from Bob Trubshaw

Background

In the early 1970s Roy Manns had founded the Independent Plastics Engineering Centre (IPEC) at Newhaven, Sussex.

In May 1973 the Fulmer Research Institute (Fulmer) had merged with the Yarsley Research Laboratories, as the basis for diversifying into polymeric materials.  Yarsley included a subsidiary Yarsley Testing Laboratories at Ashtead, Surrey.

In March 1975 IPEC was acquired by Fulmer and shortly afterwards renamed the Yarsley Polymer Engineering Centre with M.A.P. (Mike) Dewey as Managing Director.

The Yarsley part of Fulmer was at that time then located on three different sites – Stoke Poges, Ashtead, and Newhaven.  This was not conducive to either technological innovation or efficiency.  So the hunt began for a new site to accommodate all parts of Yarsley.

In 1977 Fulmer acquired a new site at Redhill, Surrey, which were formerly the research laboratories of British Industrial Sand.  The transfer of the three parts of Yarsley to Redhill then began, taking several years to complete.  The Redhill site was named Yarsley Technical Centre (YTEC).

After I left, the Fulmer group – including YTEC and its new ‘baby’ YQAF (Yarsley Quality Assured Firms) – was sold to SGS, but I know little of this phase of the company’s history.

My initial career with YPEC and YTEC

Late in 1976 I joined the YTEC site at Newhaven.  In October I had been interviewed by the founder of IPEC and Managing Director of YPEC, Roy Manns, in a decidedly unprepossessing office at Fulmer Research Institute at Stoke Poges.  The interview was most welcome as I had graduated from Bradford College that summer with LSIAD and LPRI qualifications (i.e. Licentiate of the Society of Industrial Artists and Designers, and Licentiate of the Plastics and Rubber Institute).  I believe I am the only person to have ever acquired this combination of qualifications but the opportunities for a career were somewhat unclear as the back pages of Plastics and Rubber Weekly never carried job adverts for an ‘inexperienced creative polymer technician’.  But Roy saw how I could fit in to YPEC’s activities.

Roy was nothing if not entrepreneurial and being summoned to his windowless office in Newhaven was likely to result in some entirely unexpected new project.  But on a day-to-day basis I was supervised by Dave Foreman, who was developing the first British hot-runner system, mostly by designing moulds for components to be used for the Black and Decker ‘Workmate’.  One of the early hot-runner test moulds, which I spent many hours ‘supervising’, ended up in the Science Museum a few years later after they phoned with a request for additions to their collection of significant developments in British technology.

I was also asked to help John Blandford-Jupe assemble innovative temperature controllers for hot-runner systems and to assist Cliff Westram with moulding trials and the more mundane aspects of running injection moulding machines.  The mouldings I had to assist with included those required for artificial ski-slopes (a Roy Manns’ development); the bodies of valves used by British Oxygen on gas cylinders; nameplates for the bonnets of Foden lorries; and a polythene ‘dish’ moulded to impossibly tight tolerances for some unnamed part of the defence industry.  Many years later the penny dropped that these must have been used to cast the high-explosive shaped-charges used to initiate nuclear explosions.  But I might be wrong…

Also working at Newhaven was Colin, the mould designer and draughtsman, and a couple of part-time secretaries.

Towards the end of the following year Roy was using Stoke Poges as a base for his activities, which including creating the first injection moulding factory to be set up in Saudi Arabia.  I was asked to join him and assist with the procurement.  For about two months we both lodged in the gatehouse at Stoke Poges (since demolished, as was all of the Hollybush Hill site when it subsequently transformed into the Khalsa Secondary Academy).  At this time the Newhaven equipment was being dismantled for the move to Redhill, although my involvement was limited to a few days towards the end (Dave Mugridge has written more extensively about this phase of YTEC’s history in ‘Yarsley-Fulmer merger memories’ and ‘Continuation of Yarsley-Fulmer merger memories – The escape to Redhill’).

The drawing office

After the Christmas break at the end of 1977 I relocated to Redhill and became part of the much larger team of the newly-named YTEC.  Roy Manns had left (and soon after moved to America) so I continued to report to Dave Foreman until he too left to set up Fulmer’s subsidiary in Singapore (after that I think he went to work for Phillips in Holland).  Dave’s role was taken over by someone called Mike but whose surname now eludes me.  Dave, Colin and I initially resumed activities much as they had been in Newhaven.  We were soon joined by a senior mould designer, John Gosden, who remained with the company until after I left.

