“EP” – Chief Tester:
Eric Platford by Alec Harvey-Bailey
This article first appeared in Bulletin No 173 March 1989
Open any book dealing with the early history of Rolls-Royce and the name Eric Platford will emerge from its pages. He was born in 1883, the youngest of four sons, but unhappily his father, who was in banking, died when he was six months old. There was no great family money, so his mother, an able and attractive woman, started, along with her sister and a staff of six workers, a dressmaking business in Manchester. Under her management it was sufficiently successful to maintain the family, although the problem was made easier because provision for the four boys’ education had been arranged before their father’s death.
Eric went to Cheadle Hulme School, where he showed a flair for electrics and provided the headmaster with a working telephone system. He was happy at school and passed the necessary qualifications to enter university, but at seventeen he was indentured as a premium apprentice at Royce Limited, Electrical and Mechanical Engineers of Cooke Street, Hulme, Manchester, with the object of a career in electrical engineering. He was not long into his apprenticeship when Henry Royce decided to build his own motor car and Platford became a member of the team that produced the first Royce car, to be followed by the Rolls-Royce, the name by which other motor cars have been judged over the years.
Platford, with another apprentice Tom Haldenby, worked under Ernie Mills, who was the foreman on the project. Thus he was thrown into close contact with Royce at an early age and it was stern training. On the credit side there was the unique experience for a 19-year-old to be working alongside the brilliant master engineer. On the debit side he had the vagaries of Royce’s moods and his wish to work all the hours in a day. There are many stories of Royce being so engrossed in the task that he forgot to eat and his employees had to snatch meals as best they could and also persuade Royce to eat. At the end of a long day Royce would sometimes take Eric home and, on dropping him off one night, remarked; “If it were not for my wife and your mother we might get some work done.” To encourage Eric to get home Mrs Platford made a rule that she would keep food for him until 10pm, and if he was not home by then his brothers could have it.
He must have developed rapidly under Royce’s hard tutelage, because when the engine for the first car was tested in 1903 Royce entrusted Eric with the task. His entries in the engine log book are an interesting mixture stemming from his electrical background, including such comments as ‘two gallons of petrol, 30 amps, 120 volts for four hours, at a cost of 2s. 2d. per gallon equals 1,7d per kilowatt hour’ and other calculations showing that the cost of one BTU of heat ‘equals 2d. nearly’. (2s 2d means two shillings and two old pence in the monetary system prior to decimalisation. A shilling was made up of twelve old pence and was worth 5 new pence: Ed). What these figures show is that Platford was using his training in electrics and heat engineering to produce rudimentary performance figures that would have meaning to other people in the factory and he had long anticipated the European edict that horsepower should be quoted in kilowatts.
Royce’s first motor car was road tested on 1 April 1904, and it was not long before Eric was entrusted with much of this work, an indication of the direction his career would take.
As the model range grew he tested new production cars and with his accumulated knowledge he made an ideal riding mechanic for Rolls when he won the 1906 Isle of Man Tourist Trophy race in a light Twenty.
So impressed was Rolls with Platford’s ability and dedication that he presented him with a silver watch, inscribed in copper plate writing as a memento.
He would also have been present at the 1906 Scottish Reliability Trials, when CJ (Claude Johnston) won the so-called Battle of the Cylinders. This was a competition within a competition: the 30hp six cylinder Rolls-Royce against Captain Deasy in his four cylinder Martini of similar engine size. The Rolls-Royce came out as the all round victor by a considerable margin. Knowing the brittle tendencies of Royce’s first six, one can only conclude that CJ handled the car with great skill, with back-up and support from Platford.
The problems with the 30hp car were such that it had to be replaced quickly and there is no doubt that Rolls, with his wider experience of cars in general, advised Royce on the broad specification of the new model, which turned out to be the 40/50, whose debut was in the 1907 Scottish Reliability Trial when CJ won a gold medal in the Silver Ghost. At the end of the trial the car continued to complete 15,000 miles, of which 14,371 were ‘non-stop’. The drivers in this extended run were Rolls, CJ, Macready and Platford, with CJ and Platford carrying the brunt of the driving.
