The Internet Craftsmanship Museum Presents:

Clarence F. Lee

Expert engine tuner, builder and technical writer

Clarence Lee started flying models and building his own engines in the late 1930's. He has designed several engines that have set records and won championships and ones that have seen a long production life made by companies like Veco and K&B. In recent years Clarence is probably best known for his customizing of engines for racing airplanes, cars and boats. Not only does he rework engines but he shares his expertise with those who want to do it themselves. He is familiar face a flying fields, car tracks and boat ponds on the West Coast and is willing to assist anyone having engine problems. Besides his own innovations in model engine design, Clarence has kept abreast of engine development worldwide. He is also well informed on fuel, lubricants, tuned pipes, propellers and other areas related to model engines. He shares his knowledge in these areas in his column, "Engine Clinic" published each month in RC Modeler magazine since 1969. The Internet Craftsmanship Museum wishes to honor this unique combination of skills by letting you know a little more about Clarence Lee.

Clarence F. Lee (Click on photo for larger image.)

An Introduction to Clarence Lee and C.F. Lee Manufacturing Co.

From RC Modeler magazine, November 1996, by Don Dewey  

Born in Los Angeles in 1923, Clarence Lee grew up and attended school in nearby Glendale, California. At the age of seven, he built his first "solid" model which was quickly followed by flying "stick" models. His entry into powered aircraft came in 1937 when he built a Megow Quaker Flash, working for a year at odd jobs in order to buy the knocked-down, unassembled 1938 Bunch Mighty Midget that would power it. His second free-flight was a Modelcraft Miss Tiny powered by a Keener Brat .15. Clarence found the model to be badly underpowered, so he designed a two-thirds-sized Miss Tiny which then flew quite well with the Brat.

Actually, as Clarence remembers, the reduced size Miss Tiny flew well enough that he wore out the connecting rod! Since he was taking auto shop in high school at the time, he asked the shop instructor if he could make a new rod since the shop had a lathe and drill press. The teacher agreed and Clarence learned to operate a lathe—something that he found came quite naturally to him.  After a couple of attempts he had a finished rod, and soon after began making parts and repairing engines for his modeling friends.

Lee lived just a few miles from Grand Central Air Terminal where many historic flights took place. As a boy, he would stand outside the terminal fence, dreaming of becoming a pilot as he watched the Ford Trimotors and Curtiss Condors take off and land. A short distance away was an Army National Guard flying field where various military aircraft practiced their maneuvers, and Clarence decided then and there that he would become an Army Air Corps pilot.

While attending high school, Clarence worked part time for a Glendale Chevorlet dealer, first detailing cars, then, as his auto shop experience grew, installing new clutches, new rings, doing valve jobs and, eventually, complete engine overhauls. Lee's first car was a 1929 Model A Ford with a 1932 Model B engine. As he earned money, he installed Winfield high compression head, a three-quarter race cam, an SR downdraft carburetor and a Mallory distributor—a hot combination in those days! When he could afford the gasoline, he would run the car through the timing traps at Muroc Dry Lake (now a part of Edwards Air Force Base flight facilities). His best time was 101-102 mph. To this day, as with model engines, Clarence has remained involved with automobile work, both as a hobby and professionally.

After graduating from high school in 1941, Clarence went to work for Vega Aircraft, then a division of Lockheed Aircraft, where he worked swing shift as a machinist. During the days, he attended Glendale Junior College in order to meet the two-year college requirement for joining the Army Air Corps. Shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, that requirement was dropped for those who could pass an equivalency test. Clarence was sworn into the Army Air Corps as an aviation cadet trainee in December, 1942. During flight school in Texas, Lee flew the PT-19, BT-13, AT-15 and AT-10, with his final ten hours in the B-25. Besides the aircraft mentioned, Clarence had flight time in a variety of military aircraft including the P-38 and P-51.

During flight training, Clarence was supposed to be training to fly the Martin B-26, but, upon his graduation in 1944, the aircraft was declared obsolete. Lee ended up being sent to the China, Burma and India theater where he piloted C-47's and C-46's for a combat cargo group flying the "hump" (Himalayan Mountains) from Burma to various airfields in the Kunming area of China. He made a total of 67 hump crossings carrying bombs, aviation gasoline and Chinese troops. On JV day, his group was transferred to Shanghai, China, to take over the Kaigwan Air Base from the Japanese.

Clarence returned to the United States and was discharged from active duty in 1946, although he remained in the Army Air Corps Reserve for an additional 7-1/2 years. Lee currently holds a commercial pilot's license with multi-engine and instrument ratings.

