A modern special: The Merlin-Aerees

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Home-made

At one time road-going specials were fairly common, whether built by people who thought they could improve on manufacturers’ offerings or just for the fun of making a car that was different by combining the components of several makes. In recent times the trend has diminished, so I was interested to meet the Merlin-Aerees, which was mentioned briefly last month, and to learn more about it. It proved an interesting story. . .

The car’s builder, Dennis Owen Rees of Carmarthen, was one of four sons of a successful grocer who had owned a series of Model T Fords, including a black-radiator tourer, before turning to Roesch Talbots. The first of these Talbots was a 10/23, followed by a very early 14/45, ordered even before Roesch’s advanced new car had been shown at Olympia. It broke its chassis side-members by the engine-mounting bolts, causing Mr Rees to send to Barlby Road drawings of liners for inserting in them. This produced a letter from the great Georges Roesch saying he knew of the trouble and was sending two of Talbot’s own liners free of charge, which he hoped would cure the trouble. After that, other Talbots were used as family cars, up to a fast 105.

Not unnaturally, the Rees boys became keen on cars. Dennis had, before this, a two-stroke Radon motorcycle which he rode smokily to grammar school. He still remembers a day in 1927 when their form-master told them sadly: “Something very terrible had happened.” They thought perhaps war has again broken out, but he was referring to the death of Parry Thomas at Pendine.

The famous Pendine rider Stevens had built up a potent R & S Special with a 6hp JAP engine for his brother Glyn. Dennis later inherited this, riding it on an improvised indoor dirt track, rendered slippery with soap, having to cut back the handlebars to negotiate one narrow door!

The first car the boys had was an A7 Chummy, which they fitted with a Smiths 5-jet and then with a 14/45 Talbot carburettor, the latter’s throttle worked by a length of string. One day it refused to shut after the string had been stretched to the limit; a major downhill prang resulted, and Dennis ended up in a field beside the car’s battery.

Later, when they were allowed to drive the Talbots, their mother insisted they must not take the 105 over 45 mph. Ignoring this parental safety-factor, they used to lie in wait for a local gentleman who drove another Talbot 105, and engage in races with him — until at dinner one night, when he was a guest, they heard themselves described as “those awful boys” who raced with him, which he confessed he rather enjoyed. . .

His early enthusiasm for cars led Dennis to read all the 1920s motor magazines, and later he contacted components makers asking for quotes for a car he proposed to manufacture. He wrote on headed Aerees Motor Co paper he had had printed; the name being derived from his interest in flying and his surname. That was in 1936, and he was quite serious. The war intervened and Rees entered the RAF, but when it was over a single-seater Aerees was built. It was based on the Fiat 500s Dennis had used during the war, with a Wolseley Hornet engine and chain-and-sprocket steering. A 6 cwt car, later converted into a two-seater, it acquitted itself well in sprints until sold in 1960.

That might have been that, had not Rees’ 17-year-old daughter jokingly suggested that her father build a car for her. This revived his 1936 ambitions. By then Dennis had relinquished the partnership he had in the Angel Motor Co, Simca and Fiat agents, so any special he embarked on had to be made in his orchard and garden shed! Undeterred, he set about construction of a handsome open 2/4-seater of somewhat Jaguar-like appearance, allied to touches of Roesch Talbot.

For a chassis he used that of a 1935 EL24 Daimler Light-20, as it had nicely swept side-members and was of light, boxed formation. At first a 2.4-litre twin-cam Jaguar engine was employed but performance was unimpressive, so a 3.4-litre Mk2 Jaguar engine was substituted. To get it into the chassis, the middle cruciform chassis-member had to be removed, but a new one was made which allowed the engine to go 18in further back than the original Daimler power-unit.

The Jaguar engine was standard except that, to obviate the noise from the bottom timing-chain tensioners (a shortcoming of the Jaguar engine until the oil pressure had built up) Rees made his own two metallastic tensioners. The later, improved gearbox with o/d on top gear was used but the worm-drive Daimler back axle retained, giving about 20 mph per 1000 rpm.

Even so, the Merlin-Aerees is undergeared, fuel consumption being heavy in traffic, so another axle is being made up, with a Salisbury/Jaguar 3.4:1 final-drive, but retaining the Daimler knock-off hubs, which carry wheels with Dunlop Fort 6.00/6.50 17 tyres. Incidentally, each wheel has three balance weights, neatly hidden by the chrome caps, as on Roesch Talbots.

Rees did all this work, and made the body, in his garden at Green Hall, not even on Christmas Day! The half-elliptic suspension has an anti-roll bar at the back, and Hartford friction shock-absorbers and Girling telescopic dampers at the front. There are torque-rods above and below the front axle but Rees, a perfectionist, thinks the recently-fitted lower ones are unnecessary, and they will be removed. He decided the Burman-Douglas steering box allowed too much free movement, so although it is retained, it is now just a slave for a universally-jointed horizontal shaft taking motion to the more forward-mounted steering box from a Simca which operates the drop-arrn (I am not supposed to mention this, as otherwise the Merlin-Aerees is all British!).

