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Mark Fownes

Bad Organs

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I should be interested to know if anyone can define in strictly objective terms a Bad Organ.

 

The badness should be absolute and not dependent on temporary fashion or musical taste or passing liturgical requirement. Neither, I think, should wrong use or a wrong position in a wrong building be the basis of a complaint. (I exclude, of course, amateur constructions)

 

Is it that there is no group of organs that can be judged bad through a common streak of badness and that every instrument should judged on its demerits? I ask this because, surely, no organ builder set out to build a bad organ - and yet we have them.

 

MF

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Perhaps a lot of what we consider to be 'bad' organs are those which someone has attempted, unsuccessfully, to change into something which the original builder never envisaged. A lot of 'four square' English organs built in C19 were hacked about in the 60's & 70's to introduce neo-baroque upperwork which often sits very uncomfortably with the foundation stops. Just my two-pennorth.

N

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Perhaps a lot of what we consider to be 'bad' organs are those which someone has attempted, unsuccessfully, to change into something which the original builder never envisaged. A lot of 'four square' English organs built in C19 were hacked about in the 60's & 70's to introduce neo-baroque upperwork which often sits very uncomfortably with the foundation stops. Just my two-pennorth.

N

 

 

 

This is certainly true, but it concerns organs made Bad. I am more interested original sin rather than subsequent degradation.

 

MF

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I'd say an organ is bad if it has shortcomings that can't be fixed at a reasonable effort.

 

Bad, rough or incomplete voicing can be redone. Wrong scaling is worse, but pipework could be replaced. Bad tracker or stop action might be improved by altering certain details.

 

I guess bad winding is worst. If windlines are faultily calculated, if note channels are too small, there is little you can do about it. A badly winded organ is, as it was since organs were built, a bad one.

 

Personally, I think that bad case design also qualifies. Cases that are boring, architecturally amateurish, over-decorated, wrong-proportioned, over-loud or over-shy, out of style or badly in style, are not worth being looked at, let alone built and paid for. It's not always the builder's fault, though.

 

Best,

Friedrich

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I guess bad winding is worst. If windlines are faultily calculated, if note channels are too small, there is little you can do about it. A badly winded organ is, as it was since organs were built, a bad one.

 

Personally, I think that bad case design also qualifies. Cases that are boring, architecturally amateurish, over-decorated, wrong-proportioned, over-loud or over-shy, out of style or badly in style, are not worth being looked at, let alone built and paid for. It's not always the builder's fault, though.

 

Best,

Friedrich

 

 

Yes, I'll buy that. And one can have a bad organ behind a fine case, but because the organ is silent for 90% of the time people will not easily be persuaded that it is a bad organ. It's more subjective than we think.

 

MF

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One that everyone breathes a sigh of relief when it's removed and replaced by an electronic organ, upon which the congregation begins to actually appreciate organ music again?

 

I was speaking of organs, not simulators.

 

MF

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A bad organ is one that can not cope effectively with having music played on it - this is however not the same as one that a particular organist is not in sympathy with. I dislike intensely one particular instrument near here but can still make it sound musical. Whether or not it is fit for purpose is another matter - in this case it is not. Connsequently there is a strong argument for it to be replaced but I could not say in all honesty that it is actually a bad organ.

 

 

A

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It may in fact prove almost impossibe to comment objectively on this thread. Perhaps one way forward might be to establish a few cirteria, by which a particular instrument could be judged. Otherwise, given the variety of tastes in styles of instruments and the types of music preferred, we could be here until the proverbial cows.... well, you know.

