Friday 27 February 2015

Are You Tired, Son?

'No I'm not tired, Daddy.  Are you tired?'

'I'm not tired Son...'

'Are you having fun, Daddy?'

It was four in the afternoon, we had been on the road since eleven and I was bloody knackered.

The bikes are brilliant.  I had been a little concerned about the gears on Alex's bike.  He's never had a bike with gears before and now he had 18 to deal with.  He has a triple sprocket and a six speed cassette so on his left grip selector he has a choice of one to three, and on his right, one to six.  He had no trouble at all.

'I'm in Two - Four, Daddy, what are you in?'

'Two - Five, Son'

Gear mechanisms on bikes have come on a long, long way since I had to pedal myself anywhere.  Most bikes back then had Sturmey Archer 3 speeds if you were lucky, and a basket on the front if you weren't.  If any of us had problems today, it was me.  Rather than a twist grip, I had levers only I hadn't spotted two of them.  There were four.  Consequently I had changed all the way to top (mine has 21 gears) and couldn't figure out how to change down again before I fell off.  So yes, much to Alex's delight, Daddy was the first to crash before we'd even properly set off.

Once we got going, though, it was a delight.  First we cycled to the site, but that wasn't nearly far enough so we cycled back again and then on to the petrol station on the main road where a man had to show me how to use the airline so I could fill the tyres to the correct pressures.  We had a sticky bun and a stimms each but were in no mood to call it a day so we carried on to the golf course.  This gave us miles of tracks to play on so play on them we did.  All of them.  The rumble of thunder and a darkening sky warned us of an impending downpour so we decided to head home.  We got there but Alex still wasn't tired and it wasn't raining so we carried on to Rico's place to have another fizzy drink (I was feeling faint by this stage).  Of course Alex had to show them our new bikes.

'Official Blue Bulls training bikes,' I said.  All the South Africans I have met support either the Blue Bulls or the Sharks rugby teams. 

'Since the Bulls were kind enough to give us a couple of their official team training bikes,' I continued, 'Alex and I felt we should start supporting them; we have all the team kit at home as well.'

'Hang on, the Bulls sent you these bikes?'

'No, they sent them to an address in South Africa, a pal sent them up for us.  Is the bar open?  I'm gagging for a tonic water...'

I'll allow time to let that sink in.  I'm on for the best play ever so I don't want to strike at the first twitch of the fly...

'Well of course the apprentice does all the work, how else will he learn?'
I did my 'bike first then started on Alex's.  He'd have been off on his own otherwise!
Note the patented empty paint tin frame stand.
'Daddy knows what he's doing...doesn't he?'
Looking like a bike now and yes, Son, those are the gears
Final adjustments.  There is nothing to compare with German engineering.  All the parts are well made and fitted together perfectly.  Beautiful fit and finish, a delight to work on. 
One last job, make a note of the serial number stamped on the crank case...
Cambodia is a small town in Baden-Württemberg noted for bicycle production and Mohnkuchen
Indian Chief and Indian Scout
The easy way to distinguish between the two bicycles is to note that Alex's has a side stand.
A very chuffed little boy.
He's cycled three million miles and he still has the energy to run!

Thursday 26 February 2015

The Bicycles Have Arrived!

They arrived in Angola a week ago to be exact.  With the heavy rain the city has been enduring, however, we felt it prudent not to venture all the way to the Central Post office in the Baixa Cidade, a journey only the likes of Mungo Park would entertain under current conditions.

These are the second and third parcels I have now consigned to Angola using normal parcel post (as opposed to courier firms) and I must say, the system seems to work.  This being Angola, though, when the Post Office employee rang Marcia last Thursday to alert her to the shipment's arrival, they asked her not to bother coming to pick them up the next day as, it being a Friday, they didn't feel like working so the following Monday would be more convenient for them.  It was pretty civil of them to phone.

Looking at the picture of the shipment, the scars of battle very evident, you may wonder why two bicycles should each require such a very large box.  Oddly enough, a normal bicycle sized box of around 125 x 75 x 30 cms (0.28 cubic metres) exceeds the maximum allowed dimensions for international parcel post so would cost more like 600 Euros each (the price I was quoted by Lufthansa, you may recall).  If, however, the 'bikes were repacked into a box measuring 120 x 60 x 60 (0.43 cubic metres) they would fall within the maximum allowed dimensions and cost only 90 Euros each.  So nearly twice the cubic volume for a seventh of the price. DHL is owned by Deutsche Post and the boxes came in on Lufthansa.  No bastard demanding over 600 Euros a box from me at DHL or Lufthansa told me about the very cheap and just as secure alternative operated by the same companies across the same infrastructure.  I had to find that out for myself.  Is it just as secure?  You bet; just like a DHL Express shipment, you can track it online. 

