The following is a revision by the author, David Owen, of a piece he wrote for
inclusion in the brochure published for the Australian Shoalhaven Nationals held in 2000.
Gordon Burford (1919 - 2010)
Gordon Burford, the world-renowned Australian model engine designer and manufacturer, passed away peacefully in the early hours of Friday, the 13th March 2010, following a fall at his home in Queensland
Model aeroplanes dominated Gordon's life. He built his first model when only ten years of age and was still building and flying them over 70 years later. Few could claim such a long and successful association with this hobby and pastime. During this long period of activity, Gordon manufactured 100,000s of model aircraft engines for Australian modellers, and was of pivotal importance to the development of aeromodelling in Australia.
Gordon was born in Adelaide in 1919. Some three years later, his father formed a partnership with a Les Harding from Mt. Pleasant, a small town some 50 miles from Adelaide. The two men became the largest bee-keepers in South Australia, having approximately 1200 swarms, or hives, scattered over the State. As a young lad, Gordon helped his father with the bees and it was this work that sustained the family throughout the Depression years.
In the '20s, model aircraft were rubber-powered and categorised as either tractors (those with the prop at the front) or pushers. Pushers were predominantly of the twin-motored "A- Frame" type. Gordon's first model, built in 1929, was an English design, called a "Warneford Tractor". The wood was stripped from a fence paling. Most models were constructed from hardwoods, balsa (ironically a hardwood, too) was virtually unheard of and certainly not available to Gordon at the time.
He used an (old!) pair of his Mother's silk stockings to cover the model. He had no idea what dope was and used shellac (varnish) to seal and tighten the fabric. Rubber bands were cut from an inner tube to power the model. This was done on the diagonal to increase the available length. Gordon's first prop was carved from a piece of Australian oak, which is a very hard and heavy wood. After all this, the model never did fly! Gordon was undaunted and viewed this merely as a start.
By the beginning of the '30s, balsa was obtainable and rice paper, a forerunner of Jap tissue, had replaced much heavier fabrics. Reasonable rubber in 3/16" square replaced rubber-tyre bands. Rough-sawn balsa props, to be finished by the builder, were now available to enthusiasts. Gordon was off to a real flying start at last and built many successful rubber models. He never lost his love of rubber, going on to fly Wakefield (see his very successful "Gundy Guy", published in the Nov/ Dec '49 issue of Bill Evan's Australian Model Hobbies magazine) and becoming one of this country's foremost Indoor flyers, along with his great friend, the late Boyd Felstead.
But by the mid '30s, articles in well-thumbed American magazines, such as Air Trails and Model Airplane News, carried exciting reports of model aircraft being powered by real, miniature gasoline engines. Gordon was fascinated by things mechanical and couldn't wait to get hold of one of these new 'gas' engines.
They could be purchased in ready-to-run form, the pioneering Brown Jnr and Baby Cyclone being available from early modelling entrepreneurs who were importing them in small numbers. However, Gordon was earning £1/4/- for a very hard 48 hour week, shifting hives and collecting honey, and a new engine of this type cost around £10 each! So he purchased a Bunch Mighty Midget in what was called 'knock-down' form, for the sum of £3/3/-. All the parts were finished and the buyer saved money by assembling and testing the engine himself. The Mighty Midget was an excellent engine, giving Gordon his first successful power flights and sparking an interest in model engines which would last the rest of his life.
On the day Australia declared war on Germany, Gordon was lucky enough to have three Carl Goldberg Zipper kits and three Dennymite ignition engines. These would have to last him for the duration of the war, as the import of all model goods was frozen. He had by now trained as an aircraft instrument fitter and, such were his skills in this field, was recalled just prior to embarking for service in New Guinea. Gordon married Josie in 1942, ultimately raising four boys, all of who have been very successful in their chosen fields.
Following the war, the availability of all bar essential goods was restricted. This gave Gordon the idea to manufacture his own engines in Australia. He purchased a locally-made Hercus lathe, a Hercus tool and cutter grinder and a Sunnen hone. He made three engines. These were based on the Sparey 5cc Diesel, which had recently been published in Aeromodeller. He used one engine himself and sold one to a local modeller, George Putterill. The third engine was entered in the Adelaide Exhibition of 1947 and won a Second Prize, before being stolen from the exhibit at the end of the Exhibition. This last engine was ultimately found in the United States some 50 years later, and returned to Australia. It is now called GB1.
