Kelvin Diesel Marine Engines: A brief history

18th June 2016

Founded in 1904 as the Bergius Car and Engine Company, Kelvin Diesels is a Scottish manufacturer of marine engines that are widely used in commercial fishing vessels and small tugboats. The founder, Walter Bergius and his older brother, William, were both keen sailors and, in 1896 designed and built a 14’ 6” sail boat, the Dodo which is still on show at the National Maritime Museum. The brothers were innovative in their designs and, as the motorcar began to gain popularity at the beginning of the twentieth century Bergius decided to apply his ingenuity to the car. His design for a new motorcar was called the ‘Kelvin’ and he just needed somewhere to build it.

Walter took premises for his new company in Finnieston Street in Glasgow that could not have been more unsuitable. Based on the first floor, the only access was via some unsteady outdoor wooden steps and to which goods must be hoisted using a projecting beam. The premises offered no heating, no tools and no benches and it took several weeks for Bergius to get the place fit for engineers to begin production of his car. Within six months, the first Kelvin had been painstakingly built in the upper floors at Finneston Street with the bodywork, engine, wheels, radiator, transmission and axles all being assembled before being lowered down to street level Christmas, 1904.

A move from land to sea

The car’s inaugural road trip was short lived and was back on the hoist after bursting its cylinders. After some alterations were made it was just three weeks later and the second attempt proved more successful and by the spring of 1905 the company had produced three vehicles. Each had pneumatic tyres and were basic in design (as was the case with may such vehicles of the time). The first car was driven home from Glasgow to London without incident and the company established themselves at several motor shows and did extremely well in the Scottish Reliability Trials in 1906.

In the same year, Walter’s brother, William, commissioned a 2 cylinder Kelvin engine to be installed in rowing gig that had been salvaged from a sailing yacht. Installed at Kirn the boat, called ‘Kelvin’ proved to be a huge success and won virtually every single race it entered. The follow up vessel, Kelvin II, was also a powerhouse and was known locally on the Clyde as the ‘crack’ boat to beat with nine first titles to its name by 1908.

Sales of the motorcars were on the wane and, in view of the success of the marine engine as well as a poor financial situation, Bergius made the decision to abandon his dreams of producing road engines. His efforts and remaining finances went into pursuing the design of the perfect marine engines.

Sadly, no examples of the Kelvin motorcar survive to this day.

WWI and WWII

At this point Belgius extended the range of engines (5 ½” bore with 1, 2 or 4 cylinders) being made making them suitable to run on both paraffin as well as petrol. In view of the new direction, the company changed its name to ‘The Bergius Launch & Engine Co. Ltd.’.

By 1910 sales of the engines were picking up that the company needed to relocated premises in order to keep up with demand. They moved to 253 Dobbies Loan, Glashow and introduced an expanded range of heavy-duty models including the 7 ½” bore, 10 stroke with 2 or 4 cylinders. By 1915 and the introduction of another single cylinder offering gave the company a catalogue (known as the Kelvin Poppet Valve collection) of sixteen models covering a range of 3-60 hp. All of the models continued to be in production until 1968 when the range was terminated by the company. Over 16,000 engines were produced from this range.

Post WWI, Bergius continued to expand on his designs and introduced a collection called the Kelvin Sleeve Valve engines which, due to he fact they had no tappets or reciprocating valves, could deliver almost silent running. Available in three sizes the engines could run on either petrol or a combination of petrol and paraffin. Though popular due to their noise limitations the cylinder head experienced a great deal of wear and the company was not happy at the longevity of the product and discontinued their production. It was recently revealed that the British Navy commissioned three Model C2’s to use in a commando raid in North Norway during WWII because of the engines reputation for silent running.

Modern advancements

The Kelvin-Ricardo range was brought out in the late 1920’s and delivered the same power as the Sleeve Valve engines but improved the durability of the chamber design, silencers, flywheels and pistons. The Ricardo range endured until 1971 by which time almost 7000 units had been produced.

In 1931 the first diesel engine was produced. A 44hp, two cylinder engine, the Model K2 included a special petrol start system. The company continued to produce innovative designs, each providing greater reliability, speed and technological advancement than their predecessors.

After Bergius’ death in 1949 David Willocks went on to manage the business but in 1953, in order to pay the onerous death taxes the company was bought out by the Associated British Oil Engine Company.

In 1956 the Model P Kelvin engine was launched and was the first design that was not from the desk of Walter Bergius but Wm. Miller. Utilising the gearbox from the 1921 Model A sleeve valve engines the Model P was a simple design and sold well during its twenty years in production.

Five years later, the company was to change its name to Bergius-Kelvin Co. Ltd. Before being acquired by Glennifer Engines in 1963. It was not a long partnership and Glennifer sold the business a few years later to Ruston & Hornsby in 1966. This period of instability of ownership continued when English Electric bought out Ruston & Hornsby. A few years later and English Electric had a taste of its own medicine being merged with GEC.

In 1983, GEC consolidated the business to a brand new location at Kyle Street, Glasgow but the company continued to be caught between owners with a purchase in 1994 by Lincoln Diesels, in 1998 by Torday and Carlisle Ltd and its most recent acquisition in 2000 by British Polar Engines whereupon the production was moved to Helen Street, Glasgow.

Over a century after the company was founded and, despite many changes in name, Kelvin Marine Engines are still going strong and are known worldwide for their strength and durability whatever the ambient conditions.

Here at FindAFishingBoat.com we applaud the longevity of this traditional marine company and we offer a range of services via our advertisers to help you find sales, maintenance and repairs for all your Kelvin Marine Engine needs


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