Frank Menzies - Constructions

Attribution: S. Fraser (Maryburgh Primary School March 2015)

A John Logie Baird Television

An early television set was made in 1930 by Frank Menzies to the workings of the Baird Principle. This television is now housed in Dingwall Museum.

How it works

A signal from the transmitter is picked up by an aerial and fed through a tuning system into the receiver. Electrical energy from the aerial is converted in a photo-electric cell to light energy, which varies in intensity according to the signal strength. Light from the cell passes through the holes in the rotating disc. These holes, being at different distances from the centre of the wheel, appear as continuous ‘lines’, an effect brought about by what is known as ‘persistence of vision’. The tiny picture produced is then magnified by the large magnifying glass.

Pictures from the air
It was a darkening Autumn evening in the early nineteen thirties, and in a room of the house next to the motor garage on the north bank of the river Conon, just opposite the Toll house, the atmosphere was tense and a bit eerie. The few invited guests gazed in some apprehension at the contraption resting on the table in front of them: Dominant was a thin disc with six spokes, painted black and silver, and with an intriguing pattern of spiralling holes close to the perimeter. To the right of this was what appeared to be a hypnotic glass eye. A round leather belt connected a pulley on the disc to a similar pulley on a small turbine; all this was fixed to a frame firmly bolted down to a commandeered fireside stool; rubber hoses ran from the turbine to a nearby sink, one fixed to the water tap, the other simply a drain. The bulb had been removed from the overhead light and replaced with a plug and length of flex terminating at a cluster of valves and coils on the apparatus; an aerial wire led through the ceiling. All was ready.

Frank Menzies, whose enterprising project this was, built it using the scant and sometimes unreliable information given in wireless magazines of the era, and it was indeed a John Logie Baird Television. Frank gave a brief run down of Baird’s invention, though the understanding of scanning discs and cathode tubes was way above the heads of most people in the room. Then he turned on a brass tumbler switch on the base; valves began to glow softly in the dark room, and in the glass eye, an area about four inches by three inches lit up, now full of static. Going to the sink he turned on the tap and slowly the turbine began to rotate, with the scanning disc, wobbling at first, beginning to turn faster and faster changing the pattern in the glass screen; Frank sat patiently by the tap, adjusting the flow of water and so the speed of the disc; twenty minutes passed and the sceptics in the audience were beginning to fidget, when suddenly, the vague and snowy figure of a man in full evening dress appeared on the screen. The first television built in the Highlands was in operation. Two burst pipes and two flooded floors later the water turbine was replaced by an electric motor and a rheostat which helped things a lot.

Four cars, all three-wheel models

This racy looking three wheeler was built in the nineteen twenties by Frank Menzies, who ran a garage in the Easter Ross village of Conon Bridge. In his spare time Frank developed a number of weird and wonderful machines and this one was no exception. It had a plywood body and two hard seats with only a suggestion of padding. Beaded edge tyres pumped to the limit added to the discomfort. Aerodynamic front wings added a bit of flair and class and gave an illusion of speed, totally misleading….

The motive power was a Villiers two-stroke engine of 3 hp which drove the single rear wheel by chain via a robust Sturmey Archer gearbox with three gears, and the kick start protruded from under the body just to the rear of the offside seat. A driver on nodding terms with Sod’s Law would kick and kick until it started, and climbing carefully into the cockpit, would just be arranging his bottom to locate the padding, when the engine would stop.. Luckily this didn’t happen often. The car was sometimes mistaken for a Morgan because of the letter “M” on the dummy radiator, but of course the “M” stood for Menzies!

Some long runs were undertaken by Frank and his wife Jean, probably the most notable being in nineteen twenty eight. They left Conon at one p.m. and arrived in Aberdeen at six twenty five p.m. After tea and a pie each, it was into the car at seven fifteen for the long journey home to Conon, where they arrived at one a.m. In all, two hundred and sixty miles were covered and no trouble was encountered, but profound numbness in the nether regions for three days. Sandy McLaren, journalist of the era, reported the run in the Sunday Post, and added ‘The fuel consumption worked out at the rate of one hundred miles to a gallon of petrol/oil mixture’.


The child in them car is Frank's daughter Marjory.

Attribution: unknown

The Conon Bridge Trike

This racy three-wheeler built in nineteen forty seven, was the last of four built by the late Frank Menzies of Conon Bridge and is pictured not long after construction, outside his motor repair workshop across the road from the old Toll House.

