed and the updated version is on the racing page and includes the dates for the World Championships and International meeting in France.

January 2011

A new year, a new season, new opportunities, and hopefully new discoveries. OTW wishes you all a happy, healthy and successful 2011. As usual, the last 12 months has turned up a remarkable array of items for our ‘Pitboxes’ as well as some fascinating personal stories for future articles. Thanks to everyone who has contributed in any way.

One of the great joys for OTW is an invitation to a ‘workshop visit’. Such a trip a few years ago opened our eyes to the differing ways of working that can be employed. The person we were visiting had been racing full sized hydros for 40 years or so, and as far as we could observe had not got rid of a single thing throughout that period. He lived in a wonderful manor house with a crew yard and surrounding outbuildings and each time one of the buildings became full, he moved on to the next, leaving behind almost everything, including all the machinery, equipment, and even the metal turnings and chips. The items we were specifically interested in were from the late 50s, which he reckoned would be in the second of the buildings. Having forced the door open, he pointed to a bench; half hidden by a heap of aluminium swarf, and suggested we dug out a tin bath from underneath. Having cleared a path, we dragged the bath out and found it half full of rotting leaves and putrid water from a broken window immediately above, but also containing two complete and historically important hydroplane motors plus associated spares. Of course, back in 1960, they had become outclassed, were of no further use and certainly no saleable value so, as is so often the case, they were discarded and almost forgotten. Not quite the fate that befell many of the racing products of Honda and Ferrari though that met their collective ends in crushers. Luckily for us, it is those that never got round to the mass clear out that ultimately supply much of the material for OTW.

The other end of the workshop spectrum can be represented by the clinically clean assembly areas in any Formula I facility, which can still be interesting in an academic sort of way. They are not the sorts of places that you can immerse yourselves in for hours with an entire history waiting to be unearthed bit by bit. In the course of the summer OTW was lucky enough to visit two superb workshops, one that contained a lifetime of tethered hydroplane history, and the other where the most successful flash steamer of all times ‘Pisces II’ was built and developed. Knowing our enthusiasm for flash steam, it was an absolute delight to meet up with Bob Kirtley for a guided tour of the engineering that has produced so many records over the years. Rather than sitting in the ‘Who’s Who’ chair for our occasional series, Bob has very kindly produced a very detailed review of his involvement with model boats, and flash steam in particular, where he has had such a major influence.

Sometimes, of course, life being what it is, someone else will get the job of clearing out a workshop and over the last few months, several items have appeared on eBay from the estate of the late Bob Curwen. Bob was one of the real pioneers of tethered car racing, deeply involved with tethered hydroplanes and a master engine builder as well. It is only appropriate then that we feature both a car and one of his hydroplanes that have come to light after 60 years. Our engine this month is a complete mystery, but fascinating in its design and somewhat more amusing in what it is connected to.

Our friends and acquaintances kindly keep their eyes open, and cameras ready, for any items or information that might be of interest to us. Sometimes it may not lead to anything, but on this occasion two very dear friends came up with something quite extraordinary, and then had the presence of mind to follow it up, as a 'Pitbox Special' relates.