From massive steam engines to scale glow-plug model engines; from vintage motorcycle and automobile engines to aircraft engines — Andrew Nahum has spent his life dedicated to pistons, crankshafts, and jet fuel. Andrew was until recently the Principal Keeper at the London Science Museum, is an author and, as an extension of his interests, an engineer. Born in Cheshire, near Manchester, England, Andrew’s young life was imprinted upon thanks to family contacts in the Lancashire textile trade. At eight or nine years old, he toured one of the cotton mills and was mesmerized by the large steam engines located on the ground floor that powered the entire operation. “That was fascinating, I remember holding onto the railing by the crankshaft end of one and watching the big end hurtle down towards me and then stop and fly back — they were open crank mill engines dating to the 19th century. The steam engine that I remember best, by the way, was run by the grandson of the guy who first looked after it when the mill was new, which I thought was amazing.”

Author and Curator Andrew Nahum with his Earles fork BMW R50 at Folly Farm in 2018. It’s a machine he reckons is mighty comfortable to ride. [Sebastian Conra]
As a youth Andrew also visited the cotton spinning floors above those steam engines in the mill. He noticed that when a thread broke, the person working the machines joined the broken ends with a special knot. “I was intrigued because they could grab the two broken ends and join them in an instant with a flick of their fingers. I recall they all had new knot-making machines, a bit like a paper stapler, hanging on a cord at their waists, which could do the same job, but the ladies working the machines enjoyed showing that they could make the real knot by hand, and just as fast.” Andrew adds, “I guess it made me feel that machines need humans, and that humans interact with machines — and that this relationship was extraordinarily fascinating.” In another seminal moment, when Andrew was 10, his mother went to Italy with an old friend and her husband, who was an engineer. “His name was Desmond Molins — an outstanding engineer who designed the industrial machines that make cigarettes. In the window of a model shop in Genoa they spotted a beautiful miniature glow-plug outboard engine, and Desmond said, ‘Andrew would love this’. She brought it home as a present. I spent hours running it in the garden shed, breathing methanol and castor oil fumes, and listening to the crackling exhaust. Later I built a boat for it. That was my first engine and it started everything.”

His own design of functional two-stroke diesel aero motor from 1960. [Andrew Nahum]
For personal transportation as a youth, Andrew had a Triumph bicycle with a three-speed Sturmey-Archer rear hub. Family vehicles were British cars, “some stodgy, and some almost too exciting, like my mother’s Triumph Vitesse which married a surprisingly lively six-cylinder engine to treacherous swing axle rear suspension (VW Beetle style).” As a teenager his interest in machines grew more focussed, “Much of my youth was spent building powered model aircraft, and I loved to hang out in a machine shop which made competition model aero engines.” He attended English boarding school, where he says most of the teachers were good, while others were near psychopathic. He muses, “Maybe they had been affected by the Second World War.” However, in senior school, Andrew found a metal shop class run by a teacher who had a three-wheeler Bond Minicar. “He used to start it at the end of the day by opening the bonnet and putting one foot in to kickstart the engine, which was a Villiers motorcycle engine,” Andrew says, and continues, “But I don’t recall we ever laughed at him because the whole process seemed so unusual and fascinating.” In that shop, Andrew started to build a model diesel aero engine. “For my aero engine, the teacher wouldn’t let me start cutting metal until I had a proper design, so I spent a lot of time reading about valve timing in Phil Irving’s book on two-strokes, and then learned a bit about marking out, filing, turning, milling, screw cutting, case hardening, honing, and lapping. But it was just a short glimpse of machining and manufacture. Even so, there are a lot of processes and techniques in an engine that’s just 1cc in capacity (about 0.8 cubic inches) which is why most model aero engineering companies never made any money. I still have that engine – and it runs at about 12,000 rpm on a six-inch propeller.”

