RCM&E at 60

Company founder Gen Saito with one of his first model motors, a pre-war spark ignition unit.

There will be few readers of RCM&E to whom the name ‘Saito’ is unknown: even those modellers who, like myself, have not yet bought or used a Saito motor will recognise the marque. Unlike the other ‘big’ Japanese model aero-engine manufacturers such as O.S. and Enya, however, Saito engineering produce only four-cycle glow motors for the aeromodelling community. For this reason they are also able to offer a much fuller range of 4C sizes and configurations than available elsewhere, even if some modellers (helicopter enthusiasts being a good example) never use a Saito motor.

Currently, there are twenty-three motors in the Saito family, including the recently released all-new FA30S. More of this later on. The capacity range now covers 0.30 cu. in. (5.0cc) through to the awesome three-cylinder FA-450R3D, at a whopping 4.5cu. in. (75cc). Additionally, there are twin cylinder versions from 0.60cu. in. to 3.0cu. in., and two more multis, the 1.70cu. in. triple and 3.25cu. in. five-cylinder radials. In this family of engines there’s a suitable power plant for almost any model from a trainer though to the latest ‘giant scale’. Some of the motors also offer fuel pump systems, twin glow-plug heads, etc., and seven of the singles are also available in either the normal aluminium finish or a beautiful black and gold scheme which nicely highlights the machining quality.

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Whilst strolling though the pits area at last year’s Ojima air pageant, I stopped to take some photos of the nicely turned out Fokker Eindekker entered in the display flights by Saito Engineering’s founder and owner, Gen Saito. Never having had a chance to chat with an engine manufacturer before, it was a very pleasant surprise to find Saito san and his long-time aeromodelling colleague / ground crew Tom Otake happy to spend time with me for some photos and a detailed explanation of his Fokker. Tom’s flawless English also helped comprehension somewhat in my case! The model was powered by one of Saito san’s own motors, of course: the flagship of the range, a five cylinder FA-325R5-D. This motor not only looks the part on a model of this kind but powers the Fokker in a very relaxed but authoritative and scale-like manner, a nice change from some of the other scale offerings and their screaming two-cycle motors. I was very happy when Saito san invited us (my wife was there as well) to visit his factory and take some photos of the engine manufacturing for RCM&E, as quite often the Japanese companies are a little shy of letting just anybody walk in and photograph their facilities. A date was therefore agreed upon for three of us: yours truly, my wife and my flying buddy Bruce Harkness, to descend on the Saito empire.

The fully restored Double Wasp.

Saito Seisakusho (Saito Engineering) is located in the prefecture of Chiba, slightly to the East of Tokyo centre, and close to Tokyo Disneyland. It’s only a short (twenty minutes or so) train ride from Tokyo, and we were met at the station by Gen Saito’s younger brother, managing director Kikuzo Saito, and arrived at the factory in fine style in his car. Although only a few minutes walk from the station, the factory is located in the ubiquitous and labyrinthine Japanese urban jungle, where only locals have any hope of navigating and even taxi-drivers frequently get hopelessly lost. (My first ever ride in a Japanese taxi, twelve years ago, was a five-minute hop stretched out to nearly an hour by a lost taxi-driver, and I’ve never trusted the rascals since!). Arriving at the factory took us rather by surprise, as from the road there is little to indicate the presence of the place at all. No impressive drive-way or frontage of the kind favoured by ‘big’ Japanese companies, just enough space for about one car to park and a small entrance porch. The Japanese have made cramming a lot into not very much an art form, and squeezing into the front office at Saito I could tell the occupants were past-masters at the task.

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The general office-cum-meeting-room is cramped by any standards, but space is there for the things that matter. First on this list comes the enormous radial engine parked by the door: a complete and undamaged Wasp Radial restored to perfect working order (and certified as such). Right next to this beastie is a large glass display case with all the company’s products on show, and also quite a few antique model engines. We sat down and chatted with Kikuzo Saito, and in a few minutes Gen Saito arrived, having just driven in from his hometown in the countryside an hour or so away from the Factory. Although the company normally work a five-day week, this particular Saturday saw all the staff busy getting orders complete before the New Year holiday. Clearly, and despite the pitiful state of much of the Japanese economy, model engines are still in demand although even Saito are feeling the pinch now.

Readers (including Saito i.c. engine fans) might not be aware of this, but Saito have two product lines, as live steam engines for model boats form a large part of their production. In fact, it’s not just Saito as O.S. also manufacture steam models, although in their case, model locomotives. Everything made at Saito reflects the personal interests of the boss, who is every bit as keen on his boat engines as the flying power-plants, and it goes without saying that the steam engines are every bit as well-made as the glow motors. On the day of our visit, however, the staff at Saito were very busy producing medium-size glow engines, which was, of course, what we were hoping to see. The factory floor is as crowded as the front office, although there are not very many humans at work, the entire Saito staff consisting of about thirty people and some clever machinery. What you notice immediately are the state-of-the-art CNC machines doing most of the work, each with an attendant engineer to keep an eye on things and insert and remove the work.

Experimental 0.15 ci. in. four-stroke, the smallest Saito ever.

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All the manufacturing is carried out here to 1 micron (0.001mm) tolerances, the result being not only high quality but exquisite finishing on the machined parts, since a micron is only slightly more than a wavelength of visible light. The freshly turned silencers (turned from solid aluminium bar in one procedure) gleam with a rainbow lustre. The larger CNC machines can hold up to 10 tools at one time, permitting a variety of turning, milling, boring and tapping without removing the work or adjusting the machine. During our visit, black finished cylinders were undergoing head machining, the entire process over in a minute or two.