His next engine was another 5cc diesel, the GB Mk2, based on the very successful American Gold Crown Drone 5cc diesel designed by Leon Shulman. This was a plain-bearing engine, of which roughly 250 were made. The next GB was based on the later ball-bearing Drone, and was sold as the GeeBee Stuntmota Mk3. This was a very popular engine and roughly 500 were built with the help of two sub-contractors, his brother-in-law Frank Bargwanna and another friend, Ken Garratt. All three men worked from home.
These and the later GB50 diesel and glow engines were marketed by W.W. (Bill) Evans, who ran Model Aircraft Industries in Glenelg and published a pioneering modelling magazine, Australian Model Hobbies. Regrettably, following a disagreement, Gordon discovered too late that Evans had registered the name GeeBee for himself. This was only the start of continuing trade-name problems for the Burfords.
Now Gordon moved on to the very successful Sabre engines, producing a 250 diesel and .19, .29, .35 and .49 glow models from late 1950 until 1955. Prevented from continuing the use of the Sabre name by an unreasonable if not dishonest action prosecuted by North American Aviation, Gordon adopted the name GloChief and produced various models in .19, .29, .35, .45 and .49 capacity over a period of several years.
Obviously the GloChief name would not be appropriate for diesels. Gordon commenced to use the name Taipan, a name which had already been registered by Taipan Projectiles. This small company made sporting rifle ammunition and, in a sporting gesture, the proprietor generously agreed to allow Gordon to use the name - 'provided you don't make bullets'!
Starting with the 2.5 diesel in 1957, the Taipan name was applied to a range of diesels from 1cc to 2.5cc over the next 18 or so years. There were also Taipan glow engines in .09, .15, .19, .21, .40 and .61 sizes. Taipan engine production reached a peak of 12,000 units per annum, with many being exported. Ivor F's superb Doonside Mills was a Taipan production. Gordon Burford and Co Pty Ltd had progressed from a small backyard concern with a few sub-contractors, to a purpose-built factory, employing over 25 people, in Belfast St, Henley Beach. Both Gordon and his company now had a world-wide reputation for excellence.
In the early '70s, Gordon passed the company over to his eldest son, Peter, and involved himself in the wholesale and retail distribution of OS engines, Pilot kits etc. At this time he wanted to put something back into the hobby which had supported his family. He took over the reins of a troubled MAAA and held the office of Federal Secretary and Treasurer for the next 11 years. Gordon insists that Josie was the real power behind the MAAA and that most progressive ideas came from her, ably assisted by Leo O'Reilly, the MAAA President and Peter Twiss, his Tech Secretary. There is no doubt that between the four of them the MAAA slowly grew to become an internationally respected member of the FAI and CIAM. More importantly, the MAAA gained the notice of our own Federal Government, giving it (the MAAA) at least the chance of being heard when matters arose concerning model flying.
Later in the '70s, Gordon and Josie moved from Adelaide to build their house at Currumbin, on the Queensland Gold Coast. As soon as possible, Gordon began building model engines once again. This time he limited himself to small-scale production in his home workshop of specialist types and replicas of vintage diesels, such as the Deezil and Elfin. He also produced a number of replica Sabre 250 diesels, which he called the GB250. He became an expert in the art of investment casting and produced many superb crankcases, most being built into engines, albeit in limited numbers. During this period, Gordon assisted several would-be engine builders with unstinting advice, assistance and often materials.
Following lack of success in convincing the Federal Government to set up with his assistance a training program for young engineers, he undertook a consultancy with the fledgling Thunder Tiger company in Taiwan. Thunder Tiger's present day position as one of the world's leading brands is acknowledged by its Chairman as due in considerable part to Gordon's guidance and help.
Sadly, Josie, Gordon's wife and partner of nearly 56 years passed away in 1998. Gordon's main interest now moved away towards CO2, compessed air and electric flight, or dry power as he called it. He flew regularly at a local park and always enthusiastically embraced the latest techniques. He did not give up 'wet power' completely, though, and continued to show an interest in model engines.
Australian modellers are very lucky to have had in their midst a man like Gordon Burford. His engines introduced a whole generation of modellers to the joys of powered model aeroplanes. His guidance of the MAAA led us to the point where we have a respected national body in the MAAA. His quiet, generous manner will always be remembered for helping many of us to a greater enjoyment of our hobby. His hobby.
David Owen VH 2198, Wollongong NSW 2500, March, 2010