HAPPY 30TH, BETA

Beta cel­e­brates its 30th birth­day this May – and it’s been some­thing of a ride for the quar­tet be­hind it all

Canal Boat - - This Month -

Just 30 years ago four men started the en­gine com­pany from their back bed­room

Watch­ing An­drew Grow­coot and Lau­rance Tal­bot por­ing over a dusty, hand-writ­ten sales ledger is a fas­ci­nat­ing sight – or per­haps in­sight is a bet­ter word as they rem­i­nisce about some of their very early en­gine deals, places they went to, peo­ple they’d known.

It’s un­der­stand­able, re­ally, be­cause turn­ing 30 is al­ways a time for re­flec­tion, look­ing back at times past and, per­haps, won­der­ing what the fu­ture holds. But for Beta Ma­rine, as it cel­e­brates its 30th birth­day, there’s lit­tle won­der­ing about the fu­ture, the tra­jec­tory is al­ready set.

The Beta story ac­tu­ally started fur­ther back than 30 years ago, in the late Six­ties, when An­drew, Lau­rance and col­leagues Ted Spash, and Paul Grigg were work­ing for en­gine man­u­fac­turer Lis­ter in Durs­ley, Glouces­ter­shire, part of the Hawker- Sid­de­ley group. By 1986 HS had merged Lis­ter with Pet­ter, an­other en­gine man­u­fac­turer it owned, to form Lis­ter Pet­ter Ltd, and it was around this time the quar­tet felt that the com­pany they had orig­i­nally joined was be­com­ing im­per­sonal – plus they reck­oned they could do a bet­ter job.

Beta fi­nally opened its doors of­fi­cially in 1987 from the tra­di­tional ‘back-bed­room’, but the trou­ble with any start-up is that you need cus­tomers and for the first four months not a lot hap­pened.

“We didn’t have an or­der and the bank bal­ance was head­ing south at a rate of knots,” says Lau­rance. Then came the break­through, the make-or-break con­tract all fledg­ling com­pa­nies hope for; they re­ceived a con­tract from In­dia for 12 Lis­ter-based gen­er­a­tor sets.

Un­sur­pris­ingly, this didn’t go down well with their for­mer em­ploy­ers and they were banned from buy­ing equip­ment from Lis­ter so there had to be some fairly smart work in the back­ground to ful­fil the or­der.

Oddly, Lis­ter un­wit­tingly put Beta on the map. Jim Lis­ter sent a let­ter to his clients say­ing that they shouldn’t have any deal­ings with the new up­start Beta Ma­rine. “Un­for­tu­nately for him,” says

“I couldn’t be­lieve it when I first went there. I was walk­ing to­wards the head­quar­ters in Osaka and there were two Union Jacks fly­ing out­side, I thought they must be for some­one else. ‘I said who are the flags for?’ and they said ‘for you’.”

An­drew with some­thing of a mis­chievous smile, “it had the op­po­site ef­fect to what he had hoped and in­tro­duced us to the wider mar­ket.” The com­pany still has a copy of that type-writ­ten let­ter.

With their name now out and about, it wasn’t long be­fore other com­pa­nies came call­ing for Beta’s en­gi­neer­ing skills. Isuzu was one of the first and for a few years Beta of­fered three marinised mod­els of the Japanese com­pany’s en­gines and sold around 50 a year. For larger boats, Ford en­gines were used as base units. This was a use­ful pe­riod be­cause Beta had to make some parts to ‘marinise’ the en­gines, and ob­tain oth­ers, such as man­i­folds, which needed cast­ing.

From the ‘back-bed­room’ the com­pany soon moved to a small in­dus­trial unit, iron­i­cally back­ing onto their for­mer em­ployer, even­tu­ally grow­ing to oc­cupy five sites in Nailsworth be­fore mov­ing to the cur­rent site at Quedge­ley in Gloucester ten years ago.

Ask who Beta’s first canal boat en­gine went to and the de­tails are there in the old ledger. For the record, it was a three-cylin­der, 32hp Isuzu sold in De­cem­ber 1987 to Brum­ma­gen Boats which op­er­ated out of what is now Sher­bourne Street Wharf on the Oozells Street loop of the BCN Main Line.

