OUR VISITS TO KEN
Having been asked to review Wing Commander Ken Wallis’s biography our editor then asked me if I would go to see the great man himself to get more information about his engineering life, and in particular his Austin Seven involvement. As luck would have it Dianne and I were off to Norfolk in the Ruby for a holiday, we did not make it in the Ruby, but that is another story!
We met Ken, 91 years old, at his home, a manor house not far from Norwich. Ken invited us in and showed us around the ground floor of his home. In the hall many artefacts reflected his years in engineering and aviation. Many weapons on the walls with propellers and other bits of aircraft and engines. A rather nice clock set in the connecting rod off a radial engine. The surface finish just as it was when removed from the engine, Ken marvelled at the machining and finish that had been applied even during the war. On another wall the control column and a piece of fabric from the fin of Wellington L7886 showing the ‘opps’ flown. This Ken had cut from the Wellington bomber that he had bailed out of. I noticed Ken was wearing his Caterpillar tiepin; this was awarded to all who had to “hit the silk” in order to save their life. The caterpillar signifies the important role the silk worm has played in parachute design! In the hall Ken had some very large crocodile skin suitcases, inside which were the parts to assemble the autogyro, Little Nelly. These were a memento of his filming for the James Bond film, You Only Live Twice. Ken was amazed at the no expense spared attitude of the film industry. Also in the hall were dozens of rosettes from pony club events won by Ken’s granddaughter, he was very proud of her achievements.
When the article had been published in the Pre-War Austin Seven Club magazine we returned to Ken and presented him with a copy. I also presented him with a de-activated 30mm aircraft canon round. After the war Ken helped develop modern a/c cannons and other armament equipment.
Through a door at the end of the passage we entered directly into a machine shop. Lathes, drills and all manner of machine tools. A wall full of glass bottles full of aircraft quality nuts bolts and all manner of fasteners. In the corner a stack of lightweight tubing, against another wall sheets of light alloy.
On a shelf an array of trophies won in the USA when racing hydroplanes, Ken won the 56-mile Missouri Marathon in 1956 while on secondment to the USAF. Also on the shelf more awards for his Rolls Royce special, ‘Long Dog’. Again all presented at shows in the USA during his visit. It very quickly became apparent that Ken knew where all the odds and ends had come from. On a radiator sat an airfoil shaped strip of metal, “That is piece of a wing wire from a Virginia bomber, I made the door handles for Long Dog from some of that”.
From the house a short walk to the hanger housing all the autogyros that Ken has built. Ken also has many engines he has experimented with over the years. One of special interest was a four cylinder Rolls Royce aero engine reworked as a two cylinder. “It was not easy to weld the two halves of the crankcase back together in proper alignment,” said Ken. An understatement if ever I heard one. And in one corner the reason for our visit, officially at any rate. It was a scrapbook of Ken’s drawings and photographs dealing with the many cars he has built or modified.
Ken’s first Austin Seven special was the result of a crash! Ken was returning from a fair at Lakenheath racing a friend in an Alvis 12/50 in 1934. When asked what caused the crash Ken said, “I was drunk!” Ken was driving his Gordon England Cup model, said to have the best balanced lines of all the coach built vintage Austin Sevens. The car, OT 7992 was back on the road within a week having been rebuilt as a special by Ken.
Not much information exists about the second special but I am sure it was fairly standard.
The third and last Austin Seven special was, maybe still is, very special. I say maybe as Ken has not given up hope that it will, one day be found. Ken still has his original drawings for the chassis and bodywork from 1938. The chassis was constructed using two Austin Seven chassis joined together. As shown in the drawings the engine and transmission are all as normal on the ‘rear’ chassis. The ‘front’ chassis holding the front axle steering gear and radiator. The exhaust manifold has been modified to give a twin down pipe layout. Having the standard Austin Seven engine fitted the car must have been a bit low on performance. Ken says it did handle very well though.
