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Not Just a Chippy!

The following article on Chris Hodges, written by Christopher Wright, was first published in Powerboat and Waterskiing magazine, May 1982.
 
Chris Hodges, the Staines boat builder, is something of an oddball. He hates blowing his own trumpet (highly unusual for someone in his profession), needs the money but will not build a boat for someone he doesn’t like, and was most embarrassed at the thought of having an article written about him in the first place.
 
He is one of those eccentrics who doesn’t realise it, an endearing, mild-mannered character who describes himself as a ‘chippy’ but who designs and builds boats some drivers rave about. Peter Inward, for instance, won last year's Paris Six-hour in a Hodges boat.
 
But Hodges, 39, has had a long, frustrating struggle to survive in his chosen career and has suffered more than his fair share of wounding set-backs, some the result of a cruel world and some self-inflicted due to a combination of pride and stubbornness.
 
His parents had a boat on the Thames, and as a young boy Master Hodges would trail his own boat behind that, not simply watching the thing bob about but studying the wake pattern. In the art class at school he was banned from painting any more pictures of boats.
 
‘I wasn’t exactly Einstein at school’, he recalls, ‘but I was even worse when I went to a furniture design college. My parents didn’t want me to be a boat builder and furniture seemed the next best thing at the time, but that was a disaster. So then I became a printer, of all things – and pretty good at it actually – but building boats was still there nagging away in my head and I finally made the break-through via the char lady. We were chatting away one day and I told her about my ambition and the next thing I knew she had fixed an appointment for me with Kenneth Gibbs of Shepperton – and I got the job. Nothing glamorous about it. I was only helping out where I could, but it was boats.
 
From there Hodges moved to C and B Marine run by Clive Curtis and Bo Claire and with it came his first involvement in offshore powerboat racing. ‘We only did it as a hobby, but worked on and rigged Wildcat, the first outboard ever to complete the Cowes-Torquay-Cowes. We were very lucky, I suppose, because it was all trial and error, but this time we got it right.’
 
However fate took another twist, C and B were liquidated and our hero finished up in the Royal Albert Hall as a maintenance carpenter. ‘I loved it there. Very satisfying work. there’s still plenty of things in there that I made.’
 
Meanwhile, circuit racing was rearing its pretty head and Hodges became involved with Clive Curtis and a lad called James Beard in the design and construction of the Humming Bird rig, which finished seventh in Paris with Beard and Curtis as co-drivers.
 
By this time the trio was having a marvellous time developing and racing, and when James inherited £1,000 naturally it was spent on a new boat. ‘Clive said buy a new Avenger, but James said no, let’s design one ourselves, and we finished  up with Volare, built in Guernsey and so successful that we decided to go into it full-time. And Cougar was born. Basically Clive was the engineer, James the driver/designer and I was the builder, but in reality we all chipped in wherever help was needed.  Clive also acted as stabiliser when James and I got carried away with weird and wonderful designs on the drawing board.’
 
A succession of winning boats followed, culminating in the stature of Cougars today. The difference is that Hodges is no longer there. In 1975 he decided to break out on his own, and Cees van der Velden made it possible. Velden was tired of running around  in Molinari rigs and wanted to build his own. He therefore asked Hodges to come over to Holland to show them how. ‘It was the chance for a stake as a freelance,’ said Hodges, ‘and after a lot of thought I took it. I left Cougars and went to Cees for a month. They didn’t speak much English there, which made a day’s work highly entertaining, but they got the message and the mistakes were ironed out. Back I came to Britain, in business for myself for the first time in my life. It was a bit scary and a hell of a gamble in this business, but I loved it. My first customer was Jackie Wilson and we had some great times.’
 
Still the mortgage had to be paid and Hodges had a wife and two children to support. Life was hard and money was short. Matters came to a head when John Nicholson in a Hodges hooked on a bend in that terrible accident at Bristol in 1980 and another competitor  ran right over the top of him. Hodges took it as a design fault and blamed himself.
 
By this time he actually had some money in the bank after selling a house in Southampton and moving to Teddington, and now he made the biggest gamble of all. ‘I had £5,000 as my nest egg and stuck all of it into developing a boat with Mark Wilson.  I didn’t build another for three months. I spent all my time on the new design, never knowing whether it was the one to follow. My security was gone and if I was a moody character before that you can imagine what I was like then. It may sound corny,  but I did believe I was doing my bit for Britain. I was tired of hearing about Molinaris, Veldens and Seebolds. It was time we had an English winner. Much to my relief it was, and as a direct result of that development I was able to build the boats that helped Peter Inward and Nick Cripps take Paris.’
 
