Merlin Anniversary

Packard built V-1650 “Merlin” Engine at the National Museum of the United States Air Force

It always happens – you read a couple of sentences and three hours later you knew a lot more than you ever wanted to. In today’s example it was the following:

“The first two Packard-built Merlins to be completed were demonstrated on test stands at a special ceremony at the Packard plant in Detroit on Aug. 2, 1941”

Oooh. August 2, 1941? Eighty years ago today. A tad before Pearl Harbor. A couple of weeks before FDR and Winston Churchill met in Newfoundland and on board HMS Prince of Wales and declared the Atlantic Charter. A month before the USS Greer incident and the fireside chat which I refer to in my history class as the “Rattlesnakes of the Atlantic” broadcast. Of course the Lend Lease Act was introduced in March 1941

Naturally the whole story is more complex. Because of its significance the UK wanted to have Merlins produced outside the UK. Henry Ford had rescinded his offer to produce the Merlin and so Rolls-Royce and the Packard Motor Car Company came to an agreement in September 1940 to manufacture the Merlin under license. The contract was worth $130 million dollars in 1940, which according to Wikipedia is worth about 2.4 (American) billion dollars today. The NMUSAF article says that over 55,000 Packard Merlins were built.

Naturally I wondered what proportion of total Merlin production that might represent. Back to Wikipedia for a convenient answer. 149,659 total including Packard versions.

One hundred and fifty thousand engines is a pretty mind boggling total. In addition to the Packard plant in Detroit, engines were built by Rolls-Royce at their Derby and Crewe factories in England, at a massive specially built factory in Glasgow, and ironically by Ford of Britain at another specially built factory in Trafford Park, Stretford, Manchester.

I won’t go on too much about the specifics of the Merlin engine since the Wikipedia article makes a pretty thorough job. I will add a personal note that it was one of those sounds that would guarantee my father’s rapt attention, no mater what else he was doing when he heard one. I remember an episode of the original BBC TV series Survivors in which one of the characters said: “How can anyone get excited about an engine?” This is a thought which tickles me still, since one of the stranger pleasures is playing any YouTube clip of a Merlin in an unoccupied classroom at the History ‘end’ of my building and seeing who comes to investigate, much as my late father would have done.

But today, August 2, 2021, we raise our metaphorical glasses in the direction of Detroit and salute the Packard Merlin. Long may it roar.