Hand-built racer comes to museum

The Watson rotary valve engine.
The Watson rotary valve engine.
Ralph Watson's workshop relocated.
Ralph Watson's workshop relocated.
Ralph Watson
Ralph Watson
Watson's aeroplane engine-powered Lycoming Special. Photos by Mark Price.
Watson's aeroplane engine-powered Lycoming Special. Photos by Mark Price.

Some regard Ralph Watson as Auckland's answer to Southland's Burt Munro.

The difference is that Burt Munro's obsession with speed led to the movie The World's Fastest Indian and fame, while Watson died in the mid-2000s in relative obscurity.

The Warbirds and Wheels Museum in Wanaka has redressed the balance a little by securing a piece of Watson's history before it disappeared.

A fan, who prefers to remain anonymous, arranged for Watson's entire workshop to be shifted from Point Chevalier in Auckland to the museum and everything returned to its original place - from the old belt-driven lathe on which he created engineering masterpieces down to the slippers he wore while he did it.

One 1965 letter addressed to Mr Watson puts his abilities in context.

It is from New Zealand motor racing legend Bruce McLaren, who mentions he is designing a ''secret'' Formula One car.

Mr McLaren wrote he would be delighted to receive any letters from Mr Watson with his thoughts on the design.

One of Mr Watson's achievements was his Lycoming Special open-cockpit racing sports car.

It is in the museum until after Easter, on loan from Dunedin engineer Ralph Smith.

The car has a low-revving 4733cc Lycoming aeroplane engine and a gearbox installed back-to-front in order to achieve overdrive.

Mr Watson got his chance to build the car in the mid-1950s after being offered a Lycoming engine that was being scrapped. It had a cracked cylinder head and valve trouble.

Even when it was restored, Mr Watson described the engine as sounding like ''a team of panelbeaters working in rhythm''.

Consulting such publications as Sports Car Design, Mr Watson designed a car for his engine - a car he could both race and drive on the road between race meetings.

Over many years and at many race circuits, including Dunedin, Mr Watson raced it and improved it.

He reached a speed of 219kmh at Ryal Bush, Southland, on one occasion in the mid-1950s.

And, as he toured the country, he always kept an eye out for spare parts for his engine.

That took him to aerodromes where he was often invited to give demonstrations on runways when there were no planes about.

Mr Watson sold the car at the end of 1959, and later recalled the car's most memorable race was when new owner Malcolm Gill allowed Bruce McLaren to race it into fourth place at a national event at Wigram in 1960.

Its drum brakes did not stand up well under McLaren's driving and at the end of the season, McLaren sent a set of disc brakes to be fitted.

The Lycoming Special changed hands several times, and in the process won two New Zealand Sports Car Championships.

It won the 50-mile sports car race in Dunedin in 1965 and is regarded by Mr Watson's fans as ''arguably New Zealand's most iconic race car''.

Also on display is the 5113cc rotary valve aeroplane engine Mr Watson built on his belt-driven lathe.

- mark.price@odt.co.nz

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