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V-12s

An airplane stands for freedom, for joy, for the power to understand, and to demonstrate that understanding. Such things are not destructible.—Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull

From July through October of 1940, waves of German and Royal Air Force planes battled to the death in the skies above Great Britain, raining fire and destruction upon cities and towns, and challenging each other in skilled ferocity. Luftwaffe Dorniers, Heinkels, Junkers, and Messerschmitts, at Hitler’s bidding, sought to soften Britain’s defenses and break its will before a planned sea invasion. Vastly outnumbered, the RAF’s Hurricanes and Spitfires pushed back. The bitter enemies had but one friend in common: the V-12 engine.

In Tehachapi, land of train loops and windmills, at the end of a desolate street, a single-story metal structure sits between the banks of Highway 58 and a sullen expanse of grass.

Not much commends or identifies it. Flat roof, cracked paved lot, no signage. A poster at the locked front door reads, “Please Use Back Door.” Barely visible in the back lot are the guts of V-12s in various states of repair, along with rims, axels, wire, and massive containers (each containing a V-12 scheduled to be overhauled), stacked in mounds.

Through the back entrance of the shop, you are hardly noticed. The dozen or more workers are possessed in joyous industry. There is little talking; only what is necessary. It is all clanks, taps, raps, grinding, and hums. This is the scene of men who love what they do: overhauling engines. And this is Vintage V-12s, arguably the premier vintage aircraft engine restoration company in the world.

The owner, Mike Nixon, started working on WWII aircraft in 1973 at Van Nuys Airport. He started his own shop five years later in Chino and, in 1981, moved to Sun Valley where he incorporated the business as Vintage V-12s. In 1983, Nixon hired an area mechanic, Jose Flores (then still in high school). Soon after, Flores (now Vice President and General Manager of Vintage V-12s) joined that venture, and the company achieved what he calls “a nice comfortable level of business.

“I remember Mike saying one day,” said Flores, “ ‘We’re doing well. We’re doing what we love, the customers like our work, and we’re making good money.’ We were averaging four or five engines a year.”

All that was to change when a wealthy German businessman made his request: he needed the fledgling company to renovate five engines a year...for five years. Nixon and Flores agreed, hired two more employees, and Vintage V-12s was on its way. And, in 1987, avoiding high commercial rent costs and Southland congestion, Vintage V-12s moved to its current location in Tehachapi. Today the company employs 35 people and 34,000 square feet of shop space. In addition to the V-12 business, Nixon also oversees three other companies, Vintage Radials, Vintage Aero Engines, and Vintage Carburetors, all located on the same commercial property.

Each V-12 has approximately 14,000 parts. Each must be inspected, cleaned and, if necessary, repaired before use

In its time, the V-12 represented the zenith of internal combustion engine evolution. Rather than disappear into the mists of technological advance, love for the engine assured that it would not be forgotten. Too much about it was unique and history-changing.

The engine features twelve cylinders, two banks of six cylinders each, mounted on a single crank case. Each bank is mounted at what is usually a 60 degree angle to the other, creating its unique “V” shape. Twelve pistons drive the single crankshaft. This design results in more even firing, improved aerodynamics and smoothness, power pulses delivered twice as often, and no need for counterweights on the crankshaft (as with 90 degree V-8s). The V-12 runs slower than smaller engines, prolonging engine life.

The first incarnation of the V-12 was in aircraft. As the “war to end all wars” (WWI) came to an end, V-12s were found in fighters, bombers, and zeppelins. Both German (Daimler, Haybach) and American (Curtiss) manufacturers were perfecting the engine.

By World War II it dominated military aircraft. Rolls-Royce, Daimler-Benz, BMW, and the Packard Motor Company all manufactured the engine. After the war, turboprop and turbojet engines steadily eclipsed and displaced the V-12. But it was to find wider applications in the automobile industry. Today, thanks to people like Nixon and Flores, the V-12 aircraft engine lives on not just in memory, but in time and space.

“This is World War II stuff,” said Flores, “and we’re keeping history going here.”

