The People, History, Development and Use of the Famous Rolls-Royce Meteor Engine
By Richard Henry, Curator General Entomology; DITSONG: National Museum of Military History
Date: 23 March 2019
People make a brand great
Charles Rolls was an enthusiastic, likeable twenty-six-year-old Cambridge mechanical engineering graduate from Monmouthshire England. His family’s wealth enabled him to enjoy racing some of the early motor cars in 1900. He and a partner, Claude Johnson, set up a business, C S Rolls & Co, in Fulham, to sell foreign (European) cars. What he desired was to be at the forefront of British car manufacture.
Henry Royce was a solid, working class man of forty years who had managed to get an education and worked as an engineering apprentice. This allowed the workaholic, perfectionist engineer to design and build his own reliable Royce 10, a quiet two-cylinder motor car.
A friend of Rolls, Henry Edmunds, arranged for the very different men to meet at the Midland Hotel in Manchester on 4 May 1904. They immediately liked each other and Rolls-Royce was born. Rolls would use his business acumen and contacts to market and sell the cars. Royce, now with financial backing, was able to use his engineering skills and drive for perfection to produce quality cars.
The ultimate car
In 1906 Rolls-Royce manufactured a luxury 6-cylinder car, Silver Ghost. In 1907 the Silver Ghost was declared ‘The Best Car in the World’ after travelling from London to Glasgow 27 times, while demonstrating unrivalled reliability and comfort. The name Rolls-Royce became synonymous with quality, luxury and perfection. Workers at all levels bought into this philosophy and none would allow a Rolls-Royce to leave the floor until it was perfect. In September 1914, all available Silver Ghost chassis were requisitioned by the military for the basis of the new Rolls-Royce armoured car.
Rolls-Royce gets into the manufacture of aircraft engines
In 1915 the Rolls-Royce Eagle aircraft engine was introduced and powered the Hanley Page bombers as well as many other British aircraft. This started the tradition of naming Rolls-Royce aero engines after birds of prey. The Ditsong National Museum of Military History has a Rolls-Royce Eagle Mk VIII engine on display in Brink Hall, one of over 4 000 manufactured.
Aircraft engines could be used to power the new tank
The first British tanks used in the First World War (1914-1918) were powered by Daimler-Knight, 6-cylinder, 16 litre petrol engines, which developed 105 hp (78 kW). When the United States entered the First World War in 1917, a task force requested two American engineers to design an aero engine, ‘better than what the other combatants were using’. The engine had to have a high power-weight ratio and had to be adaptable to mass production. The Liberty 27 litre water-cooled, V-12 engine of 400 Hp (300 kW) was designed and developed and tested in just three months. By 1919, 20 478 engines had been manufactured, at a daily rate of 150.
Development is slow
After the First World War, in the days of austerity and depression, the British Army decided to use commercial bus and or truck engines in their armoured vehicles and tanks. These were generally low-powered and somewhat unreliable. In the 1930s, a decision was made to build two types of tanks – fast cruiser tanks and slower, more heavily armoured, infantry tanks. The cruiser tanks utilised a new type of suspension, designed by the American J. Walter Christie. This suspension allowed tanks to travel at speed across rough ground. The problem was that the existing engines were underpowered.
Morris / Nuffield enters the equation
William Richard Morris was an English motor manufacturer and philanthropist. He was from a working class family and left school at age 15. In 1893, at 16, he set up a successful bicycle repair business called The Morris. He expanded into motorcycle repair and sales, a taxi service, the hiring of cars and he held the agency for numerous makes of motor cars. In 1912 he designed the ‘bullnose’ Morris car using imported American components. After the First World War, Morris was the first to use the mass production techniques used by Henry Ford. He purchased other, failing British motor companies and used their products, but now with his name. Morris was a hard, forceful businessman who was considered ‘the most famous industrialist of his age’. He also gave a large part of his fortune to charitable causes. On 1 January 1938 he was ennobled as Viscount Nuffield, a name he took from the village of Nuffield in Oxfordshire, where he lived.
Viscount Nuffield, having been the driving force in British car manufacture, got involved in the manufacture of the new Supermarine Spitfire fighter aircraft which was powered by the new Rolls-Royce Merlin engine. He forced the Treasury to approve the ‘Nuffield Project’ – the construction of a huge factory which he promised would manufacture four times as many Spitfires as any other factory. A year later, the factory had not yet been built and no Spitfires had been manufactured. Lord Beaverbrook, also a forceful man, who was in charge of aircraft production, sacked Nuffield.
