Ralph Watson, born during the last year of the First World War, was a youngster at the time of pioneer flight. Like so many small school boys of the time, his imagination was fuelled and fired by that almost intangible challenge and sense of adventure the early mechanical age spawned.
Brought up and schooled within a mile of the Nelson Aerodrome, a prevalent interest in aircraft was made even keener by its proximity. During his primary school days a lot of time was spent there. When the first transglobal aviators, Kingsford Smith, Ulm, Oscar Garden, MacGregor and others, flew in after their epic flights, the school as a whole, would on many occasions, rush down to greet them.
Nelson College, like most major secondary schools of the period, was a High School and Technical Institute rolled into one. On entry, Ralph took engineering, which covered all aspects of the subject, from theory through to drawing and workshop practice. His first full-scale project was an attempt to design, draw and build a steam engine, which apparently did not work very well, but provided solid grounding for further work. A class covering elementary motor mechanics was very welcome during his last year at College.
Ralph at the 50th Vintage Car Rally 1996
After leaving secondary school he entered a five-year apprenticeship in general engineering at Kershaws Engineering Works in Nelson. While there, as a hobby project, a 15 c.c. Two-stroke motor was attempted, which did not live up to expectations. This was followed by a more successful 30 c.c. single cylinder Aspin Rotary Valve engine, which had cone shaped valve.
Ralph did not do the usual study for a marine ticket, as he did not wish to go to sea. He returned to his original interest and took an aviation correspondence course. He never actually took a job in this field, as there were no such opportunities in Nelson. While engaged in his studies, Ralph started both flying training and the design of an aircraft, there being enough information in the course to build one.
During the Second World War the Watson family moved to Auckland. His father was a farmer, by then retired, who had never learned to drive a motor vehicle, being more skilled with a team of horses. Both his parents were supportive of his creative interests, which included model making and later on motorcycling.
During his apprenticeship he owned three motorcycles, 1925 AJS, 1931 Ariel and a 1932 Rudge. The Ariel was the subject of his first effort at performance tuning. The Rudge was completely rebuilt, with the help of a local motorcycle shop, after having been purchased in poor condition and with the dubious reputation of killing its riders. Later a move was made to four wheels with an Austin Seven followed by a 1933 Morris Minor.
The war years were spent as an essential worker, first in Army Workshops working on tank engine overhauls. Later, through the manpower scheme, he moved to Reidrubber, where as a toolmaker he made production moulds and tools.
Ralph became involved in the Northern Sports Car Club very shortly after the club was started. His first competition cars were a 1933 Singer sports four seater, followed by a 1934 Singer Le Mans and Both were overhauled. The Le Mans, had the cylinder head ported, which together with other significant body, chassis and engine improvements, resulted in a rise in r.p.m. from 5,000 to 6,000, and improved handling.
Ralph in his first sports car, 1933 Singer Sports four seater.
He campaigned his cars successfully against names like: - Norm Wilkinson and Scott Bell (MG TCs), Arthur Cowper (MG TA), Ces. Hodge (Singer Le Mans), Wally Housego (MG PB), Ron Roycroft (Brooklands Riley), Gordon Brown and Colin McGregor (Ford 10 Specials) and club Secretary Arthur Siddal (Morris 8 roadster). He is remembered as having driven very quickly and effectively and being faster than those in similar cars, without displaying a press on regardless attitude. The exacting preparation of his Singers made it hard for others to determine whether his success was gained through driving skill or car performance, but the truth was probably a combination of both.
At the time of an unfortunate slide off the road and roll over on the gravel surfaced, Ridge Road hillclimb near Riverhead, Ralph had an all-purpose competition sports car under construction, derived from an air-cooled BSA light car. This drew some initial scepticism, as the small BSA was not known for its speed. However, such scepticism was short lived when his BSA Special proved to be a top performer in its class.
Ralph driving the Singer four seater in the Northern
Sports Car Club Winter Trial, 1946.
