When our family had the coolest motor on the drive

| 13 Oct 2011

The organisers of Rétromobile – the elegant annual Parisian classic show in February – recently sent us a flyer containing a pic of a massive engine (above) that will be installed as a crowd-puller at next year’s show.It’s a nine-cylinder diesel that once powered a back-up generator at a French racecourse and it’s 18 ft long and 11ft tall. Plus it has a capacity of 330-litres, boasts a 3.5-ton flywheel and pumps out 1600bhp! The best bit is that they plan to run it, which will definitely be entertaining (or frightening).Running or not, it’s sure to get showgoers’ attention because – let’s face it– most of us have a fondness for colossal engines. Seeing the picture in the Rétromobile flyer took me back to a time when our family home in Cape Town once boasted a huge motor in the front garden after my brother Andrew had a 27-litre Rolls-Royce Meteor (below) delivered by airmail (sort of).

Andrew, Kevin and I grew up in a flying- and car-mad family and each of us is fairly passionate about both, although Andrew was the out-and-out aviation nut, particularly when it came to World War 2 fighter aircraft, specifically the Supermarine Spitfire.During his teens he rapidly progressed to anorak level, amassing a collection of books and information on the famous fighter… along with an Airfix kit of every version. His passion extended to owning pieces of the real thing, including an engine. Not quite the real deal (a supercharged Merlin), but the naturally aspirated cooking variant, which the MoD’s developed to power its Meteor tank.Andrew’s engine was one of many supplied to the South African Defence Force in the 1950s, but it wasn’t used. It remained in a crate and was one of dozens that wound up being left exposed to the elements on an airforce base outside Pretoria before being sold off as scrap in the early 1990s (below).

By then my brother, who was doing his national military service nearby, had found out about this cache of Spitfire-related V12s and managed to purchase one. Quite what he intended to do with it was never clear, but Kevin and I entertained thoughts of building an aero-engined special even though the unit was without a clutch or flywheel and we were without the funds to build a chassis. Incredibly, Andrew also managed to have it flown by military transporter to Cape Town (1000 miles from Pretoria) for the all-in price of Rand1200 (c£110). The interesting bit came when I had to fetch it from the airbase to which it was delivered  – and later unload it – using my Ford Cortina P100 pick-up (known as a ‘bakkie’ in South Africa).I’m not sure what a Merlin – sorry, Meteor – weighs, but I reckon it’s close 800kg, if not a ton. It sure felt like it when the engine was on the back of my Cortina – the leaf springs on its live axle were almost horizontal!The bulk of the engine was also an issue once I got home – not having lifting equipment meant that unloading was a problem. In the end, the only solution was to push the engine (which was bolted to a substantial timber base) until it tilted down and slid to the tarmac before we then eased the Cortina out of the way and let the front of the Meteor drop down.The resultant thump nearly destroyed our driveway, but the bigger concern was that the engine had to stay fairly much where it had landed, although we were able to push it slightly to one side against the front fence.We thought that having a 27-litre V12 in front of the house was quite cool but my mother wasn’t so charmed, and neither was the neighbour, who got to witness the power of the engine in action. No sooner was Andrew back from military service before he started hatching plans to see if the motor would turn over (the carbs were too seized to consider making it run) and connected a couple of car batteries in tandem to power the colossal 24V starter.It churned over easily enough enough then, after a few seconds, there was a mighty ‘pop’ as the temporary cap on a 1in-diameter oil pipe on the side blew off when the oil pump was primed with the 40-year-old contents of the sump.The ensuing parabola of sticky black stuff shot 20ft over the neighbour’s wall and on to his drive.