Marcia is into Dan Brown at the moment.  Until she started on him the only book I have ever seen her read was the bible so I shouldn't really be surprised she has a taste for esoteric fiction.  Since there was quite a bit of free space in the boxes, I ordered a copy of 'Digital Fortress' for her which Micky had tossed in with the bikes.  Normally it is only a very impatient Alex I have to deal with when a Red Cross parcel arrives but this time I had Marcia hovering.  It was quite late in the evening and it would soon be dark, not the time to be opening boxes out of which any number of not already lost small parts might fall.  In addition, some of Alex's friends from the village were still hanging around providing a very compelling reason to delay revealing the contents.  I'd like at least the chance to build the bikes up before they get nicked.  But Marcia was insistent.

'I don't even know which box the book is in!' I said.

'It's in that one,' said Marcia pointing to the less damaged box.

'How do you know?'

''Cos I saw it when Customs inspected the contents!'

'If you saw it when customs opened the box, Marcia, why didn't you take it out there and then?'

You will note from the white 'Alfandega' sticky tape that Customs opened the boxes up side down.  I would like to think that these cunning revenue men supposed that if any contraband was concealed within, it would be at the bottom so best go in that way, but I suspect it was because they were pissed off with me for already having looked up the tariff code and told them how much I should be paying, eliminating a potential private revenue stream for them. 

This is the first book I have bought Marcia that's in Portuguese.  The others have been in English and they have improved her command of that language no end.  In addition, reading has provoked in her a desire to occasionally converse rather than spend the evening watching soaps, which makes a delightful change,  Conversations are sometimes bloody bizarre (how she can reconcile her faith with a belief in African magic escapes me) but anything is better than 'Paixão Proibida'.  The other day she asked me if the next book I bought her could be in Dutch. 

Dutch?  Marcia studied in Belgium, the bit that doesn't speak French.

'But Marcia, your English is better than your Flemish, Dutch is about as useful as Afrikaans.'

'How can you say that?' she retorted, 'you saw when we had problems at Brussels airport and I explained everything to the Ambassador and he called the head of Brussels Airlines and sorted it out!'

This was true, I did have a problem at Brussels airport when they refused to board Dominic because he did not have an Angolan entry visa in his UK passport.  I had been under the misapprehension that his Angolan passport granted sufficient authority to enter Angola and had been unable to conceal my disappointment when the nice Belgians pointed my stupidity out to me.

'Marcia, that was the French Ambassador, you were speaking French,'

'Oh yes.  But it proves I am good at languages!'

It proves you can bloody terrify Ambassadors, I thought.

I opened up the boxes, retrieved her book and gave it to her.  I resisted the temptation to dive straight in and assemble the 'bikes.  Having spread the bits out to evaluate what was there and, more importantly, what might be missing (nothing, as far as I could tell), the 'bike parts are now stored safely inside the cottage.

As I was stacking the bits neatly Marcia looked up from reading the fly leaf of her book.

'Do you know that Dan Brown is the all time best selling author?' she announced.'

'And malaria is the all time killer,' I replied. 'I know which I'd rather take my chances with.'

Monday 23 February 2015

Beaten by Fluffiness

A comment on my last post:

Gay Welsh Luddite: 

“Thank fuck for that! Back to human, puppy interest stories with an Angolan twist”

My Response:

“Typical. I write about something that interests me and a few comments crawl in; I write about fluffy puppies and doe eyed little boys and in half a day I have a million hits. I know how Marvin felt. Here I am, brain the size of a planet, and they ask me to write cuddly. Call that job satisfaction, 'cause I don't!”

I only delve into the engine room of blogger when I need to post but I decided to have a look at my stats to compare the relative popularity of interesting and fluffy posts.  While fewer comments were posted, the interesting posts attracted more hits from a far wider audience. 

If I was writing with my ‘Interesting’ head on, I would say that few conclusions should be drawn from such statistics as the interesting posts contain many specific search terms, such as ‘BMW 3.0 CS’, or ‘Double Overhead Chrome Dipstick’.  Although there are few who would Google these terms, statistically there are enough, and they would be directed to my blog whether they wished to be there or not.  These ‘false hits’ would skew the stats in favour of intelligent posts, so it would be quite wrong to suppose the evidence suggested that all those who visited my blog and did not post a comment probably like classic cars and joinery and the only little doggies they are interested in are the ones served piping hot with onions from an urchin’s barrow in the High Street.  If I was writing with my ‘fluffy’ head on, I wouldn’t bother with statistics at all and just say that people who bother to comment are such nice people.  I can see, though, that if I wish to continue writing about my lovely and very interesting new machines I need to introduce them as props in a narrative about hand crafted solid timber cribs for babes or twee little garden cottages for doggy-wogs.  Am I still allowed to say ‘doggy’?

While I was down in the oily bowels of Blogger, though, I was startled at the audience spread by nationality.  In top two positions are, unsurprisingly given the relative similarity between the two languages, the United States and the United Kingdom.  These are followed, and this really did surprise me, by four communist countries.  They are, in order:  France, Ukraine, Russia and Romania.  Apart from Cro Magnon, the tastes of whom are eclectic, why would anyone in France be interested in my blog?

