My Life With the Monster


... or 18 years of romance with a Kelvin diesel.

Mike Harper remembers his love affair with the affable K2 No. 19194.

     They were marvellous things -- or, more accurately, they were marvellous when installed in the boats they'd been designed for, fishing craft, barges, small coasters, work boats, launches, any craft where the ability of an engine to run for hour after hour on a small amount of fuel and with a minimum of attention was more important than low weight or small mass.

     My own experiences with a Kelvin, which spanned 18 years, involved 19194, usually referred to, when out of ear shot -- as The Monster. He was a K2, a two cylinder unit built in 1935 and installed in a fishing boat called Rolling Wave to replace a smaller Kelvin petrol paraffin unit installed when the boat was built in 1929. A K2 gave 44hp and maximum revs were about 750 per minute. The first K was built in 1933 and announced to the world in an advertisement in The Motor Boat magazine on 4 August. The makers were the Bergius Company, named after its founder and managing director, Walter Bergius. Our 19194 was therefore one of the earliest engines in the series.

     By the time we bought Rolling Wave in 1959, the engine had given valiant service, having been rebuilt several times. But since her rough conversion to a yacht by a previous owner, 19194 bad been sadly neglected.

     It proved almost impossible to start The Monster. The reason was eventually traced to a clapped out magneto, and if this sounds like a contradiction in terms when discussing a diesel engine, it might help if I explain just how you went about starting a K engine.

     Each cylinder has a separate petrol combustion chamber on top of the Cylinder head, with a passage through to the diesel combustion chamber. This can be closed by a valve. The petrol combustion chambers are fed with a petrol oil mix from a simple gravity carburettor. When starting the engine it is first necessary to prime them through a valve on the sides.

   Having primed and filled the carb, checked the compression change over lever was back, opened the valve and reduced compression, as well as opened the vent between the chambers, you had to remove the earth lead on the magneto and screw in a small screw. This magneto created the spark at the plugs on top of the petrol chambers, so that, in effect, a petrol unit was incorporated as part of the engine. Tightening this screw set into operation an ingenious system of pawls and springs, so that when you slowly pulled the engine over, the magneto turned rapidly under the action of the springs and  pawls and created a healthy spark at the plugs.

     The final part of the pre starting drill was to go round with an oil can, give a few squirts into the bearings on the water pump and fill the cups on top of the tappet and rocker covers, from which oil dripped via wicks to lubricate the moving parts. Having done all this, you muttered a few words of encouragement into The Monster's ear, situated just above the crankcase below the carburettor and disguised as a breather; and then, in the words of the handbook, you would "pull the engine over compression with the starting handle," and voila!

   There was a certain knack to this, and anyone who approached the task cautiously, in case of I backfire, was doomed. If the timing was right, a K never backfired. If, for some reason, the timing was wrong and there was a backfire, the chances were that you would either break your wrist or be thrown bodily through the hull.

   What was needed was a positive confident, almost masterly swing. As you nudged it over compression either nothing happened, because neither piston was in a firing position, or a violent explosion in one of the petrol combustion chambers occurred. This was enough to persuade the engine to turn over until it reached the next firing stroke, when the impulse magneto, the primed petrol combustion chamber and the plug would combine to produce another violent bang.

     By now, sufficient impetus had been created, aided by the massive flywheel to keep the engine running until it reached the next firing stroke and the carburettor came into action. From then on The Monster ran happily, noisily and, on petrol, with much smoke, until you judged it was warm enough and running fast enough to fire on diesel.

   A smart movement of the decompression Lever bumped up Compression by closing the valve connecting the two chambers, and also cut off the flow of petrol from the carburettor. If you got it right there would be an  immediate violent bang in one of the cylinders as it fired on diesel, just as if a man with hammer was trying to smash the engine up. After a little irregular banging on both cylinders, The Monster would pick up rhythm and settle down to eager steady life.

   Once The Monster was running nicely on diesel, all you had to do was unscrew the lever  on the magneto, replace the earth lead, give him an encouraging pat on the crankcase and after a few moments, open a small cock near the magneto. If this produced a slow drip drip of oil it proved that this essential fluid was circulating properly this same starting procedure was followed on the K2's big brothers, the K3, 4 and 6, which were exactly the same as the K2 except that the extra cylinders were mounted on a longer crankcase and all the essential bits like like crankshaft, cam shaft and so on were it much longer. There was also a K1. All the bits on each cylinder of these models were interchangeable, which simplified spares stock for fleet operators.

   I never had occasion to start the larger engines but, according to the handbook, there was no difficulty, even in pulling them over compression to get that first essential bang. I believe some vessels with larger models had them supplied with electric starting motors, which always seemed a little sissy to me, not to mention that it took away a good deal of the fun.

  My adventures with 19194 included starting it with one of the petrol combustion chamber priming valves open. Unfortunately, it fired and ran one cylinder (which it would always do on diesel once it was warm, even at idle, which saved a lot of fuel). As the cock was open, the explosion was directed through the opening. Enormous sparks spat out like a Brocks benefit day. Luckily, the atmosphere in the engine room was free of petrol fumes which wouldn't have been the case if several attempts had been made at starting, when the air became fruity with petrol after I'd poured it into the open  top of the carburettor.