After his return to the U.S., Clarence married his wife, Peggy, who at the time, had a small floral shop located in a local nursery. Inasmuch as many thousands of pilots had returned home from WWII a bear before Lee, the commercial piloting jobs had all been filled. By cashing in some war bonds, the Lee's managed to raise enough money to rent a larger building in the main part of Tujunga, California where they opened up a floral business and where Clarence worked for several years.

Clarence began flying control-line models while still in the service and continued until 1956 when he became interested in radio control. One of his best control-line endeavors was placing third in Precision Aerobatics at the 1955 California Nationals where he also captured third place in Proto Speed.

After taking up radio control, Clarence was somewhat unhappy with what was available in the way of engines for R/C use. As a result, in 1959 he designed and built his first Lee .45 engine designed strictly for R/C use. The engines were an instant success and used by most of the top pattern fliers for numerous contest wins during that era. His own personal best was first place win at the 1966 LARKS Open in Expert class. This event was the major West Coast contest of the year, drawing in excess of 120 entrants.

Clarence's custom-made Lee engines carried a money-back guarantee if the purchaser was not happy with the performance. He never had anyone take him up on that guarantee! Following the success of the engine, he sold production rights to Veco Products and a redesigned version became the Veco .45. Lee was then commissioned by Veco to design a new ball bearing version of the original Veco .19 designed by Mel Anderson. Parts for four prototype engines were made and the first production engines released in September of 1964. Clarence kept serial #001 and well-known West Coast flier, Dale Nutter got #002. Dale went on to set a new AMA Pylon speed record with the engine.

Lee Was then commissioned by Veco to design a .61 size engine. With his past experience with the .45 and .19, he knew what he wanted in the way of a crankcase, so they went directly to the die-cast case withoug building sand-case prototypes. While the dies were being made, Clarence made the crankshafts, pistons, sleeves and remaining parts. Parts for six prototype engines were made, with five engines being assembled and the sixth saved for replacement parts. Serial #001 of the new Veco .61 was given to Cliff Weirick in July 1965, and Cliff went on to win the AMA Nationals with it that same year.

The next Veco commission for Clarence was to design and build a new ball bearing .35 engine following the basic design of the .19, .45, and .61. Three prototypes were guilt, with one of them going to a control-line speed flier, Gene Leedy. Gene subsequently set a new Class B Proto Speed record with that engine. Unfortunately, the engine never went into production since Henry Engineering, the parent company of Veco Products, decided to drop the model engine business and concentrate on their manufacturing of aircraft seats since the airlines were in the process of developing the first wide-bodied commercial airliners.

Clarence competed in R/C competition pattern event for about ten years until he because tired of the constant practice required. Not one to give up on competition, however, he entered the  then new Formula I Pylon racing event, the first racing as a team with his good friend, Wayne Wainwright, and later as a team with his own son, Jack Lee.

Today, Clarence laughingly refers to himself as semi-retired, although he hasn't yet found a way to take things easier. In fact, busier than ever, Lee's model engine business is now a full-time operation, as he sells custom fit versions of engines in the K&B line. Having sold many thousands of engines over the years, the servicing and  repairing of these engines is almost a full-time operation in itself. Clarence admits that he continues the model engine business mainly to keep active, never having been a person who could sit back and do nothing.

Clarence holds AMA #2579 and was inducted into the Academy's Hall Of Fame in 1983. He is a member of the National Miniature Pylon Racing Association, the Valley Flyers R/C Club and the Model Engine Collector's Association. Also a ham radio operator, Clarence's ham call is WB6SAF.

Clarence's column, "Engine Clinic," has appeared in every monthly issue of RCM since January, 1969. His column has been immensely popular with the magazine's readers since its inception, and it has always ranked among the top three in every reader interest survey conducted by the magazine. And, without fear of contradiction, I believe that most of us have learned most of what we know about the R/C engine from Clarence Lee. His personable type of writing, combined with his vast knowledge of his subject material has made him one of the sport's most valuable assets.

Clarence Lee and his engines Engines

(Click on photos to see larger images.)

Clarence F. Lee and his wife Peggy in a recent photo.

Clarence at work in his shop. (Contributed by Peggy Lee.)

Clarence and Wayne Wainwright flying at a pylon race. (Contributed by Peggy Lee.)

The Lee Sidewinder was an earlier project of Clarence’s and was conceived to allow for smother and tighter cowling in competition pattern models with a scale like look. It used bevel gears to transmit power to the prop. Although it was a good design and worked well it was never put into production. Only three of these engines were made. (Images contributed by Peggy Lee.)