Sunday 22 February 2015


About a year ago I noticed in amongst the usual crowd of excited children collecting water at the stand pipe, a tiny toddler.  Skinny, slight of frame, clad only in an old pair of raggedy shorts and filthy dirty, he was only remarkable for two reasons; first, he was being treated pretty bloody shabbily by his companions and second, he looked very much a miniature version of Alex.

Little Rodrigues was the unplanned, but surely not entirely surprising, issue of a union between a married mother of the village, and an itinerant Portuguese labourer.  Sadly, the lad was also very much unwanted.  His colour, of course, pretty much gave the game away and this ambulatory proof of his mother’s infidelity wasn’t particularly well received.  Her lack of compassion for him translated into abuse from his peers. 

I have been known to hand out a sweet or two to kids struggling under the burden of a full bucket of water and these little gifts were always politely received.  If I miscounted the number present (so very easy to do, especially as their numbers always seemed to multiply as soon as the doces appeared) and there were too few sweets, they shared.  I was shocked, therefore, that every sweet I handed this toddler was quickly snatched away.  He wasn’t guided by the tender clasp of an older sibling’s hand, he was tugged and pulled and shouted on his way.  He so badly wanted to belong but stood forlorn, isolated within a crowd.  It was heart-breaking; the colour of his skin, after all, was hardly his fault.

But there was nothing much I could do about it.  No, seriously, what the hell could any reasonable person expect me to do?  I could hardly throw my weight around in his mother’s house.  That is their way, their culture, I have to respect this.  So long as they stopped short of murder and weren’t physically abusing the boy too much (beating kids, and women, is normal here) all I could do was feel sorry for him.

Mini-Alex is now three and, as parents here allow, is considered old enough to wander about the village on his own.  I was delighted when a few days ago I noticed a little figure shyly watching me from behind a tree in my garden (the sandpit I optimistically refer to as my garden). 

Despite what you may have read, I am not very good with children.  I have found it best to treat them as I do animals.  Show them who is boss, be fair, reward good behaviour, chastise bad but don't beat, and add a healthy dollop of affection.  Men could do worse than treating their wives the same way.  You do not gain the trust of a skittery wild creature by marching up to it.  If you are lucky enough to spot it before, at your appearance, it buggers off sharpish into the bush, it is important to behave naturally; just carry on with whatever it was you were doing.  It was probably that which aroused the creature’s curiosity anyway.

So I ignored the boy save for a nod and a smile in his direction and before long he was in and out the house as if it was his home.  He does like his glass of milk and he definitely likes my European food.  I don’t suppose he has ever eaten ice cream before, he likes that a lot.  Other children pitch up here as well, no doubt some of the lad’s tormentors.  Fort Hippo, though, is Switzerland.  Well, not quite.  There’s not much snow here and unlike the Swiss, I will clip the ears of rule breakers.  At Fort Hippo, all men are equal so long as they behave themselves and show courtesy to their fellows.  The kids are all nice to Mini Alex when he's here.

Marcia, who had been away in town for a few days and only got back the night before last, was a little surprised, pleasantly though, to see Mini Alex so comfortable in our surroundings.  Naturally, she could not resist having a dig at me, referring to how we white boys stick together. 

‘Well we bloody need to with all the shit you lot give us, don’t we!’  I said, a tadge aggrieved.

The opportunity for revenge was swift in coming.  I had given the kids a sweet each.  The local equivalent of a Bounty bar, sticky sweet coconut covered in chocolate.  As usual, all the other kids except Alex (who knows at what peril he litters the house) made only half-hearted attempts to toss the torn wrappers onto the coffee table.  Most end up on the floor.  Not Mini Alex’s, though.  He eased himself off his chair and his feet onto the ground, toddled over to the bin wherein he disposed of his wrapper.

‘Did you see that!’ Marcia exclaimed. 

I feigned ignorance.  I had seen it and was just as stunned.  All Angolans toss litter; along with stoning dogs they learn to do so as soon as they can walk.

‘See what Darling?’

‘Rodrigues just threw his sweet wrapper into the bin!’

‘Did he?  Well why wouldn’t he?' I asked, 'He’s half white…’

Aah!  He's only three so likes his little nap.  I am glad he feels comfortable enough at Fort Hippo to kip.
They are still sufficiently ashamed of him to consider keeping his hair short and dyeing it black a necessity.
He looks cute in Alex's old Batman T shirt.  Alex was pleased to donate a sack of his old clothes to the boy.
Having bored most of you with my last few posts, which have been rather more technical than fluffy, I feel I should warn you I am about to do so again in my next post (not this one, today is Snuggly Sunday).  The factory in Italy, rather sooner than I expected, want to start production of my wood working machines and for this they need the final specification.  The final specification depends on the tooling and for this I need advice.  Anyway, all that going through my mind prevented me from sleeping last night and I was still sorting through tooling catalogues and spread sheets at four this morning.