The drawing office was a wooden hut – presumably originally built for the military during the Second World War – which stood where the two-storey replacement now stands (shown as ‘D’ in the photo below).  This was before CAD systems so three A0-sized drawing boards dominated the space.  Each weighed about 50 kg.  Plus three chaps each upwards of 70 kg.  Only when the hut was demolished and it was revealed how little of the floor joists had not rotted away did we understand just how close the whole floor must have been to collapsing.  To us it was just a little ‘springy’.

Left: An approximate reconstruction of YTEC in the 1980s. Right: Google’s 2019 aerial view of site.

A1: Engineering workshop
A2: Polymer processing
A3: Organofluorine synthesis and accounts
A4: Analytical chemistry and offices
B1: Physical testing
B2: Thermal conductivity.  The reception area was at the south
     of this building (which no longer survives as it was essentially
    a large wooden hut)
C: Fire testing
D: The two-story replacement for the wooden drawing office with,
     initially, thermal conductivity on the ground floor and offices,
     above built about 1983
E: The Trafford building, completed early 1986

After the drawing office was demolished (and replaced by building D) my office was roughly at the arrowhead.

John Gosden with a fairly typical hot-runner mould design, photographed in the wooden hut with the rotten floor.

The ‘clever bits’ of two pioneering hot-runner moulds. Almost certainly from moulds to produce parts for the Black and Decker ‘Workmate’.

Anyone who knows this part of Redhill now would have great difficulty imagining what it was like in the 1980s.  The housing and business premises along and associated with Holmesdale Avenue and The Moors are on the site of a vast sand quarry, comprising several deep workings.  The lake to the south is the only one of these ‘pits’ to have survived.  Back then it was abandoned but still essentially unflooded – large numbers of sand martins nested in the ‘cliffs’.  In all parts of the site, on sunny days grass snakes could be encountered ‘basking’ on the tarmac roads and car parking areas.  Tesco occupies the site of British Industrial Sand’s processing plant, while the industrial units to the south of Trowers Way replace the sidings for the railway wagons taking the sand off to customers – mostly for making glass as the sand was especially pure, with minimal iron content.  On windy days fine particles of sand were everywhere, not least inside the keyholes of cars!

Off to Brum

After the move to Redhill I must have ‘made myself useful’ in a variety of ways, including preparing some feasibility studies, but I have no definite memories.  In the spring of 1978 I was asked by Mike Dewey if I would be interested in doing an MSc at the University of Birmingham.  The research topic was superplastic aluminium alloys.  My initial response was ‘What’s a superplastic alloy?’, which Mike patiently answered.  Afterwards it was ‘mentioned’ to me that Mike had done significant research himself in this field.

University of Birmingham – in the 1970s the Mech Eng and Metallurgy departments were in some of the buildings in the forefront of this photograph.

As this was an inter-departmental project I was duly interviewed by the Professors of Mechanical Engineering and of Metallurgy at Edgbaston, and selected! This was somewhat remarkable as I had no prior experience of metallurgy – although I did have first-hand experience of injection moulds, which was relevant to the application envisaged for the alloys.  Mike Dewey offered to make up my salary to the amount I would have earned had I remained at Redhill (I think it meant my income was just over £1000 a year… But it was the 1970s and as a student I’d been living on £13 a week).

So I relocated yet again and quickly read up everything I needed to know about these alloys.  And rather a lot of reading this entailed!  Within about three months ‘the penny dropped’:  Adding about 0.5% zirconium then processing in the ‘right way’ made just about any aluminium alloy superplastic.  Seemingly no one had previously made this connection.  Although the main interest was aluminium-zinc alloys I got permission from the Profs to make some test batches of aluminium-copper alloys (the pale-gold coloured and quite durable metal usually known as ‘aluminium bronze’, as used for one pound coins).  Lo and behold, these Al-Cu-Zr alloys were superplastic too! But all this research lacked any commercial future as CNC-machined steels such as P20 could do a better job than these alloys without having to jump through all the hoops to make aluminium superplastic.