 

As an illustration in perceived difficulty, take Nigel Parkin's post above. Although there are a number of examples of instruments which have been treated in this way - some more sympathetically than others - a number have been extremely successful. My own church instrument is a case in point. Apparently, in its previous incarnation, it did little more that provide a muffled, distant roar in the Nave. After its radical re-designing and partial re-siting (in 1965), it emerged with just the type of alterations and additions to which Nigel alludes. However, in this case (and despite an almost arid acoustic ambience), due to inspired voicing, excellent materials and workmanship, a superb, thoroughly musical instrument emerged. In fact, it is apparent that the voicer had a very clear sound 'picture' of the tonal effect of the entire instrument which he wished to imbue through scaling, voicing and finishing. The result is anything but 1960's 'bubble-and-squeak'. Whilst it lacks some gravitas, there are many, huge compensations.

 

With this in mind, I suggest the following:

 

1) Position (Taking into account the type of music which the instrument in question will be required to play - and whether or not it is to be used to accompany a choir.)

 

2) Layout (With reference to the siting of each division, tonal egress and how well the sound reaches every part of the building.)

 

3) Winding (Is the wind supply sufficient for all reasonable requirements and is it steady? Whilst some players prefer a 'flexible' wind supply*, it would be reasonable to require it to be constant.)

 

4) Console and controls (Are they adequate for the music which is to be performed? Are the laid out in a logical and accessible manner? Does the position of the console permit the performer adequately to judge balance, not merely between singers and organ, but also between each division?)

 

5) Casework (Does this aid or hinder the tonal projection in to the main axis of the building? Is it substantial enough to prevent sympathetic vibration? Does it form tone-cabinets? If so, are they helpful in focusing the tone - or do they make it 'boxy' and tight? Is the casework of a pleasing and sympathetic design for its location?)

 

6) Player satisfaction (What is the overall experience of playing this instrument for the performer? Is this the same for both solo and accompanimental music?)

 

No doubt others will think of other touchstones which I have not listed. However, I wished to keep it reasonably concise so, for whai it is worth, I have limited my selection to the six points tabled above. Perhaps a scale of points could be allotted to each benchmark (say 1 to 5, five being 'good'). Any instrument which fails to score over an agreed minimum could therefore be judged as 'bad'.

 

 

 

* As is presently the case with the Mezler instrument at Trinity College Chapel, Cambridge.

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I was speaking of organs, not simulators.

 

MF

 

Granted - but as a definition by which to judge the perceived failings of a specific pipe organ, it is a fairly devastating standard....

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As pcnd said, the real questions is how you define a 'bad' organ. I think a truly bad organ would have to be something that is either entirely unmusical or where the mechanism is completely ineffective (ie it is incapable of producing the sound it should). Many organs have their shortcomings, but that is more to do with practical issues.

 

Let me take as an example an organ with which I am familiar, the Marcussen at St Mary's, Nottingham (I think I've written about it before). See http://www.npor.org.uk/cgi-bin/Rsearch.cgi?Fn=Rsearch&rec_index=N08469 for reference.

 

Looking at pcnd's criteria:

1) Position - poor. Located in a side aisle, so ineffective for filling the nave to lead hymns, but equally far from ideal for accompanying the choir in the chancel as the sound travels round a corner.

2) Layout - Swell frontwards, Great to the side. Doesn't really matter that much for me as due to point 1 the sound won't effectively cover the building.

3) Winding - I'm not an expert on such matters, but I've never had any problems. The action is mechanical but not heavy.

4) Console and controls - apart from it being an assault course to get there, far from ideal. No registration aids whatsoever. Couplers by foot levers, stop layout OK although the Pedal stops are split half and half either side which might not be considered ideal. Judging balance isn't always easy, but that's down to the positioning.

5) Casework - personally I find it aesthetically pleasing, and the visible Swell doors are an unusual and interesting touch. Not sure if the case helps propel sound though.

6) Player satisfaction - all depends what you're trying to do. For certain parts of the solo repertoire, its a good instrument (although the voicing is a little harsh in places - the mixtures were necessarily voiced to try to fill the building); for accompanying choral repertoire, pretty rubbish. Certain pieces would be near impossible without a registrant, and many are distinctly tricky. Which of these is most important - I would suggest the latter.