Now Hodges is building for Cripps, Inward, Wilson, Jelf, Bateman, Duggan and others who have to remain secret. He is hardly a millionaire, but he is secure and a success in his chosen profession.
 
‘I’ve done my best to give value for money, to design and build boats that are not a heap of plywood at the end of the season. I have pride in my work. If I had the money I would develop on and on. I’ve got so many ideas that I'm sure would work. Meanwhile, I have to earn the bread so for now development will have to wait. Frustrating, though.’
 
And had it been worth it?
‘Oh yes, I’ve had some rough times and my wife has hated it. But the good far outweighs the bad and anyway it was something I had to do. I didn’t have any choice. Did I?’
Hodges safety cell with dummy.
Helicopter drop test for cell prototype.
 
The Percival Hodges Racing Partnership.

The following article is taken from the Powerboat 83 Yearbook. (credit needed)
 
Tom Percival, Formula 1 driver, and Chris Hodges, boat designer, have joined forces in an effort to create the first professional constructor’s team in circuit powerboat racing.
 
Chris not only designs boats but builds them, and very successfully too. 1982 was his first year designing and building for Tom and between the two they achieved third place in the John Player Formula 1 World Series. So pleased were they with the season's result that the duo became the first in boat racing to take a leaf out of the car racing book and become a team – the Percival Hodges racing partnership, using Tom’s boatyard at Horning, Norfolk, as their base.
 
Until the last few years Chris’ career as a boat builder has been somewhat erratic; there have been times when he was prepared to leave it entirely and sell the business. But boat-building is a passion in life for the slight, wiry Londoner; one which he cannot deny.
 
‘The turning point came after John Nicholson hooked on a bend at Bristol in 1980 in one of my boats and another competitor went over the top of him. He was badly hurt and I blamed myself, rightly or wrongly, for the accident. The boat was new and  I had planned a ‘sister-ship’ which I never built. Before the accident I was building boats I wasn’t terribly happy with but I thought they were more than adequate; the problem was that I had a cowling system that wasn’t adjustable,  it mounted down directly onto the deck so it controlled the deck profile.’
 
‘The Nicholson affair woke me up enough to force me to choose between investing £5,000 I had in the bank or packing up boat building. I decided to pump the money in, tore my workshop apart and completely rebuilt it. Then I built a new jig, (a wooden structure used to give the initial shape of the boat), which looks nothing like the old one, and designed and built my first boat.’
 
‘This one had to be just right. So, I hired Holme Pierrepont and Mark Wilson, a FONDA driver, and I went testing. We tried everything and even experimented with the fins on top of the sponsons. We discovered they looked very nice but really did nothing to the performance of the rig. By the time we had finished all my money was blown, I gave the boat to Mark in return for his old one and waited for results.’
 
The risk paid off. Mark’s first race in the new Hodges immediately demonstrated the potential of the hull and, as a result, Peter Inward and Nick Cripps put in an order for a boat for the 1981 Paris 6 hour – and won! After that, there was  no shortage of orders. Then, of course, Tom Percival decided to switch from a Velden to a Hodges for Formula 1.
 
‘I could see at the beginning of the season Cees (van der Velden) was going to be building too many boats for any of us to get a decent set-up’, Tom explains. ‘I don’t mean his boats were in any way inferior but I needed something more. Once Chris started coming to races I realised what I had been missing, for 1982 was the first year since Mercury quit that I have been able to have total feedback from a knowledgeable person on shore – I never realised how invaluable it was.  Cees could never go into the in-depth discussions that Chris and I have had. How could he, with five other customers and himself to consider?’
 
Chris spent three months developing a boat for Tom during the spring of ’82 and had it ready for the second Grand Prix, in Como, Italy. ‘Tom’s boat was similar in many ways to Mark’s. It had been strengthened and lengthened  to allow for the bigger OMC V8 engine and bits and pieces altered underneath. But if you look for the mother of the design, it’s that original hull Mark and I spent so much time on.’ Percival took fourth place in Como and in the following  three races he came second each time.
 
Why did the pair feel it necessary to turn the usual driver-designer relationship into a fully fledged partnership? Chris explains his point of view. ‘Chris Hodges racing boats had gone as far as it could reasonably go in Staines. I could have expanded but living so close to London was getting on my nerves and when Tom started talking about a partnership and all the space he had available here it seemed the ideal thing to do.’ Space certainly seems to be no problem in Tom’s boatyard on the water’s edge and there is ample room for expansion. ‘Norwich has a good supply of boat builders and I now have the facilities to start work on a really high tech boat for Tom for 1983. I’ll continue building for my present customers but I don’t know yet if we’ll build for competitors in Formula 1.’
 
