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Westwind Air Bearings: The Founding Fathers

Two entrepreneurs provided the initial investment to launch Westwind in Poole, Dorset, in September 1963. Nigel Allen, was a dentist with a keen interest in engineering who realised an ambition to produce a dental drill. He took as a junior partner, Ronald Henocq, a metal machinist, to start a small company, Micro Turbines Ltd. They were fortunate in hiring Colin Dee as Chief Engineer, and a high-speed air-turbine dental drill was marketed with some success. It was when air bearings came to dental turbines that the prospect of Westwind came into view.

At that time, air turbine dental drills emitted a high-pitched shriek due to the airflow passing through rotating ball bearings. When engineers at the University of Southampton designed a silent dental drill with air bearings for the UK’s leading dental supply company located in the north of England, Micro Turbines’ market was threatened. Colin Dee was sent to Southampton to explore the new technology.

The Southampton engineers couldn’t reveal details of the original air bearing design, but fortunately for Micro Turbines, a second generation concept had already evolved. This was given to Colin Dee who soon turned it into a marketable product. Micro Turbines were now in the driving seat. They sold the intellectual property rights to the leading dental supply company and used part of the proceeds to found Westwind Turbines Ltd.

Details of the fate of Colin Dee at this time are not known. He had been responsible for Micro Turbines Ltd’s excellence in design, not only with the dental turbine but also with a turbine flowmeter for gases developed at Southampton University for the UK Atomic Energy Authority and now turned by Colin Dee into a commercial product. The loss of Colin Dee’s expertise at this critical phase was a severe blow to the initial prospects of Westwind.

Nigel Allen was a quiet bespectacled gentleman with a keen interest in all things technical. After the birth of Westwind, he abandoned dentistry entirely and indulged full-time in his hobby. At an earlier stage in his career, Nigel Allen had been a partner of Colin Chapman in the Lotus car company, and in its early life, Westwind produced many racing car wheels sub-contracted by Lotus. Nigel Allen had split with Colin Chapman, and his relationship with Ronald Henocq was sometimes turbulent. As a man who valued a quiet life, he was unfortunate in his business partners.

The founding of Westwind saw Ronald Henocq become an equal partner in the business. Always a machinist at heart, he believed that Westwind could succeed only if it did sub-contracted manufacturing while its range of air bearing industrial products was under development. Work was undertaken for several companies but when it became clear that this work was a brake on progress, he was persuaded to scale it back. After the sale of Westwind to the Federal Mogul Company of Detroit in 1971, Ronald Henocq stayed on as Managing Director, the only founding father to survive into that later era.

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