The re­la­tion­ship with Isuzu didn’t last long, though, and in 1991 Japanese en­gine man­u­fac­turer Kub­ota, which al­ready had its en­gines marinised in the U.S. by Uni­ver­sal and in France by Nanni, ap­proached Beta, Cum­mins and Thorny­croft for a sim­i­lar deal for the UK. In the event, Beta and Cum­mins won the day.

Given that Beta en­gines are still Kub­ota-based today, you could say that re­ally was the mak­ing of the com­pany as we now know it. Mind you, in keep­ing with Far East­ern ef­fi­ciency Beta didn’t have long to get on with the marin­i­sa­tion to prove it­self to Kub­ota, and the first marin­i­sa­tion cast­ings were com­pleted six weeks af­ter the deal was sealed so that Kub­ota could start to test the new ma­rine en­gines.

As seems to be the way with Beta, a stroke of luck (and be­ing quick on their feet) helped launch the new ‘Beta’ en­gine on the in­land wa­ter­ways; Boat-builder Ron Tinker ap­peared on the 1991 Birm­ing­ham Boat Show stand with a very spe­cific need, An­drew Grow­coot promised him the so­lu­tion which was why the very first marinised Kub­ota based Beta en­gine was in­stalled in a ‘Chad­wick’ nar­row­boat in 1992

Cu­ri­ously, as this ar­ti­cle was be­ing writ­ten, a 1992, 47ft, four-berth Ron Tinker-built ‘Chad­wick’ called Re­becca

Jayne (for­merly Ros­alie Kate) with a 37hp Beta en­gine came up for sale. We spoke to the seller who told us it was, amaz­ingly, the same boat, still with its orig­i­nal en­gine and now with 3,000 hours on it.

Since those early days the re­la­tion­ship with Kub­ota has gone from strength to strength to strength and Beta now has 1,850-2,000 en­gines pro­duced specif­i­cally for it ev­ery year. “Al­though Kub­ota is a big com­pany, its not one that will ig­nore a smaller com­pany the likes of us,” says An­drew Grow­coot.

“I couldn’t be­lieve it when I first went there. I was walk­ing down the road to­wards the head­quar­ters in Osaka and there were two Union Jacks fly­ing out­side, I thought they must be for some­one else. I said ‘who are the flags for?’ and they said ‘for you’.”

With its re­la­tion­ship with Kub­ota sealed, Beta has grown and de­vel­oped. Since 1987 the orig­i­nal quar­tet has be­come a work­force of 38 and the com­pany has sold 36,275 en­gines in the last 30 years. Turnover for last year (2016) was £10,100,000.

The prod­uct ranges of in­land wa­ter­ways and seago­ing en­gines, ma­rine gen­er­at­ing sets have ex­panded to in­clude Perkins, Sabre, Sca­nia, Cum­mins and Volvo base en­gines. It has deal­ers in some 50 coun­tries and half of its prod­ucts now go to the U.S.

It’s this lat­ter as­pect, and changes in Euro­pean law, which brings the com­pany to look­ing for­ward, be­cause there cer­tainly are chal­lenges ahead – the largest of which is emis­sions con­trols. They were tight­ened in Amer­ica in 2010 and now Europe has fol­lowed suit with the in­tro­duc­tion of RCD II, the new ver­sion of the Euro­pean Recre­ational Craft Di­rec­tive, which puts strict lim­its on emis­sions from new en­gines.

“It’s a chal­lenge,” says Tech­ni­cal Di­rec­tor Lau­rance, “you’re only as good now as meet­ing the emis­sions stan­dards.” Proof of that comes with the fact that Beta had to drop its ‘Tug’ en­gine, a slow revving John Deere-based unit that mim­icked older style nar­row­boat en­gines, in Jan­uary be­cause its emis­sions couldn’t meet the tight new reg­u­la­tions.

For­tu­nately, the com­pany has had its own CAD-equipped re­search and de­vel­op­ment unit for quite a while, a depart­ment that’s be­com­ing ever-more im­por­tant to help find so­lu­tions to the tight­en­ing en­gine and emis­sion laws.

By 2025, Lau­rance Tal­bot thinks that, like cars, we’ll be see­ing a lot more smaller, tur­bocharged en­gines out on the cut. It makes you won­der what will be the shape of things in 30 years’ time.

Gang of four... Lau­rance Tal­bot, An­drew Grow­coot, Ted Spash and Paul Grigg

CAD de­sign in re­search and de­vel­op­ment

Those were the days – the orig­i­nal ledger

Tur­bos look to be the way ahead

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