On the beach but always reaching for the stars
But while setting out the chairs and taking money from relaxing holidaymakers, John invariably had other things on his mind. Even though he may not have realised it at the time, he was taking the first steps towards becoming one of the world’s most talented design engineers.
In truth he was a genius way ahead of his time. He took an idea and made it happen. In a small workshop by Wootton Bridge he designed and problem-solved, and along with a group of other engineers from the Island worked to make unthinkable ideas become reality.
He built the world’s first electric car, an Enfield 8000; designed and helped build the first jet-propelled car, Thrust 2, which held the world land speed record for nearly 14 years; and took men in hot air balloons to the edge of space. He also played a major role in the development of the hovercraft when working on the Cushioncraft, a subsidiary of Britten Norman, at St Helens Duver.
Yes, he had a few setbacks along the way, a victim of redundancies and cash shortages. But his achievements far outweighed his disappointments. Now his remarkable work has earned him the Freedom of Ryde, and rightly so.
I caught up with him at his home in Ryde to help reflect on his incredible life. He explained that he was born in India in 1937, and he and his parents came to England towards the end of the Second World War. He said: “I think the only time I saw my dad was on the boat from India. He was a Ghurka officer, and when we got to England, he just
He continued: “Eventually I became an apprentice at Saunders Roe. It was very interesting to be an ordinary apprentice, and following that I did a lot of other things, including some engineering in the US and Europe. But every summer, all I wanted was to be a deckchair attendant!
“I made myself an electric car, and it was quiet, good and simple. It took me about six months, because I had to do other things as well to make a bit of money. I went along the seafront in the car, and that turned a few heads. I often drove it down to do my deckchair work. It was a two-seater car, and I found I could cruise round Ryde very easily, and I really enjoyed it. I was always interested in cars, aeroplanes and anything mechanical, as well as balloons. I suppose I was ahead of my time, but you had to be to get to the top.”
In the mid-1970s John saw an advertisement asking for a designer to design a 650mph land speed record car. He successfully applied, began designing Thrust 1, sponsored by Richard Noble. But it ended abruptly when funds dried up.
He was far more successful when the Thrust 2 project began. He recalls: “I met Richard Noble and his team, and we had this dream that we could break the world land speed record. We did a lot of the work along Ryde seafront, and tested it a lot in England, because it was a variable machine that you could just go and use it. Richard and I met, and just started talking fast cars. I started building it with nothing apart from a sharp pencil and a sketch pad.”
For three years from 1980 Thrust 2 was designed and built by John and his team, and then tested many times before, on October 4th 1983, at the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, the car reached a top speed of 650.88 mph to break the previous record at 633.468 mph. But not before more problems were overcome. John even had to invent solid ceramic wheels for the car, as ordinary tyres overheated and threatened to disintegrate during trials.
He said: “I think building Thrust 2 was my biggest achievement. Before that I had been an apprentice and deckchair attendant, and then I bumped into Richard who wanted to build the world’s fastest car, so we did it. It was the first jet-propelled car, and working as an apprentice working on airplanes gave me a good background. I had all the knowledge, so it was about putting it together in a different format, with the help of a few engineers I knew. It was designed and built in a shed in Wootton.”
Later John designed and built some pretty unique hot air balloons. He said: “I started on the project, and just got carried away. There was always that goal to aim for; to go and do something else. Things came up, and it was finding the right people, then seizing the opportunity to be involved.
“We put balloons around the world, and I went up in one so high you could look down on the world. I had to have breathing apparatus, and went up over 12 miles, way beyond where any balloon had been before. I decided to come down because I thought I might die.”
He added: “I’ve had a remarkable life, and I feel satisfied with what I did. I just got interested in things and go carried away, but money was never the incentive. I wasn’t building a future to get rich. I just met good people, saw a lot of the world, and we always achieved what we set out to do.
“Thinking back, the things we did could easily have killed people, so we were lucky. It could have caused accidents that would have been known about all over the world, but I never really thought about it at the time, because I was so busy trying to achieve.”
These days electric cars are becoming more common as world oil begins to decline. As for the seemingly ridiculous idea of putting a jet engine onto a car, the technology has been used since, when you think of some space travel as being little more than jet cars. Then he took a balloon to a level that has ultimately put rockets into space, and helped weather forecasting. All those amazing feats, and more, started to happen when John was setting out deck chairs in Ryde.