A VECO .35 RC glow plug engine with its original box and instructions was donated to the museum by Joshua Vest. The .35 cubic inch engine has a bore of .784" and a stroke of .725", weighs 7-1/5 oz and puts out .60 HP at 12,000 RPM. Recommended for general use was a 12-4 propeller. It was manufactured by K&B Manufacturing in Downey, CA. The instructions sheet is dated July, 1969. Photo: Joe Martin Foundation

The VECO .61 that Clarence Lee designed in 1959. This particular engine has been owned by Joe Martin since it was new and is part of the Joe Martin Foundation collection. Photos: Joe Martin Foundation

Left side view of VECO .61.

(Tim Dannels Photo)

The Lee 49 as seen from the right front. These engines were the actual predecessors to the Series 200 line of VECO engines. Clarence was doing R&D work for VECO and built a series of 45, 49 and 51 engines on the side. For those who were lucky enough to buy one, they were the best R/C engine in that size range in the air at the time. Performance was flawless. —Tim Dannels

 (Tim Dannels Photo)

Another view of the Lee 49 seen from the left rear. That these were custom built engines is borne out by the fact there were only 23 Lee 45's built and orders for many more, but they were too time consuming to make and the 23 were all that were produced.  There were also six 49's built. Pictured is one of the six. There were also seven .51's built. That was the total production of the Lee hand-built engines.

On July 1, 2005 Clarence Lee added the following note:

"I built two experimental long stroke 49s. Then, after I had given up making the engines, a group from Mexico up here for the Nats asked me what it would cost to make them an engine, as they had destroyed the one they had. I quoted $225.00 (original price was $75.00) and they ordered six. I was then swamped with orders from others. I decided to make the new engines 51's but had a few 45 crankshafts on hand, so decided to make the 51 piston/sleeves first and then use these in conjunction with the 45 cranks for a 49.  I made four of these which, with the two long stroke 49's, made six.  One of the long stroke 49's went to Bob Dunham. As it required an 8-ounce fuel tank, Bob thought this would throw off the balance of his Astro Hog, so I converted it back to a 45 so he could use a 6-ounce tank. I built 10 more 51s before quitting production for a total of 42 engines in all. So there you have a little more history."

One of the ten hand-built Lee .51's was donated to the Joe Martin Foundation's museum in Vista, CA by Jerry Nelson in 2009. It is on display for public view every weekday and the first Saturday of each month. The serial number is 031, the 31st engine Clarence built and the second .051 he built, keeping the first for himself. Actually, he says, he had built a previous one for Phil Kraft which he traded for a radio.

The engine is shown here in it's original condition as donated by Jerry Nelson. Photos: Joe Martin Foundation

Here is the same Lee .51 after Clarence Lee himself restored it in May, 2009. Read his letter regarding the history of this engine. He must still have his original sales records, because he notes it was purchased by Jerry Nelson on January 13, 1965.

Note also in the 3rd photo that Clarence added his "Lee Custom" stamp to the frame above the serial number when he restored the engine. The restoration include re-anodizing the head back to a bright purple color. Photos: Joe Martin Foundation

(Danny Claes photos)

Danny Claes of Belgium owns one of the Lee 51's. In fact, it is the last one made. He sent the following note along with these photos:

"Here is a little more info about the Lee 51 that I have in my collection. I have been corresponding with Mr. Lee by letter for some time. He noted that all of the parts for the 51's were made during the later part of 1964. The completed engines were sold by January, 1965. All the parts of this engine (SN #036) are ones made at that time. Clarence had saved one 51 engine (this one) in parts all these years just in case some old engine came along that he was looking for and the owner might be interested in trading for one of the 51's. Some 15 years ago he decided to sell the last 51 to me."

(Tim Dannels Photo)

The Lee 35 seen from the left front. This .35 and some .29 size sand cast ball bearing engines were prototype or experimental engines that never went into production. Clarence designed all the Series 200 VECO engines. All that actually reached production were the 19, 45 and 61. There were a few prototypes for the Series 200 29 & 35.  The Series 200 engines were a ball bearing designs whereas the earlier Series 100's (designed by Mel Anderson) were plain sleeve bearing engines.

(Tim Dannels Photo)

Shown to the left and above is what I would call the Lee 35. Only a couple of these were ever built, but they never were refined further to go into production.
As an interesting sidelight to the "production" Lee engines - Clarence had a standing offer that if anyone who owned one of his engines was unhappy with it, he would buy it back for its original price. He never had any takers on that offer. —Tim Dannels/Model Engine Collector's Journal

If you have photos of Clarence Lee or any of his significant engines, please submit them as an e-mail attachment to craig@craftsmanshipmuseum.com or call (800) 541-0735. Photos mailed to us will be returned after scanning.

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