‘Non-stop’ meant without voluntary stop, scheduled maintenance being allowed, but nonetheless it was a triumph for the 40/50 and its drivers. It has to be appreciated what sort of an endurance test the trial and subsequent mileage represented. The roads were bad and conditions often unpleasant for the drivers. Night running depended on acetylene headlamps and there were no road markings or luxuries like windscreen wipers. Compared with other makes the Silver Ghost made the task possible with its good performance and excellent roadability, but the calls on the drivers’ skills cannot be underestimated. The result was that the 40/50, which adopted Silver Ghost as a type name, came to be recognised as head and shoulders above its contemporaries. Those who of recent years have followed the route of the trial and the endurance run, have found many of the roads taxing with modern vehicles, emphasising what an achievement it was in 1907.
The publicity that the 15,000 miles run brought to the 40/50 enabled it to be put into full scale production and early in 1908 Platford was appointed Chief Tester with the reference EP. The RAC then announced its 2000 mile International Touring Car Trial, covering a number of notorious hills in England and Scotland and finishing with a 200 mile run at Brooklands. The Company entered two cars, fitted with 4.75in stroke engines with overhead inlet valves and higher compression than the side valve 40/50. Because the cars were noisier and less smooth than the Silver Ghost they were named Silver Knave and Silver Rogue. CJ was to drive Silver Knave, while EP was entrusted with Silver Rogue. In the trial CJ retired and Platford drove Silver Rogue to a gold medal.
It is not generally known that there were some worries about Silver Rogue’s engine, yet EP, driving with consummate skill and consideration, had built up such a lead that when it came to the final 200 miles at Brooklands he had only to average a little over 53 mph to be sure of a gold medal. Subsequently he and CJ took both cars to Brooklands, covering twenty laps at an average speed of over 65 mph, suggesting a maximum of 70 mph. Although a few type 70s, as the model was known, were built and Rolls’s balloon car was one of them, there was no production run and all trace of the engines has disappeared. In 1909 the long stroke of the type 70 was applied to the side valve engine to improve performance.
It was not just a question of driving the type 70 in the Trial, the cars were built presumably at Derby during the transfer period from Manchester. While preparing the cars EP had all his normal test work and immediately before the trial he was working round the clock to get the cars finished, including fitting new magnetos. His efforts did not go unrecognised and at the opening ceremony of the Derby works a presentation was made to him, although it is not known what form this took. EP was married about the time of the move from Cooke Street to Derby and it is, perhaps, a measure of Royce’s feeling towards his young employee that he gave him the use of his own car for the honeymoon.
The task undertaken by Royce’s young Turks was remarkable for the way in which they met the standards demanded by Royce. In EP’s case, he had to produce engine and chassis test schedules with the necessary acceptance forms and cards, things we take for granted today. He had to choose and train his testers in how to drive and test cars and to make required adjustments. Among other things he produced an instruction on how to set up the Royce carburettor. As Chief Tester he was the custodian of product quality. Methods of manufacture entailed much hard work, while components such as axle gears required lapping as a final operation. In a motor car whose great attribute besides performance, was sweet and quiet running, the way it behaved on test provided a good guide to its general quality and reliability. In broad terms the quieter the car the better made were its components. The Test Department, therefore, had to evaluate many factors, which could not be measured in absolute terms. Yet EP trained his staff to be consistent in their evaluation.
Sensibly, he remained the constructive critic. He could report accurately on problems that made the car unacceptable in his view and he left it to others to come up with solutions, apart from adjustments that could be made in the Test Department. It is a measure of his ability and stature that he maintained the total respect of his peers. In some companies, and it has not been unknown in Rolls-Royce, there is a tendency to shoot the messenger bringing bad news, but this did not happen to EP. He would, however, accept a situation when the best that could be done still did not produce the ideal. When the torque tube axle caused a crownwheel and pinion whine in the cruising range, he was backed by CJ in not accepting cars and this led to a modified crownwheel and pinion design by By when Royce was ill, which cured the problem. Conversely, although it was EP who highlighted the Coronation rattle in the transmission, so called because it first came to light at the time of the Coronation of King George V, he and the Company had to live with it until there was a major redesign. This was the introduction of the big brake system, which deleted the transmission brake and changed the periodicity of the drive line.