The lines of the bodywork look wonderful, very evocative of the pre-war era. Ken liked long bonnets, as we will see later with his Long Dog Rolls Royce special. Ken sold this car in 1945. In 2006 Ken Cotterell who had owned the special for a number of years sent him some information and a photograph of his car, taken, probably in the 50’s. I am hoping that this article might bring out some more information about the location or final resting place of this extraordinary car. I cannot believe it has been scrapped.
In October 1939 Ken Joined the Royal Air Force. Ken recalled an incident while in an Austin Seven saloon, Parked up for a kiss and a cuddle with a girlfriend a policeman tried to move him on. Ken showed him his Royal Aero Club Certificate that had the words ‘The Civil, Naval and Military authorities including police are respectfully requested to aid and assist the Holder of this Certificate’ the policeman was suitably impressed, as was the girl and Ken was not disturbed any more! He did try the same ploy with an Air Raid Warden on another occasion but was told “Don’t come the acid with me young man” and moved on!
Ken flew for the rest of the war with Bomber Command and in my opinion Ken and all the other crews, who went into the jaws of death every time they went into action, should have had their own campaign medal. That they have not is a disgrace. The cumulative effect of watching new crews arrive and depart either listed as missing or known to have ‘pranged’ must have been horrendous. Whatever the rights and wrongs of our bombing policy, and hindsight is a wonderful thing in that respect, the cream of our young men did all that they were asked to do and did it well.
The following two incidents could have been fatal for the whole crew and must have been, as we might say today “Quite stressful” Ken spoke about them in a very matter of fact way, they were just things that happened in war time.
Returning from a raid in Wellington L7886, low on fuel, Ken found all available airfields fogged in, the advice from the ground, RAF Binbrook, was, fly north, climbing to gain a safe height for baling out the engines cut. Decision made for the crew they took to their parachutes. Ken was a bit put out that the farmer he ended up spending the night with, sleeping in a chair, was not the most hospitable person. The rest of the crew had much better luck having been entertained much more generously, “They even had a good fried breakfast!” said Ken.
Limping home from a raid on Germany in Wellington R1459 mostly on one engine their aircraft hit the cable of a balloon situated on the bank of the Humber. The cable had severely weakened the wing and a crash landing was inevitable. Luckily all survived relatively unhurt. Ken still has, on display, a piece of the balloon cable that sawed through the port wing, and a piece of the spar that had been cut through by the cable. Ken really is a Magpie collecting bits and bobs all through his long and adventurous life.
Ken’s Rolls Royce special Long Dog was created from a derelict pick up that he bought in 1948. From the photographs the new bonnet looks around eight feet long. As one might have guessed the bonnet hinges were held in place by 450 Lancaster bomber skin bolts. After the war Ken ran trials to determine what damage could be inflicted by modern weapons on aircraft assemblies. This meant Ken had access to bits of Lancaster wings and 24 complete Spitfires! All to be shot at in the name of research. He still has stocks of fittings from this era. Waste not, want not.
Ken has photographs of his Long Dog special in the USA; it was left behind after his two-year spell with the USSAF, when he had the opportunity to fly their biggest bomber, the ten engine Convair B-36. Mohamed Ali was photographed against Long Dog at one time. Like his Austin Seven special Ken has lost track of it. However the Rolls Royce Club of America are looking for it so it may yet turn up!
Dianne said after meeting Ken Wallis “what a nice man he is” I agree, and in the very best meaning of the words. We were both left with the feeling that Ken was pleased to share his experiences with us. Nothing was too much trouble; Ken would have flown one of his Autogyros, even though it was raining and blustery. No thanks we said.
This photograph is of a model Ken made to convince the RAF there was a better, and quicker, way to get the 1000lb bombs onto the Canberra bomber.
I am acutely aware that I have hardly touched on the subject Ken is most known for, his work on autogyros. He really is the world’s foremost authority on the subject. To find out more about the life of this extraordinary man you must read The Lives of Ken Wallis, by Ian Hancock. It really is a good read.