Hovercraft

By Robin Godwin

All photographs by, and copyright of, the Author.

What could a hovercraft possibly have to do with an online site called Model Auto Review? While Saunders-Roe of the UK (which became a division of Westland Aircraft Limited around the same time) produced the first commercial grade test/evaluation vehicle, the SR-N1 (Saunders-Roe Nautical 1) in 1959, and later billed the hovercraft as a revolutionary transport vehicle, many others were wildly enthusiastic about the broad application of air cushion vehicle technology to everyday transportation. The enthusiasm was such that some envisioned a personal hovercraft sitting in our driveways, although by design, driveways would not have been required. If this had come to pass, this site might have been called Model Hovercraft Review. But the link to toys and models comes from Corgi Toys (perhaps noticing the enthusiasm surrounding this new machine) who introduced a model of the SR-N1 only a year after the prototype had flown. I bought my Corgi Major # 1119 as soon as it hit the shelves in Canada.

As an impressionable kid who loved cars and trucks, I was in awe of this potential revolution in transportation, even more so after attending a live demonstration of the large commercial SR-N2 sponsored by manufacturer Saunders-Roe (likely with a bit of UK government money). This was a world marketing tour with a stop in Montreal in April 1963, and yes, most of the ice is gone from the St. Lawrence River by then. It came ashore at the Dorval Yacht Club, a short bicycle ride from my house. This was an impressive demo, with a huge (70 feet long) noisy machine leaving the water and gliding up the shore without missing a beat. With collecting instincts already well established, I managed to pick up the demonstration pamphlets and hold on to them for the past 55 years.

History has proven that the hovercraft did not live up to its promise to transform transportation, but it did have considerable success in various specialised commercial and military applications. Perhaps the best known was the Hoverspeed English Channel Hovercraft (an SR-N4), which ran for over 32 years ferrying cars and passengers between Dover and Calais. That service terminated in October 2000, with the introduction of the Fast Ferry Cat and competition from Eurotunnel. I recall being strapped into my seat for an exceptionally harsh SR-N4 ride across the channel in the late 80’s, thinking when will that tunnel be done?

Sir Christopher Cockerell, of the UK, is credited with bringing the hovercraft concept to a commercial realisation in the late 50’s, however the principle is believed to have been invented by Charles Fletcher, United States Naval Reserve, during the Second World War. His designs were appropriated by the War Department before he could patent them and take them commercial. In essence, the vehicle rests on a cushion of air. The vehicle motor produces an airflow, either by a fan or an exhaust, that is directed underneath the craft. Rubber skirts contain most of the air, and pressure buildup floats the vehicle on the air cushion. Either an additional engine or high speed exhaust or fan air provides forward thrust and turning capability (as in the SR-N1). Early versions would have been difficult to control through three planes of motion, which may explain why they never became “daily drivers” for the masses.

Corgi #1119 H.D.L. SR-N1 was an exceptional reproduction of the development vehicle. (H.D.L. stands for Hovercraft Development Limited, a subsidiary of the UK National Research Development Council. SR-N1 was designed and built by Saunders-Roe in conjunction with H.D.L.).  The real machine was 29 feet long by 24 feet wide and able to operate at weights up to 7 tons. The model is to 1:76 scale, large enough to appreciate the casting detail. There are four main castings, the base, hull, superstructure and fan shroud. The detail of the superstructure shows the ducting that would direct fan air to both move the vehicle forward and allow turning through air vectoring. There are four plastic moveable rudders attached at the extremities of the ducting. But the interesting feature is three ball bearings with individual suspension to simulate a hovercraft in operation, or as Corgi advertising of the time said “ …giving the illusion of floating on air.” It can actually bump and slide realistically across the floor. Despite this being a superb model, it nevertheless sold poorly – only 76,000 examples over a two year production run. Perhaps it was a reflection of waning enthusiasm over the initial excitement of the new technology, or the simple fact that most kids would never have seen the real vehicle, despite the inevitable coverage that would have occurred in the UK press and hobby magazines of the time. After all, it was a prototype, and commercial services with larger models did not begin until sometime later. Airfix produced a 1:72 plastic kit of the SR-N1 and both Dinky and Matchbox produced models of later versions of Hovercraft, which may easily have outsold the Corgi, since they were models of actual in-service vehicles.

So while my visit to watch a live SR-N2 hovercraft demo did not relate to any specific model in my collection, the Corgi SR-N1 was certainly the inspiration and motivation to go and witness this revolution in transportation.

 

Leaflet from the SR-N2 Demo in Montreal,1963, with the Corgi #1119 SR-N1

The general SR-N2 brochure from the Westland factory

Superb casting detail evident. The blue casting represents air ducting from the main fan (in white) to provide forward propulsion and directional control. Rear yellow “rudders” would become more effective as speed increased

 

Minimal base detail but the three “suspension” ball bearings can be seen. They gave the model a bit of elevation to simulate sitting on an air cushion

 

Corgi apparently had the box artwork finished before the Westland acquisition of Saunders-Roe.

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