In my spare time I availed myself of the broader range of books in the university’s library.  I recall reading Mircea Eliade’s Techniques of Ecstasy (a pioneering and largely incorrect account of shamanic religions) while ‘minding’ the simple but effective test rig which established whether alloys were superplastic or not.  But – although nothing to with my work – the best facility was the music library in the Barber Institute.  The concert hall there was the venue for a wide range of Classical and contemporary ‘serious music’ concerts, mostly at lunchtimes and, less often, in the evenings.

Temperature controllers – and marketing

I came back to YTEC in the middle of 1979 to find John Jupe had resigned and was waiting for me to return to take over manufacturing the hot-runner temperature controllers.  He was replaced by Clive Broadbent, although Clive’s responsibilities were with sales not manufacture.  Clive and I made a successful team – so much so that after a year or so these manufacturing activities were sold to Lucas Industries.  Clive joined Lucas but I stayed with YTEC.  The excellent technician – sadly his name no longer comes to mind – who had done most of the ‘grunt’ assembling the temperature controllers left to help develop the first satellite TV decoders.

While making the temperature controllers I continued to prepare various feasibility studies for products or processes.  I also became the main researcher on a project with Hedin, a UK manufacturer of cartridge heaters used in hot-runner moulds, with the aim of improving the quality and durability of their products.  Strung out along a radiator behind my desk was often a ‘string’ of red-hot heaters and this in a wooden building! (No, the heaters were not left on overnight…) YTEC did take health and safety seriously, but this was about 1980 when things could be a little ‘relaxed’.

Sometime while I was still making temperature controllers Mike Dewey asked me to take up an innovatory marketing role for all departments of YTEC.  I had no prior experience of marketing and sadly Mike did not think it necessary to offer me any training.  Much as we got on well, he was too busy to offer close supervision so I read a few ‘self help books’ and tried to do the best I could.  Which, in hindsight, was probably little better than useless…

Memories of colleagues

I worked most closely with the polymer technology team whose skills spanned a wide-range of materials and processing know how.

Dave ‘Muggs’ Mugridge and Mike Christie, among other duties, dealt with all manner of legal investigations into product failures and appeared as expert witnesses in court proceedings.

Chris (my one-time line manager, after Dave Foreman left) headed up Barry Cox, who ran the injection moulding machines, and Eric Henry, who worked his magic on the compression presses, producing optical-quality discs of TPX and converting antique amber ‘knicknacks’ into rods to be used on National Physical Laboratory equipment.  If you’ve ever wondered why amber cigarette holders are scarce then the reason is during the 1980s they were melted down in considerable numbers by Eric.  Eric was assisted by Owen Ralph who was noticeably shyer than his more extravert colleagues.

Compression moulded transparent TPX which was machined and polished, together with extruded rod material

My marketing role meant I also got to know all the key staff:

Jeff Mead was the site’s General Manager, though as he chain-smoked his way through at least forty cigarettes a day I never hung around in his office any longer than necessary, so barely got to know him.  I seem to recall in his spare-time he was a dab hand at making oak furniture.

‘Traff’ (Gordon Trafford) and his assistant in the physical testing department, Gordon Pilkington, and Gordon’s assistant Peter Buckell.

Malcolm Riley ran the thermal conductivity testing department, with his assistant Paul Bell.

Derek Berry headed up the building testing services, assisted by Paul Nice and Graham Birch.

At this time Ed Soja ran the fire testing department as Colin Dewdney, who had set up the department, left not long after I took on marketing duties.

Among Ed’s various colleagues was Bob Bishop who established the self-combustion temperature of assorted foodstuffs which invariably smelt especially awful when they eventually, and inevitably, ignited.

There was also Chris Whatley who ran analytical chemistry with his team, which included Palvinder Soor, a Kenyan Asian who operated the chromatography machines and also did most of the visually-demanding asbestos fibre counting.

Ray Bradley, the manager of the engineering workshop, had a team of brilliant engineers working for him, including Dave Broughton, who produced test equipment for in-house use or for sale.

With the exception of Roy, a decidedly tetchy chap who ran the asbestos monitoring service, these were all inspiring and helpful, even if sometimes (and understandably) doubtful about the benefits of marketing.

and in the supporting roles…

All these more ‘senior’ staff were well-supported by numerous lab technicians.  Sally, Cathy, Rosie, Luke and Paul (not to be confused with Paul Bell) were part of the thermal conductivity team I temporarily led, while building services employed an especially meticulous lad who ran the tricky vapour pressure tests; he left to become a scene of crime officer for the police – where presumably his careful approach would have been invaluable.  Working alongside him in the same department were Gary Grewal (a Sikh) and others whose names have slipped my mind.