About two weeks ago was another occasion I couldn’t sleep, not because I was preoccupied but because I could have sworn I heard whimpering.  Not just any whimpering, but the worrying kind that comes from places it shouldn’t, in this case from under the house.  Once bitten, twice shy; naturally I wasn’t particularly keen on venturing under a house in the tropics at night.  It is one thing facing down an irate viper from my full height of six feet, quite another to be eyeballing it on all fours with mosquitoes nipping the old bum.  In the end, though, there was no way I could ignore such plaintive and weak pleas for help so, spurning my rattler proof flip flops in favour of a towel round the waist, I crawled under the house hoping the stench of fear would keep the gribbly gremlins away.

How the hell it got there, I have no idea.  It was too small to have crawled far from anywhere and as soon as I scooped it up it tried to suckle my fingers.  Poor bugger, heaving with fleas and covered in insect bites, his eyes and mouth encrusted with dirt.  Charlie and his bitches were enough for me, I didn’t want another dog but sometimes they pick you, and there’s sod all a decent chap can do except dig out the warm milk and syringe.

Last night Rocky kept me company.  Alex came up with the name.  Alex has never met the youngest of my two brothers but he has seen pictures of him.  Christopher does bear a striking resemblance to Sylvester Stallone and if we ever manage to get him on Skype (Chris that is, not Mr. Stallone), Alex would discover he sounds like him too.  Chris spent a long time with the US Military and went so native he even bought something called an ‘I Rock Zee’.  It was big, and as bright blue as a baboon’s bottom.  His must have been a very technical job for he was forever rushing off in PT kit to ‘work out’ something.  Alex is into punching lumps off his punch bag and likes the Rocky films so when it came time to name the future guard dog of all my wood working tools and machinery, Rocky seemed as good a name as any.  Better than Sylvester.  No wonder Stallone grew up handy with his fists.

I suppose here I shouldn't be surprised, asleep on duty.

Friday 20 February 2015

Nothing Like a Glimpse of Well Turned Ankle

When I had my dealership in Germany, I relied primarily on walk in trade.  Sure, I advertised in newspapers and occasionally got an article in one of the relevant magazines but these ‘adverts’ were really little more than ensuring those who perhaps had need of my services knew where to look for my contact details.  Don’t forget, these were pre internet days.  My business grew from one dealership in Berlin, to three dealerships in Bielefeld, Rheindahlen and Bratislava (I gave up on Berlin because the Wall coming down ruined the place). 

People would ring me from all over asking if I could get hold of this, or that and I usually could.  If a deal involved crossing borders, I wouldn’t turn the client away saying I did not export, or import, I would go out and find out what was involved in importing and exporting.  In this way, a very insignificant little dealership gained a bit of a ‘can do’ reputation.  To help out clients in a hurry, I have personally delivered vehicles to UK, Italy, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia (as they were then), the south of France and elsewhere.  I have driven some very elegant cars and ridden exotic motorcycles along some of the most beautiful roads in Europe.  I have slept in the cab of my panel van, or in the back if it was a return journey, in the laybys of some of the smartest auto routes on the continent.

If I really could not help the client, my willingness to pass him on to someone I trusted without asking for a finder’s fee meant that, in due course, a good portion of my business came the same way and a good portion of my stock arrived as a result of tip offs, both from those I had fed clients and clients themselves.  It was good for everyone, dealers and customers alike.

Naturally, I occasionally caught a cold.  I referred one client and a year later he called me; me, not the dealer who had profited by his business, to say that on trying to sell his car, he discovered there was a lien on it.  So I immediately paid the lien.  Why?  Well it should be obvious.  One happy customer might mention his experience to perhaps ten acquaintances.  A pissed off client will tell hundreds, whether he knows them or not.  A year before the guy had come to me first, that was worth something, and I had referred him to someone else.  Whichever way you looked at it, I may not have been legally responsible, especially since I did not earn a penny out of it and was now about to lose more than just a penny, but I was morally responsible.  If I argued over a few thousand pounds, I stood to lose a hell of a lot more in the long run.  Besides, if I took it up with the real culprit rather than leaving it to a forlorn client, I would not be bound by the same rules governing normal social intercourse.  Of inestimable value to me was that the client went away thinking, ‘Shit, that guy’s honest’.  Don’t forget, even though I had to pay him money, he was still a red hot lead.  He was trying to sell his car, wasn’t he?  Why do most people want to sell their cars?  Because they want to buy another one.  Not only did I get my money back in the form of stock from the other dealer, I sold the customer a car.

I am not sure how well such a business model, largely based on trust, would work today but I think the huge advances in information technology are as much a hindrance to finding a decent car as they enable the search for one.  Anyone with a browser can find a million vehicles at the click of a mouse but this leaves the client rather like a child stood in the middle of Toys r Us and being told to pick one.  How do they know which represent good value and which are to be avoided?  Then, of course, there is the time taken to walk along every aisle examining in detail each item on every shelf.  Furthermore, the trust is all one way.  The client has to suppose that what it says on the box is in it.  Some people are still willing to pay a small premium to stand in a shop, feel the merchandise and be served by a human being.  I reckon there’s still a place for old dinosaurs like me.