Halcyon days in Normandy with an open Salmson: 1976. [Andrew Nahum]
Andrew had friends with motorcycles, but they were ridden in secret: his mother didn’t like them.  Among his first rides was a Triumph Tiger Cub, and compared to his bicycle, the Cub seemed amazingly powerful. “Then at university I rode a friend’s four-valve Rudge which was delightful and really got me involved with classic bikes.” At Edinburgh university, he studied biology and zoology. “After that, by way of some postgraduate work — or not enough work — in immunology and genetics, I moved sideways into the most junior curator job in the engineering and technology section of what was then the Royal Scottish Museum, really because of the bikes and cars I loved. By then I was more intrigued by machines than by biology and had rebuilt a Vincent twin in the bedroom of my ground floor apartment. I call that job the second degree I never got in engineering. I had worked up to the Vincent through that four-valve Rudge, a lovely 175 cc OHC MV Agusta, a veteran 550 cc Triumph and a vivid 600c Scott two-stroke twin, even a Danish four-cylinder Nimbus.”

Among the first: a Vincent Rapide Andrew picked up in 1969. [Andrew Nahum]
Andrew recalls that in the late 1960s and the 1970s, vintage British cars were fun and inexpensive, compared to moderns. He ran a 1935 twin-cam Lagonda Rapier and a Lagonda LG 45, and then traded them in for a 1925 twin-cam Salmson. “This was a tiny torpedo-bodied sports car that I did quite well with in vintage sporting trials (mud-bashing),” Andrew says. “With girlfriend Fiona — now my wife — we used to tour northern France in the summers in it. Salmsons had been legendary French light cars, made in Billancourt, western Paris, a famous centre of small-scale car production, and we always got a terrific welcome and much hospitality. People would stop, look at the radiator badge and exclaim: ‘Ah-hah ! Salm-son!’”

Barreling down the road on a Ducati 750 Sport in the Cotswolds for a magazine photo shoot, 1986. [Andrew Nahum]
Because of his love for automobiles and motorcycles, Andrew strayed quite a long way from the university departments to the car dealers and mechanics of Edinburgh. “They were tough people, often working in railway arches or grimy workshop streets where scholars would never go. Curiously, they seemed to accept me, or at least put up with me kindly, though I must have been an oddity in that world and not much dirt under my fingernails. I think maybe it was the insatiable curiosity about everything mechanical that was my passport,” he says. Thanks to this exposure, Andrew learned that intellect and imagination was not simply the domain of universities and laboratories. “Somebody, under a car lift, or with an engine on a bench, can have a brilliant insight — how do I fix this? Or undo it?  Intelligence is not expressed just in words or on paper. It can in be the perfect blow of a hammer. The right size of hammer. Nowadays, the museum world and the cultural commentators have begun to understand this and there is a recent interesting and helpful phrase: ‘making is thinking.’”

Another magnificent Ducati: the green-frame round-case 750SS Andrew owned and rode for many years. Here on Shap Fell, near the Scottish border. Round-case Ducatis are amazing touring bikes! [Andrew Nahum]
Looking for advancement and a broader role, in 1980 Andrew took a position in London at the Science Museum – a facility with roots that stretch back to 1857 and the creation of the South Kensington Museum. Today, the Science Museum houses a tremendous collection that ‘forms an enduring record of scientific, technological and medical advancement from across the globe.’ Andrew’s first boss at the Science Museum, John Bagley, was a former aerodynamicist from Farnborough. From John, Andrew learned a tremendous amount about aviation history, “but also about the way government science had worked in the Cold War years,” Andrew recalls. “John was not interested in engines, which I loved, and so I was able to immerse myself in aero engine history and to find my way in learning to explain and to display artefacts in a museum setting.” In his early years at the Science Museum, Andrew says he was privileged to meet and talk to many important aero engineers including the father of the jet engine, Frank Whittle and several of his colleagues, Rod Banks, who directed aero engine development at the end of WW2, and influential Rolls-Royce designers — from the Merlin engine to the jet age.”

