19 thoughts on “Sunbeam Rapier, Thistle Green, Stockton

  1. As someone who’s hobby is modern industrial history, I very much appreciate Frank Mee’s vignettes on what went on at ICI Billingham and elsewhere. He recounts the kind of things which would have been industrial secrets at the time, as well as hands-on operating and maintenance practices. His recollections are the sort of thing which never gets into the typical paper on industrial history which depend on company publications and biographical stuff about the higher management.

    For example I doubt very much whether a manager would have admitted to the level of pilfering going on at Billingham which Frank saw.

    If I can trouble Frank a bit more about the platinum rings in the nitric acid plant. He says that they were woven. Does he mean like the weave on coarse sacking or curtain material? How thick was each ring and how fine was the wire?


    • Thank you Fred, put it down to the reports I had to write in the Army and then at ICI, I wrote what I saw, no embroidery and leave nothing out, often terse and to the point but with the relevant detail.
      Leaving Richard Hind at near enough sixteen and head hunted by Arthur Brown I found my self in a wartime industry of medium engineering manufacturing, upstairs wire works downstairs Sheet metal fabrications of all shapes and sizes. Arthur sent me upstairs for a couple of months to learn the jobs and methods of wire working before starting down stairs. One of the jobs upstairs was working a new automatic crimping machine for making wire mesh which was woven on a loom, The wires were straightened then crimped depending on the size of the mesh which meant I had to set all the wheels for that mesh and check it by weaving a section to make sure. Like carpet or tapestry you had a warp and a weft though because the wire was already crimped the mesh had to be woven so the crimps matched up thus forming a solid mesh, the smaller the cube size the harder the work.
      The ICI Platinum mesh was of around ten gauge wire woven to a fine mesh the cube size quite small, my memory of looking through the sight glass was of actual vapour appearing through the mesh and rising the whole glowing white hot.
      If the men asked for a scrap chit they knew they would get one from me even though I often knew they had fabricated something for home use, my reward was the men would work for me in the worst conditions when I asked for extra effort, it was a case of give and take, with a chit from me they could walk through the gate because if caught it was instant dismissal with the loss of pension rights and often the word put out to other company’s, a blind eye had its uses.
      As a WO1 in the army I had learned screaming shouting and swearing got you only sullen obedience, quiet orders given with an explanation why got the work done and I carried that into ICI where men had to work with minimum supervision it worked for me.
      The men gave me a party when I left and I thanked them for always bringing the plants back on line on time and within budget, not always the case with other sections.


      • I should have said the cube size of the mesh would be no more than a quarter of an inch it must have been a pig to weave.
        Each up crimp would fit over a down crimp giving a flat look to the mesh which would have an outer ring of around 3/16 no more than a 1/4 of an inch. That is from memory so could be a bit out either way. I often wondered where it came from and what it would cost for one ring. Saying that we had Silver lined convertors, which were repaired and machined in the Workshops, every small piece of turning being picked up and secured.


  2. The only true thing that can be said of cars built at this time, is no matter how wonderful they looked when emerging from the showroom, they were part of the rot-box generation. After 3-4 years the bodywork would start to perforate. After seven they were only good for the scrapyard crusher. Then as cubes of scrapped steel the best place was into the blast furnace at Dorman Long….They could be charged into our steel furnaces, but they tended to float on top of the molten slag, doing nothing to help steel making.

    Teesside, tucked in a valley, shrouded with pollution from the ICI and steelworks, and relative closeness to the coast, was one of the worst places in the country for corrosion. I seem to recollect that this was established during a national survey at the end of the 1960s.

    Something reputed to survive Teesside’s corrosive environment was a chicken wire fence built by a bloke from the ICI who had seen this scrap material lying around. It turned out to be the platinum wire catalyst used one of the companies reactors. I only heard this story at about fourth hand, but it has a ring of truth, if my own experience of serious pilfering is anything to go by. I wonder if Frank Mee could confirm?


    • Rotting on cars was also caused at the nearside. Grit that had collected on the side of the road, kicked up onto the inner wings causing ware to the underseal and then onto the metal parts. I always saw this when you saw the nearside rusty where the driving side was clear of this.


