Huge is an often-overused adjective, massive is another one, over-stated and liberally applied to almost any situation that falls short of the implied conjecture. Unbelievable is another, and as Guy Martin said, ‘when I see a man eat his own head, you can call that unbelievable’. But there are certain situations where all three words could be applied, and staring at the torn down engine of a 1910 La France Type 10 in a back-street workshop in Yorkshire a few weeks ago, all three passed through my mind.
Huge because almost every component looks like it was cast from Forth Bridge leftovers; Massive, because of the sheer task of pulling apart and then piecing back together this Behemoth of an engine, with nothing but experience as a guide; Unbelievable because of the skill of the craftsmen that will be involved to repair, renovate and build components from scratch to undo over 110 years of use, neglect and poor workshop practices. Oh, and this and everything else attached to the truck needs to be ready to be shipped out for a shakedown rally in the Sahara in just under a years’ time.
The engine itself is but one part of this mammoth undertaking, but a significant part. Whilst the entire project is being overseen on the banks of the Humber at DT Vintage, the engine, and some other large components, have found themselves in the hands of George Laycock, who’s own personal preference when it comes to motorsport is straight-lining classic Norton motorcycles. His engineering background is with all things big and vintage though, and I know I’m in the right place as soon as I walk into the workshop. It smells exactly as I imagine all places like this to smell, with decades of history literally etched into the walls of the workshop and a machine shop full of heavy lathes and mills.
George isn’t the only craftsman who will be involved with the repair of the beasts’ heart though, and I arrive as he is deep in discussion with the gentleman who’s job it will be to repair cracks to the motors barrel, as well as repair an entire section of the spare barrel that is made up of nothing but filler. This spare engine, that was supposedly fully working, has other signs of abuse as well, all of which will need tending to. The parts that are disappearing today will be stitched, a process that in simple terms involves placing strips of metal into grooves drilled across cracks, that before they are finished, look just like stitches on a wound. This case metal reparation technique is one that has taken the man who is going to do it around the world, working on all kinds of large metal objects, including bridges, so he will be well at home with the La France!
Cracks are one thing, but how do you even begin to know how to shape and build parts when there are no drawings, especially anything with an internal tolerance which simply can’t be measured. Or how do you know what tolerances to apply to valve shims and crankcase shells? “It’s a lot down to experience and feel” says George. Typically understated for a Yorkshireman, but the skill and knowledge gained over decades of fettling all variety of engines will no doubt be key to knowing what feels right and what doesn’t as parts are made and the engine goes back together.
As well as the parts, there is tooling that needs to be constructed to even allow the engine and its components to come apart. “I’m building a jog for the clutch at the minute”, George tells me, “I need to hold the whole thing down to the bench so I can inch it apart, slowly.” Another piece of classic understatement, he’s no idea how powerful the springs are that are housed within the humungous clutch, or what sort of tension they are under. Undo the assembly without anything to hold all of that back and George could easily find himself on a one-way ride attached to the faceplate of this giant mechanism.
“We’ve also the problem of making the spare parts fit the final completed unit” I’m told, “these seem to have been one off builds, so whilst they look the same at a glance, cases don’t always line up and screw holes are often in different places, so that will be something else we need to attend to.” It’s fascinating stuff, and my eyes are constantly drawn back to the pistons that are like catering size baked bean tins, as well as the giant and heavy conrods and equally hefty crank. It’s an awful lot of rotational weight and any imbalance could well shake the thing to pieces – that’s before any thought has even been given to fuelling and cooling.
But what an exciting machine, and whilst it will be well into the spring before the components are pieced back together, the prospect is a salivating one. Despite the difficulty of the task the experience of the specialists will no doubt ensure that when it is all pieced back together, it will run more sweetly than ever, like the worlds largest Swiss watch! Or maybe just a well-built truck.
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