   On another occasion, after working the engine and in the process of altering the timing, I re-timed it before attempting to start it again. Unfortunately l got the timing mark on the flywheel slightly the wrong side of TDC. and when I pulled the handle over compression there was the usual violent bang, the handle was jerked savagely backwards, and the engine began running - also backwards, emitting great  clouds of smoke through the valves. Once I realized what was happening it is easy to stop The  Monster dead in his tracks by simply cutting off his air supply by putting my hand over the air  intake part of the carb.

     I remember the time I disconnected the fuel pump to replace a worn part. When I had assembled it again and started him up, all seemed well, except at he was a little reluctant to fire. But  he did, and we made a passage from the Isle of Wight to Teddington on the Thames, memorable, however, for lack power in the engine and a lot of smoke from the exhaust. Investigations with the help of a competent mechanic revealed at the engine had been running with the timing out by 180 degrees.

     The K series would also run with a cylinder out of action - nice to know if for some reason a valve burned out or an injector failed. All you had to do was open the injection drain on the dead  cylinder. The piston would happily run up and down in its cylinder and the diesel could be salvaged and used again.

     Not that the K engines were thirsty. On 19194 we achieved a steady fuel consumption of 1.1 gallons per hour,  partly by running on one cylinder at tick over and partly because we seldom opened The Monster up to his full 750 or so revs. At low revs there was always plenty of power at the prop, and we could mange a steady five knots at half to two thirds revs, quite enough for us. If we had been in a hurry we would have gone by air.

     When we took Rolling Wave through the French  canals - where, apart from speed restrictions it is not possible to motor very fast because of the shallow depth and the narrow channel - we found that she would bumble along quite happily at about three to four knots on tick over.

     This expression is something of a misnomer for an operation better described as a 'thump-thump'-over. Any one who has listened to the booming exhaust of a Kelvin at about 120 revs will have thrilled to that characteristic hollow beat, which immediately identified its source. This, indeed, was the thrill of owning a boat with a Kelvin. Aficionados, drawn from afar by that unmistakable noise, would come and chat with you with the verve of a Bentley motor car enthusiast who has just discovered a Blue Label model in mint condition under a pile of straw in a barn.

   My 19194 would tick over quite happily on one cylinder for hours, emitting an unmistakable BONK-squeak, BONK-squeak, BONK-squeak, with a pause between each pulsation as he staggered over the two non firing strokes in his four stroke cycle.

   Repairs on a K could be tackled by someone with rudimentary mechanical knowledge, like me - unlike more sophisticated engines whose intricacies demand a mechanic with several years' experience and a degree in mechanical engineering. Their complications make breakdowns a much more frequent occurrence than on a good, old-fashioned, simple thumper like a K.

   The longevity of Kelvins is a byword. All you had to do was top up the oil when necessary, change it and the fuel filter regularly and make a regular inspection when it was running.

Changing the oil was no task for the fastidious. A pump on top of the crankcase enabled you to suck out all the oil, but this took a long time and left a residual sludge unsucked in the bottom of the sump. It was better, though messier, to remove the inspection plates from the side of the crankcase and bail out the oil with a plastic container like an old yoghurt jar. You could clean out the last sludge deposits with a sponge, finishing by wiping the bottom of the sump dry with a rag and removing any deposits from the crankshaft, con rods and any other parts you could get at.

     The K2 was a large engine, which meant that it had to be installed in a pucker engine room with good all-round access and the possibility of incorporating a work bench with a vice, small, modern, lightweight diesels of comparable power are usually tucked away under the cockpit floor where they occupy little room but are inaccessible for maintenance and repair.

     Stripping the engine was relatively easy.  You started at the top and worked downwards. As each cylinder was an individual, with its own head and petrol combustion chamber and so on, no part was too big or heavy to be handled easily. On 19194 each cylinder had its own personality. Number One had the easier time, because every time The Monster fired all he had to 'do "''as turn the crankshaft round once until No. Two fired, but poor old No. Two had to turn him over two non firing strokes, which was far harder.

     No. 19194 was something of a misogynist. I seldom allowed my wife into the engine room, because her appearance immediately triggered off some minor mishap, usually the belt driving the generator coming off or breaking. I shall always remember Diana spending a night down in The Monster's lair, watching the level of bilge water, on an occasion when we had developed a leak somewhere in the planking. The idea was that when it reached a certain level she would come up and pump. Meanwhile, my task was steering and navigation.

     At about three in the morning when there had been no sound for a long time, I descended to see if all was well, only to find Diana sound asleep, head lolling on her arm, which was clutching one of the stay bars fixing 19194 in position. She was completely exhausted. On that occasion, at least, Monster showed that he had a real heart of gold by behaving perfectly.

     No. 19194 was a true friend, although I suspect he had a sardonic sense of humour. He gave us hour after hour of devoted service, and seldom gave us trouble after we had sorted out the problems created by the previous owners neglect, his personality pervaded Our lives. Visitors to the boat, if we liked them, were invited to visit him in his lair. On the rare occasions when Diana and I were not on speaking terms I could be sure of a sympathetic reception if I crept in to see him. His massive presence always created an atmosphere which led me to return to her and make things up.

     When we finally sold Rolling Wave we were desolate: a major reason was because we lost 19194. I wish we had one like him in Rolling Wave II.

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