The Development of the Rolls – Royce Merlin Aircraft Engine
Henry Royce died in 1933. His design of the ‘R’ series of aircraft engines which powered the Supermarine seaplanes to wins in the Schneider Trophy in 1929 and 1931, at speeds close to 400 mph (640km/h), led to a new engine the Rolls-Royce Merlin.
A South African pilot Flight Lieutenant SM Kinkead, who saw service in the First World War and in Russia and Iraq after the war, was involved in the Schneider Trophy. In 1927 he was posted to the Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment at Felixstowe. He flew for the wining British team in 1927. In 1928 while attempting to break the world air speed record in his Supermarine S5, he crashed and was killed. Previously on display in Brink Hall,were his medals and a model of the S5 Supermarine aircraft. His medals are now displayed in the First World War – In the Air display in Adler Hall. The trophy has been returned to storage.
The first prototype Merlin engine was flown in 1935 in a Hawker Hart biplane, under great interest from the British Air Ministry, for a period of 60 hours. This initial engine only produced 740 hp (552kW). Rolls-Royce engineers worked on refining and improving the cooling system, durability, and output of the engine. Installation of the engine into the airframe was also set at a high standard. The engine was then put into production as the Merlin I. In November 1935, the prototype Hawker Hurricane had flown and development of the Supermarine Spitfire was nearing completion, both using Merlin engines. The prototype Spitfire was flown on 27 February 1936.
Ernest Walther Hives, who had worked for Rolls-Royce since 1903, became General Works Manager for Rolls-Royce Aero Engine Division in 1936. The British Government realised that they would need to rearm and modernise the Royal Air Force. In 1937 with the war clouds gathering in Europe, Hives prepared for the massive increase in the production of Merlin engines and the ultimate defeat of Nazi Germany.
In September 1939, the standard Merlin engine in service was the Merlin III. This produced 1 310 hp (977 kW) from the V-12, liquid-cooled, 27 litre, petrol engine at 3 000 rpm. The Merlin III also formed the basis for the Rolls-Royce Meteor tank engine. There were constant improvements to the Merlin engine which appeared in 50 different marks with the final engines rated as 2 000 hp (1 491 kW). Central to the success of the Merlin was the supercharger. The output of the engine was dependant on the mass of air that the engine could use efficiently. This was supplied by the supercharger. A total of 160 000 Merlin engines had been made by 1945.
Merlin engines at the Museum
The Ditsong National Museum of Military History has a variety of models of the Merlin engine on display in Brink Hall. The Hawker Hurricane Mk IIc is powered by a Merlin XX developing 1 280 hp (955kW). The Supermarine Spitfire F Mk VIII has a Merlin 61A engine of 1 565 hp (1 167 kW). In the Mosquito are two Merlin 72 engines, each producing 1 680 hp (1 253 kW). Under the starboard wing of the Hurricane is a static display version of the Merlin 61 engine, which developed 1 565 hp (1 167kW) and, below the port wing, is a cut-away static Merlin 24/2 engine which shows the inner workings of this engine.
Aircraft engines again used to power tanks
When the Second World War (1939-1945) started, British tanks were underpowered and generally unreliable. Viscount Nuffield got involved in the production of British Cruiser tanks. He imported some Liberty L-12 engines from the United States. These engines were V-12 aircraft engines with a displacement of 27 litres and they produced 340 hp (254 kW) at 1 500 revolutions per minute (rpm). Lord Nuffield bought the patent rights to allow his company, Nuffield Mechanisations and Aero Limited, to develop the Liberty Engine. The Cruiser Tank Mk III, also known as the A13, was the first tank to be installed with the new Nuffield Liberty Mark I engine.