I asked Chris what part he will be playing in the amalgamation besides designing and building boats. ‘My role also includes a lot of work at the race course. I have a certain amount of kit at the race and I must somehow evaluate all relevant factors  and stitch together a winning rig.’ Manager? ‘Oh no, not that. Tom does the managing. I’m just there to make sure he wins.’
 
The one-time maintenance carpenter at the Albert Hall has definite ideas on the role he has taken on. ‘It’s not only a question of the boat. Drivers vary tremendously and you have to allow for this. If Tom isn’t feeling top notch I reduce the risk factor for example. The major points we can change are the angle of the wing, the engine height, weight distribution and propeller selection and every time we change one thing everything else alters accordingly. And I have to be able to gauge what is required.’
 
Chris takes responsibility of getting the right set-up during practise and throughout the racing heavily onto his own shoulders. ‘Holme Pierrepont was a dismal failure on my part. The boat had been modified so all data previously collected was rendered obsolete. Then the racing conditions differed completely from testing and everything went out the window. We blew our best prop and the powerlift started to fail. All these things are my problem and I should have been able to sort them out - Tom has to drive.’
 
Is the Formula 1 boat he has built for Tom so different from a Molinari or a Burgess? ‘We all have our own ways of producing a boat, especially the little details that make the difference between winning or losing. But we all make the bulk of a wooden boat in a similar way, scarfing marine ply under very high pressure and making long boards for the sides, having stringers running through the length of the boat, these pieces lying at right angles, those pieces slotting into that bit, these clipping  onto…’ I went to talk to Tom.
 
‘I see this as a partnership straight up the line, financially and in decision taking. It is entirely up to Chris how he builds his boats of course, but we shall both decide who he builds them for.’
 
One of the longest-serving drivers, Tom is confident he is setting-up business with the best boat designer there is. ‘Chris has some brilliant ideas for this year (1983). They maybe complete failures but you must remember Chris was the late James Beard’s counterpart in Cougars and had a lot to do with their success. He is certainly coming up with some very interesting concepts.’
 
But the partnership does not stop there. ‘One of the objectives of this business is to support younger drivers in a team. Take one or two drivers showing good potential in Formula 3 or even 4 and see what we can make of them in Formula 1. I shan't be racing for many more years but when I retire I don’t want to disappear from the scene altogether and managing a team seems the ideal way to maintain contact.’
 
Tom Percival, forty, a businessman through and through, can visualise it all. ‘Maybe three years hence, with good sponsorship we shall have a truck, a crew of four, two drivers, a motorhome – briefcase racing. Perhaps it will ruin boat racing, many people believe it has ruined car racing, but let’s have the commercial trappings and see. Powerboat racing is a very marketable product.’
 
The next five years are all important for the future of the sport. Tom’s vision of the future may well turn out to be true. There are other drivers with retirement on their mind who may also take up the managerial role; though certain conditions such as compatibility are vital for such a team to work. There is no doubt in this case, that if mutual respect is a vital ingredient, Tom and Chris are perfect partners.
______________
 
On the 20 August 1984, Tom Percival died in a tragic accident at the Liege Grand Prix in Belgium.
 
In that 1984 season four drivers were killed racing in Formula 1. It was the death of Tom that spurred Chris Hodges to develop the safety cell.
 
In 1985 Bob Spalding – long-time friend and race partner of Tom Percival, became Formula 1 World Champion driving for the Percival Hodges racing team.
The Percival/Hodges Safety Cell

This article was written by Rosalind Nott and appeared in Powerboat and Waterskiing Magazine, January 1985.
 
The day of the cockpit is upon us. At the time of going to press (Dec 1) the first Percival Hodges Safety Cell had tipped the scales at only 55 pounds. Bill Brown’s UIM cockpit had advanced to the main structure being completed with the deflectors  still to be added and estimated weight was around 20 kilos.
 
From here the process does not get simpler – but certainly more interesting from a spectator’s point of view. Now it’s time for testing. This little exercise requires money, skill and hopefully a vast amount of co-operation from the  Royal Navy. It is proposed using the experience of MIRA, the Motor Investigation Research Association, to strap a scientific dummy into the cockpit and drop it over 100mph into water at low altitude. Technicians will record the effects to the body while the safety cell will hopefully remain intact.
 
The anthropomorphic dummy is designed for use in water. Although the main skeleton is constructed in metal the interior foam will be replaced making the dummy semi-buoyant and semi waterproof.
 
