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Masters of the V-12

They're like highly specialized surgeons: There are few of them, and they're in great demand

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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?

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

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