Dick 'Mr Centrax' Barr dies aged 100

Picture of company founder for obit

Richard (Dick) Barr - Credit: Submitted

A founder of one of one of the most well-known engineering companies in South Devon and the world has died. 

Richard (Dick) Barr, who helped create Centrax, was 100. 

Dick established an extensive apprenticeship programme and other training programmes including sponsored undergraduate schemes during his time.

These schemes, together with the innovative and entrepreneurial spirit of the company, has inspired many young engineers. 

A company spokesman said: “The achievements of these individuals both within Centrax, but also the many who have pursued careers elsewhere even starting their own businesses, is as big a tribute to Dick as the achievements of Centrax itself.” 

He was honoured with an OBE in 1989, whilst the company, under his stewardship, won Queen’s Awards in 1969, 2002 and 2010.  

He remained as non-executive chairman and rarely missed a Board meeting even into his 100th year. The company spokesman said: “He leaves Centrax in good health and with the same innovative spirit that brought it all into being nearly 75 years earlier.” 

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Dick passed away at home after a short illness. He leaves his wife, Susanne, and four sons, Robert, Richard, Andrew and Christopher. 

He was born in Colne in Lancashire and grew up in Normanton, Yorkshire. He was the youngest child of Charles Nicholson Barr and Sarah Hannah Barr.  

After attending Normanton Grammar School, he followed his two older siblings, Charles and Winifred, to University, gaining entrance to Leeds University to study Mechanical Engineering and graduating with a First-Class Honours Degree. 

Having specialised in thermodynamics, he was assigned to the airscrew manufacturer Rotol located near Gloucester. He was asked to assess a strange prototype propellor less aircraft that was testing at a nearby airfield as it posed a threat to the Rotol business. It was the Gloster E28/39 which was using the Whittle W1 jet engine and it was to be the start of a lifelong involvement with the gas turbine/jet engine.  

His growing interest in the jet engine led first to his transfer to the Farnborough Research establishment at Pyestock, where he worked on axial flow compressors and turbines, and then ultimately to Sir Frank Whittle’s Power Jets team in Lutterworth.  

Sir Frank’s engines were based around the use of a centrifugal compressor, whilst Dick’s time at Rotol and Pyestock had centred around axial flow compressors.  

During his time at Power Jets, Dick was given the task of designing the compressor for a small turboprop engine by Sir Frank.  

Given the divergent design background of the two men, there emerged a compromise that had immense consequences for the remainder of Dick’s working life.  

The “compromise” compressor had four or five stages of axial flow compressor followed by a single centrifugal stage.  

As the war came to an end, perhaps disillusioned by the loss of the pioneering spirit of the now nationalised Power Jets team, Dick considered a change of profession and began studying law.  

However, it became clear that his passion was engineering, in particular, thermodynamics.  

Dick became convinced that there were significant opportunities for the gas turbine in other propulsion applications including road, rail, marine and power generation.  

He developed the conceptual design of a small 250/300 hp engine designed without the weight constraints of an aero engine.  

He concluded that the “compromise” axial plus centrifugal compressor with an axial flow turbine was the most attractive layout.  

He obtained some private finance capital from his first wife, Patricia’s, uncle, William Wolsey, and William’s friend, John Peress.  

Together with another Power Jets engineering colleague, Geoff White, the four decided to set up a company. 

Its name? The answer came from the design concept of combining CENTRifugal and AXial compressors. On September 9, 1946, CENTRAX Power Units Ltd was born.  

Will Wolsey had a tool room within another business so this became HQ for the fledicgeling activity.  

Dick became Managing Director and the growth demanded that the business move to larger premises which were found initially in Brentford, West London and then on to Feltham near Staines. 

The directors then decided to move the business out of the London area.  

A development site in Newton Abbot, Devon was purchased, and the building of a factory began in 1954. Production began in 1955. 

Export markets, particularly in the USA, began to emerge which gave a solid base to the business. This enabled attention to turn to diversification and the original goal of industrial/marine gas turbines.  

Tragedy struck Centrax in 1960 when Geoff White drowned whilst on holiday in Cornwall. By this time John Peress had left the company leaving just Dick and the Chairman, Mr Wolsey, remaining. 

Flashback picture of workers for obit

Dick (centre) and Geoff (left) testing an early Centrax engine - Credit: Submitted

The 1960s was a period of expansion and diversification.  

The generator set necessitated a compound epicyclic gearbox so a gear cutting facility was created. It also began making forklift truck gearboxes under sub-contract.  

Then followed planetary axles and braking systems for large earthmoving equipment necessitating the establishment of a separate company Centrax Gears Ltd.  

Land was acquired at Heathfield and the first factory on what is now the Heathfield Industrial estate was built to house Centrax Gears.  

A range of off highway dumper trucks with the brand name Heathfield Engineering was designed, built and marketed from Newton Abbot.  

 A joint venture with the Howmet corporation was established at the Newton Abbot site for the production of investment cast turbine blades.  

The business was rationalised in the early 70s. First the Centrax interest in the Joint Venture with Howmet was sold to Howmet. Then in 1973 Centrax Gears was sold to GKN.  

In the late 1970s his son, Richard looking to expand the product line of the Gas Turbine operation, negotiated a European distributorship for the Allison range of Industrial Gas turbines. 

Dick became Chairman of the group in 1983 when Mr Wolsey retired. 

Centrax Turbine Components Ltd (CTCL) was created.  

As the 1980s drew to a close, the reinvigorated sales and marketing effort led by Robert produced an exciting opportunity to manufacture the compressor blades and variable vanes of the new Allison 2100/3007 range of turboprop and turbofan engines.  

The 2100/3007 contract was secured and CTCL remains the sole global source for these complex parts. CTCL was acquired by the MB Aerospace group in 2016.  

Dick still had time to apply his engineering ability in the medical field.  

He became very interested in the treatment of hydrocephalus and established strong links with the neurological teams at Addenbrooke hospital and Cambridge University.  

He advised on design and led the setting up of a sub-contract manufacturing capability for the production of the triple cranial access device developed by the Addenbrooke/Cambridge team.