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This feature is reproduced from an article that was first published in the June 1991 issue of Classic Boat, pages 47, 48, 49.

Simmonds Speed

Rob Maynard looks at the high speed aluminium vessels produced in the 1950s by the creative British engineer, Donald Leighton Simmonds.

By the 1950s, experience gained quickly through World War Il had led to a wider adoption of aluminium alloys for boat hulls and the acceleration of engineering technology had improved the weight speedboats on the rivers, lakes and inshore waters of Britain. No longer were he middle reaches of the Thames, the lakes of Cumbria or sheltered bays of the South Coast to be quiet havens for a spot of gentle sculling, a contemplative day-sail IT a picnic on Sunday: a new breed of water-sportsmen were experiencing the thrill of skimming across flat water, towed it high speed by small craft thrashing and buzzing their way into the middle distance. The ski-boat had arrived.

In 1954, the same year that Albatross Marine Ltd of Great Yarmouth commenced the production of their Sports Runabout using aircraft manufacturing techniques (See CB14), Donald Simmonds was employing his similar experience and innovative flair to produce a vessel of comparable genre. He is believed to have seen the first man to have used the term Ski-Boat to describe such a craft.

Born in 1907, Donald Simmonds completed an engineering apprenticeship with Rolls-Royce at Derby and his son Chris tells me that “he consequently emerged as a meticulous engineer who was able to make almost anything that required an engineering solution." In 1929 he joined the crew of the airship R100 designed by one of his heroes, Dr Barnes Wallace, and built by the Airship Guarantee Company at Howden in Yorkshire. Donald's responsibilities were the six Rolls-Royce engines and he stayed with the airship during all its proving flights and subsequently made an Atlantic crossing.

However, after the R101 disaster during its maiden flight in 1930, the airship projects were scrapped and Simmonds joined the RAE (Royal Aircraft Establishment ) at Farnborough. Here, under the Directorate of Scientific Research, he was involved in engine testing and research for five years.

During the war years, his skills were employed as a test engineer with Napiers, engine manufacturers in Acton, London, whose Lion model was used in motor torpedo boats. Simmonds was primarily concerned with the development of their later Sabre model and in 1941 travelled to the USA, 'on loan' to the British Air Commission, to run tests at Wright Field, Ohio.

At the cessation of hostilities, like many others, Donald Simmonds went into business for himself. He designed, built and operated a fleet of self-drive motor launches which he based at a raft moored just upstream from Richmond Bridge on the River Thames. Apparently, the scheme initially received a mixed reception from river users but soon the fleet of twenty, blue painted, motor boats became popular with visitors to Richmond.

The transition from flight through the air to speed across water was completed when Donald Simmonds became interested in hydroplane racing. In typical fashion he built his own craft, "Wollibong", in which he raced with considerable success during the early 1950s. Gaining much experience in high speed boats, particularly in the design and manufacture of propellers, Simmonds won the Daily Mirror's National Group Handicap and the first National 50 Mile race in 1954.

At this point in his career, one would think that Donald Simmonds would feel quite fulfilled, but his creative nature prevented any dust settling around him. In 1954 he sold the self-drive hire boat business and commenced the manufacture of his aluminium speed boats.

Simmonds Motor Launches were based at 236 Twickenham Road, Isleworth, Middlesex or, as Chris Simmonds puts it, "the early boats were built in a 20' by 20' (6.1 x 6.1m) shed in our back garden at Isleworth which became office, factory and home.”

The prototype Ski-Boat was put through most of its trials on the Thames at Richmond, out of season. Chris Simmonds remembers that "an interesting feature of the first boat was that it had a largish blister on the bottom of the hull to house the engine oil sump. Surprisingly, this did not seem to effect the performance adversely although it was done away with on subsequent boats."

The first production boat made its public debut at a water ski meeting at Ruislip Lido in September 1954. The boat had an overall length of 14'(4.3m) with a 5'4"(1.6m) beam and, with its 1 1/2 litre Ford engine, had an all-up weight of S501b(386kg). This boat, number one, was sold to the then head of Aston Martin cars and David Brown Tractors, David Brown himself and was used as a tender to his yacht Marsaltese II.

The engines fitted as standard to the 14’ (4.3m) Simmonds ski-boat were marinised Mark II Consul models with twin down draught carburettors incorporating accelerator pumps, producing a maximum output of 51bhp at 4,400rpm. Simmonds supplied this engine for use in other boats as well as their own. The price, complete with 12 volt generator, starter and ignition coil, was set at £197 in 1957 – items such as a starter solenoid and voltage regulator were deemed extras!”

If the cost at less than £200 didn't persuade you to invest, the company’s literature was likely to convince you: "In a well designed boat the instant surge of power is most impressive and the craft will flash up to full speed in a few seconds."

It was probably true. Built to accommodate three people forward and two in the rear bench seat, with the engine between, these little vessels could achieve speeds of between 35 mph and 40 mph. More than this, they could also pull multiples of waterskiers out of the water and onto the plane. Such was the performance that power plant and hull design could achieve, the literature distributed at the National Boat Show, held at Olympia in 1957, boasted that "Six water skiers can be towed off simultaneously and enjoy a fast, crisp ride in company. The speed when towing is sufficient for championship competitions and jumping." All this for £795.

