I WAS inside a local pie shop the other day, waiting to buy a steak and kidney, when I was astonished to see a young bloke knock back his change. After he left with his scarlethaired lady friend, the older woman behind the counter said that this often happens with young people now – they only want notes and don’t want to carry coins in the pocket. Matter of fact, she said, I get a guy who comes in regular, and takes his change in coins but goes to his car and throws them onto the front passenger floor. When this accumulating pile gets to be a nuisance, he kicks them through to the back floor of his Commode, where they rattle around until the end of the month. Then he finally picks them up and cashes the lot in at his bank, and he’s generally got enough to cover that month’s car payment!
That’s humans – everybody is different. But I’m discovering it’s getting increasingly harder to find old-school engineers who will make one-off car stuff for me, as they’re either retiring as their body is stuffed from too much manual work, or they’re shuffling off to meet God’s people upstairs.
I needed a specifically shaped muffler a couple of months ago, so I got on the dog-and-bone to try and find some firm who could make one to my specifications – nothing complicated, in normal sheet steel and pipe. I got told this mob would make me one in stainless for 330 bucks, so I said okay, then didn’t check until yesterday.
“Oh,” the guy at the end of the wire said, “I forgot about that. I’ll call the manufacturer and ring you back.” So he did this and apologised that my order had been lost. But my guess was that my plan had gone into the too-hard basket, and they didn’t want to know about a one-off job.
I used to know an old bloke who worked in a small shed in Brisbane, specialising in making just mufflers. You could tell him you wanted a sport note, or a loud bellow that echoed off the houses when the revs got up, or a dead-quiet assembly that wouldn’t wake the neighbours as you left your lover’s flat at two o’clock in the morning. I used to watch him at work, fascinated by the way he fabricated plates and pipes to end up with the result the customer had ordered.
That old guy is long gone now, so I guess I will have to sit down with sheet steel and pipe to design and weld up my own.
But I have a special piece of paper in my file marked Contacts For Stuff, and have slowly accumulated over the years the people and firms that will still manufacture special bits to go into mostly competition cars.
There’s a bloke at Greenbank who makes intake and exhaust valves from blank forgings, in stainless or titanium, plus essential bronze valve guides, and he also ports cylinder heads.
From Special Piston Services in Melbourne I can get pistons made from their own forgings, while excellent cast-alloy pistons come from the wide range manufactured by JP Pistons in Adelaide, who have been around forever and will also make replacements – like slugs for Ferraris from a buggered sample sent down to them.
There’s a small manufacturer in Queensland that will wind special coils from flaw-free wire to come up with a set of valve springs to your specification. Argo in New South Wales also designs and machines up excellent steel connecting rods in short order, given a basic set of sizes, which will survive many years of high-stress revs in a racing engine. There was a foundry and machine shop in Victoria that would cheerfully cast you a new crankshaft in iron, and I guess they are probably still operating.
The Kiwis are also equal with the Oz can-do people in this field, which is why the techs from both our countries are in such high demand overseas. I had a case during a big international vintage rally in NZ, where we broke a valve in a 1903 Panhard-Levassor before we got to Taupo, and it didn’t run well on only one cylinder.
We got to a local machine shop late that day, and they said yes, we can turn you up two new ones out of Chev truck exhaust valves, but we might not have enough time to complete this machining. Doesn’t matter, I said, do what you can and I’ll finish them off.
By five o’clock they had these pieces to the stage where the stems could be cut to length, and a hole drilled through each to take a spring retainer pin. Got towed back to our base at Rotorua, used a hacksaw with a drill and a file to make them fit the engine, and went rallying again at seven in the morning.
There have been many brilliant engineers making stuff in this country. Cam grinder Hedley McGee also designed and made specialist bits for speedway cars, including alcohol fuel injection, while Merv Waggott in Sydney produced twin-cam alloy heads for humpy Holdens, then turned around and created a two-litre, 16-valve four for racing, which outperformed the English-built Cosworth FVA!
Incredible stuff, and it still happens. s