      • Bob, One Unit I was with supplied cars for VIP’s. we had a mix of BL’s Roll’s Rovers and some of the Sunbeams. They came from the factory new and our workshop stripped them down to bare bones and started from the chassis up with extra under seal and repainting. The mechanics were stripped and often beefed up, various loose bolts bits of metal and tools recovered, even the upholstery was looked at though mainly that would be OK. Those cars were the best maintained vehicles we had yet we had quite a turnover, VIP’s did not like looking at the road through the floor or getting wet from leaking windows or even waiting at the roadside whilst the driver cleared Carburetors and changed plugs.
        One thing we got from that experience was the Metropolitan Police Aggressive and Defensive driving course, that was fun. We would line up different weapons on the range give them stacks of ammo and let them blast away. The Driving course got mush dicier after a good lunch in the mess with of course plenty of drink, the law was not as tough then well not for the police.


        • Did you drive on the skid pan Frank. I did an Advanced course with County Durham Police Force and part of that was the skid pan at Sedgfield which was originally the army camp. I came off with massive water blisters on my hands. It did give you knowledge especially in winter conditions in how to handle the car.


          • Bob, we had our own skidpan at Bordon and having by then driven on three Continents in every make and shape of Vehicle possible including American Canadian and German had met most kinds of driving condition. The Met Police course was to get out of situations Princess Anne found herself in when a gunman tried to abduct her in London. I did have some experience having had to drive a Box Humber Staff car out of Cairo during riots.
            Germany in winter could be one big ice rink, driving Armoured vehicles on the roads could be a bit hair raising. It makes me smile when the traffic comes to a halt in this country for a couple of inches of snow.
            I was driving Vauxhall’s as personal transport at that time they were not rust buckets, the 101 I had for three years never once let me down.


    • The Nitric acid plant on German Road used Platinum Catalyst which was woven into discs for placing in the converter, it was kept when not in use in a room near the Plant Office with only a Yale lock as nobody thought it would be stolen. It cannot be melted down by normal furnaces so cannot be sold on to the scrap merchants they knew better than trying to handle it yet some did vanish.
      It was discovered a disc was missing so the word went out not to touch it, several weeks later it was found thrown on the waste land next to the Newport Bridge and returned to ICI, whether the thief was caught and punished I do not know, I do know an extra lock was fitted to the door but a good jemmy would have got you in there easily.
      ICI must have lost thousands on a monthly basis when there was a search the road to the gate would be littered with stuff as the word went round. I once saw a van heading for the gate with its tail touching the ground and the front wheels lifting as they tried to make it out of the gate. The Police had seen it coming and stopped it as I walked up I saw a Stainless steel tube bundle sticking out of the back, we have permission to take it the men said, they were held until the Local Police arrived and the tube bundle returned to the Ammonia Plant on a truck with the help of a crane, we have no idea how they got it in the van in the first place.


      • Frank, do you remember how big were the platinum mesh grids for the nitric acid plant? And was the reactor stuffed full of them?
        On a steam reforming plant I worked on someone lifted the lead lined Cobalt 60 gamma ray source, used for radiography….It was never recovered!


        • Fred the woven wire platinum rings were around four feet diameter, they sat on lugs inside the converter singly and I have memory of seeing the hot vapours passing over a ring through a site glass so the pressure could not have been too high. Memory does play tricks though I believe there was a battery of converters.
          My interest was in keeping the plants running when they started to stumble, the process side was to me knowing enough to keep my workforce out of danger as I had to sign all the clearances to work then hand back once the maintenance had finished.
          The plant itself was quite large with boilers and much of the process outside the main building, the storage tanks being on the other side of German Road one of them being Stainless Iron, the oldest one on site and well patched where a near miss bomb during the war had spattered it with shrapnel.
          We maintained the complete site from North Tees Refinery to the South site Arsenic plant so knowing all the individual processes was not possible, a little knowledge of each and the saying goes a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, probably why I had some near misses.


  3. I think you’ll find that the car pictured above is actually a Singer ‘Vogue’. A Sunbeam ‘Rapier’ had single headlights and only two-doors.


    • I learned to drive 1st in a Sunbeam. It was a column change gear. Then went to the Danby School of Motoring where they had a Hilman car with the same column change.


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