Sunday 12 March 2006, by cmcgarry
For 60 years an Acton factory’s innovations led the world. PAUL BREEDEN (of the Acton Gazette )investigates
YOU DON’T have to be very old to realise that Britain’s pride in its industrial heritage isn’t what it was. Once it claimed to be the most inventive in the world - but now there isn’t a single major car company that is still in British ownership. All the more surprising, then, for many west Londoners to learn that on their doorsteps in Acton was born a company whose hi-tech products performed the probably unique feat of setting records on land, sea and air and played a big part in winning the Second World War. Today hardly anyone remembers the Napier company of Acton, though its factory still stands in The Vale. Two people who do are Dennis Greenwood and Geoff McGarry. Mr McGarry joined the Acton works, aged 16, as war broke out in 1939 and served his apprenticeship learning every aspect of production of the Sabre aircraft engine - the most powerful piston engine the world has ever seen. In fighter aircraft, power is everything. At the beginning of the war, not only men’s lives but the fate of the nation depended on a few hundred aero engines - the Merlin powerplants in the Spitfrres and Hurricanes which turned back the tide of the Luftwaffe in 1940. The Merlin, made by Rolls Royce, packed 1,000 horsepower and could hold its own -just -against the best Nazi fighters. But Germany was racing ahead fast and soon would develop the Focke Wulf 190, a super-fast fighter which for a few terrifying months could outfly any RAF machine and threatened to make the skies of Britain a Nazi domain. The Sabre was Britain’s answer: it packed more than twice the power of the Merlin. Conceived and tested in Acton by Mr McGarry and his colleagues, it was a giant among engines. The motor in a family saloon develops perhaps lOOhp from a capacity of 1,5OOcc. But next to the five-foot long Sabre, it is a gnat. Fearsome in its size, the noise it produced, its thirst for fuel and its power, the Sabre was an awesome complex instrument. Next to a Mondeo’s four cylinders, the Sabre had 24. Even early versions had 22 times the power and 24 times the capacity of a family car engine, and the Sabre weighed as much as your whole car. That was the size of the beast needed to drag a man into the air at 420mph just about the fastest anyone had travelled in 1942 and, thankfully, enough to give the Focke Wulfs a run for their money. The Hawker Typhoons and Tempests which used the Sabre struck fear into the hearts of Luftwaffe pilots - and later into Germans on the ground, too.
In 1944 arrived another crisis for Britain and her Allies. The D-Day landings had begun to beat the Nazi forces back but a sudden offensive from the Ardennes in Belgium, spear-headed by hundreds of German tanks, threatened to push the Allies back into the sea. The tide of war was once again at risk of turning -but the engine from Acton once more helped brave the storm. Though sustaining a lot of damage from the rough airstrips pressed into service in northern France, Tempests and Typhoons, equipped with rockets and cannon, took a heavy toll of the German armour. Mr Greenwood recently discovered just how effective the Napier-driven machine was: "I read an article recently by a German tank commander An which he said that as soon as his men saw a Tempest in the distance he had ajob to keep them all in the tank!"
BUT FOR the hundreds of Napier employees at the Acton factory, at the flight test centre at RAP Northolt and the bench-test facility in Park Royal, the war regularly came much closer than northern France. Air raids by the Luftwaffe were a frequent occurrence and as well as being a considerable danger they were a severe impediments to the Napier factories’ vital war work, which went on night and day, seven days a week. "When the raids first started in 1940 everyone went to the shelters," recalled Mr McGarry. "But that was such a timewaster." The regulations said that when the air raid siren sounded everyone had to take coven But soon this rule was relaxed at Napier. "Eventually we had spotters on the roof and only if they saw a plane coming near did we have to take shelter," he said. Later the Napier workers were spared at least some of the fear caused by every air raid- thanks to their own hard work. In 1944 the Germans sent remote-controlled Vl jet bombs, known to Londoners as doodle-bugs, heading for the capital. Balanced on stubby wings these weapons were unstoppable to all but the fastest fighters - and the Tempest pilots were their biggest scourge, using their superidr power to catch up with the little jets. They would destroy them either with their cannon or by a deft touch of the wing fip to send the doodlebug spiralling out of control into the sea. About 600 were destroyed by Sabre-powered pilots, preserving countless lives and homes. It was this proud record which helped Napier employees know that the work they were doing was just as vital as the servicemen in the front line. But they were kept desperately busy. "It was all a blur",said Mr Greenwood (who joined Napier in 1945 but spent the war working in another power-plant factory elsewhere in the country). "Even on Sundays we had to parade our Home Guard unit. The only time we had off was Saturday afternoon." Mr McGarry recalls: "You never objected; it was all for the war effort. We all knew that if we didn’t win, we were lost. It was a totally different attitude to today. It never entered our heads that we might lose. Only at the time of Dunkirk (the disastrous rout of the British army in 1940 onto the beaches of France) do I remember hearing the news on the radio and thinking ’We really are in a serious situation’."