Editor: - Ralph pointed out that he was not stuck in the mud and was getting through it nicely. However, by the look of the number plate, more ground clearance would have been welcome!
At this stage Ralph had done some motor preparation work part time for others while still employed at Reidrubber, and he improved his workshop with a view towards becoming self employed full time. When in 1950, the Roycrofts bought a P3 Alfa, which required a complete engine reconstruction, he was asked to become their full time racing mechanic.
Herb Gilroy, who had befriended Ralph in 1946, subsequently purchased Ron Roycroft's Brooklands Austin Seven single seater and called around to enquire about an engine rebuild. He spotted the dismantled Alfa motor, spread tidily about on newspaper, taking the entire floor area of the two-car garage workshop and wondered just how anyone could ever reassemble it successfully. The fact that it was is but a small measure of Ralph's ability.
Herb's engine was rebuilt in short time and was refitted, with no need for further tuning. Over the next two years the Austin Seven was campaigned consistently. The car proved very quick and successful with only George Smith's GeeCeeEss Ford V8 special regularly proving to be faster and during this whole period the engine never had to be touched, let alone tuned.
The next period of Ralph's motor racing career has been covered elsewhere in this publication. By 1959 he felt like a change and moved away from car work. Tool making outwork for three large companies provided his new source of revenue. This work proved to be more profitable and without the continual headache of trying to revitalise already well worn racing cars and engines.
Ralph once again turned to sailing as a pleasurable pastime, having already owned and sailed a keel yacht during the late 1940s. A 36-foot steel yacht, modelled after the early centreboard craft, used around Chesapeake Bay near New York, was designed and built with amenities such as a wood-burning stove and hot water shower. A diesel engine was installed to make cruising comfortable. As the hull was of steel and in order to facilitate maintenance, an arc-welding generator, driven from the engine, was fitted. A clever, carefully considered design solution had the engine exhaust discharging through one of the tubular stern dinghy davits. The yacht impressed many and he was called upon to design another similar craft, which was built independently.
Ralph went cruising regularly, especially after letting work purposely die out by 1976/7. With the growing interest in historic cars, thoughts of resurrecting his Lycoming returned. However, once located its asking price was beyond consideration and in some ways this was a blessing in disguise as the subsequent discovery of the BSA provided many hours of pleasure and interest. The Lycoming Special was purchased and rebuilt by Dunedin engineer, Ralph Smith.
Ralph with both his Specials, the Lycoming and the BSA, 1985.
One is always aware of his considerable intellect and analytical ability, but he never plays on it and it would be nigh impossible to imagine him laughing at another's misfortune or being sarcastic or derogatory. He speaks only after careful consideration of what he is about to say, while enjoying occasional conversation with close friends interested in subjects as diverse as food, paintings, philosophy or whatever, yet never will foist his opinions or interests upon others.
I first met Ralph when researching a book on N.Z. built sports cars. We talked about automotive engineering and boat design, in fairly general terms and before leaving he politely asked if a book on New Zealand yachts would be better considered since I had co-built several racing centreboarders. The comment was entirely fair of course, but not what I had in mind nor reflected the impression I had tried to project. However it did highlight a clarity of perception and ability to see things both easily and quickly, whether they be mechanical or otherwise.
While discussing his aircraft studies, Ralph produced a sheet listing the papers he had taken. Immediately noticeable were his marks, all between 98 and 100 percent, except for one 96 percent result. When I made comment of the fact he seemed almost taken aback, merely saying that it was the subjects involved in the course that he was drawing attention to and not his results.
Ralph lives rather humbly, enjoying material things only for the challenge, pleasure and relaxation they can offer and chooses new friends with care, ever cautious of insincere or non genuine people. His frequent reticence with new acquaintances, often taken as shyness, comes more from a desire not to judge prematurely rather than anything else and reflects a lack of interest in simply passing the time of day.