Paul Latham was the most junior member of the fire testing team.  His job was to very skilfully lay bricks around fire doors prior to the relevant test then demolish his handiwork after the test and promptly do it all over again with another set of doors.  Week after week after week.

… not forgetting the all-important ‘girls’

All the senior secretaries joined soon after YTEC arrived at Redhill and stayed until after I had moved on.  These included Mike Dewey’s secretary, Jenny Saint, whose ruthlessly efficient approach to a demanding job I most certainly recall! The polymer technology team, including myself, were looked after very well by Pam Hurst who, in addition to being an excellent secretary, thought of herself as something of a ‘mother hen’ to her ‘brood of boys’.  Sue Noble succeeded in keeping the building services department on the rails – never an easy task – but died young, not many years after I left.

Peggy Copeland, Jean Ewards, Jenny Pike and Ann Williams were also part of the secretarial team in mid-1980 according to my copy of ‘The Yarselli Calendar’ – which now seems decidedly politically incorrect although, at the time, all involved seemed happy with this (fully clothed!) counterpart to the Pirelli calendars.  Subsequently Geraldine Mastro rose to the challenge of being secretary to Traff.

Authorship of the Yarselli calendar was attributed, almost certainly erroneously, to the exceptionally shy Owen Ralph.  Owen worked for Eric Henry and the Polaroid photographs and text clearly evoke Eric’s well-attested affections for the female form.  His office backed on to the railway embankment with a drainage ditch and small bank for access.  The previous owners of the building, British Industrial Sands, had provided an access door, presumably to service dust extraction or other equipment which had been on the exterior.  When the weather was suitable Eric took his lunch break sitting on this bank.  Which explained why he could never be found – and he dropped a clear hint as to why one of the more attractive female lab technicians was also elusive at lunchtimes.  Unlike Paul Nice and his ‘beau’, who drove off to her house at lunchtimes – even though that meant anyone in reception knew…

In an edition of The Yarsley Technicolour Centaur, the very informal staff magazine, hobbies are attributed to the secretaries, based on in-jokes rather than reality.  One of the girls’ hobbies is stated to include ‘Christmas parties’.  Thankfully the article did not also attribute hobbies to the blokes, else my list might well also include ‘Christmas parties’.  Apart from several dances together – entirely at her instigation, not mine – nothing untoward happened, I reassure the gentle reader.  At least not on Yarsley’s premises…

I digress.  By 1980 the secretaries had started to swap ‘conventional’ electric typewriters for the Olivetti’s ‘golfball’ design.  But not long afterwards the first word processors began to appear.  These were ideal for the long, complicated and frequently revised reports produced by   most departments.  I took full advantage of my access to the BBC Acorn to utilise its word processing capabilities.

The senior secretaries were aided by various junior secretaries, among whom only Kerry Leach and Hilary Field come to mind clearly as they, successively, assisted Pam.  Sue’s one-time assistant, whose name I cannot remember, competed in triathlons long before anyone else knew what a triathlon was.  As she was better at swimming and running than cycling, a couple of times I set a steady pace in front of her on twenty-or-so mile training rides from Reigate to Gatwick and back.

More memorable were the succession of ‘personable’ receptionists.  The company’s photocopier was in reception so most of the staff got to chat to the receptionists for at least several minutes a day, assuming there weren’t visitors being ‘processed’.  YTEC’s first receptionist at Redhill was Christine.  However she soon left, with Colin the draughtsman (who, like me, had moved up from Newhaven) and they both went to Melksham in Wiltshire.  Among her successors were Ann Boss, Cathy and Chris Domaille.

All but buried in a windowless office near the organofluorine synthesis lab were Mary Young and Kathy Field who did minor miracles sorting out timesheets, invoices and all the other mundane aspects of accounts.

Stores, photos, videos and near death experiences…

Above Mary and Kathy in the ‘loft’ was Cliff, the excellent storekeeper.  He cycled to and from home near Crawley – about ten miles each way – on a fixed gear (single speed) bicycle.  Even with a ten-speed bike I found the Greensand ridge near Salfords a struggle!