At the Science Museum’s Wroughton warehouse in April 2000, transporting a 1935 Lockheed L10 Electra to London for permanent display. Vintage aircraft expert Tim Moore and Skysport engineering made the angled support to reduce the width for road transport, as well as the fittings that suspend it in the Science Museum gallery. [Tim Moore]
In time, Andrew became the overall curator for all engineering and transport collections and eventually Principal Keeper. “Then, in 2000, as part of our millennium project, I led the team that put together a major permanent gallery, ‘Making the Modern World’ — a timeline of some of our most important relics of science and technology from 1750 to 2000. Through that I learned an immense amount about the broader history of technology, science, and engineering.” In terms of a favorite transportation object at the Science Museum, Andrew says it just may be the 1897 Holden motorcycle, made by Henry Capel Lofft Holden. This early machine features a horizontal four-cylinder engine with direct drive to the rear wheel via connecting rods, similar to a locomotive.  The Science Museum’s collection is searchable online and is a treasure trove of information:

Andrew with a 1936 Lagonda LG45 in 1969, at Tollcross in Edinburgh. When such vehicles were affordable for young enthusiasts! [Andrew Nahum]
Andrew’s life as an author began back in Edinburgh, he says, when the Scottish section of the Vintage Sports Car Club had its own newsletter. As its editor, Andrew found himself writing most of the articles. From that point, he began contributing to UK classic car and motorcycle magazines. “I knew that the famous makes like Ferrari and Jaguar were well-covered by established writers, so I did not compete with them — and I also had a passion to know more about the odd engineering byways,” he says. “It turned out that motoring tours and adventures were much more fun when combined with a writing project, so I chased the histories and the collectors of oddball cars like twin-cylinder Panhards, Salmsons and all French light cars. Also, I had a passion for Saab two-strokes – the era in which Eric Carlsson won the Monte Carlo rally three times — and met Carlsson and the Saab design engineers.” His wife Fiona, however, prompted him to become more mainstream in his writing interests and to visit Italy, so “we went often to Italy to visit the famous design houses and makers, and in the 1980s and 1990s we visited Giugiaro and Ital Design, Bertone, Pininfarina, Ghia, Michelotti, Zagato, Maserati, Lamborghini and also Fiat many times. The Italian car industry was full of enthusiasm and friendliness. Those missions were pure pleasure and brought me into contact with so many passionate and congenial designers and engineers. These projects were mostly for features in UK car magazines like Fast Lane and Motor, but also for the new design and architecture magazine Blueprint.”

An impromptu ride on one of the late Patrick Godet’s Egli-Vincents, in 2010. “I had arrived wet and tired on the Ducati 750SS. Patrick looked it over and said ‘if you like café racer you must try mine’. The next day, while viewing his assembly shop he wheeled it out.” [Andrew Nahum]
As an author on the history of technology, Andrew says his first book project was ‘The Rotary Aero Engine’. He attributes inspiration for the book to his early work in the Science Museum. And in a museum in Paris, he spotted what he guessed was the first Gnome prototype built for early tests – because it had no cooling fins. Of the fascination with rotary engines, Andrew says, “In 1914 rotaries were the lightest engines for their power and so rotary engined aircraft were for a while the most effective fighters.  But why did the Gnomes, Le Rhones, Clergets, and Bentleys disappear so abruptly after the war? I wrote a slim book — I generally prefer slim books — outlining the history of the rotary engine and arguing that rotaries were abandoned because their geometry limits gas flow.” He goes on to say that the lure of writing and historical research is fuelled by a “love of ‘truffle hunting’ and finding records in archives and books that make things add up and show how one event leads to another. I almost always start a project because it is something I want to explore.”

Andrew’s latest: Paths of Fire: the Gun and the World It Made. An exploration not of warfare per se, but of how the science and engineering of guns and artillery shaped modern thinking and industry. [Reaktion Books]
His most recent book, published in May 2021, is ‘Paths of Fire: The Gun and the World it Made’. “This isn’t really a such slim book, in spite of what I said,” he explains. “It started a long time ago, on holiday in Sicily. I had just read a biography of Colonel Colt and I was fascinated by the wider effects of gunnery and gun research, beyond war itself, (although that has to be there too). For example, I trace the origins of artificial intelligence and cybernetics to WW2 developments in fire control for anti-aircraft guns. And the origins of modern physics to Renaissance experiments in ballistics which ultimately provided part of the experimental data that put Galileo and Newton on the path to formulating the laws of motion. I look too at the surprising liberty that traditional craft workers had until their world was displaced by the new systematic manufacturing and gauging system, invented in France, but perfected in the armories of the USA. It then traces the legacy of those techniques through Henry Ford to all the stuff we consume today, from smartphones to hot dogs.” He continues, “I also discuss the Kalashnikov and the M16 carbine in terms of the Soviet and American cultures which generated them and even touch on Reagan’s Star Wars and Edward Teller’s promised X-ray laser – in a sense the ultimate and ideal gun – in ending the Cold War.”