 

Therefore, there are many bad things about this instrument. If you were to remove the current instrument and build a new one, it would surely not be replaced with something similar, but with something which could more effectively fill the building and accompany the choral repertoire (especially given the standing of the choir). However, would I say its a 'bad' organ? No, because it has its good points and can do some things well. In an effective position in a smaller building where less demands were placed on it (and with a little revoicing) it could happily lead a congregation in hymn singing.

 

So I guess the lesson here is the importance of matching the right organ to the right setting, given the building and the demands that will be made of it.

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As pcnd said, the real questions is how you define a 'bad' organ. I think a truly bad organ would have to be something that is either entirely unmusical or where the mechanism is completely ineffective (ie it is incapable of producing the sound it should). Many organs have their shortcomings, but that is more to do with practical issues.

 

Let me take as an example an organ with which I am familiar, the Marcussen at St Mary's, Nottingham (I think I've written about it before). See http://www.npor.org....ec_index=N08469 for reference.

 

Looking at pcnd's criteria:

1) Position - poor. Located in a side aisle, so ineffective for filling the nave to lead hymns, but equally far from ideal for accompanying the choir in the chancel as the sound travels round a corner.

2) Layout - Swell frontwards, Great to the side. Doesn't really matter that much for me as due to point 1 the sound won't effectively cover the building.

3) Winding - I'm not an expert on such matters, but I've never had any problems. The action is mechanical but not heavy.

4) Console and controls - apart from it being an assault course to get there, far from ideal. No registration aids whatsoever. Couplers by foot levers, stop layout OK although the Pedal stops are split half and half either side which might not be considered ideal. Judging balance isn't always easy, but that's down to the positioning.

5) Casework - personally I find it aesthetically pleasing, and the visible Swell doors are an unusual and interesting touch. Not sure if the case helps propel sound though.

6) Player satisfaction - all depends what you're trying to do. For certain parts of the solo repertoire, its a good instrument (although the voicing is a little harsh in places - the mixtures were necessarily voiced to try to fill the building); for accompanying choral repertoire, pretty rubbish. Certain pieces would be near impossible without a registrant, and many are distinctly tricky. Which of these is most important - I would suggest the latter.

 

Therefore, there are many bad things about this instrument. If you were to remove the current instrument and build a new one, it would surely not be replaced with something similar, but with something which could more effectively fill the building and accompany the choral repertoire (especially given the standing of the choir). However, would I say its a 'bad' organ? No, because it has its good points and can do some things well. In an effective position in a smaller building where less demands were placed on it (and with a little revoicing) it could happily lead a congregation in hymn singing.

 

So I guess the lesson here is the importance of matching the right organ to the right setting, given the building and the demands that will be made of it.

 

Thank you for this, Philip.

 

I have wondered about this instrument for a long time. I did ask David Butterworth for his views on it (in all contexts) on another discussion board, As far as I know, I have yet to receive a reply.

 

I take your point about it not necessarily being a bad organ. Notwithstanding, the fact that it is in a (large) church and is fairly useless for choral accompaniment - and, apparently, even with its open, elevated site, does not fill the building *, leads me to suspect that I would hate it. Naturally, I realise that this would not necessarily make it a bad instrument.

 

So, how much does it score?

 

 

 

* After the completion of this instrument, I recall reading the odd claim (by Ralph Downes) that 'a single Gedeckt, as heard in the Nave, has the 'presence' of the old Walker Tuba'.† It looks as if this may be a personal view, not necessarily backed-up by fact.

 

 

 

† p. 199, Baroque Tricks: Adventures with the Organ Builders; Ralph Downes. Positif Press, Oxford (1983).

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Thank you for this, Philip.

 

I have wondered about this instrument for a long time. I did ask David Butterfield for his views on it (in all contexts) on another discussion board, As far as I know, I have yet to receive a reply.

