THE Sussex coast is hardly the place where one would expect to find breeders of competition engines, yet in the Ancient Town of Rye, one of the Cinque Ports before the sea receded, several such establishments carry on their work, largely unseen by the droves of holiday-makers who annually invade the cobbled streets and tiny harbour of this South Coast town. It would take a discerning American visitor indeed (and there were many at Rye on the occaision of our visit) to realise that the cluster of nondescript buildings near the foreshore housed the Harry Weslake organisation which is concerned with building a V12 engine for the Gurney-Weslake Eagle F.1 car. Closer to the town centre, where the narrow “ring” road makes a sharp turn, lies the collection of buildings which make up the Rother Iron Works. Established one hundred years ago, this company formed a subsidiary in 1930 to manufacture bricks and tiles under the name Nerus (the then chairman’s name in reverse). It expanded to include flexible drive shafts in its products and, in 1961, entered the automotive field when it was joined by Frank Webb, a Lancastrian who began his career at Lagonda, spent some time with the H.W.M. F.2 team, was Weslake’s right-hand man for four years, and operated his own Rytune for three, in partnership with Frank Nicholls who now spends most of his time on boats, rather than in motor cars.
The foundry and well equipped machine shop possessed by the Rother Iron Works provided excellent, on-the-spot facilities for Nerus Engineering and, although operating in entirely separate spheres; the two are now virtually in constant integration. Among the moulds, melting pots and machines for the manufacture of mechanical sieves, it is not difficult to spot the signs of engine tuning; cylinder heads here and there, camshafts fitted to grinders and buckets full of standard valves and springs, having been discarded in favour of a more potent variety.
Very few competition cars can be seen at Nerus, where the work largely consists of modifying engines, or parts of engines, and returning the units to the customers via a chain of distributors. However, several specialised jobs are undertaken, such as development of B.M.W. engines for Vosper power boats and for Elva Cars. The facilities of the Rother Iron Works are put to good use in this respect, since the tooth-belt-driven combined pressure/scavenge oil pumps for the B.M.W. units are manufactured from scratch at Rye. Another interesting piece of work was the tuning of Hillman Imp engines for Vic Phillips and Mike Pierce, who fitted these units into their self-made motorcycle combination, Impetus, and raced it with considerable success; so much that they attracted the attention of Rootes who are now sponsoring the partnership to a large extent and supplying them with Fraser-modified Imp engines, Fraser’s being a works-backed organisation. But it should be remembered that Nerus-tuned engines first brought Phillips and Pierce their success.
These specialised jobs apart, Nerus reckon to be supplying at least 100 modified cylinder heads per month. ln fact their work is largely confined to cylinder heads and ports. Their air-flow machine may be a home-built piece of equipment but it is undeniably the most essential and valuable means they have of assessing porting curvatures and the shape of combustion chambers and air inlets. It illustrated clearly that, it is not the widest bore which permits the easiest flow of air. If a pipe ends in a clean, saw-cut type break, it is usually less efficient an air conductor than a narrower pine having-an opening which has been smoothed and rounded. The best shape of inlet is evaluated at Nerus by the use of plasticine which is moulded around the opening and shaped so as to produce the minimum restriction on air flow as shown by a graduated pressure tube.
Why is all this necessary?, you may ask. The question is answered quite simply on one of Nerus’ sales brochures, and the answer holds good for all engine developers. Mass production methods and the requirement that one basic design of engine serves a range of vehicles prevent modern production car engines from approaching optimum efficiency. This peak is offered to customers in three stages of head conversion, in which Nerus specialise, although they also produce camshafts, manifolds and various other commodities and will, if requested, prepare a complete car for competition.
The stage 1 modification involves the use of standard parts only and consists of machining to produce optimum gas flow, volume balancing the combustion chambers and polishing the latter and their ports. The result is a slight improvement in middle-range torque and a marked improvement in economy. Stage 2 conversions have larger inlet valves and stronger springs fitted so that a higher rate of r.p.m. is achieved, whilst a stage 3 head has larger exhaust valves and double springs’. With the latter, of course, the use of special manifolding and other extensive engine modifications are recommended in order to accommodate the full breathing capacity of the combustion chambers.