The 1957 claim almost certainly referred to a later model which was powered by a 1700cc, four cylinder, overhead valve Ford Engine, which had a power output varying From 57bhp to over 70bhp according to tuning and the equipment fitted. As the engines were designed to run for long periods at full throttle, a need for cooling the oil and exhaust was found necessary - there was little chance of the engines overheating. They were also provided with closed circuit, thermostatically controlled fresh water coaling which circulated through a heat exchanger in the hull bottom as a standard feature. The instruction manual of 1963 warned that the bottom of the boat should not be painted or engine cooling could be impaired.

Production of the boats and engines continued with some success through to the early 1960s and during this time Donald Simmonds rented workshop space from Tough Brothers of Teddington, on the Thames, where some of the more substantial construction took place.

A great testimony to the Ski-Boat's performance was reflected in the achievements of Mr S F Pearson with Optimist in 1960. He did not start to race her until August of that year, but had won three firsts, including the Lady Brecknock Trophy, before the end of the month. This he achieved at maximum reported speeds of 50mph but he did have a specially converted engine behind him; the Raymond Mays Ford Zephyr cylinder head conversion boasted triple carburettors. However, the success of Optimist led the Simmonds company to claim " . . . It's simple with Simmonds" in their 1961 advertising campaign.

It was the high point in the history of Simmonds Ski-Boats. In the early 1960s Donald Simmonds sold the company to a Major Wood of Huwood Engineering and by 1963 the production had moved up to Newcastle upon Tyne and little more is known. Of Simmonds himself, Chris Simmonds takes up the story. “My parents moved to Lymington in Hampshire where my father my father set up a one man firm called Precision Propellers. He made propellers to order, for offshore powerboats, which were in great demand and pretty expensive. I fact, things were working out quite successfully when he died at the early age of 57 in 1964."

It was not, however, the end of the Simmonds Ski-Boats story. A revival of interest in such aluminium-built boats of the Fifties and early Sixties has led to the discovery and restoration of some models by enthusiastic individuals. One such is Alan Fawcus who, at the age of 14, was first captivated by these craft while on holiday at Ullswater in Cumbria in 1965. So inspired was he that when he returned home, he constructed his own 5' (1.5m) version from old pieces of plywood, complete with tumblehome at the after end - for him the most important feature of a 'real' motor boat.

Despite owning successive boats, including an Owens model which he used as a recovery craft on Lake Coniston during an attempt by Tony Fahey on the World Water Speed Record in 1982, Alan still longed for an aluminium vessel. He advertised for a two-seater Albatross and in response was offered three or four boats, including a Simmonds. "I had heard of the name but really knew no more. When I approached the owner's house, the partially dismantled boat was standing outside. 'I saw the back first and there was that beautifully tapered stern - I had bought it before I stopped the car!"

Some parts, including most of the paint, were missing but, using his experience as a Marine engineer, he manufactured and adapted components to fit and got the boat ready for the water. Two months later he was ready for testing and took the boat to a quiet loch in Scotland for his first run. "I fired it up and my wife Carol cast off and pushed out the bow so that it pointed down the loch. I engaged the clutch and it immediately accelerated to 8 mph, then to 12 mph, but no more, even at full throttle. Everything I knew about engines was going through my mind as I turned back to the jetty."

He swapped spark plug leads, checked the exhaust cooling water supply -maybe the engine was filling up with water? - took her out on a number of further trials and at last discovered that the rear of the exhaust manifold was cold: a butterfly valve on one of the carburettors was not working. “The screw that held the linkage together was loose; half a turn and off we went: 33 mph, with the wonderful feeling at last, twenty five years after seeing the first one, I had got the boat that I wanted.”

Most bystanders thought that Alan's boat was a four seater Albatross but some recognised it as a Simmonds. "They were mostly forty to fifty year old water skiiers who had learned to ski behind one and said that they were damned good boats. During that weekend at Loch Kindar, Dumfries and Galloway, the Simmonds Ski-Boat attracted a lot of attention and Alan concedes "some were attracted by the sound."

Alan's boat is number 539. She used to belong to Ullswater Ski Cub and, just by the wear on the ski hitch, would appear to have worked hard. Alan believes that she was probably amongst the last of the Ski-Boats to have been built.

There would appear to be few Simmonds Ski-Boats still surviving and, during his search for authentic parts, Alan Fawcus is compiling a record of those that he located He is restoring his own boat to its original specification, even down to the correct paint colours with the help of International Paints who have historical records. The engine cover, which had a hole cut into it to allow the fitting of a non-standard 2"(50mm) SU carburettor at some point in the boat's history, is also being restored. This job is being undertaken by panel beater, Paul Vevers who, as an apprentice was sent to Coniston Water, Cumbria to repair one Bluebird’s pontoons after Dr Donald Campbell had hit the dock.

Alan Fawcus is lucky in that his boat was still sitting on its original 'Simmonds Keel Locating Trailer' which, according to the manufacturer, was "available for high speed trailing" and would "greatly enhance the pleasure to be obtained from these boats. Launching and hauling can be a very easy operation as the self-locating arrangements make it possible to position the boat without risk of damage or additional help."

It seems that Donald Simmonds had thought of everything, he designed and built the boats, marinised the engines that powered them, designed and made the 11" diameter by 9" pitch propellers (2 mm 229 mm) that drove them through the water, designed the trailers so that one man could get the boat to and from the water and he relished driving them himself.

With the advent of GRP, the days of rivetted aluminium for speed and construction were numbered and today they represent a small part of marine history but, unlike their modern day successors, they are truly characteristic of British post-war motor boating, and the Simmonds Ski-Boat, perhaps, the quintessential example.

With thanks to Rob Maynard and Classic Boat magazine