 

I take your point about it not necessarily being a bad organ. Notwithstanding, the fact that it is in a (large) church and is fairly useless for choral accompaniment - and, apparently, even with its open, elevated site, does not fill the building *, leads me to suspect that I would hate it. Naturally, I realise that this would not necessarily make it a bad instrument.

 

So, how much does it score?

 

* After the completion of this instrument, I recall reading the odd claim (by Ralph Downes) that 'a single Gedeckt, as heard in the Nave, has the 'presence' of the old Walker Tuba'.† It looks as if this may be a personal view, not necessarily backed-up by fact.

 

† p. 199, Baroque Tricks: Adventures with the Organ Builders; Ralph Downes. Positif Press, Oxford (1983).

 

I presume you mean David Butterworth? There is a DVD of him playing the Marcussen, the Binns organ in the Albert Hall (of which he is custodian, a fine instrument indeed) and a couple of others locally, although I don't possess it. Perhaps it might shed some light on the reasons behind his choice? At the same time, a smaller instrument by the same firm was installed at St Mary's, Clifton.

 

I can't speak for the old organ, as it disappeared long before I was even born. Again, I don't know details, but might one presume the demands for choral accompaniment weren't as great at the time when it was installed as they are now? I've played the Vierne Mass and various anthems and settings on it and it can be done, but just not that easily at times!

 

The problem with the siting is that is in the south aisle. This means that sound is never going to travel well to the rear parts of the nave, particularly on the north side. I doubt the Walker was much better as that sat over one side of the chancel, so again probably won't have filled the nave too well. An organ on the screen between the two would probably be best, or maybe to have something in the position of the Walker pipes for choral accompaniment but with a Nave division for leading large congregations?

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I presume you mean David Butterworth? There is a DVD of him playing the Marcussen, the Binns organ in the Albert Hall (of which he is custodian, a fine instrument indeed) and a couple of others locally, although I don't possess it. Perhaps it might shed some light on the reasons behind his choice? At the same time, a smaller instrument by the same firm was installed at St Mary's, Clifton.

 

Yes, I do. I certainly meant to type that - I think that I was distracted by preparing some lunch at the same time....

 

I can't speak for the old organ, as it disappeared long before I was even born. Again, I don't know details, but might one presume the demands for choral accompaniment weren't as great at the time when it was installed as they are now? I've played the Vierne Mass and various anthems and settings on it and it can be done, but just not that easily at times!

 

My colleague was formerly organ scholar there, and I believe that he had to accompany a performance of the Duruflé Requiem on it. Whatever style of organ one prefers, it does seem to me to be a little obtuse to have one which is apparently so inflexible and unsympathetic for choral accompaniment - particularly French twentieth century works - or, for that matter, Stanford and Howells.

 

 

The problem with the siting is that is in the south aisle. This means that sound is never going to travel well to the rear parts of the nave, particularly on the north side. I doubt the Walker was much better as that sat over one side of the chancel, so again probably won't have filled the nave too well. An organ on the screen between the two would probably be best, or maybe to have something in the position of the Walker pipes for choral accompaniment but with a Nave division for leading large congregations?

 

I wonder why this site was chosen for the Marcussen instrument? Was it the only alternative to the former site? You are probably correct about the old Walker organ - and about the idea of a screen organ with a Nave division.

 

I would still be interested in knowing what score you would give to this instrument (using a 1-5 scale, as above).

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I would still be interested in knowing what score you would give to this instrument (using a 1-5 scale, as above).

 

How about:

Position - 1

Layout - 3

Winding - 4

Console and Controls - 1

Casework - 4

Player Satisfaction - 2

So thats a total of 15 out of 30. Not really that bad, perhaps?

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How about:

Position - 1

Layout - 3

Winding - 4

Console and Controls - 1

Casework - 4

Player Satisfaction - 2

So thats a total of 15 out of 30. Not really that bad, perhaps?

 

Thank you, Philip.

 

As you say - not too bad.

 

As a practical minimum score (below which an organ could be considered 'bad'), I would suggest twelve. This seems to me to be reasonable. what do other board users think?

