When Bonhams & Goodman sold the John Dawson-Damer Collection recently in Sydney, I spent much time poring over the star lot, his beloved Lotus 25. Its landmark monocoque chassis construction still impresses as the most elegant structure; with its Jim Clark connections it was literally the minimum car for the maximum driver. We had arrived in the auction room fresh from bobbing about on a water taxi in Sydney Harbour. One side-effect of having an historical mindset is that it has no on-off switch. As we scudded past the HMAS Sydney memorial, I looked back at our foaming wake, just as a floatplane passed overhead. And that set me thinking of the Short Brothers’ stately C-class Empire flying boats which once used these waters as their airport – the gateway to Australia.
I’ve been a fan of Short aircraft as long as I’ve been potty about racing cars. The Short brothers themselves – Horace, Eustace and Oswald – were an incredible trio. Horace suffered injury-induced meningitis in infancy which resulted in abnormal brain development, an enlarged skull and terrifying physiognomy plus the intellect of a true genius. Eustace led the trio into ballooning, and Oswald into aeroplane production. When they put the Wright Brothers’ pioneering designs into production in 1909, their plant at Leysdown on the Isle of Sheppey became the world’s first dedicated aircraft factory.
Why am I waffling about aviation pioneers? Bear with me, I’ll come to the point. By 1918 war had seriously depleted the world’s timber stocks. Attempts to replace ash, spruce and mahogany with cedar, cottonwood and cypress caused many failures. Oswald Short’s airship experience had introduced him to duralumin, and in 1919 he declared the many advantages of all-metal aeroplane construction – before in 1920 building a prototype at his own expense. He named it the ‘Swallow’, quickly changed to ‘Silver Streak’, and it was entirely made of metal without any wood or fabric anywhere. The fuselage was effectively a monocoque shell of dural plates riveted to L-section oval frames with longitudinal stiffeners in between – approaching 1963-65 Ferrari ‘Aero’ style. The fuselage’s nose was sealed by a sheet firewall bulkhead, with an open-topped engine bay projecting ahead, formed by continuations of the fuselage side skins.
And that was in essence what we see around the engine bay of the monocoque fuselage of the Lotus 25. Oswald Short won a master patent for monocoque metal construction on November 10, 1921 – Colin Chapman’s for his twin-pontoon ‘bath-tub’ system followed over 40 years later. Both were vivid characters, but for me Oswald Short earns extra brownie points for his taste in pets – his Amazonian parrot Laura, who didn’t talk but instead would sing ear-splitting soprano arias – in Portuguese.
Where are such captains of industry today?