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Simmonds Motor LaunchesA little while ago the renowned Simmonds and sports boat expert Alan Fawcus wrote a short article about Donald Simmonds, his company and the boats he built. We are very grateful to Alan for his permission to use that piece as a basis for our own history of Simmonds Motor Launches . . .

Those with long memories may remember Donald Leighton Simmonds as being the person responsible for introducing self-drive motorboats on the Thames at Richmond in 1946, but there was far more to the man than that, and his career in engineering began in a very high-profile environment.

Born in Wigton, Cumbria in June 1907, excitement came early to Donald as, shortly after completing his apprenticeship with Roll Royce, he joined the crew of the R100. This airship was built by the Airship Guarantee Company at Howden in Yorkshire and had been fitted with six Rolls Royce engines. Donald's job was to tend those powerful monsters.

Donald Simmonds worked on the R100He kept with the R100 through all its proving flights, including its memorable trans-Atlantic crossing, until disaster hit the R100's sister ship, the R101 during its maiden flight on October 5th 1930. With the airship projects scrapped Donald joined the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough and concentrated on engine testing and research. He remained there for five years before transferring to Napiers, initially at the Acton works, but then moving to Wright Field Ohio in the United States to test the Napier Sabre engine in 1941.

He left Napiers after the Second World War to set up and operate a self-drive motorboat company at Richmond. In 1946 twenty blue-painted boats were built and used for pleasure by the public on the River Thames. His interests also ran to racing motorboats, and in 1954 his outboard hydroplane Wollibong won the Daily Mirror National Group Handicap and the first National 50 mile race.

In 1952 he embarked upon the task of designing his own fast aluminium motorboat using a Ford 1500 cc engine. The development and production of the craft proceeded without haste for two years until the prototype had its first public appearance at the Ruislip Lido Waterski meeting in September 1954. This event was, perhaps a little surprisingly, broadcast live on the BBC, but it was an innovation that served Donald Simmonds well.

Donald and his son Christopher hauling the prototype Simmonds out of Ruislip LidoDesigned to serve the purpose of towing waterskiers, as well as being capable of acting as a yacht tender or runabout, the boat readily attained a speed of some 35 mph. Powered by a marinised Ford 1.5 litre straight four (also available separately for £197), the engine in the prototype was installed on Silentbloc mountings and cooled by a heat exchanger built into the hull. A clutch was provided, operated by a lever on the starboard side, and due to the angle of the engine a bulge was put into the boat bottom to accommodate the sump. This did not affect the handling unduly but was done away with when production started using a low-line aluminium sump. Seating was on buttoned cushions with three in front and two behind. The boat was constructed using 12 and 14 swg aluminium sheet, weighed 850 lbs, and was d 14 ft long, 5'4" wide.

Orders came in from all over the world, including America, France and Australia, as well as five from a royal family in the Persian Gulf. Buoyed by such a positive reaction (no doubt enhanced by the live outside broadcast!) Donald Simmonds commenced manufacture. The first boat to come off the production line, No. 1, went to David Brown, the founder of Aston Martin sportscars, and was kept on the deck of Brown's yacht, Marsaltese II, often moored off the coast at Monte Carlo.

The Simmonds was - is - a fast runabout for fiveHowever, the design was soon stretched to 15 '4" in overall length and the larger, less agricultural 1700 cc Ford Consul MK II engine was fitted, completed with twin Zenith carburettors, four-branch water cooled exhaust manifold and angled aluminium sump. There was a built-in oil cooler and Jabsco saltwater pump, which not only cooled the oil but also the exhaust manifold before discharging through the exhaust pipe.

A twelve-gallon fuel tank with a dipstick and reserve tap was fitted. Instrumentation was a tachometer, oil pressure gauge, engine temperature and ammeter. A secret ignition switch was fitted in the event of losing the key. The propeller was aluminium nickel bronze, 9½" diameter, made by Simmonds, and each was individually numbered.

The rate of production at Simmonds' workshops was limited to around six boats a year, and great care was taken to ensure a very high standard of build - a fact which accounts for the generally excellent condition of the few surviving boats. This type of work did not come cheaply, and in 1957 the cost was £835 without trailer. By comparison, the Ford Consul MK II car with the same engine was a mere £545.

From the Simmonds brochure of 1962On May 3rd 1958, at the London Motorboat Racing Club, a certificate was issued to one Simmonds recording a best lap speed of 34.55 mph, which included sharp left and right turns. Being exceptionally well made and fast ensured that many more Simmonds boats found their way onto the racing circuits. One boat owned by Mr S.F. Pearson was called Optimist (F.T. Zlll) and met with great success during the 1960 season. Employing a Raymond Mays conversion on the Ford Consul engine, including triple SU H6 carburrettors, the boat won the Lady Brecknock Trophy at speeds reaching 50 mph This boat was shown on the Simmonds stand at the boat show at Olympia in 1961. There are also examples of the Simmonds fitted with the Daimler Dart V8 engine, and these can be good for 60 mph.

The Simmonds could haul three skiiers with easeIn 1961 the business was sold to Major Wood of Huwood Engineering of Gateshead. With his financial input there was a rapid expansion of the production facility, and over the course of the next three years approximately 200 more boats were built, mainly for ski clubs. Regrettably, the programme came just a few years too late for Simmonds. With the rapid growth in popularity of cheaper fibre-glass speedboats, the viability of manufacturing a labour-intensive aluminium-hulled boat like the Simmonds soon became marginal. In 1963 production finally ceased. The following year Donald Simmonds died at the very early age of just 57.

Simmonds Today

Ironically, most of the contemporary fibreglass boats that effectively killed off boats like the Simmonds have long since been broken up, but the survival rate of the Simmonds itself is far better than once presumed. Over the last few years the number of Simmonds boats known to exist has steadily grown, and whereas fewer than a dozen were believed to survive intact just ten years ago, that number is now thought to exceed forty.

The Simmonds is still a practical, and economical, sports runabout even todayIt is with some amusement that we note that a fair number of these newcomers to the list are coming to light when boat owners discover that their five-seater Albatross isn't actually an Albatross at all, but a Simmonds with a worthy history all its own. The fact that so few Simmonds appear to retain their original VIN plates is half the problem, but the unique shape and exceptional build-quality of the genuine item regularly brings another Simmonds to the surface.

Not surprisingly, that quality and aesthetically-pleasing shape also accounts for a recent resurgence in value. While it is still possible to pick up a Simmonds restoration project for a few hundred pounds, good examples now change hands (although rarely!) for anything up to £5,000. When one considers that a comparable vessel new today would cost anything upwards of £25,000, and embody just a fraction of the character, then owning a classic aluminium sports boat starts to become even more appealing.

This register was founded in 2006 to foster interest in the Simmonds, and to offer a resource and support for existing owners. If that includes you, and we're not yet aware of you or your boat, then please do contact us.

With thanks to Alan Fawcus for his permission to borrow his article for the preparation of this brief history. If you want to know more, there are other articles reproduced within the In Print section of the website that include additional facts and references.