The Tank, Cruiser, Mk VI, known as the Crusader, was designed by Nuffield. It became the most important British cruiser tank in the early part of the Second World War. When it entered service in 1941, the 20-ton tank was fast, manoeuvrable and had good suspension, but it was under-armoured. The two-pounder anti-tank gun as its main armament was, at first, adequate, but as the war progressed, it was found to be under-gunned and often carried the wrong type of ammunition. Crusader, however, suffered from an unreliable engine. The Nuffield Liberty Mk III engine had redesigned oil pumps and had the water pumps relocated. These modifications reduced the height of the engine so that it could fit into the engine bay, and these modifications caused reliability problems. The engine used a conventional cooling system with the radiators in the engine compartment. Major problems were experienced in the Western Desert with the drives of the cooling fans, radiators, water pumps and the ingress of fine sand into the engine. Essential tools, manuals and spares were in constant short supply. Often more Crusaders were unserviceable than serviceable. Consequently, tankmen’s confidence in the Crusader tank was low.
Roy Robotham and his team get involved
After September 1939, the production and development of Rolls-Royce motor car engines ceased, and all the company’s resources went into making the Merlin engine. The head of the car design and chassis division, W A (Roy) Robotham, and his team were under-employed as their services were not required in the design and development of the Merlin engine. They had heard of the reliability problems experienced with the Nuffield Liberty engine in the early cruiser and especially in the Crusader tanks. The team investigated the possibilities of substituting the Nuffield Liberty engine with an existing Rolls-Royce aero-engine. The first engine considered was the Kestrel, as it had no supercharger and was fundamentally suited as a tank engine. Apart from developing more horse power than the Nuffield Liberty, 525 hp (390 kW) as compared to 340 hp (254 kW), it also occupied less space. However, the long-term tank design policy called for a 600 hp (447 kW) engine for the envisaged 30-ton tanks. This was to keep the power-to-weight ratio at a minimum of 20 hp per ton.
The decision to use Merlin engines in tanks
The Rolls-Royce Merlin engine was the obvious choice, but it would need modifications to be fitted into a tank:
- First the supercharger had to be removed
- The reduction gear was to be removed from the crankshaft
- The engine also had to have the rotation of the engine reversed. Automotive gearboxes ran the opposite way to an aircraft propeller
- Changing the rotation also required modifications to the camshaft lobes.
A Zenith carburettor was also fitted instead of the aero-type normally used. With the removal of the above parts, the dimensions of the engine, soon to be called Meteor, were similar to the Nuffield Liberty engine used in many of the British tanks. The new engine would fit into the main cruiser tank at the time – the Crusader.
While Robotham and his team were in the design phase of this new engine, Leyland Mechanisations and Aero approached him and asked for assistance in a new power plant for tanks.
Development had started by using Merlin engine parts from crashed aircraft. These parts had been collected by the car design and chassis division in the hope of finding a use for them. Used or worn-out parts were also used as the tolerances required for tank engines were not as tight as those for aircraft engines.
In September 1941, a Crusader tank fitted with the new engine was tested at Aldershot Army Base in south-east England. The driver of the tank was asked to drive flat-out. The automatic recorder in the tank recorded a speed of 50 mph (80km/h) before the driver, unable to navigate a tight turn at the end of the test track, crashed into a wood. Further tests totalling 3 600 miles (4184 km) with the Crusader revealed the inability of the Crusader to withstand the strain of twice the power for which the transmission and suspension had been designed. Robotham and his team also found it difficult to find space for the larger radiators which were required for the more powerful engine. Design and development of a new heavy cruiser tank was now started by Robotham’s team with assistance from engineers from Leyland.
More tanks needed – others get involved
Lord Beaverbrook, who had been moved from aircraft production to head the Ministry of Supply, demanded more tanks. Leyland then decided to drop the Rolls-Royce Meteor engine, which they thought would not be able to be adequately cooled. Leyland went ahead with the design and production of a new cruiser tank, the Centaur, which would be powered by the Nuffield Liberty engine. Lord Beaverbrook, however, appreciated the value of the Meteor engine and asked for its large-scale production. Ernest Hives responded that Rolls-Royce had their hands full in meeting the demand for Rolls-Royce Merlin engines. If Beaverbrook would pledge £1 million, then Rolls-Royce would produce the Meteor engine. This was accepted by Beaverbrook. Viscount Nuffield was not too pleased, as he thought that Rolls-Royce was possibly going to interfere with his production of Centaur tanks.
At a meeting in September 1941 between Robotham and Harry Moyes of the Birmingham Railway Carriage and Wagon Company (BRC &W), it was suggested that the two firms combine to produce the new heavy cruiser tank (later to be called the A27 Cromwell). This would be powered by the Meteor engine. BRC & W had been involved in producing tank hulls, turrets and suspension parts for some time.