Although complete balancing, crankshaft modification and various forms of carburation and manifolding can be undertaken, it is the ”package deal” cylinder heads, complete with studs, which have proved to be in greatest demand, not only with enthusiasts, but with those who are only concerned with economy. By far the most popular is the B.M.C. “A” series engine, though almost any make can be worked on at Nerus, even 500-cc. Fiats. Almost as soon as the Ford V4 engines were announced, a Corsair with such a power unit was acquired by the firm, and they now have pairs of heads, in all stages, available for this engine.
When an Austin 1800 was bought by the firm’s lady chairman, she became perturbed at the armwork required to turn the steering wheel through its 4 1/2 turns. Webb’s staff set about finding a solution, with the result that pairs of shorter steering arms are now in production for this car, considerably reducing the number of wheel turns from lock to lock. The individual ideas of workshop staff are never discouraged, and when one of the mechanics, Ivan Polley, designed a pull-out door handle (like that of the B.M.C. 1800) to be fitted at the hinge end of Mini doors, it was not long before the tooling was done and the units put into production. They are indeed simple to operate and have attractive stained wood grips similar to those which adorn kitchen utensils.
A visit to Nerus would not be complete without the coverage of several miles in a Nerus-tuned car. Alas, the company has no competition participation programme of its own and there was no “works” car available. However, the 1.200-c.c. Ford Cortina of Team Checkpoint, a rally car owned by the Nevus distributor at Manchester, was in Rye at the time and this was made available to us for several days. It was not really fair to assess the ability of Nerus engines front the performance of this car, since their only concern has been the engine, other modifications having been carried out by Checkpoint, resulting in a marked increase in the overall weight of the car. For this reason, and because the presence of a Lotus Elan close-ratio gearbox with its high bottom gear did not make for fast getaways. despite a 4.44 rear axle, we felt that acceleration figures taken with this particular car would not do justice to Nerus’ engineering capabilities. The engine was fully balanced and fitted with an intermediate racing camshaft and stage 2 cylinder head with double valve springs. A 28/36 Weber downdraught carburetter was mated to a Cortina GT induction manifold and a Nerus exhaust manifold. Exporttype rear springs were fitted to both lower and stiffen the suspension with Koni adjustable shock-absorbers at the rear and Armstrong Firmarides at the front. The 4 1/2J wheels were shod with 175-13 Dunlop SP44 Weathermasters. An additional fuel tank was fitted in the boot, bringing total capacity to 16 gallons, and the braking system helped by a Girling servo and Ferodo VG95/ pads and linings. Added to this was a substantial steel undertray protecting engine and gearbox, with a fuel tank shield at the rear, so it is readily apparent why this car, in common with a most rally cars, did not lend itself to the taking of acceleration times which would be in any way significant.
On the road, fairly high r.p.m. was constantly necessary in traffic, but due more to the gear ratios than anything else, for the engine seemed quite tractable and was capable of out-peforming any standard 1,200-c.c. unit.
Instrumentation included all the necessary items for several days and nights of hard driving, but was perhaps u little over enthusiastic, inasmuch its there were two map lights (one good one and one perfectly useless although in working order), two fire extinguishers and an eye-catching display of labelling on every switch and dial. The facia-mounted fuse boxes were labelled as such, but the necessary labelling of individual fuses was absent. A Halda Twinmaster, a vital item these days when accurate distance recording is essential, was mounted ahead of the navigator’s seat, but the Halda Speedpilot mounted alongside was, its our opinion, a little superfluous and the consequent strain on the speedometer cable was perhaps the reason for the failure of this item during the test, also resulting in premature abandonment of the fuel consumption check.
All these things apart, we cannot be critical of the performance of the Nerus-tuned engine which ran sweetly throughout and surprised us by being reasonably easy to start from cold. Despite the wide range of products which emanate from this engineering firm overlooking the English Channel, its automotive offshoot is certainly not skimped, as many satisfied customers will testify.