Header overlay
Ben Hopkinson on instruction manuals - Slightly Foxed Issue 26

Always Carry a Spare, Good Plug

Share this

Instruction manuals as literature? Surely not; they belong to the category of things that drive people to extremes of fury and madness. Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make follow the instructions. Slightly foxed? No, utterly befuddled. Yet there is one set of Operating Instructions that I would like to put forward as literature of a very high quality – clear, sharp, understandable, interesting and very funny.

The British Seagull, The Best Outboard Motor for the World (note the unexpected preposition, immediately pulling the reader in), was originally developed in Bristol in the early 1930s but from 1938 found its long-lasting home in Poole. The company was given a big boost by the Admiralty in the Second World War, when it answered the need for a very simple engine that could run for twenty-four hours at a stretch, and be used on assault craft.

The twenty-five years after the war were the high point of production, and Seagulls were used by a huge number of boat-owners of all sorts and conditions. I first came across them when my grandfather bought one for his boat on Lake Windermere in the late 1940s, and the distinctively shaped engines of this era may still be seen in small harbours and inland lochs all round the country. My neighbour, a fine and adventurous yachtsman, has one for his dinghy that is at least thirty years old and still runs reliably. Production continued until the mid-1990s when the Seagull was gradually overtaken by flashier types from overseas, just as the days of beautiful cars have given way to a world where one make is almost indistinguishable from another. However, I am delighted to find that the name is not dead and is now owned by a firm in Moulsford, on the Thames, which makes and sells spare parts for the Seagull.

READ THIS CAREFULLY BEFORE ANYTHING ELSE

The world of engine owners is divided into two classes . . . the vast major

Subscribe or sign in to read the full article

The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.

Subscribe now or

Instruction manuals as literature? Surely not; they belong to the category of things that drive people to extremes of fury and madness. Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make follow the instructions. Slightly foxed? No, utterly befuddled. Yet there is one set of Operating Instructions that I would like to put forward as literature of a very high quality – clear, sharp, understandable, interesting and very funny.

The British Seagull, The Best Outboard Motor for the World (note the unexpected preposition, immediately pulling the reader in), was originally developed in Bristol in the early 1930s but from 1938 found its long-lasting home in Poole. The company was given a big boost by the Admiralty in the Second World War, when it answered the need for a very simple engine that could run for twenty-four hours at a stretch, and be used on assault craft. The twenty-five years after the war were the high point of production, and Seagulls were used by a huge number of boat-owners of all sorts and conditions. I first came across them when my grandfather bought one for his boat on Lake Windermere in the late 1940s, and the distinctively shaped engines of this era may still be seen in small harbours and inland lochs all round the country. My neighbour, a fine and adventurous yachtsman, has one for his dinghy that is at least thirty years old and still runs reliably. Production continued until the mid-1990s when the Seagull was gradually overtaken by flashier types from overseas, just as the days of beautiful cars have given way to a world where one make is almost indistinguishable from another. However, I am delighted to find that the name is not dead and is now owned by a firm in Moulsford, on the Thames, which makes and sells spare parts for the Seagull.

READ THIS CAREFULLY BEFORE ANYTHING ELSE

The world of engine owners is divided into two classes . . . the vast majority are those who never get any trouble, and get heaps of pleasure, both for themselves, their families and friends, day in and day out . . . whilst the second class is a very small minority which is always in trouble, causing misery to itself and constantly drawing on the kindness and good fellowship of other people for aid and assistance. Curiously enough, this minority is always by far the most vociferous, and has no hesitation in blaming the equipment fated for use, both verbally and in print. Frankly, blaming engines and everything to do with them may have had a certain amount of basis in fact twenty or thirty years ago, but today it just doesn’t hold water . . . to be in trouble today is seldom the fault of the engine, whatever its make . . . once, or even twice, may be bad luck, but continuous trouble is nothing else but a reflection on the user . . .

WHETHER YOU JOIN THE HAPPY MAJORITY, OR EXPERIENCE THE IRRITATION AND UNCERTAINTY OF THE TROUBLE BRIGADE, IS ABSOLUTELY UP TO YOU AND NO ONE ELSE.

This little book is written to ensure that your outboard motoring is one hundred per cent pleasure, and if you read it, and abide by its advice, you need have nothing to fear, even if you scarcely know a propeller from a connecting rod.
Thus, in the Operating Instructions for Models 40 & 100 (14th edition, c.1960), the new owner is introduced to his charge. The booklet goes on:

In many ways a motor is like a human being . . . normally, it is fit and well, but it must have some essential things in life, and if it doesn’t get them it falls sick.