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As a sort of carbuncle to the real discussion,I would just add that the Marcussen at Clifton is regarded as one of the few real masterpieces of strictly classical design in the UK.

 

I tend to agree the the one in Nottingham Parish Church just doesn't really work too brilliantly. I have played it once, and somehow, I didn't feel the need to want to play it again. Not a bad organ I suppose, but slightly disappointing.

 

Best,

 

MM

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Thank you, Philip.

 

As you say - not too bad.

 

As a practical minimum score (below which an organ could be considered 'bad'), I would suggest twelve. This seems to me to be reasonable. what do other board users think?

 

This is a perfectly fair system on which my organ, in the photograph on the left, scores 11.

 

Later....

 

Maybe another score for the organ's suitability for the music expected to be played on it? Mine, which has 2 voluntaries, a communion improv and 4 hymns twice per month, is adequate and would possibly score a 3 out of 5 in that category.

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This is perfectly fair system on which my organ, in the photograph on the left, scores 11.

 

====================

 

 

Crumbs!

 

The organ I play scores 28 out of 30 then, and I'm only docking two points for the original winding problems since recified. Please Sir, may I add another 5 for the acoustic? That would be 33 out of 30........ the added X-factor.

 

Best,

 

MM

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Well, as the objective approach is not going so well, what about approaching it from the other end with these contentious subjective statements.

 

1. There are no bad organs in rooms with a reverberation period of more than 4 seconds

 

2. There are no bad 4-manual organs (and all 5-manual organs are inherently wonderful) and no bad organs with a (real) Tuba

 

3. There are no bad French organs and no bad organs with a majority of French stop names.

 

4. There are no good organs by Brindley & Foster, Monk & Gunther or Kingsgate Davidson.

 

5. There are no good organs with endolithic or acid engraved stop-heads.

 

6. There are no bad organs in good cases.

 

Finally, was the 1896 Hope-Jones organ at Worcester Cathedral a bad organ or a misunderstood organ or an organ good and right for a brief moment?

 

MF

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====================

 

 

Crumbs!

 

The organ I play scores 28 out of 30 then, and I'm only docking two points for the original winding problems since recified. Please Sir, may I add another 5 for the acoustic? That would be 33 out of 30........ the added X-factor.

 

Best,

 

MM

 

Hmmm.... I should say that you are just rather fortunate with the acoustic ambience of your church. After all, whilst a bad organ can be made better, the cost would be significantly less than were I to attempt to persuade the Minster authorites here to reconstruct the building with stone vaulting throughout, thinner pillars and no pews, etc.

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Are there actually bad organs or is it more rather bad rebuilds? The organ in my church was an Abbot & Smith and I reckon that when it was put in (in 1907) it would have been perfectly good and more than adequate. But then in 1985 it was utterly ruined in an incredibly bad rebuild. Eventually the organ was replaced by a digital organ which is very much appreciated by the congregation and they are really proud of it. I was extremely sad to see a pipe organ go, but the original instrument was more or less destroyed in the 1980s - I certainly hold that particular builder responsible for the ultimate loss of the organ. Sometimes folks just seem unable to leave things alone. What's that wonderful saying I learned in the USA [?] - If it ain't broke don't fix it! The same builder destroyed the organ (I think it may have been Hill) at Hawarden Parish Church, where there is now an Allen system 600, First Hawarden, then Prestatyn (I wonder where else) . . . Quite a track record!

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Well, as the objective approach is not going so well, what about approaching it from the other end with these contentious subjective statements.

 

1. There are no bad organs in rooms with a reverberation period of more than 4 seconds

 

2. There are no bad 4-manual organs (and all 5-manual organs are inherently wonderful) and no bad organs with a (real) Tuba

 

3. There are no bad French organs and no bad organs with a majority of French stop names.

 

4. There are no good organs by Brindley & Foster, Monk & Gunther or Kingsgate Davidson.

 

5. There are no good organs with endolithic or acid engraved stop-heads.

 

6. There are no bad organs in good cases.

 

Finally, was the 1896 Hope-Jones organ at Worcester Cathedral a bad organ or a misunderstood organ or an organ good and right for a brief moment?