As a sideline to everything else, because my experience with photography was greater than most other people working at YTEC (it was my main hobby at the time, all developed and enlarged in Yarsley’s darkroom in ‘after hours’ sessions) I was called upon, often at short notice, to take photos of fire tests and such like.

YTEC also acquired a video camera and I became the main cameraman for the fire testing department.  Mostly it was a case of watching painted cladding burn, which is not a lot more exciting than watching the paint dry.

Much more exciting was the time the 3 metre x 3 metre furnace (usually used for testing fire-resistant doors) was putting double-glazed glass panels to the test.  Most of the eighteen square meters of very hot glass suddenly exploded across the lab, just seconds after I’d walked across the full width… I seem to think Ed, the fire testing department manager, was rather keen I did not mention this to the Health and Safety committee (the glass did not hit anyone, although that was pure luck).  However by that time I may have been one of the people on the H&S committee.

The test rig for surface spread of flame tests viz. BS 476 part 7 (1971). Bob Bishop on right.

IFWIMing

Quite early in this new marketing role I was asked to help Laurie Turner promote sales of an Instrumented Falling Weight Impact Machine (IFWIM).  This had been invented by ICI at Welwyn Garden City who did not want to manufacture equipment so YTEC was one of about three companies to licence the design.  Laurie headed up this project but had been suffering from kidney problems and, after a second kidney transplant failed, sadly died just before YTEC were about to launch their version of the IFWIM.

In addition to marketing this testing machine I took over development of the computer program used to process the data recorded during the impact.  ICI had written this for the Commodore 64 computer but production was ceasing and so the code had to be transferred to the BBC Acorn (much more powerful with 32k of memory – including the programme and data!).  A brief schoolboy acquaintance with BASIC was brushed up and I became a bit of a whiz at ‘shoehorning’ additional code into the limited memory.  After initial assistance from one of the mathematicians based at Stoke Poges, I spent much of one Easter Holiday optimising a Fast Fourier Transform to ‘clean up’ the impact signal.  I doubt that many other BBC Acorns ever ran FFT code…

Yours truly with the IFWIM in Commodore 64 days.

Thermal conductivity ‘stand in’

Towards the end of my role with marketing the head of thermal conductivity testing, Malcolm Riley, was – through no fault of his own – involved in a dramatic head-on car crash.  Despite not wearing a seat belt he was almost unscathed.  His right foot was broken but, as he had been wearing protective footwear issued by YTEC, thankfully not partially severed as it might otherwise have been.  Recovery would require several months off work.  So I was asked to run the department until he was fit for duty.

Thankfully Paul Bell had already joined to act as Malcolm’s assistant (and, it was openly acknowledged, to take over as and when Malcolm wanted to retire, which in due course came to pass) so my main role was just to keep the show on the road.  But, for once, I found myself barely treading water as the finer points of the physics of thermal conductivity were not something I was familiar with, and there was an ongoing ‘people management’ issue within the department which could not be easily resolved.  I was very happy when Malcolm declared himself fit for ‘combat’ again!

Despite my limitations when working in the department, I had nothing but great respect for what Malcolm and his team achieved.  Measuring the thermal conductivity of concrete blocks was the main earner – and this involved machining these ‘breeze blocks’ to amazingly tight tolerances, and measuring electrical current with an accuracy which was almost on the limits of measurement.  The department also made thermal conductivity testing equipment to supply other labs – I seem to think YTEC were the only such suppliers.  Certainly YTEC supplied the National Physics Laboratory at Teddington.

The thermal conductivity equipment most commonly manufactured and used.

Paul Bell with his ‘Hot Box’ for measuring the U-value of walls.

Paul Bell’s previous research was measuring the conductivity of two-metre square samples of walls, so in due course a ‘U-value’ tester of this size occupied much of the ground floor of the first new building constructed in the early 1980s with offices above (I understand that the ground floor later became a conference room).  This involved constructing two-metre square walls within a concrete frame then measuring the weight weekly until the moisture content had stabilised.  So ‘samples’ weighing well over a tonne needed to be measured with an accuracy of less than 100 grams – quite an impressive set of scales!

