GRAEME COUSINS visits eccentric engineer Brian Mehaffey to view his collection of steam engines, organs, mills and home-made vehicles
Brian Mehaffey is resigned to the fact that come July 24 he is going to ‘run out of steam’.
The eccentric engineer from the outskirts of Portadown, who has amassed an amazing collection of steam-powered items – most of them self-built – will soon be putting his unique treasures under the hammer.
As well as his prized steam collectables, Brian spent some time building and refurbishing musical organs. Another of his hobbies saw him construct two mills and water wheels at his Tartaraghan home – one almost full sized and another miniature version.
In his 82 years he has also found the time to build two cars and a motorbike.
The theme of many of the items that Brian has collected and built can be traced back to his grandfather’s mill.
He explained: “My grandfather had a saw mill with a water wheel from 1930 to 1966. It was steam driven up until 1966.
“During the war, you didn’t get toys. What we did is we were allowed to go into the mill and take what wood we wanted.
“We made things from wood because toys were so scarce.
“I was always fascinated with mills, steam-engines and mechanics because of those days.”
Brian did a BSc degree in Mechanical Engineering before trying a career as a teacher: “I loved maths at school. I tried teaching myself but I wasn’t cut out for it.
“There was a job came up in Dungannon to do with a small oil company. You did a bit of everything. I even went as far as getting a licence for a four-wheel rigid (vehicle).”
In retirement he was able to spend even more time on his creations, but now he admits his days in the fast lane are coming to an end.
He said: “I’m 82 and half. I’m not so young. I don’t go to the (vintage) rallies any more. When I was young I never thought a thing about going to Inishowen and Cork. As you get older life changes.
“I did 1,000 miles round Scotland in a wee Austin 7 collecting for Combat Cancer. The first wee Austin 7 I had did 6,000 miles.
“I wouldn’t drive a mile down the road now. We’re past going to rallies and shows.”
Brian and his wife Doreen have two children – Nigel and Katrina – and three grandchildren – Nathan, Sarah and Adam.
Brian said: “The children and grandchildren would have enjoyed the toys while they were young but now they’ve got their own interests.”
Of the forthcoming auction on July 24 Doreen said: “He’s had great fun collecting them, making them and showing them, but now it’s time to let somebody else have the pleasure of them.”
As a guide, one of the MAMOD steam rollers similar to one Brian owns is on the eBay auction site at nearly £180.
Brian said: “My way of thinking is, if you go to sell something, you sell it – no reserve. You take your chance. It’s only worth what somebody will pay for it.
“All the items are there to be sold. The bigger items like the water wheel can be viewed by appointment.”
The water wheel in Brian’s garden stands at eight feet tall and is joined to a mill which Brian built himself based on the Wellbrook Beetling Mill in Cookstown.
He also has a smaller model of the mill which he uses as a water feature in his garden.
He said: “The wee model mill can be easily taken down. It’s for sale. If you look at the inside it has all the parts of a working mill.”
“The big wheel is for sale as a wheel only. I’m keeping the mill.”
As a regular church goer and a skilled engineer Brian was presented with a challenge by his rector at Tartaraghan Church of Ireland.
He explained: “The first organ I worked on was given to the church and the church never used it.
“They were going to dump it and the rector said to me, ‘I know you haven’t a note in you, but I know you like to restore old things – see what you can do with it’.
“The keys were stuck and there was no air pressure. I fixed the air pressure by putting PVC over the holes and found out why the keys were stuck ... dead spiders.”
Brian then set about getting a tune out of the organ: “I just picked out about 20 notes and used spokes for push rods to push the keys down and elastic to bring them back up. I got the simplest wee tunes I could out of a book. I used my maths to work out where the notes should go and how long them needed to be. I mapped them out on the music roll so the rods would push and lift at the right times.”
Since making music with his first organ Brian has gone on to make his own organs incorporating paper roll music.
In the organ pictured he took the organ’s pipes outside of the box to show them off and used a doll owned by his wife to conduct the music.
He has also made a four foot high model of the church organ in Tartaraghan.
During his lifetime Brian has built several fully functional vehicles.
Starting with just a Meiss engine, he constructed his own car which he took on the road to several vintage rallies and motor shows.
“It’s not based on any particular car,” he said of his striking yellow automobile.
“I just wanted the style of the 1900s. We used to take it to all the rallies and Doreen would pack a picnic in the hamper attached to the back.
“It still works but it doesn’t get out much anymore, which is why I’m selling it.”
As well as constructing a vintage car, Brian put together an even faster vehicle to race against his son.
He explained: “Our son was into VW racing down at Kirkistown. I made my own car to race with him.
“Nigel was about 18 when he had bought a second hand one.
“I got a couple of pages and made my own formula VW based on the specifications of what you’re allowed to do and what you’re not allowed to do.
“My car was a bit more upright. I couldn’t have that old carry on where you’re down low to the road.”
He added: “The racers were all young fellas. I was about 50 at the time. They made the joke in the papers that I was riding with the pension book sticking out of my pocket.
“In saying that I only had the one accident in three years.”
Although he did not win any races Brian accumulated a few mementoes from his racing days: “The sponsors used to encourage people who didn’t win much by giving points for everyone right down to 10th place – 10 for first, nine for second, eight for third and so on.
“So if you finished in 10th place 10 times you had 10 points. And for every 10 points you got a cut glass. I was never better than fourth or fifth, but I got my fair share of cut glasses.”
As his son was a keen speedster, Brian also made him a motorbike from scratch.
“It’s made in the era of a 1900 bike – you had no clutch, a wee decompression value, single speed. Most of them had just a strengthened bicycle form.
“It doesn’t look much like your modern bike, but it ran for 23 years.”
While he has dabbled with mills, organs and motor vehicles, the one constant in Brian’s life has been toys powered by steam engines.
He said: “I had steam toys from an early age, I would always keep an eye out for them even to this day.
“Some of the steams are over 100 years old. My first one was a stationery steam engine with vertical boiler. I bought that when I was about 10 off a neighbour across the way.
“Later they came into vogue as ornaments, so I brought it in from the shed.
“The first small steam I made myself I fitted a pressure cooker with a small oscillating cyclinder on it. It could still boil the potatoes while having the engine running.”
Looking at the parts of Brian’s extensive collection that he has made himself, you can appreciate his passion for mechanics and be wowed by his mathematical genius in constructing these complex moving items.
Amazingly a lot of his works of wonder are built by just looking at photographs and diagrams in books and magazines.
He said: “I can build fairly well off a picture. I’d be fairly good at working out measurements just by looking.”
Asked if he would classify himself as an inventor or an engineer, Brian said: “I’m an eccentric, that is the word I would use. I just take notions for things.”