 

MF

 

I think that it would be worth giving the objective system another week or so , in order to prove its value.

 

However, with reference to your post above:

 

1) I suspect that the only things I should like on the organ of King's College Chapel, Cambridge, are the Choir Organ, some of the flute ranks and the Swell strings. Oh - and perhaps the Swell Oboe.

 

2) How far are you from Calne, Wiltshire? (This instrument formerly possessed five claviers, so it can fit both categories.)

 

3) I recommend that you attempt to accompany a choir (and play solo repertoire) on the orgue-de-chœur in Chartres Cathedral. This instrument is so hideously awful that it can represent both clauses in this one.

 

4) I cannot answer this one in its entirety. I have never met any instruments by either of the first two builders. However, I have played the instrument at Holy Trinity, Brompton for service work. As far as I can recall, it was pretty much as Davidson (and Dixon) left it. It seemed quite acceptable to me.*

 

5) I am not sure, but I wonder if the stop-heads at Chichester Cathedral are acid engraved? Even ten or fifteen years ago, several were wearing out alarmingly. I played it again a few years ago, and one or two were approaching illegibility. They certainly do not look like normal engraving. However, I think that this instrument is superb.

 

6) Halifax Parish Church (H&H, 1929). The case I regard as pleasing and effective. For those who like this instrument - this is your prerogative. I happen to dislike 'vintage' Harrison organs. For me, this instrument would be a kind of reverse of a well-known and controversial female artist. (Body from Baywatch - face from Crimewatch.)

 

Worcester Cathedral: Hope-Jones (1896). We shall never know with any certaintly. I found the acoustic ambience to be quite favourable to the organ which existed until about 2006 or so. I suspect that, like now, this instrument would tend to polarise peoples' opinions. For those who liked organs by Hope-Jones, once the novelty had worn off, it is quite possible that they would tire of the lack of upperwork and true brilliance. One can only do so much with a Quintadena. Gilbert Benham appeared from his writings to be a competent and relatively unbiased judge of organ tone - and even he did not speak particularly kindly of the four-clavier Hope-Jones organ which was formerly in the fashionable London church of Saint George, Hanover Square. On the other hand, for those who are sure that they dislike greatly instruments by this builder, they may have found on the Worcester organ, some quiet strings and flutes in which to delight. They may also have decided that, with a full congregation, perhaps there was an occasion when the use of the two G.O. Diapason Phonon stops could be considered apprporiate. However, if they were then to try the Solo Tuba Mirabilis, or the Pedal Diaphones, they may have concluded that the only possible thing to do would be to donate them to the Merchant Navy....

 

 

 

* Having compared the NPOR stop-lists, I am not so sure, now. I certainly prefer the latest scheme. However, there is a conundrum - both later surveys are dated 1966, although the work carried out by Percy Daniel & Co., is undated; it reads as if this work was completed more recently than 1966. Whilst there appear to have been several changes in every department, I suspect that the style of the voicing of those ranks which remain from 1945 has been left largely as it was. I would be interested to hear from any board member who is able to shed more light on this matter.

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I quite agree with Quentins comments about the firm which carried about a Bad rebuild on the organ in his church, they did the same at St Michaels Tividale totally ruining a perfectly good Peter Conacher instrument.

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Did someone suggest that there are no good Brindley & Foster organs?

 

Try the chorus-work on this 1907 example, which is still going strong, without ever having being re-built. This is a Hauptwerk sample, but the real thing is actually better.

 

Just 4 years after Hope-Jones left for America!

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_vxAHVDRvL8

 

And another rebuilt one in South Africa, which needs a bit of TLC.

 

 

Best,

 

MM

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