What Nixon achieved was unparalleled. Over the years, restoration of V-12 engines had been the work of specialists. Each mechanic concentrated on a specific system or component. Nixon mastered the entire engine. And he assembled a team of fellow “masters” who love what they do and do it better than just about anyone else in the world.

Said Flores, “There’s nobody else who can do what he [Nixon] does. As far as this engine goes, he is the top guy out there.”

Vintage customers are worldwide. According to Flores, 60 percent of the company’s restored engines are shipped overseas to private and institutional customers in France, Spain, Mexico, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and other countries. Vintage V-12s’ clients include wealthy private collectors, owners, museums, and (in one case) a Bakersfield racing enterprise (Strega).

The company’s website (vintagev12s.com) includes a page on the “process” involved with restoration projects. Standing within the shop or in any one of its storage areas affords a view which suggests controlled chaos. Hundreds of thousands of parts, some in original packaging a half-century old, inhabit acres of shelving. Engines in various states of restoration sit atop metal shelves, carefully organized to reflect each stage in the project. But the order is in the process.

Mike Nixon, Vintage V-12s owner, started working on WWII aircraft in 1973 and never looked back

The process is this. First, an agreement regarding the specifics of the project (and costs) is reached. The engine is then shipped to Vintage V-12s, assessed, and disassembled. A work order is assigned and a notebook created, assuring continuity and accountability. With disassembly, each individual part is scrutinized for wear and damage. Then, the entire engine and its components—each engine has approximately 14,000 parts—is fully cleaned. Next, a full component inspection will determine any abnormalities or variances from manufacturer’s specifications. Most of the repair work is undertaken in shop and, according to Flores, the company is able to find 95 perecent of the parts it needs on premises (not surprising considering one large bank of parts, roughly the size of Connecticut, in an adjacent storage building). For those parts not readily available in-house, Flores begins dialing.

“This is a relatively small community we have,” he said, referring to vintage engine restoration. “Now and then it may take some time to locate a part but it’s usually just a matter of calling someone up and telling them what you’re looking for.”

After complete reassembly, the restored engine undergoes its final test. For this, Nixon, Flores, and their team haul out “the testing truck,” an ancient International work truck. A small enclosed red cabin sits atop the truck, inside of which a display panel replicates an aircraft dashboard. The engine is hoisted atop the truck bed, hooked to the cabin display panel and, for five hours, put through a rigorous test to simulate flight conditions. Cooling temperature, fuel pressure, fluid temps; all are tested.

Once it passes muster, the restored and gleaming engine is packed in a container and shipped back to the owner.

The team works on 10 to 12 engines at any one time (20 engines, in various states of restoration, were in house at the time of our visit) and completes 12 to 14 projects a year. Each engine restoration takes approximately four months to finish, or 1,200 hours of work.

That work has resulted in several achievements:

• In 2007, the company returned to air racing and helped deliver three years of 1st place wins to Strega’s team and pilot;

• In 1999, Vintage V-12s got the first restored “Battle of Britain” German Messerschmitt 109E airborne; and

• In 2010, the first FW 190 with a BMW radial engine flew skyward after a Vintage V-12s overhaul.

When Nixon and Flores are not overseeing work at the shop, they consult and educate across the globe (Nixon, during our first visit, was in Germany training technicians there). And, yes, both occasionally fly in the aircraft they restore. Nixon said both he and his partner have flown the P-51 Mustang.

“We get the best part, though,” he added. “Landing, take off, and paying the bills are the really hard parts.”

Ever since the Wright brothers launched the age of flight, aviation’s heroes have generally been pilots. Names fix themselves upon the popular imagination: von Richtofen, Mollison, Lindburgh, Earhart, Doolittle, Yeager. Those who make their feats possible generally remain unsung. No matter to the guys at Vintage V-12s. They’re content to be cunning craftsmen on earth. They can always gaze upward and watch their workmanship race across corridors of sky.

“It is a high,” Flores admitted, “seeing those planes up there with those magnificent engines and thinking, ‘Hey, we did that.’ Now, that is flying high.”

Top image courtesy U.S. Air Force.

Article appeared in our 28-2 Issue - June 2011