In the case of the Percival Hodges safety cell the dummy will be held in position by means of a six-point Nilam harness, identical to that used in Formula 1 motor racing. Apart from the cell being sufficiently strong to withstand the tremendous impact with the water the main concern centres on the most exposed area of the body, the neck and head. To this end six accelerators will be fitted in the neck and chest areas of the dummy. Signals from the dummy would be recorded via a cable to an instrumentation tape recorder carried in the helicopter. This is where the skill of the operation lies. Dropping a cockpit into water from a helicopter is one thing, but it is imperative that the movement of the body be recorded on impact. The cable from the dummy into the helicopter would be attached by a simple jack-plug system, and would be allowed to play on for a suitable distance beyond which they would part company.
 
Should the safety cell prove successful, the need for a bulbous flotation jacket is not necessary. To this end, Hodges has had conversations with Bill Fauntleroy of Lifeline Jackets USA. Fauntleroy understood perfectly the requirements for this concept and has produced a jacket to be worn during testing. Although made of impact material, flotation has been kept to a minimum and special attachments will include arm restraints, to ensure they stay within the protective cell during an accident and restraints onto the helmet. These will also assist in the restriction of head movement inside the cell, especially with the new high-sided Hodges cowling.
 
As far as the helmets go, testing should prove interesting. Everitt W Vero have donated two of the open face Grand Prix Kevlar version, one modified to take the restraints to the lifejacket, as worn by both Roger Jenkins and Gina Campbell. After their accidents both Jenkins and Campbell appeared relatively unscathed.
 
Of equal interest will be the Revolutionary helmet designed by Bob Nordskog, publisher of US Powerboat. Although people are under the illusion that no helmet has ever been designed specifically for powerboat racing, let’s put the record straight,  Nordskog did just that – and some 7 years ago to boot. The helmet is more like a Skull Cap fitting the head of the occupant from a plaster cast of the head. Its small and its light and Nordskog is convinced it’s the right way to go. So have many others. This helmet will have arrived from America along with the lifejacket in mid-December.
 
So everyone is ready for the off. Mira, Hodges and Lifeline, Nordskog and Everitt Vero, and Brown. The powerboat racing world are just waiting for the Royal Navy to drop the green flag and set a date for testing.
 
The whole programme of testing will be videod and high-speed cameras capable of 3000 frames per second will record for posterity whether the dummy lived or died. Whatever the outcome, even if the total experience is a failure – no-one can say that a lot of effort, enthusiasm and world-wide co-operation has not been extended. If the project could be measured on good will alone – the dummy would probably stand up and walk away ******.
 
_____________________________________________
 
 
The following article was written by Rosalind Nott in Powerboat and waterskiing magazine, February, 1985
 
Well, it finally happened. After four and a half months of intensive research, testing and finally construction, the Percival Hodges Safety Cells were tested.
 
In Arctic conditions on January 14 those who were integral parts of the test team arrived. Personnel from MIRA, the Motor Industry Research Association, headed by Mike Kenefeck began to dress the scientific dummy in a dry suit. The head and chest were fitted with accelerometers to record the movement on impact and specially coiled wire, some one hundred metres in length, was carefully positioned onto the front of the first cell.
 
It had been no easy task to reach this stage. Initial flight trials to carry the cockpit at speed as an underslung load, resulted in violent yawing as the cell lacked any directional stability. Fitting a plywood fin to the back of the cell afforded a keel, and stabilised flight was eventually achieved. Chris Hodges had bought ten fins, one for each drop.
 
The next part of the programme was possibly the most difficult to overcome. MIRA’s plan was to locate the recording equipment in the helicopter and the readings would be obtained from the dummy via a multi-cord umbilical cable. Once the cell was released from the helicopter hook, the cable would be payed out until the cell hit the water, it would then break free from the helicopter after a sufficient time to record the impact accelerations. That was the idea. You can imagine the lightweight cable running out of a helicopter in forward flight, at high speed and low altitude posed the possibility of it becoming entangled in the tail rotor or even flick up to the main rotor.
 
This problem was solved by using a 20 foot remote electrically operated hook supplied by Dollar Helicopters, whose ingenious team had volunteered to fly for the testing. In this way, the cell could be released from a point 20 feet below the helicopter and the recording cable would break free from that point. It was calculated that 100 metres of cable would give between 1 and 2 seconds of recording time before breaking the weak link at the remote hook. Hence, the cable was coiled in a manner similar to the Coast Guard life-line rocket and taped to the nose of the cell. After a final flight test, witnessed by the Civil Aviation Authority
Inspector, it was all set for the morning of the 14th.
 