So, just to keep my hand in, here is an example of the sort of thing I got up to all those years ago.  Back then, of course, it was by scanning international classic car magazines and auction reports, now it’s by using the internet.  I no longer have the resources to buy these two vehicles and ship them to the States but if someone does, then this is something which, in the words of RM Auctions the other day, should not be overlooked.

To illustrate my last post I just pulled down the first image of a decent BMW 3.0 CS I found on Google images.  Afterwards, I made up my mind to track the car down and discovered that it was a restored 1974 BMW 3.0 CS, Chassis no. 4310374, which sold for $110,000 at Fort Worth on the 27th April 2013.  With Buyer’s Premium, that would take it over $120k.  I was pleased; hadn’t I just been guilty of predicting the car’s rise in value?  I compared this with the average price being asked for other restored examples most of which are, not surprisingly, to be found in Germany.  €60,000 ($67,000) seems to be the norm for exceptional examples.  Already there is an interesting spread.  So I widened my search to find the best deal on a pristine 3.0 CS or CSi I could.  I found two, an example of each.  In Hungary.

Hungary?!  Why not?  I’d buy a carpet from an Arab so why not a car from a Magyar? 

Both cars are the result of a complete restoration using only genuine BMW parts to what is described as showroom condition, a claim substantiated with photos.  Given that the vendor is more likely to sell them back into Germany, he has priced them accordingly; there will be costs for anyone bringing them back to Germany.  At €45,900 ($52,000) for the 1972 3.0 CSi and €43,900 ($50,000) for the 1971 3.0 CS, you could have both cars for less than the price realised by a single example in the States.  And that is just on the asking price, no one pays that.  The fact that they are, apart from one being the fuel injected model, a matching brace in desirable Polaris Silver has to attract a premium when it comes time to find a home for them, ‘and one for her Ladyship, Sir?’.  Had I still my dealership in Bielefeld I would now be on a fast motorcycle tearing up the tarmac down to St. Kristof Garage in Pec (Fünfkirchen) to check them out before phoning a contact in the States. 

I might even have succumbed to temptation and just moved one on to subsidise the one I kept for myself.

I realise there are a lot of boring technical photos  below but we dealers, see, know what a pretty BMW looks like on the outside so, rather like a tart’s punter, we want a peek up the skirt before parting with our money…
Even if you aren't interested in old cars, you have to marvel at how the mechanical bits of two forty year old cars could be so clean.

You can contact the private seller on: +36 2059 52020.  If you do call, don't bother mentioning my name.  Hard to believe but there are still people in the world outside Interpol and Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs who haven't heard of me.


Sunday 15 February 2015

Never Mind the Quality, Feel the Width

A Jaguar D Type romping round Le Mans in the late Fifties
I still occasionally receive notifications from auction houses for forthcoming sales in which they have pleasure in bringing to my attention particular entries which may arouse my interest and ‘should not be overlooked.’  I admire their optimism.  I am no longer in the market for classic cars, especially now that prices are ludicrous and I am skint.  The only auction I know of around here is the one run by Angolan Customs to rid their warehouses of uncleared imports.  Since it is rigged, there is no point going.

Racing car prices (the prices are racing, not the cars), though, like soaring stock markets do provide the investor an opportunity to make quite a return.  As values of vehicles possessed of rarity, beauty, engineering excellence and provenance are hammered to the stratosphere, the values of others less blessed rise as well.  Even the value of American cars, relatively few of which possess any of the forgoing qualities, are soaring. 
Despite the rave reviews it attracts now, the Ferrari 365 GTB/4 Berlinetta, better known as the ‘Daytona’, was about as well received as a replacement for the gorgeous 275 GTB/4 as Jaguar’s replacement for the E-Type, the truly awful XJS.  The coupe ‘GTB’ version was so unpopular that many owners, realizing that attached to the expensive badge they had bought was an ugly car, cut the tin tops off and had them converted to ‘GTS’ (convertible) specification (which had some redeeming qualities) in the hope of their cars commanding a better resale value.  The kudos of the model took a further cruel blow when a replica with Corvette underpinnings starred alongside Don Johnson in Miami Vice. The acting of both was execrable.
Ferrari replaced this...
...with this!
Still, there is no accounting for taste so when an ex-boss of mine (I seem to collect them) emailed asking which classic Ferrari he should buy as a long term investment, I advised him to buy a tin top Daytona GTB/4 in any original colour but brown.  I even found him a pristine, original, low mileage example up for grabs at less than $100k.  He could have slapped cash on the table and had it for around $80k.  I don’t know how much he paid, bosses very rarely acknowledge even accepting personal advice from a subordinate much less offer thanks if following that advice proved lucrative, but I watched the value of the unloved  Daytona climb steadily and it was to a rather ordinary Daytona requiring refurbishment and recommissioning that one auction watcher drew my attention.  I see the estimate is between $600-750 thousand.   A quick search of other Daytonas suggested an average of a million dollars for one in excellent original condition.  So long as he hasn’t pranged his or been forced to part with it to placate irate tailors or soon-to-be ex-wives (I let go of a Cobra for similar reasons), it will have been a good return for my old skipper.

