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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Between Rolls-Royce, Packard, and Ford of England, 165,000 Merlin engines were made during and after World War II—second only to the approximately 178,000 R-1830 Twin Wasps turned out by Pratt & Whitney and its licensees. Today, enough Merlin parts survive to make perhaps a few thousand. In the ’60s, acres of Los Angeles were carpeted with Merlins and Allisons owned by a speculator who had bought them for pennies a pound. When land prices shot up the engines were sent to Japan, melted, and recycled.

Thorn’s best engines are built with what the cognoscenti call “transport banks.” Between 1948 and ’50, Rolls-Royce turned out the strongest and most durable Merlins ever for Canadair-built Douglas DC-4s known as Northstars. These 1,760-horsepower engines could pound away for hours without missing a beat, and they made use of every trick Rolls had learned about building durable V-12s. They are the gold standard, and if you want a racer, they are what you need.

What about nitrous oxide? The Luftwaffe used it to augment its simple, single-stage superchargers, and hot-rodders inject it for instant acceleration. (NOX is a powerful oxidizer that “thickens” the air—and therefore the amount of fuel—that an engine can inhale.) Thorn will provide nitrous if asked but says, “It’s hard to carry enough to make it worthwhile. A hot-rodder can fit a five-gallon tank and go play all night, but with an engine this size, you’ve got to have a lot on board.”

Scattered throughout Thorn’s warren of shops are shelves, boxes, racks, and pallets of Merlin parts, many still in sealed Rolls or Packard packaging. “I’ve been able to buy a couple of complete [shop] inventories over the years,” he says. “I could probably build 20 complete engines from scratch. Not counting the things that wear out, like bearings, I probably have 200 engines’ worth. But someday there will be one little widget that nobody has anymore, and you won’t be able to finish an engine unless somebody steps up to the plate and manufactures it.” Part of the problem, Thorn points out, is that a Merlin has six times as many parts as an Allison. “I blame it on socialism,” he says. “The more parts they had to make, the more hours of labor were needed and the more make-work the government achieved.”

Thorn’s protégé, Mike Barrow, builds his own engines alongside Thorn and pitches in to help when needed. When Thorn retires, it’s likely that Barrow will take over the business. “I had a cousin, Louis Norley, who was an ace with the Fourth Fighter Group,” Barrow says. “I’ve always had a thing about P-51s and Merlins. It’s neat to be able to work with this stuff, and I like the air racing too. I’ve been a crew chief, though when you’re both the crew chief and the engine guy, no matter what breaks you’re in trouble,” he says with a grin.

“People my age—I’m 40—when I tell them that I overhaul Rolls-Royce V-12s for a living, they don’t know what I’m talking about.”

Stealth Shop

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.”

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