Draycote Water played host to this bizarre gathering of men and machinery with the yacht Club offering vital hot food and liquid. The dummy, sporting the Everoak Grand Prix Kevlar open face helmet looked remarkably realistic sitting in the cell. At last the sound of the helicopter blades filled the air and the Jet Ranger landed next to the entourage of motor home, transporter and the cell.
 
Having discussed the most advantageous position for dropping to gain maximum tail wind, the helicopter hovered while the MIRA team hooked on the cell. Mira, Dollars and Chris Hodges managed to manoeuvre with complete professionalism, as if they had done it a million times before. Few realised that MIRA had never worked with water before, Hodges had no idea whether the whole exercise would end in a broken cell on the first drop, and Dollars had the difficult job of flying at the legal speed at low altitude and hoping that all went according to plan.
 
The helicopter took off flying over the water with the cell, now perfectly stable, dangling underneath. At last they came in for the first drop. ‘Down 10,’ said one controller to the helicopter, ‘down another ten,’ ‘three,  two, one, drop’ and the hook unleashed the cell. The ground speed was 105mph. The noise of the cell reverberated over the lake and the Opsrey Rescue boat rushed in. It seemed hard to believe that there was not a mark on the actual structure externally.  Hodges even managed a small grin as this first cockpit was well below the strength of the second.
 
The drops continued during Monday with ground speeds reaching 115mph, and eventually damage began to show in the shoulder area. The scientific dummy, unlike a human, is constructed of steel bars and the impact of this hitting the side of the cockpit, led to considerable external delamination by the third drop. The structure, however, remained intact and still did its job of protecting the driver. On the final drop, Hodges was intent on smashing the cell and it was dropped from a good 100 feet. The cell, with its damage, stayed intact with the inner skin still in position. Few doubted that the cockpit was strong enough, but what about the dummy?
 
It was noted that the dummy’s knees had come into considerable contact with the dash and no doubt this would have broke his legs and further work is needed here. Also the helmet, on contact with the rear head support, had cracked.
 
The Tuesday dawned with even more snow, fewer people, but the second cockpit, weighing 29kg, took its punishment. Eventually, the same damage at the shoulder section appeared but it was interesting to note the effect a polycarbonate full face helmet which was used.
 
The full report from MIRA was not ready at the time of going to press, however, the third drop had been analysed. From the movements of the dummy’s head it was concluded that on this drop the dummy would not have incurred any serious injury. MIRA count concussion as serious injury. The remainder of the results on first sight look optimistic, but by next month we will know how many times the dummy survived.
 
Bill Brown’s UIM cockpit, made of aluminium honeycomb was also dropped on the Tuesday afternoon. There had been no opportunity prior to the full testing to examine or flight test Brown’s cell and therefore a fin was borrowed from Chris Hodges.  The flying characteristics were not similar and therefore the drop was executed at 65mph. Unfortunately, there was structural failure and the rear buoyancy and head rest fell off which in turn released the safety harness at the top. The main structure suffered a split seam and one side was bowed. There is no doubt that an aluminium honeycomb cell constructed in the correct manner would withstand high speed impact, however, these structures are akin to Formula 1 motor racing chassis. To this end, powerboating must look to their expertise and constructors have moved away from aluminium honeycomb in favour of carbon/kevlar/nomex composites.
 
So to the conclusions of this exercise. I doubt that powerboat racing in Europe has ever seen such a professionally organised operation, and they may never see it again. The funding of the Percival Hodges safety Cell came from British American Tobacco,  Mercury Marine, Outboard Marine Corporation, Pro-One, Champion Spark Plugs and the Water safety Research Fund.
 
It was interesting to note who came along to view the testing. John Reed, Len and Eddie Britnell, Phil Stacey (UIM observer), Jack Leek from America, but the only driver/constructor to appear was Cees van der Velden – and he stayed the full two days. It remains a total enigma to me that after the traumas of last year that more drivers from other formulae did not come along. For once, this was an exercise that anyone could attend.
 
Videos recorded the full events and have been shown to the UIM. Copies will be available for interested parties along with a full explanatory tome of how to construct and work with composites. But this is only the first stone at the bottom of a giant pyramid. At the end of the day, however, it is the drivers' opinion that counts above all others. Renato Molinari is not against it and Barry Woods would like to sit in one. Velden says his team will run them this year.
 
If the results from MIRA are positive, it would seem that you would be pretty stupid not to sit in one. Obviously, the leg area needs modifications and it was decided generally that shock absorbent material should line the cockpit, to protect the driver from the sheer strength of the cell if both come into contact.
 
Personally, I was impressed with what I saw. As a legacy to his partner, Tom Percival, I think Chris Hodges has done a superb job.
 
 
 
 
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