Riding the historic Kop Hill hillclimb in 2017 on a friend’s 1920 ABC flat twin. [Andrew Nahum]
Andrew first started writing the book 10 years ago, and it took him far longer to complete than anything else he’d worked on. “Other projects muscled in. On the way, I authored an exhibition on a fascinating topic – British science in the Second World War and its legacy – ‘Churchill’s Scientists’ – at the Science Museum. Then I got the chance to devise and curate a major exhibition at the Design Museum called ‘Ferrari: Under the Skin’ which was a fabulous opportunity – too good to pass up. More recently I jointly curated another exhibition at the Design Museum called ‘Moving to Mars; Should we Stay or Should we Go’ which looked at the emerging design thinking for Mars – architecture, clothing, food – so I had to work on the book in bursts.”

“Flying my radio-controlled, electric-powered model helium airship at the Model Engineering Exhibition, Olympia, c. 1995. I originally built it as an interactive display exhibit for the Science Museum.” [Andrew Nahum]
As a passionate motorcyclist, Andrew says he’s spent 50 years looking for the perfect machine, and says, “I had a real Aermacchi 250 Ala d’Oro catalogue racer that steered as finely as a bicycle and pulled like a roadgoing 500. My two Scotts (1928 and 1938) had a wondrous wail and pointed exactly where you wanted them to go, in spite of the unsprung back end. Anyone who has ridden an old belt-drive single, like my 1918 Triumph, on back roads, will know the smoothness and effortlessness of those late veteran machines for the motorcycle truly came of age with those bikes. When I got my Vincent Rapide in about 1969, I thought it was just the most wonderful thing I’d ever ridden. I rode it from Yorkshire back to Edinburgh over the border hills and as I rode it, I realised that it could pull like a vintage 500 single — but would also rev amazingly well and soon found I was overtaking the holiday makers in cars three at a time. You climb a range of hills between England to Scotland on the east coast and, in early summer, as you ascend, a warm day turns chill, but the air is like champagne. And then you start to descend on the Scottish side, and, on the right road, the whole of the border country is laid out before you — even Edinburgh, as a smudge in the distance, the farmland, and the huge electricity generating station on the shores of the Forth.”

A lovely 1908 Moto Rêve V-twin gives a little vexation: “I never made the Brighton Run on this one.” [Andrew Nahum]
But all was not rosy in Andrew’s relationship with his Vincent. When problems surfaced after his second rebuild, he says he became a little depressed and sold the machine to fund the purchase of a 1974 Ducati Sport. “I thought that was a simply fabulous motorcycle,” he says. Later, he found a true ‘green frame’ Ducati 750 Super Sport, a machine he rode to Scotland and once to Normandy to visit the late Patrick Godet. “I sold the 750SS recently,” Andrew says, and adds, “It gave me some fabulous experiences and I am not sad.”

any trip with an old motorcycle takes twice as long because of the conversation

Does Andrew have a favourite motorcycle? He says, “When I was in my 20s, in Edinburgh, a dear friend, biker and engineer said, ‘if you’re going to ride a crazy thing like a Vincent that’s always going to go wrong, you need a sensible motorcycle too — so buy my 1960 BMW R60’. I did. It was lovely, but I didn’t realize, back then, just how good it was. Fiona and I rode out to dinner in the country for our first date, and it didn’t even give a tiny slip although the snow was starting to fall on the way back. It’s partly because the power is so smooth, and the controls are so progressive. Then, after owning or riding dozens of motorcycles, I found a 1956 BMW R50, so I’ve almost gone back to what I had in 1970. It’s an Earles fork model R50, maybe a bit less power than my R60 but the 500s rev amazingly well for a pushrod motor, and if you have the right solo gearbox, and the solo rear bevel ratio, the gears are wonderfully long, and the bike just flows. I use it a lot and I think it is pretty perfect — probably the best motorcycle in the world when it was made.” He waxes philosophical: “I love to be in some little country village with a coffee shop or pub, with the bike outside, thinking that such a simple and slim, economical and refined piece of engineering has brought me there. I’m more of a rider and less of a tinkerer now. The important part of it is people. In the car, or boat, or motorcycle world I love talking to the enthusiasts and people who can do work that I can’t do. My family say that any trip to do with these things will take twice as long because of the conversation.”

