BOOK REVIEW: A square deal all round

This month we have a book review by David Andrews, member of the IMechE Engineering Heritage Awards Committee. David reviews A square deal all round, which tells the story of the famous company Perkins Engines. The title is a pun on the Perkins logo, which is made up of circles intersecting a square. He recommends the book as:

“engineers can always learn something from studying the history of engineering”.

“In 1932 two men were looking to escape from the collapse of a company called Agricultural and General Engineers Limited, a conglomerate that included famous names such as Peter Brotherhood Ltd, Davey Paxman Ltd and Barford and Perkins Ltd. They were Frank Perkins and Charles Chapman. These two gentlemen had been working on a new diesel engine for agricultural tractors. At that time diesel engines were slow, large and heavy but the arrival of new high-pressure fuel pumps promised great changes.

High pressure injection produced a fine atomised spray of diesel fuel which would quickly mix with the air in the cylinder. This allowed higher engine speeds and that meant smaller and lighter engines for a given power. Perkins and Chapman believed there was a market for such an engine and they believed that they could produce one.

In 1932 Frank Perkins Ltd was founded in Peterborough and within a few months their first engine, the Vixen, was running. This was the first modern high speed diesel engine.

Perkins Engines Gate house and office block for Perkins Engines. Photo by Michael Trolove.

The book tells of how the company struggled in the early years. It also explores how the company grew during the War, producing marine engines for air sea rescue craft, and carried on growing in the 50s and 60s.

Perkins engine M92B
Perkins marine propulsion engine, model M92B. Photo by S.J. de Waard.

Perkins became a major producer of diesel engines, for on-highway trucks, vans and cars (as Frank and Charles had envisaged), but also for off-highway machines: tractors, excavators, telehandlers and backhoe loaders. Now a part of Caterpillar, there are still hundreds of engineers employed in Peterborough and around the world, and there are still thousands of engines produced every year with Frank Perkins’ name on them.

Jeep CJ-5 model
Jeep CJ-5 model with original V6 engine. From 1961 to 1965, Perkins engines were used in CJ-5 and CJ-6 jeeps. Photo by CZmarlin — Christopher Ziemnowicz.

There are few people who would deny that the manufacturing industry is important to any economy. Factories create wealth, employment, and fulfilling job opportunities for all talents. There is a role for both the apprentice who starts at 16 and the 26 year old with a PhD.

However, expanding the manufacturing industry is not as simple as creating more engineers. A square deal all round shows that a successful company requires two other disciplines: managers, and, at the beginning, investors.

It makes clear that the growth and survival of Frank Perkins Ltd depended on some very brave investors, who put up the money at the beginning and then had to put in more and more as the company grew. It emphasises the importance of investing in manufacturing facilities, recruiting staff, laying down tooling and procuring components, as well as paying suppliers, salaries and utility bills, all before any revenue comes in. At the end of the day, the product may not be popular and all will have been lost.

Engineers can always learn something from studying the history of engineering, as can managers from knowing the history of industrial management. Either would profit from  reading the history of a famous firm.”

Boulton, D. 2007, A square deal all round: the history of Perkins engines: 1932-2006, Landmark Publishing, London.

IMechE members can request a free postal loan of this book or collect it from the library.

Discover thousands more resources at the IMechE online library.

Archives, Institution of Mechanical Engineers



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