More about the buildings

Although I was still working for YTEC while the much larger Trafford building was being constructed (see Dave Mugridge’s contribution to fulmerresearchinstitute.uk) and have vague recollections of its official opening, I cannot bring to mind any of the building’s configuration, except maybe the U-value tester moved into this building.  Quite possibly the YQAF offices were on the first floor, in which case I entered frequently!  But it was, as might be expected, a bland and purely functional construction with no pretentions to be memorable.

The IFWIM machine and its computer shared a warm and very humid lab in the wooden Hallam building with the ‘tog tester’ designed by Malcolm and built by his team.  This was somewhat larger than a single-size bed – for the simple reason that it was designed to measure the thermal conductivity (the so-called ‘tog value’) of continental quilts.  And, for those who are not previously aware, it is known as the ‘tog value’ because one tog is the thermal resistance of a typical gent’s three-piece suit – and ‘tog testing’ of quilts was invented by a textile lab in Manchester where the local dialect for clothes is ‘togs’.

Malcom Riley (right) with the tog tester. I suspect his assistant was myself as the IFWIM was located just to the left of this photograph.

Fire drills

Bob Bishop, who set fire to foul-smelling substances most days, also had a key role in fire drills.  There were any number of activities in the various departments which could have gone wrong in very dramatic ways – though thankfully they never did (although there had been two major fires at Ashstead, prior to the move to Redhill).  So Mike Dewey and the Health and Safety committee (to which I was appointed in the last two or three years) took all matters of health and safety seriously.  This was before the change in legislation which made this mandatory for all businesses.

Each week the fire alarm was tested, after a warning on the Tannoy system.  About twice a year there were unannounced fire drills which only the safety committee knew about in advance.  This allowed sufficient awareness for any activities which might be dangerous if left suddenly to be delayed by relevant managers.  Bob Bishop’s role was to set off a smoke bomb at the exact time.  This might be in the boiler house, a temporarily unoccupied cupboard, or someplace where the smoke would cause minimal problems but could be spotted fairly promptly.  I seem to think that sometimes only he knew the location in advance.  The rest of the safety committee then timed how long before the building was empty.

Fire drills. As depicted in the Christmas 1981 edition of The Yarsley Technicolour Centaur.

I was given a very specific role.  To be standing in reception, chatting innocuously to the receptionist so, when the alarm went off, I could reach out and stop her picking up the red telephone to call the fire brigade.  Yes, there was a handset specifically dedicated to making 999 calls.  This is because in the event of a real emergency, if there was no obvious danger to her, the receptionist would also be answering the internal switchboard taking details to pass on to the emergency services.  Sometimes – and I think the boiler house smoke bomb was one of them – it took about five minutes before someone walked past and spotted the smoke! Somehow no one ever thought it odd that I was chatting away to the receptionist.

The only time I can remember the emergency services being summoned was for an ambulance when John Hodges, one of the building services team, suspected he may have a heart attack starting.  Dave Mugridge, a very experienced member of the St John’s Ambulance Brigade, administered first aid and, simply because we’d spoken shortly before so he knew I was ‘free’, phoned me for assistance.  My main contribution was to jog up towards the public road to direct the ambulance into the right part of the ‘rabbit warren’ which the British Industrial Sand site then resembled to the uninitiated.  John did have a heart attack either while in the ambulance or soon after admission to hospital, but made a full recovery and in due course came back to work.

Quality assurance consultancy and assessment

My final role with marketing was to promote the initial activities of YQAF – the quality assurance activities which came to prominence in the early 1980s.  This time I was sent off on a week-long QA training course – and a well-run course it was too.  But while QA was interesting there was little or no ‘creativity’ involved so it wasn’t really me.

Did I really want to drive the length and breadth of the country?

Did I want to do these trips starting from and returning to the ‘wrong side’ of the M25? (The M25 had finally been completed despite the Reigate Hill stretch famously being delayed by the landowner.  Hitherto trips to Stoke Poges and Anywhere North were decidedly fraught.)

And in a YTEC company car?

No! No!! And most emphatically, ‘No!!!’

Let me explain.  With the exception of an early-model rear-wheel drive Vauxhall Cavalier which went like a pocket rocket, the company cars were dire.  We all have our faults and, to his overall credit, Mike Dewey’s only repeated mistake was to inflict naff and downright dangerous cars on the ‘lesser’ staff.  The management of course all drove cars that were pleasant and safe to drive.  So Clive Broadbent travelled the length and breadth of the country in a Vauxhall Chevette, while the pool car was a BL Maxi which had a great many design faults, including drum brakes which went on holiday when the roads were wet.  I quickly learnt how to slow down by changing down through the gears rather than relying on the brakes  thankfully I never had to drive the Chevette any distance but recall the spartan interior and poor performance, which made Skodas of that era seem positively deluxe.