The Vintage Sports Car Club (VSCC) Scottish Hillclimb, circa 1973, with a Salmson 1926 twin-cam VAL 3 model. [Andrew Nahum]
When asked what makes up a typical day in his life, Andrew says the coronavirus pandemic has, of course, upended much of what was once normal. Regardless, he says every morning starts with strong, good coffee. “I grind my own beans. Dark roast. That’s breakfast.” Then, much of his day is spent working at a laptop or screen, “hoping to progress the next book, an article or an exhibition idea. That work often used to be in the Science Museum and I’m keen to get back there soon to find the raw, unfiltered history in the archives and records. And two or three times a week, in summer, I aim to get into the country on a bike. I visit friends who build and restore vintage aircraft, cars and bikes and we talk about life and machines. I cook, because I enjoy it, read a lot, mostly non-fiction, connected to my research projects, and occasionally take down the old guitar I’ve owned most of my life. I love looking into all those other worlds with their own crafts and enthusiasms like boatbuilding, vintage aircraft restoration, musical instrument making.”

At the 1995 Banbury Run with his 1918 Model H Triumph and his children Chloe and Adam. [Andrew Nahum]
A book Andrew is currently working on takes a look at early Cold War aviation. “The formative years immediately after WW2 when the first generation of jet fighters and jet bombers were being designed,” he says. “It’s looking at the nuclear war that so fortunately was not fought, the new technology, the politics, and especially the people who made the aircraft and the systems.” He spent time several years ago at the London School of Economics researching the British aircraft industry of the Cold War era and so this project will turn much of that research into a popular book. “Serious, but not just for scholars.”

At the Bike Shed show in 2018, with David Lancaster and ‘Lamb Chops Revenge’. [Bike Sheds]
As his life has revolved around internal combustion and jet fuel, Andrew returns to motorcycles when he concludes, “We must be the last generation of connoisseurs for gasoline motors. We did not know about CO2 and the environmental downside at all when we fell in love with bikes. We were very lucky to experience them when it seemed like an innocent pleasure and when engines were at their finest, because there is nothing like the sound and the feel of a good Vincent motor, or a bevel Ducati 750 with Dell’Ortos and Contis when you roll back the throttle and the accelerator pump kicks in.”

For the curious, a list of Andrew Nahum’s published works:

James Watt and the Power of Steam. 1981 (for children)

The Rotary Aero Engine. Science Museum, 1987/1999

Flying Machine, 1990 (for children)

The Rolls-Royce Crecy. (co-author), Rolls Royce Heritage Trust, 1994

Alec Issigonis and the Mini, 2007

The Making of the Modern World, (executive editor and contributor), John Murray/Science Museum, 1997

Cold War and Hot Science; Applied research in Britain’s Defence Laboratories. (Contributor), Science Museum, 1997

Tackling Transportation. (Chapter on the British exploitation of German defence science following World War 2). Science Museum, 2003

Frank Whittle; Invention of the Jet. 2005, Totem Books

Fifty Cars that Changed the World.  Design Museum / Conran Octopus, 2009

Ferrari: Under the Skin. (Editor and contributor), Phaidon / Design Museum, 2017

Moving to Mars: Design for the Red Planet. (Contributor) Phaidon / Design Museum, 2019

Paths of Fire: the Gun and the World it Made. Reaktion Books, 2021



Greg Williams is a motorcycle writer and publisher based in Calgary who contributes the Pulp Non-Fiction column to The Antique Motorcycle and regular feature stories to Motorcycle Classics. He is proud to reprint the Second and Seventh Editions of J.B. Nicholson’s Modern Motorcycle Mechanics series. Follow him on IG: @modernmotorcyclemechanics