Trend-Bucking Engines - Blackbourn 406

By: Rob Blackbourn

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It seems that once Rob gets lost in a shed full of hot-rod nostalgia, too many side-valve motors is never enough

I finally got to meet Rod Hadfield recently. A bit surprising it took so long, given his venerated elder status in Australian hot rodding, drag racing and dry lake racing, all fields I’ve followed pretty closely during his decades-long involvement.

With an hour or so free during a visit to Castlemaine (Vic), I knocked on the door of Hadfield’s Hot Rods at nearby Chewton, and was generously given a guided tour of the place by the man himself.

If numerology’s mystical claims have any relevance to the field of hot rodding, you’d surely expect the number 8 to be right up there. While there was no shortage of amazing bent-eight powered machines in Rod’s museum, the pattern that emerged during my visit seemed to be dominated instead by the number 12.

The huge Warman Special was the first of his built-from-scratch creations we looked at closely – 3.86-metre wheelbase chassis, acres of polished alloy bodywork and a 27-litre Rolls-Royce V12 engine. It prompted us to reminisce about Rod’s equally awesome Rolls-Royce-Merlin-powered ’55 Chev Bel Air called Final Objective (sold to a US buyer some time ago). Yep, another 27-litre V12 motor.

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Then it was his Hot Rod Lincoln, the lovely V12-Lincoln-powered Model A pick-up (that’s right, senior citizens, it was inspired by the Charlie Ryan song from the 50s…).

None of this prepared me for getting my head around his recent creation, a much modified Fiat Topolino, called the Fire Chief. Its extended nose houses yet another V12, like the Lincoln an L-head or side-valve motor, but that apart it’s unlike the Lincoln or any other V12 I’ve ever seen.

The handsome 8636cc (527 ci) motor from a classic American LaFrance fire engine takes L-head engine-design to a new level of sophistication. A slim 45-degree V12, featuring twin plugs, twin distributors and four coils, it’s switchable between 12-cylinder and 6-cylinder operation. Standard, it has twin Zenith carburettors – Rod’s is fuelled by five (yes, five) old-school Stromberg 97s. Built by Lycoming until American LaFrance took over manufacturing, these motors were based on an engine designed for the 1932 Auburn. They continued into the 1960s.

This stunning example of side-valve design stirred up my sentimental attachment to the side-valve era (rooted in a teenage infatuation with ‘flathead’ Ford V8s). Once Ford, BMC and Rootes updated to overhead-valve engines during the 50s it was more or less game over for ‘side-whackers’ here. Chrysler hung on, though, with its flathead six, still offering it in the AP3 Chrysler Royal in 1962. That year would also have been the last for the Ford V8-60 powered Simca Vedette.

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Side-valve engines charmed me with their lightness, compactness, simplicity, and reliability. Their limitation was poor breathing at high rpm which capped their maximum power potential. However impressive enough one-horsepower per cubic-inch potential was achievable in engines featuring Brit engineer Harry Ricardo’s ‘turbulent’ combustion chamber design – examples were Chrysler’s flathead sixes and Harley-Davidson’s flathead V-twins. Local driver Frank Presser underlined this point into the 1960s with his potent Bugatti race car, powered by a Dodge (Chrysler) six, breathing through three Solex carbs.

See the video of Rod Hadfield's 'Fire Chief' at StreetMachine.com.au

Coming to terms with today’s post-side-valve reality as I drove home I consoled myself with the fact that Briggs & Stratton, bless ’em, are still hanging in there with their side-valve lawnmower engines. But for how long?

A couple of days later Mark Twain’s comment that reports of his death had been greatly exaggerated came to mind when I stumbled on an article about a Belgian company called D-Motor. After years of development and testing it is now producing a sweet new motor to power ultralight aircraft. D-Motor’s spiel proudly trumpets all of the advantages of its side-valve design – lightness, compactness, simplicity, and reliability.

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