Following Radley’s failure in the 1912 Austrian Trials, it was EP who was sent out to reconnoitre the route and it was on his report that a number of modifications were introduced on the 1913 team cars, apart from the four speed gearbox. He took part in acceptance testing, both in England and on the Continent. Although the team was led by Hs in the trials, EP was co-driving the car allocated to Friese, the Austrian agent. It was EP who did the serious driving, handing over before controls were reached.
Following the trials he was nominated to be the number two driver in the Rolls-Royce team for the 1913 Spanish Grand Prix. For good reasons Don Carlos Salamanca, who was the Rolls-Royce Spanish agent, was nominated as number one driver. The cars were two Alpine Eagles and the event was run in the Guadarramas with ambients of up to 90°F. It was important for a Rolls-Royce to win and for Salamanca to be the driver. EP initially led the race, but knowing his task he stopped to allow Salamanca to take the lead, which he then held with EP playing a waiting game should anything go wrong. The main challenge to Rolls-Royce was the French Lorraine Dietrich, a sporting car of high performance. Salamanca held his place to win with a Lorraine second and EP third, 24 minutes ahead of the next competitor.
One of the hazards of driving to team orders and giving way to the number one driver is that it may let a rival through and this is what happened to EP, who was subsequently balked by the Lorraine.
His conduct did not go unnoticed. On 1 July 1913, CJ wrote from Vienna:
I want to express to you the high appreciation I have for the earnestness with which you tackled the preparation for the Austrian Alpenfahrt and the success with which you drove the car, and the interest that you showed in the Company’s welfare in so readily agreeing to let Mr Friese drive in and out of controls, thus depriving yourself of the credit for the success, so far as the public is concerned.
All these things are highly creditable and shall be reported by me to the Board and to Mr Royce, who I am sure, will be grateful to you.
After the Grand Prix there was the following telegram:
‘Johnson to Platford
‘Heartfelt congratulations on your great success in Spain I admire very much the restraint which you exercised and the judgement with which you secured third place.
1/2 Have not got Salamanca’s address. Please explain this to him and convey my sincere congratulations and warmest thanks. Wire to London strong matter for advertising concerning severity of the temperature severity of the hills etc.
Platford was then sent on holiday to Venice with his wife, partly as a reward and partly to get him away from the press. A more permanent memento was the presentation of a gold watch inscribed:
George Eric Platford
By the Directors of
In recognition of his
Earnestness and skill
As DRIVER in the
SPANISH RACE AND
AUSTRIAN ALPEN FAHRT 1913
The Alpine Eagles were nearing the end of their competition career, but in November 1913 Radley, with one of EP’s testers, H A Ward, as mechanic, broke the unofficial record from London to Monte Carlo in a time of 26 hours 4 minutes, including the Channel crossing. In the night section of the run, level crossings were found locked, which were dealt with by Ward using a tyre lever to break the locks, an act typical of the press-on competitive spirit shown by owners. In 1914 Radley, again accompanied by Ward, drove an Alpine Eagle with the new big brake system in the Austrian Trials. As a private entry it was the only British car to come through the Trial without loss of marks and of the 78 starters only 14 cars achieved this. In the Trial the Katschberg, which had been the cause of Radley’s downfall in 1912, was made a timed ascent. The 40/50 made the fastest run for the four miles in 7 minutes 12 seconds, and was also the fastest car on the timed speed test, averaging 68.9 mph over five kilometres, making it the outstanding car in the Trial. It is not surprising that a number of these cars were built as production models for customers seeking performance cars and no doubt EP drove each one.
