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 4 of 7)
Nixon’s most recent project has been the restoration of a rare Daimler-Benz DB 601 inverted V-12 for a New Zealand collector’s Messerschmitt Bf 109E. “The biggest problem has been all the magnesium parts—intake manifolds, valve covers, accessory cases, things like that,” he says. “Since they’re all down at the bottom of the engine when it’s mounted in the inverted position, moisture gets at them and they corrode away.”
Nixon points to the engine’s original valve covers, amid a shelf of equally useless DB 601 parts. They are magnesium doilies that are filligreed with rot, which is why it took parts from two donor 601s to complete the job. He also had to have a propeller reduction gear cover, a casting about the size and shape of a bedpan, manufactured. “Pattern, casting, and machine work, it cost $20,000,” he says. “I look at that and laugh when people suggest building an entire new Merlin. It would cost $1 million per engine, easy.” The rebuilt DB 601 will cost its owner nearly $300,000, plus $100,000 for the original core and the extra engines bought for parts, but then Nixon has put a year and a half into the job. It’s the second 601 he’s done; the first one took over three years.
The German, American, and British V-12s are fairly similar in general, but Nixon says the complexity of the DB 601 is obvious. “The British and Americans did more in-the-field maintenance, whereas the Germans would just send the whole engine back to the factory. They could change the engine in a Messerschmitt in a little over an hour.” And that’s why you see World War II photos of shirtless, oil-covered GIs pulling cylinders and replacing pistons. The Germans left that work to men in white shopcoats.
“Still, there were very few people either at Rolls, Allison, or Daimler-Benz who knew the whole engine,” Nixon says as he recalls the roots of his profession. “Almost everybody was a specialist. It was only in the 1950s and ’60s that we evolved to generalists who actually work on the whole engine—guys like Dwight Thorn and me and a few others who have basically had to learn the whole engine.”
Is Nixon’s business growing as warbirding increasingly becomes the sport of kings? “ ‘Stable’ is a better word for it,” he says. “We’ve had some huge incremental increases, like when in the late ’70s a lot of ex-South American airplanes became available, and then in the late ’80s when all the Spitfire gate guardians came down to be made flyable for the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, but I don’t think there are any more ‘secret’ warbirds out there anymore. The legendary 50 P-51s that were supposedly in China turned out to be nonexistent. When the Berlin Wall came down, that was the last time a large group of World War II aircraft suddenly became available.
“But the nice thing for us is that when you restore an airplane, you never see it again. When you restore an engine, it comes back for an overhaul every six or 10 years.”
The Odd Couple
Sam Torvik and Bill Moja have worked together for 30 years and still argue about whether the shop radio is too loud. Torvik is small, tightly wound, and wears a trimmed beard. He’s the Merlin specialist. Moja is a big, shuffling, mustachioed galoot, the kind of man whose shirttails are usually out. He prefers Allisons. “The English engines…,” he shakes his head. “Full of lousy rubber seals and way too many pieces. They’re like Jaguars burning out at the side of the road all the time. I don’t know why we’re still doing Merlins. There’s so much labor in ’em.”
Torvik and Moja are the V-12 masters at JRS Enterprises, which is housed in an old brick building next to some automobile dealers in suburban Minneapolis. The “R” has fallen off the JRS sign, and a constant stream of traffic rumbles past on a four-lane highway. This was once the hobby shop of racer John Sandberg, who was killed in 1991 in his remarkable homebuilt Unlimited racer Tsunami, a mini-Mustang that was the smallest airplane ever to have carried a Merlin. Today, JRS Enterprises is basically a fabrication shop fulfilling small contracts for the aerospace industry, but the engine building continues almost as though nobody knows how to stop it.