Any lesson learned by previous attempts were dimmed by time and six years in the Services. So, the single bench seat was as hard and uncomfortable as the very first one, built in the early twenties, but the tyres were no longer beaded edge inflated to rock hardness which helped a little.

The one-piece body frame was formed from steel single iron with brazed joints, then covered with 16 gauge steel sheet: This made the car impossibly heavy for the wee Levis two-stroke engine fitted. And nought to thirty was measured in minutes rather than seconds. The engine drove the front wheel via a Sturmey Archer gearbox and was integral with the steering system so when the steering wheel was turned, everything turned. Power assisted steering would have been welcome, as it was biceps developed rapidly after a few runs.

The Conon Bridge trike

Attribution: unknown

A lever under the dashboard, pulled sharply, spun the flywheel and the engine started (usually). The rear wheels were independently sprung by coil springs, and had drum brakes operated by rods from the foot pedal; the handbrake was simply a clip that was nudged over the foot pedal to keep it down and was much easier to apply than release. A front brake was deemed unnecessary.

No long runs were made in this two-seater, partly because of the comfortless seat, partly because the impossible power-to-weight ratio made driving it so boring. The car was sold on in the nineteen fifties to an enthusiast visiting the Black Isle, and recently an attempt was made to trace it. A computer check by a friendly bobby confirmed that the Reg. No. is no longer in use, and a very, very vague rumour that it was taken to New Zealand after being sold seems a possibility. Perhaps a friendly bobby down under, by chance reading this in jet-lagged newspaper might check as well.

An Aeroplane - The flea that flew in Easter Ross

Officially we are told that aircraft flying low at high speed and with heart arresting noise over the Highlands, causing upset to people and animals unfortunate enough to dwell below their path, are a necessary evil nowadays… Maybe this gentle look into the past will be of interest, if no consolation, to those afflicted.

For most of his life my father, Frank Menzies, operated a small garage for car and motorcycle repairs in the village of Conon Bridge in Easter Ross. His reminiscences, on his retirement, when the mood was on him, of life and work in the nineteen twenties and thirties were fascinating. One of his stories concerned an aeroplane. It began in the early nineteen thirties, when a new vet arrived in Conon to take over the local practice. His name was E. Murray Lamb. Now, Mr Lamb, whilst being in no way eccentric, had very futuristic ideas, especially regarding travelling from place to place in the shortest possible time. This was understandable, as his practice was widespread throughout Ross-shire.


The Flea that Flew

Attribution: unknown

So, after a succession of large, powerful, and fast foreign cars, none of them meeting his exacting expectations, and all of which were a thorn in Frank Menzies’ flesh for he had to keep them tuned to perfection, it was inevitable that Mr Lamb’s fertile mind should turn to flying… Browsing through the few aviation magazines then available, so simple, it was said, that it could be built in a garden shed and powered by a glorified motorcycle engine. Because it was so small, the machine was named the Flying Flea.

Never one to let the grass grow under his feet. Mr Lamb at once sent a cheque for drawings and specifications. These arrived very quickly, and a few excited days were spent by himself and Frank examining the project from all angles. At last the great decision was made…. Fraser Brothers, the well known Dingwall coachbuilders, were commissioned to construct the fuselage and wings, which were of wood, plywood and doped fabric. Metalwork for the engine mountings, undercarriage, and controls was to be undertaken by Frank.

After weeks and weeks of head scratching and near despair, finding out by trial and error the many pitfalls in aircraft building, the great day arrived when the little machine was ready to be tried out. Very proud they all felt as the Flying Flea, registration No G-ADWX outlined boldly in black, sat there bright and sparkling in white enamel. Finding a qualified pilot locally to test fly it proved difficult, however, for one thing they were thin on the ground in Ross-shire, and the very few available were wary, for, to put it mildly, the controls on the Flea were unorthodox, and worse, a vague rumour was going around flying circles that the machine was inherently unstable in the air.

Undeterred, Mr Lamb decided to carry out his own test flying, and Frank was made chief flight mechanic on the spot. This involved going with the self-appointed pilot when he took the aircraft out for trial, to assist in assembling the bits and pieces and to start the engine. Thankfully, the job did not involve flying with the vet, for there was only one seat.

