Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Barbara Castle's Unlikely Legacy

BoingBoing recently posted regarding the long-tailed boats used in South-East Asia, essentially traditional designs with old lorry engines installed on a long steerable propshaft in the stern. I was reminded of a curious piece of history and wrote to the BBsters as follows:

It's not well known that those boats originate from a change in the British government's motor vehicle Construction and Use Regulations in the late 1960s. What with the new motorway construction programme well under way, the (largely old) truck fleet had begun to get in the way. So the then Ministry of Transport (Secretary of State for Transport being Barbara Castle) introduced a minimum power-to-weight ratio.

This meant that a ton of trucks with Gardner LX 105hp (mostly) or Perkins P4 engines suddenly became obsolete. Exporting second-hand trucks to places that would accept them (essentially, the third world) was not great business, so they were either scrapped or retrofitted with more wallop. Hence a mass of very reliable, very user-serviceable diesel engines going begging.

Some sly fox saw a chance, and went round the country buying the engines and shipping them to Hong Kong and Singapore for sale to chandlers. As the engine arrived complete with the reverse box and the end of a propshaft, they just put in a length of shaft and a prop. Local boat builders came up with the rest and a new, unmistakable craft was born.

They still have (even brand-new ones with much later power units, radar and GPS) the traditional eyes on each side of the bow, a custom recorded everywhere from the Mediterranean to Japan and back into pre-classical antiquity.

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