Passing of a powerboat legend

Peter Twiss died in August aged 90, but his legacy lives on

The death of Peter Twiss at the age of 90 in August closed another chapter in the era of Fairey Marine and the halcyon days of offshore powerboat racing.

To many outsiders Peter (above left) will best be remembered as the fastest man alive when he piloted a Fairey Delta prototype aircraft at 1,132mph in level flight, setting a new world record. It surpassed the previous record held by an American flying a F-100 Super Sabre by a huge margin of some 300mph. But in the world of motorboating his name signifies Fairey Marine and the heritage the marque left behind.

Peter probably never visualised he would have a second career in pleasure boating. His world air speed record put him on the crest of a wave when it came to the aircraft industry. He had flown and tested over 100 different types of aircraft and was Fairey’s chief test pilot when the company was sold to Westland Helicopters, which would later become a part of British Aerospace. Peter was a plank pilot (flyer’s slang for winged aircraft) so there was no longer a job for him.

Sir Richard Fairey was no loser when it came to a business opportunity. He began to diversify shortly after the end of WWII with a division of the company building a range of sailing boats headed by his old aviation MD, Colin Chichester-Smith, working alongside the recently demobilised Charles Currey (above centre).

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He chose to use his premises at Hamble Point purchased many years earlier to build seaplanes. Unfortunately he was to discover the jigs set in the ground to produce aircraft wings moved as the tide ebbed and flowed forcing him to move his aviation venture elsewhere. It was later to prove a perfect venue for building boats.

It was no small operation. The range included the Fairey Firefly, which became an Olympic class. There was also a large number of other models, some designed by Uffa Fox. Among these were the Atalanta class yacht and International Finn, still an Olympic class.

All were built using the hot-moulded veneer lay-up principle invented in the 1930s by de Havilland for stressed wing aircraft.

Sir Richard’s son Richard later joined the company and turned the focus towards powerboats. Ray Hunt had just perfected his deep-vee hull. Its performance and efficiency were such that it offered an opportunity to own a relatively high-speed cruising boat using less expensive diesel rather than gasoline power.

The early boats were somewhat primitive but engaging Alan Burnard (above right) as head designer proved a winner and with Fairey Aviation sold to Westland Helicopters, Peter Twiss now enters the story.

Peter was not only the perfect leader of the team, he was also ‘hands-on’ and never missed an opportunity to drive a Fairey cruiser, from doubling as 007 in From Russia With Love to competing in many offshore races starting with the first Daily Express Cowes-Torquay in 1961 when he skippered holiday camp king Billy Butlin’s Huntsman No 8. He was as good a powerboat driver as he was an airman.

His name was seldom missing from offshore race entry lists in the 1960s and early 70s. He was chosen by the giant News of the World to drive their new boat bearing the same name. It was an entirely new departure in design and power jointly created by Tony Needell and Colin Moody to win the prestigious ‘All-British’ prize. It had four British-made diesels driving two propellers via custom-built gearboxes.

Sadly a broken fuel pipe spraying onto a hot exhaust manifold spelt its demise at the Royal Motor YC Needles Trophy race off Swanage in 1966 but this setback didn’t end the career of Peter Twiss behind the wheel.

Perhaps one of his greatest achievements was as leader of the Ford team in the 1969 Daily Telegraph & BT Round Britain Race where he finished fourth overall in a team that filled third, fourth and fifth slots: the first non-racing boats to head the finishing table.

These were the days of heavy sponsorship which was so vital to the existence of what was and still is an expensive sport. Unlike today, most contestants were relatively wealthy in their own right. Like banks who seldom loan money to those with nothing in their pocket, sponsors are very much the same.

There were many sponsors in those days, particularly large corporations such as newspapers, oil companies, and before the banning, tobacco companies. All were involved with offshore powerboat racing.

As I wrote at the beginning of this blog, Peter Twiss was a name belonging to the halcyon days of the sport that those in motorboating today couldn’t possibly imagine. His passing just leaves Alan Burnard as the sole survivor of the trio that brought us the Fairey Cruiser which still exists in large numbers and which are worth many times the cost their first owners paid back in the 1960s.

There couldn’t be a better memorial.


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