It was this tenuous link to Daytonas that provoked me to cast an eye over other interesting cars on offer and there was this, claimed to be the rarest of Jaguar models, the XKSS. 
This is what Jaguar did to the racing D Type to turn it into the road going XKSS.
A taller screen and a luggage rack...
Having triumphed at Le Mans with the D Type in 1955, 1956 and 1957 Jaguar, with stiffer competition and new regulations decided to convert 25 of the remaining D Type chassis to road going versions of the D Type, and called it the XKSS.  A fire at the Brown's Lane factory destroyed all but sixteen of the cars under construction, most of the survivors going to the US (Steve McQueen had one).   If we are talking about rebodied D Types, however, the eye-wateringly expensive XKSS (at least one owner turned down $10 million for his) is not the rarest. 

And this is what an Italian did with the same car.

Chassis number XKD513 ran at Le Mans for two years before crashing.  The car was bought by coachbuilder Giovanni Michelotti of Turin who decided to rebody it.  The result, under the skin, is pure racing D Type (all the mechanical components are interchangeable) but could not be more different in appearance.  It is said that he performed the styling exercise in order to attract mainstream British vehicle manufacturers and, if true, was successful to an extent as Harry Webster, the Director of Engineering for Standard Triumph asked him, about the same time, to drag Triumph’s styling out of the Thirties (although which came first is arguable).  Either way, comparing Michelotti’s version of the D Type with Jaguar’s, I am reminded of what the Italians and English each think of as sensible attire…

An Italian ready to go out...
...and an Englishman.
Mind you, the clothing and car styling analogy doesn't hold true for Germans because a man dressed very much like this...
...designed this:
If you have cash to spare, invest in one of these.  You'll thank me in ten year's time.

Friday 6 February 2015

A Little Bit of Wood

This post might bore all of you save Don Alviti and the Maine Pilot, it’s all about woodworking machines…

While we wait for the land issue to be settled once and for all, the restaurant build can’t really advance much further than it already has.  I am all for folding like a limp willie and ceding the disputed area (my access to the river) to the venal local coordinators working on the premise that while we rail against injustice and have right on our side, we cannot open and are not, therefore, getting a return on my investment.  Marcia, in the intractable way of most conflicts in Africa, sees it differently and is willing to fight to a bitter end which to me, not by nature a pessimist, looms large.

I need to do something useful with myself in the meantime.  Salaried employment is always made tolerable by the beer tokens one collects in return, but that would mean being away from home for possibly months at a time.  Contract work and then a divorce meant that I never got to see Dominic grow up so I am making up for it with Alex.  I don’t really want to go away to work if I can help it.

My knowledge of carpentry and joinery was negligible when I first started this build but now I at least know there is a difference between the two.  Before, anyone who hacked about at wood was a chippie to me.  Although I employed local carpenters, managing the task was very hands on.  You do not have to be an expert in a particular skill to recognize if someone is making a good job of it or not.  We all know what a decent door looks like and can distinguish a nicely finished cottage from a garden shed.  I quickly realized I had no choice but to show them the standard to which I wanted them to work, or sack them and find someone who would. 

In spite of an alarming tendency to cut corners wherever they could, I did feel sorry for the chippies, working all day under a blazing sun using only hand implements and lightweight power tools.  Timber is one of Angola’s great natural resources.  Along with the native tropical hardwoods, there are also varieties imported with a sustainable timber industry in mind.  The government recognizes the need to develop their natural resources but, like all development projects devised by spotty intellectuals; the initiatives that have been funded have so far proved wholly ineffective; you cannot buy well-seasoned, accurately cut and dimensioned timber anywhere.

I used local timber to build my cottages.  My neighbor imported his cottages from South Africa.  Mine are hewn from hardwood, his stroked from soft pine.  Further on down the coast is another very nice lodge, exactly the same sort of thing I am building.  Its owner also imported his cottages, made of pine, and is dismayed at how delicious the local termites find them.  An imported cottage costs about $1,000 per square metre. 

So why, if the country is creaking under the weight of wood, do people go to all the trouble and expense of importing an inferior product?

For the same reason, basically, I am asking Marcia to give it up and put in our boundary fence where the coordinators say we can: return on investment.

A container full of pre-fabricated cottages can be imported in as little as six weeks, time during which the ground can be prepared and foundations laid.  Such a cottage can be erected using unskilled labour in only a few days.  Yes, the cottage may have cost twice as much and be inferior in quality to a well-built local example, but it will start earning several months ahead of its local competition.   $400 per night soon absorbs the higher initial investment. 

