London Desk

London Desk 18

Friday, 04 March 2011 21:11

Ron Hickman and Ben Rood

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Above: Ron Hickman
  TWO OF THE GREAT NAMES OF BRITISH MOTOR ENGINEERING ARE GONE FROM US     Within days of each other Ron Hickman, O.B.E. and Ben Rood of Cosworth Engineering have passed away. Each made unique contributions to the   world  of motor engineering.   Ronald Price Hickman 21.10.1932 – 17-02-2011 To describe Ron Hickman as a colourful individual would be a massive understatement. His personality was extrovert and irrepressible. His humour and light hearted banter belied a sharp and incisive mind which was single minded in looking for answers and tenacious when seeking to produce the results of his work.   Born in 1932 in the small town of Greytown in Western Natal which sits by the Indian Ocean, Ron did not in his formative years appear to be heading in the direction of the motor industry. Although sketching and designing cars was a passion along with music, he initially trained in law and worked for the South African Government in this capacity.   The Car Years An increasing urge to follow the car design route resulted in him borrowing the cash to travel to the U.K in 1954 and knock upon Mr Ford’s door at Dagenham in Essex. Even then, he must have had remarkable powers of persuasion since he was taken on and set to work in the Styling Dept., initially working on the clay formed models of cars in development. This all came about in 1956. One project that he was involved with was the Ford Anglia.   Within 2 years Ron had met Colin Chapman who was then at his most dynamic and productive with ideas boiling and fizzing from him like freshly opened champagne. It was apparently at the 1956 Motor Show at Earls Court and the two greatly innovative minds had enough common ground to prompt Ron to leave Ford to work for Colin.   The new Lotus Elite was still on the drawing board then and Ron was ostensibly employed as a production engineer but at Lotus, who were still at the small Edmonton works then, everyone was expected to turn their hand to whatever came up. In order to supplement income, a bit of freelance furniture design was being turned out on the side. Probably necessary, for as Ron himself commented “No one ever made a fortune at Lotus” The Elite, although regarded as one of the great classic car designs was never a great commercial success and in some ways was not totally practical as a road car.   Ron was instrumental in it’s successor the Elan which, he assured me, he named. Along with John Frayling, they saw the car into production. As any Elan driver would tell you, at that time it was the nearest thing to a racing car in road going form. Fabulous road holding along with the Ford twin cam tuned engine, the pleasing lines and a comfortable interior added to this, a very affordable price meant that they sold in very viable numbers. Ron proudly displayed his Elan Sprint which he kept in the Villa Deveraux garage up until the time of his death.   The Workmate Era In 1966 Ron left the Lotus fold and bravely went ahead with his design business. The workmate was already in it’s embryo stages. A visit to his workshop cum study cum library at Villa Deveraux would quickly reveal the lined up progress of the design right from the defaced beechwood kitchen chair, through the crude dexion mock ups to the finished product. The road to success for his workmate was not an easy one and persons less determined and inspired than Ron might never have seen the idea come to fruition along with all the benefits that it brought him. Initially his design met little interest from the D.I.Y., industry and he had to soldier on marketing the product himself until Black & Decker realised the significance and potential of the device and made him an offer which brought in the financial rewards that his efforts so richly deserved. The royalties enabled him to take up residency on the island of Jersey where he designed and built Villa Deveraux in an idyllic spot overlooking St. Brelades bay. The house tumbled down the slope toward the cliff in an inspired combination of granite and glass. The approach from the road he turned into an arboretum of rare specimen trees, the house was full of the kind of gadgets which one would expect to find in an inventors house but very rarely do. Even the lawn contributed with his sensored water sprinkling system which was operated by the moisture content of the turf below the surface. Even a trip to the loo was an adventure and upon a first encounter was very risky, it was full of jokey items and sound effects and could easily result in an accident. Ron did not confine his talents to his own needs, Helen his wife is a gifted flower arranger and likes to pass on her skills in the art of Japanese techniques. She had a self contained studio with all the necessary equipment for teaching complete with a small car park and dedicated lift for her pupils.   The views from the house were stunning and one of my memories of my acquaintance with Ron was him standing at his drawing board sweeping his arm across the vista remarking “How can you not be inspired looking out at this while working”?   He was very proud of the fact that the house was much celebrated on the island and had featured on postage stamps. No mean feat on Jersey where there are millionaires’ mansions by the dozen.   The other abiding memory of him was the still effervescent enthusiasm that bubbled from him on any subject that took his interest. He was truly one of life’s unforgettable characters.   Ron was awarded his OBE decoration in 1994, a richly deserved recognition of his work.   For Ron’s widow Helen and his family our sincere condolences. Ben Rood Engineer Extraordinary  03.11.1926 – 01.03.2011
L to R  Keith Duckworth, Ben Rood, Mike Costin(Click for 2nd - enlarged - photo) 
  The name may not immediately be synonymous with Cosworth Engineering but as anyone with close connections with the history of the company would know, Ben was a vital part of the Cosworth success story. Keith Duckworth and Mike Costin always took great pains to emphasise this when discussing the firm.   Ben had, while in his mid teens purchased a lathe and installed it at the rear of his Father's ice cream shop in Bethnal Green. In the highly utilitarian commercial world which was post‑war Britain, industrial machinery was very hard to come by. He devised and built machines to wrap ice cream for his Father which must have been an enormous plus for the business. Ben purchased defunct machinery and converted and modified wherever possible. It was a great grounding for innovative thinking and ingenuity. His passion at that time was motor cycles and he spent a lot of time making up modified parts for the bikes and had actually built two of his own design 350cc machines up in the early fifties, racing them and Nortons at various events including the Manx TT. His reputation as a good engineer had reached Keith Duckworth and he was soon knocking upon the door wanting his E93A Ford Engines modifying which Ben was able and willing to oblige with   Ben recalled that early in 1964 he had a moment of truth when he realised that the whole of his work load consisted of Cosworth orders, he had always promised himself not to put all the eggs in any one basket. He was on the verge of turning some of the work away to take other sources when Keith called round literally within days, suggesting that he join forces with them as a member of the board and move to Northampton where a new factory with a fully kitted machine shop awaited. The financial incentives were tempting enough and therefore the leap of faith was not too great.   Ben went on to share in the extraordinary success story of Cosworth, being an integral part of the design and development process. He amazingly had, and never did have, a single recognised qualification as an engineer. He was very proud of that fact.   I was privileged to have spent some interesting times with Ben always highly informative. He was very good at passing on knowledge without the “Blinding with science syndrome” The real revelation was to have the three together, Keith, Mike and Ben and listen to the exchanges of ideas going backward and forward like quicksilver. It was not hard to see where the great success of Cosworth had sprung from.   Right up until recently, Ben had enormous enthusiasm for all things mechanical. He was very active in Flying, boating and still very informed on the motor engineering front. I have vivid memories of how he showed me the first SatNav I have ever seen some years ago and gleefully demonstrated how he had taken it apart and modified the workings to do what he felt it should. What a fascinating mind! He will be sadly missed by his many friends and family. I   Sincere condolences to his wife Jane and the family   Carol Corliss, March 2011  Click here to read Carol's account of the Cosworth Story      
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