The Cromwell tank
By March 1942 a mild steel prototype Cromwell tank had completed 1 000 miles (1 609 km) in eight days. Again the 600 hp (450 kW) of the Meteor engine caused the tracks to break and then the suspension springs. These problems were quickly ironed out and the A27 Cromwell went into full production. The engines were still being assembled from crashed Merlin engines, the good parts being used in the Meteor engine. By employing these measures, the first Cromwell tanks came off the production line before the end of 1942.
Rolls-Royce was still having problems meeting the demand for Merlin engines, let alone the Meteor engines. At this time, The Rover Company Limited, a motor car manufacturer, was working on the development of the Frank Whittle W.2 jet engine. They were also experiencing problems with the jet engine and differences of opinion with the Whittle engineers. Ernest Hives met with Whittle and suggested a trade-off of engines. Rolls-Royce would get Rover to produce the Meteor engine and Rolls-Royce would work on the W.2 jet engine. The trade-off was eagerly accepted.
Is the Meteor a Rolls-Royce or Rover engine?
Rover set up their production line for Meteor engines at their Tyseley factory. Production of the Rover Meteor engine began in November 1942 and by January 1943 a sufficient number of Meteor engines were available for the A27 Cromwell tanks produced by BRC&W. On 1 April 1943, Rover took over the Rolls-Royce tank engine factory at Nottingham. To simplify production, cast instead of forged, pistons were used and some of the expensive aluminium alloy components were replaced with cheaper steel components. In 1944 Rover took control of Meteor engine production and from this time forward they were officially known as Rover Meteor engines.
At the same time, Leyland ran into trouble with their prototype Centaur tank. This was mainly due to problems with the Nuffield Liberty engine. It was then decided that the Centaur would be powered by the Meteor engine, the first of which was supplied in mid-1943. When Nuffield had completed their production of their Cavalier tank, they started production on Centaurs. This time Nuffield/Morris had to accept that a Rolls-Royce/Rover Meteor engine was to power the tanks they were making. To increase production of the Meteor engine, Morris in Coventry also manufactured the Meteor engine. None of the 950 Centaur tanks produced saw combat.
There were 3 066 Cromwell tanks manufactured. They first saw action in the Battle of Normandy in June 1944. It was the fastest British tank of the Second World War with a top speed of 40 mph (64 km/h). Their speed was used to out-manoeuvre the heavy German tanks. The one fault of the Cromwell was that it was fitted with a dual purpose 75mm gun which lacked an armour-piercing capacity. The tanks crews expressed their love of the design and especially its speed and handling.
Lessons learned and improvements
This gun deficiency in the Cromwell was rectified when the A34 Comet tank was produced with the potent 17 pounder anti-tank gun mounted. With this gun the Comet was effective against the German Panther tanks at medium range and the Tiger tank at close range. The Comet prototype, powered by the Rover Meteor engine was ready in February 1944 but production tanks were only delivered in September 1944. The maximum speed of the Comet was purposely reduced to 31 mph (51km/h) to increase the lifespan of the engine and suspension components. By the end of the Second World War, 1 200 Comet tanks had been manufactured and it saw action in south-western Germany where the British lost 26 Comet tanks in action. The Comet was considered the best British tank of the war. The Comet remained in British service until 1958.
The South African use of Meteors
In 1954, the Union of South Africa purchased 26 Comet tanks to be used as driver training and maintenance training tanks. These were to be used for training instead of damaging the brand new Centurion Mk III and MK 5 main battle tanks purchased from the United Kingdom from 1952 onwards.
The South African Comet tanks were powered by Rolls-Royce designed Rover Meteor Mk III engines. These engines, with a displacement of 27 litres, produced 600 hp (447 kW). The South African Armour Corps found the Meteor engine to be reliable but difficult to work on in the confines of the engine compartment. If a spanner was dropped, it was nearly impossible to retrieve it.
The Birth of the Main Battle Tank
The Centurion was the first of the British ‘Universal Tanks’ – it replaced both the cruiser and infantry tanks. The first prototype was completed in 1945 but it did not see action in the Second World War. By this time, the latest Rolls-Royce/Rover Meteor Engine was the Mk 4B, with an improvement of 50hp on the Mk III. The Centurion’s mass was 50 tons and the maximum speed was about 35 km/h.
