Masters of the V-12
They're like highly specialized surgeons: there are few of them and they're in great demand.
- By Stephan Wilkinson
- Air & Space magazine, March 2002
(Page 3 of 7)
Tehachapi, California, is a small, high-desert town, but when I ask for directions to Vintage V-12s, nobody knows what I’m talking about. Mike Nixon, a scholarly, preoccupied-looking man who wouldn’t look out of place on the campus of Caltech, likes it that way. “I don’t do any advertising, and I let the local paper do a story on us once every four years as long as they don’t print where we are. It would only attract the tire-kickers.”
At one point while I’m in Nixon’s compulsively neat shop, a deliveryman from town shows up and takes in the spectacle of a dozen or more glossy V-12s. “What are they for?” he asks, wide-eyed. For airplanes like those in the pictures on the walls, Nixon explains. “You mean for, like, hobbyists?” Well, something like that.
Nixon’s “hobbyists” are, for the most part, serious restorers rather than racers. “I can do a restoration engine and see it come back for an overhaul in six or seven years,” he says. “Racers fly your engine for two or three years and blow it up. See that yellow supercharger and set of valve covers?” he asks, pointing to a rack of Merlin parts. “They’re from an engine I first worked on in 1978, and it’s on its fourth owner since then.”
Nixon knows he can’t hand-pick his customers, but he does steer clear of some. He recalls the guy who bought a P-51 and called for some engine operating tips. “I was on the phone for 15 minutes and couldn’t get a word in edgewise,” he recalls. “I hung up and said, ‘He’s dead in a month.’ I was right: He flew into a hill while doing a low-level inverted pass.”
Until recently, Nixon specialized in all-out racing engines that compete in the Gold races, but he burned out on the serious competition. Besides, he says, “It’s far better for us to have four or five guys who fly our engines in the Silver and Bronze races [at least in part contested by basically stock, authentic warbirds] at Reno, have a great time, and tell everybody about it than it would be for us to win the Gold. Or, worse, be leading the Gold and scatter an engine. It takes years to get over something like that.”
Nixon knows that well. He says the race business peaked in 1982, when he built the engines for four of the seven finalists at Reno and Dago Red won with one of his engines. “We were overwhelmed with work after that,” he says. But such reputations, if not easy come, are certainly easy go. Several of his race engines blew during a subsequent season, due to problems he traced back to a piston-ring supplier, and the gossip mill began to grind. “The only Gold racer I’d have any interest in now would be a Griffon-powered airplane, because it would be a challenge and because there’s so much Griffon stuff available,” Nixon says.
Many people think the Merlin was a spinoff of Rolls-Royce’s Type R racing engine, which powered the Supermarine Schneider Cup floatplanes. But the 1,650-cubic-inch Merlin was derived from the 1927 Kestrel V-12; the 2,240-cubic-inch Griffon was the production version of the big R. Development of the Griffon was put aside when the Hurricane and Spitfire needed a smaller, lighter engine.
When Germany attacked England with V-1s, Rolls shoehorned Griffons into what became amazingly fast, low-level Spitfires designed to run down the jet-powered flying bombs. After the war, Griffons powered the four-engine Avro Shackleton maritime patrol bomber. Hundreds survive, having led a sweet life of low-power, low-level loitering. There are even Griffon “box engines” available, still in crates after being overhauled by Rolls-Royce.
Vintage V-12s has accumulated a considerable stock of Griffon parts, but what Nixon is proudest of is his selection of “early-engine stuff.” With almost 150 P-51Ds flying, along with a considerable number of late-model Spitfires, restorers are today embarking on more interesting projects. And if you want to do an A-36 Mustang with its original Allison, a long-nose P-40, or a late-’30s Spitfire, you may need to come to Nixon for the parts. He guesses that his trove’s value is at least “a couple million,” but who can put a price tag on racks of prop reduction gears that look big enough to fit a ship’s engine or a box of thousands of tiny lock-tab washers in an English Whitworth standard size that no longer exists?