In August 1914 war broke out and Rolls-Royce found itself facing new tasks. Royce at once devoted his attention to the design of an aero engine that was to become the Eagle. With its smaller brothers, the Falcon and the Hawk, it was to set standards of performance and reliability that made it the envy of friend and foe alike. While design and development of the Eagle was going on the Company took on the manufacture of Renault and Royal Aircraft Factory engines, both air cooled V8s. EP was naturally responsible for their acceptance testing, including test facilities and agreeing the test schedules supplied. From photographs it appears that testing was carried out using calibrated propellers and it is probable that the beds were situated adjacent to Nightingale Road, where the Technical Block of the inter-war years stands, now forming part of the Derby Machining Facility in aero manufacture. As the war progressed more permanent beds were built to test Rolls-Royce engines and by the end of the war a bank of beds existed between Nos 1 and 2 yards, which remained in use until aero engine testing ceased on the site. EP was faced with specifying the design of beds and training personnel in the skills of aero engine testing. They also had to understand the installation in the aircraft, although at that stage this was the responsibility of the aircraft contractors. One recalls the classic phrase in a Rolls-Royce aero engine handbook that ‘the size and position of the radiator is decided by the Government’.
When it became necessary to provide assistance to contractors and service support in the field, the people involved had to come from the Aero Test Department, who alone had the skills. Thus, the Aero Service Department, with its traditions of expertise and dedication, was born. As the war continued EP was involved with aircraft contractors and the service representatives in the field, ensuring that problems were accurately reported and action taken to cure them. In 1919 he took charge of the Rolls-Royce team in Newfoundland, who were sent there in support of the aircraft competing for the prize for the first non-stop transatlantic crossing.
It was a difficult task carried out with a minimum of facilities, but it is evident that in off-duty moments there was an atmosphere of light-hearted enjoyment among the competing crews, who often brought in Company personnel and local girls to pass the time. The menu illustrated is typical of the practical joking that took place.
On the more serious side it was EP who did the necessary work to prepare the engines in Alcock and Brown’s Vimy for the record attempt. When the successful crossing of the Atlantic had been made the following cable was received in Newfoundland:
‘Royce to Platford,
Congratulations on the results of the careful preparation given to the engines which have performed the first Atlantic flight stop I am grateful to you for the care you have taken.
F. Henry Royce’.
After the experience of Newfoundland, EP returned to his more normal tasks, which immediately concerned the re-start of chassis production. The postwar Silver Ghost brought together a number of changes, including self starting and full electrics. There were other modifications, but the most important in terms of performance was the aluminium piston, which allowed higher engine speeds and increases in compression ratio. It was not without its problems, but finally with the split skirt type, which was Hs’s brain child, quiet operation and improved performance went hand in hand. EP was very much the arbiter of acceptance standards with this modification. When 40/50 production started at Springfield EP was sent over to advise on testing and to ensure that the American car matched the standards he had established for the Derby model.
The year 1922 saw the introduction of the Rolls-Royce 20hp, which was launched with a three-speed centre change gearbox. In the course of initial production EP raised some forty points requiring attention at a conference chaired by Wor and attended by Hs, By and Ms. Typical of the period, most of these problems were successfully dealt with between Hs and By and only a few were referred to West Wittering. The decision to fit four-wheel mechanical servo brakes to both the 40/50 and the Twenty entailed major changes, including a redesigned gearbox to take the servo motor, in the case of the Twenty embodying four speeds. When the early problems had been cured, the Rolls-Royce braking system became an example to others as to what a braking system should be. It was, I think, this event which first brought me into contact with EP when I was small.
It was when we were living in Matlock and there were occasions, generally during weekends, when EP would arrive with a chassis that was on test, having a problem on which he wanted By’s opinion. These visits stick in my memory as occurring on cold misty winter days. There would be consultation and he and By would take the chassis up on to the moors for a test run, after which they would come into the house to get warm by the big blackleaded Herald range in the kitchen. EP would shed his heavy tester’s coat, while mother made hot drinks, and discussions would continue.
It was then that he would talk to me and my sisters. He had a great appeal for children with his open face and friendly smile. We were of considerably different ages and disparate personalities, yet we all fell under his spell. He would take me out to look at the chassis standing in the yard, answering my questions with a sort of grave humour that I found fascinating. Mrs Philip (Plat) Allen, EP’s daughter, remembers the same things about him. He would pick up her and her friends on their way home from school and they would ride hanging on the box seat or the ballast box of the chassis, to their delight and EP’s pleasure. At parties his arrival would be eagerly awaited and he would be a moving spirit in the games to be played.