South Africa gets the most modern tanks
In 1952, the Union Defence Forces (UDF) placed an order for 203 Centurion tanks and seventeen Centurion Mk 2 Armoured Recovery Vehicles at a cost of ₤ 50 000 each. The 203 gun tanks consisted of 87 Mk3s and 116 Mk5s.
In 1961, when South African became a republic, she sold 110 Centurions to Switzerland. The introduction of the French Panhard armoured car to the South African Army in the early 1960s, and the belief that the South African terrain was more suited to wheeled vehicles, led to a decline in the importance and serviceability of the remaining tank fleet. Added to this, in 1963 the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) called upon member states to stop the sale of arms to South Africa because of her Apartheid policies. This call was formalised in the UNSC Resolution 191 of 18 June 1964.
What could have been improved for the sake of maintenance?
Changing a Rolls-Royce Meteor engine was quite difficult. The Royal Australian Mechanical and Electrical Engineers (RAEME) estimated that to change the Centurion engine in the recommended step-by-step method would take in excess of 100 hours. The engine was a light fit in the engine compartment and loosening bolts often required the proverbial mechanic with rubber arms and fingers. The job was always dirty – hence the nickname of ‘grease monkeys’ for these tiffies (technicians). The task was difficult enough at the base workshop and even more so in the field, in dirt, rain and sun. The average distance the Centurion tank could travel before needing an engine rebuild was about 1 000 km. This varied. Some engines lasted longer. Mostly the repairs were to replace worn parts. Seldom was there a catastrophic blown engine.
In South Africa, the Centurions were nursed like babies. In the 1950s and early 1960s the Armour Corps Permanent Force members ensured that a bare minimum Centurion tanks were driven by national servicemen. Repairs and larger maintenance jobs were under taken at 61 Base Workshop. Because of the arms embargo against South Africa, sending Meteor engines back to Britain for a complete rebuild became impossible. In 1968 a complete engine rebuild cost just under $ 6 000 Australian dollars.
The end of the Meteor is in sight – or is it?
In 1964 Rover ceased its association with meteor engines after they had produced 9 000 engines, Rolls-Royce then again became responsible for the manufacture and supply of spare parts. Engine rebuilds were undertaken by Scottish Aviation and Hawker de Havilland.
In the early 1990s, in the first Iraq War (Desert Storm), the British Army realised they needed Armoured Recovery Tanks (AVRE) for their Chieftain fleet of Main Battle Tanks. A batch of Centurion AVREs was selected and the Meteor Mk IVB engines were rebuilt by Scottish Aviation at a cost of £ 92 000 each.
Museum Meteor engines
The Ditsong National Museum of Military History has four Meteor engines.
In the Mk 7 Centurion tank which was imported from India there is a Rover Meteor Mk 4B engine with engine number R 48738. The Comet exhibit with a registration number of U 90532 has a Nuffield Meteor engine Mk III. On display, and recently painted in the duck-egg-blue of the original engine, is a Rover Meteor Mk 4B, engine number R 46926. The Museum also has a Rover Meteor Mk III engine with engine number R 41773 which is presently in poor condition and stored next to the Museum workshop.
A British market survey in 1987 rated the brand of Rolls-Royce second only to Coca Cola. This proves that if a job is worth doing, it is worth doing well.
- Nockolds, H, The Magic of a Name GT Foulis, London, 1949
- Crow, D(Ed), British and Commonwealth AFVs 1940 -1946 Profile, Windsor, 1971
- Handel, P, A pictorial display of the Royal Australian Armoured Corps Puckapunyal, 1989
- Henry, R ‘Continental AVI 1790 Engine’, Ditsong National Museum of Military History, unpublished, 2018
- Museum File: The Rolls- Royce Meteor Engine
- Museum File: Centurion Main Battle Tank
- Museum File: Comet Tank (exhibit
Rolls- Royce Kestrel
William Morris, 1st Viscount Nuffield
Ernest Hives, 1st Baron Hives
The Birth of Rolls Royce
The Rolls-Royce Meteor
1944 - The Rolls Royce Meteor Tank Engine
Meteor Mk 4B Engine, factory overhauled power pack with accessories – sold out