It is the very lack of well-seasoned, accurately sized and dimensioned local timber that persuades developers to import rather than face the, comparatively, interminable on site effort of working crudely cut local timber to anything close to a building material.  The timber we buy here is unseasoned and sawn to board using chainsaws.  Smooth and even it isn’t.  If you want laps, or tongues and grooves, you get to work with hand planers, circular saws, routers and chisels with all the resultant variability.  Mortices and tenons, quite useful for structural rigidity, have all to be cut laboriously by hand; it takes ages to produce a door or window.  And then, after all that effort, despite my often draconian quality control, the result still looks, well, artisan.

Back to my neighbor.  He decided he needed another cottage for his personal use.  Marcia and I had some timber spare which we were happy to sell him at cost rather than watch it warp under the sun.  He was impressed with the price and the quality.  He wasn’t impressed with the effort required to make it usable.  He is accustomed to a cottage rising from the sand in days not months.  So far his men have burnt out two decent circular saws and a router (about $800 each here) trying to turn 400ish mm wide, 30ish mm thick hard wood board into decking.  I really do not want to think of all the kit we burnt out on our site but it includes saws, routers, planers and a DeWalt planer-thicknesser.

What this place needs, I decided, is a decent joinery shop kitted out with industrial standard machines.  I would get the product I and a lot of other people need, and I would provide a bit of much needed local employment.  Don’t snigger, I’d be doing my bit to reduce the country’s dependence on imports…

I told my mate Klein about this, not least because he has about 2,000 hectares of Silky Oak begging to be felled, and together we went on a road trip.  Alex went along as well.  Marcia wasn’t at all happy at the thought of Alex maybe sleeping in the bush but she quickly realized that when it came to Daddy’s and Alex’s Grand Adventure, her opinion didn’t count.  We went and looked at trees, we saw how they were felled and hauled and sawn.  We visited a joinery workshop and saw the ancient kit they were using, we slept on the floor, we visited another, larger and more modern workshop and were stunned by the prices they charged for really quite ordinary but better finished products ($800 for a plain panel door containing about $40 worth of wood).  There was nowhere we could find that stocked the machines I wanted except for a couple of Portuguese who had a shed full of ancient, well knackered machines imported, as scrap presumably, from Portugal.

The trip, however, was very useful.  It assured me of my raw material.  I was convinced, if I needed convincing, of the demand for the product and reassured by the value of the finished product.  All I needed to do now was decide which machines I needed and where to get them.  I asked Don Alviti for advice and he put me on to UKWorkshop, a site, in the words of their community, built to help people of any age learn the basics of woodworking.  This wasn’t his subtle vote of confidence in me or, understandably, the lack of it, the site has an outstanding forum which put me in touch with real experts in the field. 

Their advice could be distilled to just two recommendations which hold true for most things; seriously consider buying good used and buy quality rather than quantity.  One forum member, who now runs a very smart bespoke cabinet making service, listed the few machines he bought second hand with which to start his business. 

Based on everyone’s advice I drew up a short list of essentials and saws seemed to figure prominently.  Rip saws, panel saws, chop saws, band saws, mitre saws.  I decided I needed them all and then realized I couldn’t afford them all so had to prioritise.  Everyone, of course, has their own priority based, obviously, on what they make and personal preference.  A planer thicknesser and spindle moulder were overwhelmingly considered essential.  What width stock would I want to push through a thicknesser?  This would determine the size, power and price, of the machine I needed.  Throughout the forum threads on spindle moulders one thing became abundantly clear, if I wanted to avoid a lifetime of regret, get one with a tilting spindle.  This was beginning to feel like walking into a car showroom to buy a car, simple really, and being overwhelmed with the options list.  I would find a morticer useful.  There are chisel morticers, horizontal morticers, chain morticers, probably other types I didn’t encounter.  The rather artisan workshop I visited with Alex and Klein had a bloody lethal looking chain morticer which they used to make beds and other furniture.  On you tube I learnt that one can drill a square hole with a chisel morticer so perhaps that would be better?  Always as an afterthought, everyone agreed that a four sided planer moulder would be ideal for what I wanted… but I would never be able to afford one (I thought most machines had four sides as well as a top and bottom?)

I could see where everyone was coming from with buying second hand.  You’d have to be mad to buy a new car.  As soon as it leaves the showroom its value takes a dive.  Let someone else take the hit and, sadly when you consider why, there are plenty of good second hand wood working machines on the market, someone’s shattered hopes gathering dust and available to another dreamer at 30% or more off list.

It’s the ‘list’ bit that bothered me.  The second hand price in UK is discounted from the retail price which includes 20% tax.  If I bought new for export, I’d get 20% off list straight away.  If, rather than go to the retailer, I approached the factory, maybe I could get factory prices?  Don’t forget, by the time you buy your wood working machine from the high street, it has probably been through many hands, each pair trousering a good portion of the price you paid.

