The British marine engine

06 Dec 2013
‘Berge Bergensen’ – owned by Bergesen and chartered to Shell; the largest motor ship afloat in 1963

‘Berge Bergensen’ – owned by Bergesen and chartered to Shell; the largest motor ship afloat in 1963

To many of us – myself included – 50 years doesn’t really seem that long ago. And looking at some items in old copies of The Motor Ship we think that little has really changed in that time.

However, other articles seem to have come from a different world. When The Motor Ship began publication in 1920 its main raison d’être was to cement the superiority of the Diesel engine over steam propulsion. A comment in the December 1963 issue reads: “Now there is an obvious trend away from steam to diesel propulsion…” it seems that goal was being achieved. But the subject of the article was British-built marine engines, and here we stray into The Motor Ship’s other campaigning territory – promotion of the UK marine community. And this is where the world of 50 years ago is so markedly different from that of today.

In 1963 Britain led the world in shipping. Even in shipbuilding it was an important player, although admittedly it was slipping down the league slightly from its previous top position. Indeed, only Japan could challenge the European domination in shipbuilding. The article in question acknowledged the fact that only one truly British engine company remained, and that most British engine companies built under licence from other European designers. There was a reference to the fact that the Continentals had reached their superiority through subsidies and other official assistance, whereas the UK company – Doxford of course – had remained truly British and independent.

Our predecessors were optimistic about Doxford’s latest offering, the J-type, introduced to compete in the higher-power large-bore market which was booming in the early 1960s as ships became larger and faster. It was even hoped that officialdom would lend some support to Doxford to ensure it got its share of the home and overseas markets with its new engine. It was accepted that sales would be dictated not by governments, but by shipowners. And they were wary, following a spate of Doxford crankshaft breakages in the 1950s, and consequent limitation of subsequent engines to six cylinders for safety’s sake. The J-type, however, featured a completely new crankshaft arrangement, and this, combined with the perceived price advantage enjoyed by Doxford’s opposed-piston design over standard engines of similar power. So great things were hoped for in the future.

One of those ‘nothing changes’ feelings was engendered by the next editorial comment, entitled ‘Prospects for Fuel Cells’. ASEA in Sweden (now, of course, ABB) had been working on a marine hydrogen fuel cell. Although our predecessors consigned it to the same category as gas turbines and nuclear power as “likely successors to the diesel engine”, and thus something for far into the future, it was acknowledged that the fuel cell could provide a perfect power source for submarines.

In a further comment piece, the editors of the time attempted to debunk the myth that Japanese shipbuilding had advanced because of cheap labour rates. Although most European owners ordering in Japan were tight-lipped about costs, one, Common Bros, which had recently ordered a ship in Japan, revealed that Japanese shipyard labour was not cheap – the average worker taking home the equivalent of £42-46 per month with overtime. No mention of 1963 European wages was made, but your current editor recalls that his first ‘proper’ post-apprenticeship job in 1970 in a drawing office attracted the union rate of £1,000 per annum – thought then to be a decent salary – so the Japanese yard workers didn’t appear to be exploited.

Finally, the December 1963 issue reported on the largest motor ship afloat – the 264m 91,375dwt Norwegian tanker Berge Bergesen, built at Rosenberg in Stavanger and powered by a 21,000bhp B&W engine. It wouldn’t hold that title for long – a 130,000dwt ship had reportedly been ordered in Japan.