The decade of the twenties closed with a number of product changes. The Phantom I, which had succeeded the Silver Ghost, was in turn replaced by the very different Phantom II, while the Twenty became the 20/25. Aero production saw the last of the big Condor engines, with their individually jacketed cylinders, but was boosted by the new advanced Kestrel, and to some extent the Buzzard. These presented their particular problems to the Test department, but some characteristics remained unchanged. The 40/50, in spite of increased performance, had to retain immaculate slow running in top gear. Ted Reynolds, who as an experimental tester had driven the sports Phantom I 15EX in France, had moved to the Test Department. One day he was told to pick up EP from his home at lunch time and arrived with a Phantom II chassis that he was about to pass off. Emerging from the house EP questioned him on the progress of the test and then said he would check top gear slow running. This he did by walking at his normal pace alongside the chassis, which had to hold this speed without hesitation and then accelerate away. Ted told me this story as an illustration of EP’s demanding standards, yet he was regarded as being entirely fair and good to work for. An aside to this incident concerns Ted, who during the depression worked for a period as chauffeur to Carl Brisson, the Danish cabaret star, returning to the works when business picked up.
EP regularly drove experimental cars and on occasion would accompany Hs or Rm on a Continental sortie with a new model. In discussing the EX chassis in his book, Ian Rimmer comments that, during the period when Rolls-Royce were under suspicion by the French for their testing operations in France, EP shared the last 1000 miles of a test on 23EX with Bellringer from London. This seems to have been done to add to the impression that the cars were touring in France by adding new faces at the wheel. EP also drove contemporary cars purchased for the Experimental Department and the files contain analytical comments from EP on their virtues and problems.
On a broader front, a change in emphasis on the Company’s products was taking place that would ultimately affect a number of senior executives, including EP. At the end of the Great War Rolls-Royce had emerged as the leading aero engine manufacturer in Britain, but had subsequently frittered away this advantage. It seems there were members of the Board who did not subscribe to aero engine interests, although Royce continued his efforts in improving the Condor and designing the X Eagle XVI. By 1925 Napier and Bristol had supplanted Rolls-Royce as a major supplier of aero engines to both the RAF and foreign governments. The Company’s only new engine contracts were for Condors, for aircraft such as the Hawker Horsley and Blackburn Iris on account of the engine’s power and not modernity. In 1925 the aviation world was startled by the appearance of the Fairey Fox high speed bomber, powered by the Curtis D12, which virtually outflew its contemporaries. Royce responded to the challenge of the D12 with his ‘F’ or Kestrel of advanced design, which immediately created interest from aircraft manufacturers. It flew in 1927 in a Fox and some aircraft of this type were used by the RAF, as well as those using the D12. In 1928 Sydney Camm produced his Kestrel powered Hart high speed bomber and in 1929 his Fury fighter appeared with a supercharged Kestrel. These were superb aircraft, which started the long line of Kestrel-engined Hawker biplanes.
At the same time the reputation of Rolls-Royce received a tremendous boost from the success of the ‘R’ engine in the Supermarine S6 in the Schneider Trophy. The ‘R’ can be said to have restored technical pre-eminence, and led to the Merlin with all that was to mean.
The depression of 1929 affected chassis sales, particularly of the 40/50, and led to the closing of the Springfield operation. The timing of the Kestrel, which in its various forms was to have a production run of 4,750 engines, more than offset the decline in chassis business. The reason for this is that although the Kestrel and also the Merlin started as private venture engines, the Air Ministry took over development costs so that both experimental work and production engines were profitable. On the other hand all chassis development work was private venture, which coupled with rising costs of manufacture took away the profitability from chassis. The culminating issue was the Phantom III, a highly complex car designed to aero style and standards. EP went through the teething problems of the Phantom III with his usual skill, but even so it was troublesome in service.