SPACE, sadly, will not permit us to tell the Napier story in full. To find out more, buy a copy of Napier Powered, £9.99 from book-shops, or borrow a copy from Ealing libraries. You could also consult the Napier Power Heritage Trust, which spreads the word about the company’s proud story and still organises reunions - about 80 ex-staff met in west London in December, for example. It wasn’t all downhill after the war: Mr McGarry stayed on even after the Acton plant shut in 1968, becoming the company’s London representative. Mr Greenwood, who became assistant chief performance engineer, saw the company take strides in new areas, including the high-powered turbines which powered the Wessex helicopter. These machines not only became the aerial workhorse of the armed forces, but until a couple of years ago helped carry the Queen and other members of the Royal Family on the Queen’s Flight, based at RAP Northolt. The Napier Power Heritage Trust brings together former Napier employees and others interested in the company. It publishes a newsletter and helps preserve historic Napier products. For details contact chairman and treasurer Geoff McGarry, 19 Richardson House, North End Crescent, West Kensington W14 8TE.
The sharp edge of 2OthC technology Napier’s history in west London began with the opening of the impressive purpose built Napier Motor Works in Acton vale in 1903. But the company already had a stageringly successfull history. David Napier, a scot, arrived in London in 1808 and set up an engineering workshop in Soho. By the 1851 Great Exhibition he showed three different steam powered printing presses, a centrifuge for separating sugar from molasses and a unique automatic ships compass. He was at the forefront of thetechnology of the day. After his death in 1873, his son James specialised in high technology, designing many printing and counting machines for the bank of england and the Royal Mint. Being used to the harsh demands made of new technologies put Napier in a good position to leap in to the new world of internal combustion engines. James’s son Montague Napier made a racing car which won the international Gordon Bennet Trophy in 1902, and he made the worlds first siw cylinder car engine in 1903. Napier led the British motor industry. clocked up many race wins and made trucks which transported much of the British army to the trenches of the first World War. But mass-produced mediocrity was not the firms watch word. The Acton plant was too small. for one thing. For another Montague thought he could improve on the spluttering aero engines of the day. and by 1918 he did, with the Napier Lion, so powerfull and reliable that it eventually powered 160 different types of aircraft. a record in itself. The Lion was a world beater. It powered airliners, warplanes and record breakers on land, sea and air. It powered three planes which took the world Snieder Trophy in 1922, 1927 and 1928; it propelled Sir Malcolm Cambells famous bluebird to land speed records in 1931 and 1932., and was used in the 100mph Miss Britain III, the fastest single engined boat of 1932. There is yet more to the ingenuity of this remarkable company. The Acton factory also produced luxury saloon cars (until 1925), powerplants for fast torpedo boats and highpowered diesel locomotive engines. It propelled minesweepers and industrial machiinary. and produced some of the earliest rocket motors- Napier turhochargers are still produced, in Lincoln, by GEC and compete with the best in the world. Yet as early as 1942 Napier’s success had run away with itself. The country needed the Sabre engine, and the Acton works couldn’t produce enough. The firm merged with English Electric and production expanded to Liverpool and Luton. Varied earo engine, turbine and diesel work after the war couldn’t keep the company together and the Acton factory closed in 1968. This perhaps is the British disease. lnventors show unparalled Ingenuity and make unlikely experiments work, yet their ideas aren’t capitalised on by others. Some day the world will see an airliner which doesn’t need a runway because it can take off vertically. When such a machine is developped, perhaps 20 years from now, we will remember the Fairey Rotodyne of 1957, powered by Napier Turbo props, a working helicopter airliner which held world speed records but was cancelled in 1961.
As Geoff McGarry, now chairman and treasurer of the Napier Power Heritage Trust , says, "If there was a complicated machine to he made, Napier made it?’ He mourns the passing of much of Britain’s industrial heritage. He said: "It’s not as good as it was, but Napier is still there at the fore-front of its technology, and that’s marvellous?’