A snazzier version of the YTEC Maxi (which did not have a sun roof or vinyl trim).

My most memorable journey in the Maxi – for all the wrong reasons – was from Redhill to the Royal Observatory at Herstmonceux Castle for a two-day conference on impact testing.  This started in the evening but I was behind schedule (the car was late being brought back by its previous user), it was dark, and the country lane route was new to me.  If you went into a corner too fast in the Maxi then the last thing you should do was take your foot off the throttle – the badly-designed front-wheel drive meant the understeer was massive.  Touching the brakes on a corner would mean going into the hedge or ditch on a right-hander and onto the opposite side of the road on a left-hander.  I held my nerve and stayed on the road… As I must have done on many other occasions when the car did its best to cause an accident.  Not that it went fast, just the opposite.

Paul Nice and I once left a trade show in Blackpool about teatime, the back laden with the display stands, and aimed to get home to Surrey that night.  But the Maxi had other ideas.  It was like pedalling a lump of lead all the way.  I think we managed to get over 70 mph a few times – presumably where there was a long downhill stretch.

The pros and cons

The main problem most of us working for YTEC shared was that the salaries were below average for our qualifications and experience.  Even then Redhill was not the cheapest place for renting or buying property.  I seem to recall that when I left in 1986 my salary was barely more than £10,000 a year, and jumped to £12,000 at PERA – even though houses in Leicestershire were well under half the cost of similar ones in Surrey.  It may not sound a big difference but the extra £100 or so a month, after tax, of ‘disposable income’ was a most welcome novelty.

All the time I worked for YTEC my income had done little more than meet living costs.  I look back on those days as perpetually being skint.  I couldn’t afford a car of my own, although relying on a bicycle did at least keep me fit! The only salvation was being paid every four weeks (and not once a month) so in September there were two pay days but only one month’s outgoings.  And, despite living frugally, for much of the rest of the year my finances were ‘lubricated’ by my family.

Apart from cars and wages (!) Mike Dewey created a good environment for working together.  The flexitime arrangement meant that it was usually possible to take time off in lieu of ‘extra hours’ spent travelling to and from appointments.  The ritual of the weekly timesheet sometimes seemed onerous at the time, but stood me in good stead subsequently whenever I have needed to closely monitor aspects of my time.  But I have never had to make the total come to 37.5 hours per week any time since!

To his great credit Mike saw potential in me that, at the time, I could not have envisaged, and provided numerous opportunities for me to take up a surprisingly varied range of roles in the nine years (including the ‘year out’ at Edgbaston) I was employed by YTEC.  My other ‘bosses’ and supervisors also helped me gain experience and confidence when, rather too often, I was proving the adage that ‘one learns from one’s mistakes’.

YTEC’s social activities

Happy memories of YTEC include the social club.  There must have been many meet ups in the evenings and weekends, but the ones which come first to mind are several sessions of ten-pin bowling at Tolworth and, at least a couple of times, ‘supporting’ a team taking part in the annual raft competition on the River Ouse at Lewes.  Quite soon after the move to Redhill there was also a day trip on the ferry from Folkestone to Boulogne.  BBQs and rambles were organised most summers.  Most of these events were co-ordinated by Chris Hammond and my only contribution was hand-lettering a new A3 poster, photocopying a small quantity and pinning to the relevant notice boards.

At least once a year the Yarsley Sports and Social Club committee compiled the Yarsley Technical Centaur which contained a mixture of jokes, reports of inter-site football matches, the more interesting escapades on YSSC fishing trips from Littlehampton, and some more serious communications from the management to the ‘troops’.

Highlight of each year was, inevitably, the staff Christmas pantomime, when everyone squeezed into the conference room.  The scripts were written by a team including Paul Nice, Chris Hammond and one of the engineers, Dave Broughton.  They were essentially a long sequence of ‘in jokes’ about staff and events, loosely related to the theme of the panto.  Rehearsals were minimal and all the cast read their lines on the day from typed scripts.  Mike Dewey and his secretary, Jenny, were inevitably given starring roles, knowing full well there would be any number of good-natured jokes aimed at their roles.  Videos were made of some of these pantos – I was the camera operator – but so far as I am aware never copied.