At the end of 1936 Hs became General Works Manager and shortly afterwards was appointed to the Board. Faced with a massive aero expansion and an unprofitable chassis operation, he decided to create separate Divisions and to concentrate senior executives and new blood in one or other of the Divisions, rather than trying to do two jobs at once. EP moved to aero engines to deal with test and service. Before the decision was taken to build the Crewe factory Hs was considering ways of increasing aero assembly and test capacity, while the growing complexity of the engines required a fresh approach to service. EP was ideal in this role, having started both Aero Test and Aero Service in the Great War, but there was much to be done. The creation of two Divisions entailed much reorganisation, both in staffing and in the factory. The Merlin was coming on to production and as early as May 1937 the first Fairey Battle Squadron was formed and at the beginning of 1938 the famous 111 Squadron was to become the first to have Hurricanes. In considering EP’s work it is at times not appreciated just how much effort he put into Aero Service over the years, in particular backing it with his own demands for excellence. By the time of Munich 1700 Merlins had been delivered, 400 were in aircraft in the RAF, while a further 200 were installed at contractor’s works, leaving 1100 engines uninstalled.
In the longer term Aero Service became Product Support, dwarfing the Test Department that was its parent. It passed through the hands of a number of senior managers with a strong technical bent and until his retirement was in the highly competent grasp of Carl Wisher as Assistant Director – Product Support. Although he was largely concerned with civil engines he also dealt with those military types based at East Kilbride in Scotland. From a handful of people in 1916 the Department had a strength of 720, with 205 overseas representatives, not including North America belonging to Rolls-Royce Inc, but reporting to and taking their technical direction from Derby. The principle engine was the RB211, which after a difficult start gained a reputation that stood high with the airlines. Engine hours built up at the rate of 3,000,000 a year and TWA had an engine that stayed on the wing for more than 20,000 hours. EP’s protégé, as he would have wished, was very much the guardian of the Company’s reputation.
The Munich agreement in September 1938 was a time of tension and at Rolls-Royce it was realised that the most Chamberlain had done was to buy time for the rearmament programme, because there were then only about 97 Hurricanes with the squadrons and 19 Squadron was getting its first Spitfires. There was also strong feeling that the Czechs had been sacrificed on the altar of appeasement. Engines and airframes were going through the usual problems of new types. On 20 November EP went to a meeting at the Air Ministry and had taken his wife with the intention of staying the night in London. It was after this meeting, which had been one of considerable stress, that he was suddenly taken ill and died.
Platford’s death struck the works like a blow. EP was one of the elite from Manchester who had helped to found the success of the Company and had at times been a public figure in the days of competition. Equally he had worked behind the scenes, never seeking the limelight, and had gained a reputation that was to be envied for his ability and integrity. I can well remember the sadness that was universal among Company employees and the feelings that he was a man who put Company interests above his own.
One can, perhaps, speculate on what his career might have been had death not intervened. In that era at 55 one had ten years to go before retirement and these were regarded as valuable, both to the individual and to the Company. He was involved in a major expansion programme to meet the threat of war and it is not unreasonable to suppose that EP might have moved into a more general management role in the Aero Division. Certainly his influence was felt after his death and it was common to hear people in Aero Test and Service commenting on how EP might have handled some of the problems that arose. Some twenty years after his death, when I was running the Service department, I had encountered a snag with a major contractor. As I remember it, it was a disagreement between an experienced representative and a member of Flight Shed Management. It had the makings of an awkward situation and I sought the advice of Jim Lomas, who was my Area Supervisor. He had been in the field for a long time and was a safe pair of hands in such circumstances. He stood by my desk, half looking out of the window as he thought, and then said: “I remember having a similar conversation with EP and his reaction was….” Such was the influence of Eric Platford.
Today Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Limited still test every car from the assembly line and the methods hark back to the principles laid down by EP. These are the cars that the visitor to Crewe will see on the roads in the area.
Plat Allen has happy memories of her father and one in particular emphasises his versatility and refusal to accept disappointment. In the summer of 1938 he had booked a holiday at St Mawes on the Cornish coast, only to find there were neither golf links by the shore, nor a course within easy reach. The hotel had a motor launch, whose engine was in poor condition, and without more ado EP put it into Rolls-Royce order. He then added to the enjoyment of his holiday by taking parties of hotel friends to out of the way places on the coast. The holiday made such an impression on him that he had booked for the following year and was planning to have a small
His epitaph could be something he had said to Plat when she was growing up. “Whatever you do be sure you finish it and whatever you do, do it well.”
motor cruiser built for himself.