I tried some of the well-known and prestigious UK manufacturers and was referred to distributors who in turn referred me to their favourite retailer.  They weren’t interested in a one of order for single machines and the retailers weren’t interested in export orders unless I paid the VAT and claimed it back afterwards. 

I tried an Austrian company, they farmed me out to a distributor in South Africa. 

I tried a Swedish company.  They handed my enquiry to their office dealing with Hispanic enquiries which, in turn, referred me to a man in Portugal whose sole product, it appears from his website, is sixty euro beehives. 

All the time I was fruitlessly searching for a supplier, I had in mind that the tooling for the machines would be as expensive as the machines themselves.  What I really needed to do was approach the problem of which machines from a different angle.  I decided to look at the tooling I would need to make the things I wanted.

Pretty soon I had found a tooling company in UK which sold and, more importantly, explained all the tooling I could ever wish for.  It was eye-wateringly expensive but blessed with heartwarming reviews for its simplicity of use and the ease and speed with which it could produce windows and doors.  If you can match numbers and colours, and can fit a round peg into a round hole, you can set up their tooling and get consistent results every time.  In addition to their tooling, they also offered a spindle moulder to run it on.  The basic model was £6,800 excluding VAT, another £800 for the tilting spindle, which of course I wanted so that I would enjoy the whole new world of horizons and absence of regret promised me on the UKworkshop forum.  I had a quick shufti on the web for a second hand set up and found one complete with window tooling for just under ten grand.

Now some people, unless they’re loaded, would be depressed by this but not me.  Sure I was a bit pissed it was taking me much longer than I thought but I was pleased I knew what tooling I wanted and what machine I should buy to run it.  I was willing to bet that this tooling company did not manufacture the spindle moulder.  I reckoned they bought them in rebadged.  I hoped that like a lot of ‘industrial’ machines sold in Europe (and I guess North America as well), they weren’t from China.  There were quite a few disquieting accounts of poor tolerances and sloppy finish on Chinese made machines supplied by otherwise reputable UK retailers on the UKWorkshop forum.

Armed only with an image of the rebadged machine grabbed from their website, I set out to hunt down the manufacturer.  It took me a while but in the end, on a French woodworking forum, I found a link to a pdf file for an operating manual for the identical spindle moulder.  ‘Made in Italy’, was the manufacturer’s proud claim.  I’m not an expert and haven’t even the experience on which to base the assumption but I had the feeling that Italy make quite good woodworking machines.  I called my brother. 

‘Leave it with me,’ he said.

Next day he called me back.

Their machines are made in Italy and are quite good, apparently.’

They’d have to be at least reasonable to command that price in UK, I thought.

I wrote to them with a wish list of machines, I mean a wish list, there was no way I would be able to afford everything.  The best I had been offered so far was ten percent off the tax free price.  If the Italians would give me twenty (dare I ask for thirty?) percent off, I’d go for it.

Now, the recent drop in the Euro does favour the comparison but they offered me far, far more than I dared hope for.  I went through the rest of their offer wondering where the catch was.  But I couldn’t find one.  The company checks out, it has a good reputation and it wants to sell its machines into Angola.  The terms constrain me from giving details of the pricing structure they were pleased to present me (and I was delighted, overjoyed, ecstatic to accept) so all I can say is that my entire wish list became, after I crossed their palms with a lot less silver than I expected, an order, and I enjoyed a little woody of my own at the thought.

It rather looks as though I am in the wood business.


The machine I was looking for...  the spindle moulder. 
One  of the most dangerous machines in the workshop, apparently.
... and one of these to save my remaining fingers, a power feed for the above,
The back bone of any workshop, the jointer planer thicknesser,  5,5 HP and 440kgs...
On to saws.  Don Kev was very keen on a 'chop' saw.
This has a blade twice the diameter of the largest saw I have at the moment.
The Italians call it a Seghe Radiali, Don Kev would know that.
Another saw, this one a panel saw.  400 mm blade plus a scoring blade.  5,5 hp and 630 kgs...
No more saws after this: a band saw.  At only 300 kgs, a bit of a lightweight.
Horizontal bit morticer
and a chain morticer. 
Why two types?  Well, I am sure both have their applications...
A copy lathe. 
I have always wanted one of these ever since I played with a neighbour's. 
Nothing like the sight of a well turned leg...
Alex'll have me knocking out baseball bats for his mates!
A few of these to keep the dust down.
Now this was a silly indulgence but it will be very useful. 
It is an automatic bit morticer for making louvred doors and shutters. 
The Americans call them Louver Groovers.  Well they would, wouldn't they?
Louvred doors and shutters are big in the tropics, don't you know...
And finally!
La Pièce de Résistance!
The Piallatrice 4 facce / Scorniciatice
It is big (1,640 kgs), powerful (36 hp total), has four sides and loads of buttons and switches.