It is absolutely essential that the fundamentals of life are provided for a motor, and almost all the ailments attached to outboard motoring can be accounted for by the attitude of ‘it doesn’t matter . . . this’ll do . . . that’ll do’.

Let us say at once, this won’t do, and is asking for trouble.

Your ‘Seagull’ doesn’t ask for very much, and there’s no difficulty in giving it what it requires . . . we don’t write this book for fun, we do it because it’s vital for your own pleasure, security and peace of mind.

And so on, in similar vein, but all very excellent and sensible stuff, ending with a reminder that the motor, like any human, will require time to understand its new master, and another admonition:
If you run into trouble . . . write or telephone the manufacturers immediately; don’t listen to the advice of experts on the spot, or so called mechanics [a touch of W. W. Jacobs here, I think] . . . If you write, don’t just say ‘I can’t make my engine go’ . . . Give us all the information you can . . .
Who wrote all this? There is no indication, but the company was run by two people, John Way-Hope and Bill Pinneger, so I should think they shared the authorship. I once heard that when Messrs Sellar and Yeatman were writing 1066 and All That, gales of laughter could be heard coming from the room, and I imagine that it must have been much the same with Way-Hope and Pinneger, for the manual shouts out that it has been great fun to write. The Seagull office must have been a happy place in which to work. The booklet continues with General Operating Instructions. It is interesting that there are very few illustrations, unlike today’s instruction manuals, which seem always to have complicated diagrams containing a vast array of numbered arrows, among which I, at least, always have difficulty in finding the one I need. Such drawings as there are, are of outstanding clarity and simplicity, but Way-Hope and Pinneger rely on their ability to use words clearly and effectively, for example: ‘It will be noticed that just above the transom, immediately between the bracket members, is an aluminium arm, to the end of which is suspended a little hinged catch . . .’ Every aspect of mounting, starting, stopping and stowing the engine is covered thus, quickly and neatly. They are on top form with the care of the sparking plug (no nonsense with the Americanism spark plug), which involves a lot of capital letters: ‘USE THE RIGHT PLUG . . . ALWAYS CARRY A SPARE, GOOD PLUG . . . ALWAYS CARRY A PLUG SPANNER. . . don’t be under the impression that any old plug will do; it won’t . . . Now this is the vital point to remember . . . this is the whole crux of the matter . . .’ In what other Operating Instructions could you find language like this? How good it is, how sharply it makes its essential points. If I had a Seagull now, I would never dare to attempt unnecessary adjustments, like trying to remove THE FLYWHEEL ITSELF, and I would PAY METICULOUS ATTENTION to the correct proportions of petrol and oil and ‘avoid grease for the gearbox like the plague’. I would even come to know and understand why and how I should let the two-stroke engine four-stroke, if it wanted to. The authors close with a flourish, with a section on how to make the best use of the motor for the type of boat to which it is fitted. ‘Always remember, however, that it’s a waste of effort to try to drive a boat above its calculated maximum . . . So don’t use a scrap more throttle opening than is necessary. It only makes a lot of noise . . . and uses very much more fuel.’ And finally this gem: ‘Lastly, remember that in any motor boat, however quiet, your voice can be heard much more clearly by surrounding craft than by your own companions. A supposedly confidential and innocent comment about people or their boats may well become unknowingly a public broadcast. There’s probably enough trouble waiting for you when you get ashore without adding to it!’

I wish I could let John Way-Hope and Bill Pinneger know what pleasure two of their Seagull outboards, The Best for the World, have given me, let alone the joy of reading their Operating Instructions.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 26 © Ben Hopkinson 2010


About the contributor

Ben Hopkinson lives in retirement in Northumberland. He wishes to acknowledge with many thanks the help he has received in preparing this article from British Seagull Ltd., Moulsford, and from Henry Pottle, who lent him his copy of the Instructions.

Operating Instructions for Models 40 & 100 (14th edition, c. 1960), published by The British Seagull Co. Ltd., is, of course, no longer in print, but there must be many stored by boat-owners all over the world. I will happily send a photocopy to anyone who wants one. Manuals for later models are available from British Seagull, Moulsford, Oxfordshire, OX10 9HU, tel: +44 (0)1491 652 755. I am told that they are more p.c. than the earlier ones but still have the same sort of bite.

Share this

Comments & Reviews

Leave a comment

Customise this page for easy reading

Sign up to our e-newsletter

Sign up for dispatches about new issues, books and podcast episodes, highlights from the archive, events, special offers and giveaways.