The announcement of a subsidiary company in Singapore prompted the choice of Aladdin.  One of the best moments of all these pantos was at the end of this script.  Mike and Jenny, in their roles as Aladdin and his Princess, sat down on a ‘magic carpet’ and asked to be taken to Aladdin’s ‘secret hideaway’.  Then the carpet started lifting up thanks to a concealed ‘stacker truck’ and operator (the carpet, fairly convincingly, being draped over an unseen wooden pallet).  Mike and Jenny had no prior warning of the ‘FX’ and the look on their faces as the carpet jerkily rose up was a joy to behold!  Mike made a poor job of delivering the intentionally-pompous closing lines, but for all the right reasons.

The final page of the script for Aladdin. Mike Dewey, the Managing Director, took the title role while the Princess was performed by Jenny Saint, his secretary.

No surprise that the natural inclinations of YTEC staff to socialise meant that most Friday lunchtimes there was a good contingent at ‘The Feathers’ on the A23 at Merstham, drinking King and Barnes beer (it was still brewed in Horsham back then).  I recall the thermal conductivity department were usually well represented! As there was no staff canteen or anything similar on site, The Feathers was also the only venue big enough for ‘leaving dos’ and other such social events when nearly everyone came along.

Life after YTEC

And in due course for my leaving do too.  Truth be told pretty much ever since I’d come back from Edgbaston I’d been applying for jobs which would take me out of the Home Counties.  But suitable ones were few and far between, although I do recall attending an interview at YTEC’s ‘rivals’, the Rubber and Plastic Research Association (RAPRA) in Shropshire, but nothing came of this.  However in the middle of 1986 I applied for a marketing job at PERA (previously the Production Engineering Research Association) at Melton Mowbray and soon after said my goodbyes to the many wonderful folk at Redhill.

PERA proved to be an impossible company to work for as the Managing Director at that time was the most vile person I have ever had the misfortune to encounter and survival seemingly required stabbing every one of your colleagues in the back repeatedly.  I left after about seven months.  But Leicestershire proved to be a far more convivial place to live than Surrey.

After the false start with PERA my finances, private life and career finally ‘took off’ in my early thirties as a succession of marketing and sales jobs took me to Victor International Plastics, then Stadium (just after they moved their injection moulding operations from Cricklewood to Hartlepool), then EMS-Grilon (developing new applications for their speciality polyamide and polyester compounds) and finally – and for almost as long as I worked for YPEC/YTEC – became the UK business development manager at Buss-Waeschle.  This was in the division of the company making sophisticated compounding equipment, while I also almost single-handedly acted as UK agent for Mixaco, a ‘top end’ mixing equipment company based in Germany.  My QA training didn’t go to waste as, for a number of years, I also ‘moonlighted’ as an external examiner for the plastics and rubber industries’ training centre at Telford.

In all these jobs I was ‘on the road’ working from home, and the East Midlands was a convenient place to be based.  And, yes – apart from Victor’s – the company cars were good too!  Both EMS and Buss were based in Switzerland so I travelled there several times a year for over twelve years and got to know Graubünden canton and Basel reasonably well.

There were numerous ways the management and camaraderie of these two companies reminded me of the best aspects of YTEC – and without the downsides!

I eventually left the plastics industry at the end of 2000 to pursue a second career in writing and publishing.

And, in case you are wondering what sort of faultless car I chose to drive, for the last ten years I’ve done about 8,000 miles a year in a Corsa van! No street cred whatsoever but vastly safer to drive than that dire red Maxi which, as you gather, still haunts me well over thirty years later.

Without all the varied opportunities I was given at YTEC then most of what happened later in my life would never have come about – not least having the confidence to quickly learn the ‘ins and outs’ of fields of technology which I had previously not encountered, an ability which readily mutated into various fields of the humanities when I began writing and publishing.

For a few years after leaving YTEC I kept in touch with Paul Bell and his wife, Debbie.  But not with any of my other former colleagues.

I realise anyone mentioned here must now be at least in their mid-fifties, and most will be well past retirement age.  However please make contact if you want to share reminiscences or make a contribution to this site.