Assisting at these trials was a nail-biting experience, and my father was always relieved when the time came to dismantle the little machine and tow it home again. Always lurking in the back of his mind lay the dread of breaking the news to Mrs Lamb that her husband was badly injured, or even killed – although the general consensus in the village was that this good lady had given up worrying about him long ago. One incident in particular could have ended in tragedy, and in fact it was the last flight Mr Lamb attempted in the Flea. He and Frank set out one calm evening for a field on Clethorpes farm, near the neighbouring village of Maryburgh, where everything should have been fine and quiet for what they hoped would be an uneventful flight. But the rural grapevine had been busy. Almost before the aeroplane was assembled, a crowd of people began to gather. In the end there were at least fifty curious spectators gazing interestedly at them, which they found a bit distracting. When everything was ready, Mr Lamb squeezed himself into the tiny cockpit and donned his helmet and goggles, which made him look quite professional and Biggles-like. After a few swings of the propeller the engine started, and the pre-take-off drill was gone through very carefully indeed… Everyone was tensed up. The onlookers had fallen silent. This was history being made on their own doorstep, they thought. Finally, Mr Lamb imperiously waved Frank to one side, and opened the throttle perhaps just a little too much. The Flying Flea shot forward, took off after a very short run, cleared the field boundary fence by a mere foot or so and disappeared over a small hillock. Everybody waited anxiously, hoping to see it gain height on the other side, but there was no sign of the aircraft and seconds later came the stomach-churning sound of a crash, and the engine noise stopped. Everyone made a mad dash to the top of the hill, fearing the worst. At the bottom of the far slope, beside a stone dyke, lay a heap of tangled wreckage with wisps of smoke coming from it… By the time Frank reached the scene, Mr Lamb was dazedly trying to climb out of the remains of his aeroplane. Amazingly, he did not have a single scratch on him, but this could not be said of the Flea, into which they had put so much time and work. It was very badly damaged.

The pilot later explained to his chief flight mechanic that, after clearing the top of the hill, he thought he was too high for his liking. He tried to correct this, but not being completely familiar with the controls, made a mess of the manoeuvre and ended up in a dive from which he could not recover, and as Frank observed drily: ‘Mr Lamb seemed to lose all interest in flying after that’. Large fast, and powerful cars suddenly came back into favour.

A miniature motor cycle

Specification: Engine 1.5 hp. Overall length 3ft (0.9m). Weight 1.5 cwt (75kg)

Sandy Maclaren at the top of Ben Nevis

Sandy Maclaren, an Inverness photographer, climbed to the top of Ben Nevis on the motor cycle. The photo was taken at the summit. The ascent took 3½ hours and the descent took 5½ hours.

Donald Menzies, 4 year old son of Frank, getting a fill of petrol for the miniature motor cycle

Donald Menzies, 4 year old son of Frank, getting a fill of petrol for the miniature motor cycle. Donald died on 21 October 2005. The old Tollhouse can be seen in the background.

Attribution: unknown

A three-wheel transporter truck

This description comes from a letter written by Donald Menzies, Frank’s son, some years ago.

In 1946, shortly after restarting operations in his garage when the war was finished, he constructed a small three wheeled truck to transport oxy/acetylene bottles from Conon Station to his garage at the tollhouse: it was powered by a small Levis two stroke engine circa 1924. It had only one brake on the single front wheel which didn’t help when my father bought a large vertical drill in the sale at Rosehaugh House and I had to take it home on the truck; the drill weighed about a ton and wooden blocks were forced between the springs and the chassis to prevent bottoming. The journey from Avoch to the top of the Leanaig (the old Leanaig) wasn’t too bad, a lot of smoke from the engine, and stops to let it cool off, but we made it in the end. The descent into Conon was something else; the old Leanaig was steep; cars came from miles around to test their pulling power, so a little three wheeler with one brake and almost a ton of cast iron on the platform had no chance when descending. But still, engine screaming in first gear, smoke pouring from the brake, we made it, only slowing down as we passed Tuach the Baker’s at the top of Conon High Street. Luckily, police patrols were thin on the ground then, and Murdo the local bobby was much more interested in fishing than in an errent youth riding an unsafe vehicle. This drill can still be seen now at Achnagarron smiddy, and I have the truck here for renovation.

A four-wheel cycle "car"

This account is taken from the same letter mentioned above.

During the latter days of the war, he made a small cycle car, two seater, side by side, with two sets of pedals; a framework of light tube was covered with aircraft fabric (courtesy of a rigger at Evanton Aerodrome). This car was quite easy to pedal providing both occupants exerted equal power.

Myself and a friend often travelled from Conon to Swordale and back with no problems. Some effort has been made to trace this car with no luck so far, but who knows.

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