In 1960 the small airfield at Shoreham-by-Sea found itself at the centre of an ambitious venture to revitalise the ailing British light aircraft industry.
The coming together of one man, Peter (later Sir Peter) Masefield, who had long harboured the dream of reversing the industry’s decline, and the Pressed Steel Company, one of the country’s major industrial concerns, was to be the catalyst that launched British Executive and General Aviation Limited, soon to be renamed Beagle Aircraft.
Based at Shoreham, with a second production base at Rearsby in Leicestershire, for the succeeding decade Beagle strived to establish a place in the world market.
But overcoming the dominance of foreign competition, principally the Americans, was to prove a step too far.
Fortune does not always favour the brave and the four years between 1960 and 1964 were to prove immensely difficult.
Beagle failed repeatedly to win orders against entrenched American competition and a much anticipated large order from the RAF for Beagle’s flagship aircraft, the B206, turned out to be for only 20 aircraft.
Further misfortunes included becoming embroiled unwittingly in the row between Britain and Argentina during the foot and mouth crisis and, again blamelessly, stirring up a diplomatic hornet nest by trying to sell civilian aircraft to South Africa during the apartheid era.
Not so faultlessly, there was also an association with a highly dubious Brazilian company that invoked the ire of the Foreign Office.
Certainly Beagle had a habit of trying to sell aircraft in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Eventually, alarmed by the rapidly mounting financial outlay coinciding with one of the motor industry’s cyclical downturns, Pressed Steel decided they had no option but to dispose of Beagle.
But, unable to find a buyer, either at home or abroad, it was the Government that stepped in to rescue the company.
Harold Wilson’s Labour Government had made much of Britain’s future being ‘forged in the white heat of technology’ and Beagle was seen as the embodiment of this policy.
The Ministry of Technology, under Anthony Wedgwood Benn, attempted for several more years to turn the company round until, at the end of 1969, after successive pleas from the company for more capital, and at a time when the country was experiencing dire economic problems, they decided they were no longer willing to provide financial support.
The inevitable consequence was the company’s insolvency and the factories at Shoreham and Rearsby were closed with the loss of close to a thousand jobs.
Although in the scale of the aviation industry as a whole Beagle was only a very small part, the events at Shoreham during the 1960s were to reshape the future of the light aircraft industry.
They were also to reverberate through the corridors of power long after Beagle’s demise.
45 years after events at Shoreham came to an unfortunate end and drawing on the company’s own papers, now held by Brooklands Museum, as well as the government files at the National Archive, aviation historian, Tom Wenham, has written the first comprehensive account of Beagle’s rise and fall.
While recounting the stories of infighting, political ineptitude and commercial mistakes the author also describes the development of each of the aircraft in the Beagle range as well as the people, the designers, pilots, salesmen and backroom staff, and the government ministers and senior civil servants that came to control the company.
n ‘False Dawn – The Beagle Aircraft Story’ is published by Air-Britain at a price to members of Air-Britain of £39.95 and £59.95 to non-members. At 450 pages and with over 600 colour and black-and-white photographs and drawings, and full histories of every Beagle aircraft built, ‘False Dawn’ is produced to Air-Britain’s usual high standard. False Dawn can be obtained from www.air-britain.co.uk/actbooks