The Jaguar exhaust system was adapted to the Daimler chassis, (an apple-tree aiding the pipe-bending) and a Lancia Lambda cut-out is fitted. The radiator came from a 31/2-litre SS-Jaguar, cut down 7in in height and 2in in width. It has a wire-mesh grille, Mini quarter-lights providing strips for the framing.

The body, wings, and petrol tank are all home-made! The long front wings have an impressing curvature, edged by piping bent over a log, and the big slab fuel-tank was made from the roof panel of a Simca 1501, Mrs Rees helping to wrap this round after the sides had been welded up, by pulling on straps from the pony’s harness . . . Door slides provided just the strong channel-steel needed for the scuttle frame, and the centre of the polished wood fascia came from a Mkl 21/2-litre Jaguar. with end pieces hand-formed and grafted on to provide small glove pockets, the offside one concealing a stereo cassette player.

Quite remarkably, this DIY craftsman constructed the car’ s 20-gauge metal body and wing-panels from old petrol-pump cabinets and freezer cases, yet the finished product has the hallmark of a professional coachbuilder. An Austin Ten screen frame was widened to form a fold-flat screen, the brass top rail of which has Jaguar connotations, but the fittings were formed from light-alloy castings. Running-board stays owe their origin to the good Vanadium steel in a Model T Ford.

At first Rees was dissatisfied with the brakes, so these are now hydraulically-operated Girlings, with big drums, airscoops, and a servo-booster on the nearside of the engine, with vacuum tank on the side-member. A thermostatic fan aids cooling, and shields on the twin exhaust downpipes are being made from wooden formers, based on those found on Roesch Talbots. Plated pipe fittings have been adapted for the welded mudguard stays of Talbot formation, and the enormous Lucas headlamps give modern asymmetrical beams (an idea Rees copied from a Foden truck) and have stoneguards.

The oil-cooler below the radiator is from the aforementioned Aerees racing-car, fabricated by the builder, as were the Merlin-Aerees hood irons. So stiff are the rear-hinged welded doors that internal bracing is unnecessary, which allows space for a loud-speaker. It is hardly necessary to say that Rees himself designed and made the locks and recessed door hinges. Flashers and self-cancelling (time-switch) semaphor-type turn-indicators are fitted.

The radiator displays a Merlin-Aerees badge, a Carmarthen coat-of-arms taken from a sugar spoon, and a tiny Union Jack. The whole concept of this remarkable motorcar is that of a recent classic, and one which would by no means disgrace a small-scale manufacturer of such cars. But now the Merlin-Aerees will never go into production! It exists solely to please Dennis Rees and his enthusiastic family.

I had a short ride in it, sitting on Rover 2000 leather-upholstered seats lowered by 4in, and It is clear that, even in traffic, top and overdrive are the only gears required for much of the running. The engine beneath its impressively long bonnet is exceptionally quiet, and the ride is an excellent compromise between hard and soft.

It is not a car you would forget in a hurry, and it reflects the ability and perfectionism of its builder. Not only has he built this imposing modern-day Special at home, eschewing former Angel Motors’ facilities, but he has shown a quick eye for adaptation — for example, the big tubes supporting the headlamps are formed from those of the overhead money-carriers once seen in draper’s shops.

Even with its present high-gearing the Merlin-Aerees, which took eight years to build, performs well, weighing 24 cwt, compared to the 271/2 cwt of a Jaguar. The Merlin part of its name stems from the link between Merlin’s oak and Carmarthen. Equipment includes an efficient heater, to please Mrs Rees, and the scuttle incorporates an under-bonnet tool-box.

Adaptor he may be, but Rees is also an engineer who pays much attention to detail. Anchor nuts, for example, are welded on inaccessible bolts, and screw clamps were made to prevent the big bonnet flying away in the wind after it has been raised. And the car’s name has been cast into the Jaguar cam-boxes.

Greatly as the Merlin-Aerees proclaims its builder’s love of cars, his first love was flying. He told me some splendid tales of how he and his brother flew a Hendon-built Genet Major-engined Civilian Coupe MkII monoplane (G-ABNT) before the war, often from Pendine sands. While racing one of the Talbots there, the aeroplane came down so low that one of its wheels dented the car’s hood irons, as I believe the present owner is aware! On another occasion, when the tide was unexpectedly in, they had to ditch the machine, which Welshfolk emerging from chapel in their Sunday-best clothes managed to save by wading into the sea up to their chests!

Memorable days, reflected in the unique Merlin-Aerees. WB

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