All the machining takes place on the ground floor, and we went upstairs to the assembly area. Unfortunately, mere photos alone cannot do justice to the impression on your average aeromodeller of hundreds of partly and fully-finished four-stroke motors lined up on the work-benches. If (like me) you think one such motor is a work of art, then multiply the feeling by several hundred to get close to what Saito’s staff spend their time looking at! All this assembly work is by hand, and the impression is one of patient and careful work rather than production-line speed. Each person is responsible for one part of the final assembly, for example fitting and adjusting the carbies.

Right next to this display of jewellery is Saito san’s demonstration steamboat, which is one of those things every school or college ought to have for tuition purposes. Saito steam engines are alcohol powered by a very efficient burner, producing a lot of heat and no smell at all. Naturally, live steam boilers are certified for safety and Saito are the only Japanese manufacturer now producing this kind of model boiler. The steam is superheated before exiting the boiler. Various levels of complexity are available in the engine area; the one which we saw being a double-action twin cylinder. This unit is both surprisingly powerful and very efficient, with not a whiff of steam leaking from the cylinders or valves.

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As Saito san showed, the unit is so well-made it will instantly reverse direction at full speed: nothing breaks and the most visible sign of the thrust reversal is the huge surge in the water aft of the boat’s prop! Most impressive. To add some real steam aura, the smokestack is fed live steam from the boiler to simulate smoke.

This CNC lathe produces silencers from bar.

Right next to the steam demonstration is Saito san’s very cluttered ‘back room’ full of his old models, and several large glass display cabinets chock full of model aero-engines dating from pre-second world war to the present day. Any engineering museum would be very proud to have half this collection on display. Some of these motors are from other manufacturers; many are from Gen Saito’s own boyhood aeromodelling day.

Whilst not exactly disparaging of other engine makers products, Gen Saito is very obviously proud of his own personal designs and the production quality therein. Modellers buying a Saito motor can be sure that very personal design and development work, including hours of flying time, precede the eventual production of these engines. For example, even the large multi-cylinder engines are guaranteed to idle without external plug heat. Whilst present-day Saito motors are all glow four-strokes, their antecedents have included every other major variety of model motor configuration. Many of the display motors are Saito prototypes, literally dozens of one-off or short development run motors, including spark ignition and a variety of valve and intake configurations.

One of Saito san’s regrets is not putting into production his own super-charged intake design, dating from 1979 and thus pre-dating the well-known YS supercharged motors. He even pointed out that he believes YS got the nomenclature slightly wrong when they called the internal intake plenum an ‘air chamber’, as at this point it is intake air plus fuel and thus ought to be termed ‘gas chamber’. Hmm, maybe not. The prototype Saito supercharger has a nice belt-driven overhead cam set as well. In this display are both the smallest Saito four-stroke, at 0.15cu. in., and the prototypes for the first Saito motor, the FA30. After a long absence, an all-new FA-30S has just been released in Japan this summer, although the family resemblance with the original of two decades ago is obvious.

Modern Saito motors feature several interesting design points. All the motors have a ringed aluminium alloy piston, but this runs in a unique one-piece cylinder and head casting (most other model motors have a unit crankcase / cylinder with separate head). This integral design is said to aid in heat transfer and allow a cooler run. Another Saito feature is the liner-less bore, which is either ABC or AAC (brass or alloy cylinder with hard chrome plating), again giving better thermal performance and a considerable weight saving over traditional iron cylinder liner designs. This makes a Saito engine very light, for example the FA-120 is 140 gm (14%) lighter than the O.S. FS120II and even the new 0.30 is lighter than the O.S. FS26. To keep production costs down, many Saitos feature common cylinders, for example between twins and multis. An interesting feature blending traditional Japanese manufacturing skill with modern technology is that of the the heat-resistant black paint used on the ‘Black Knight’ and other Saito motors.

Engines are assembled by hand.

This contains the natural Japanese lacquer ingredient ‘urushi’, which is one of the most complex yet strong and long-lasting paint materials known.

Head swimming with engine talk and schoolboy delight with all this wonderful machinery, we headed downstairs to where a splendid ‘sushi’ lunch was provided. Before we started on the meal, Saito san presented Bruce and your scribe with a gift to remember the occasion by, a brand-new FA30-S for each of us. As if just getting to see the people and the products was not enough, we were by now completely overwhelmed by the effort and care expended on our behalf by the unassuming and friendly Saito people. After lunch, we were treated to a demonstration of the oldest steam engine known, the Heron steam turbine from ancient Greece, dated at 150 BC. Saito san is presenting one of these models each to a large number of the area’s schools.

After this we were vaguely wondering about heading for our homes, but were again surprised by the hospitable Saito san, as he invited us to his home for more leisurely aeromodelling talk (getting invited to anyones home in Japan is a very special and rare event). Saito san lives a fair distance from the factory, and regaled us the entire journey with aeromodelling tales. For example, the Saito family of Gen’s younger days were very well-to-do by the standards of the time, and so he was fortunate enough to indulge his boyhood aeromodelling with some of the first Japanese-made spark motors, costing as much as an average worker would earn in several months. His second motor, (which cost 120 yen, two month’s salary at the time), he arranged for the shop to deliver COD to his home; although he didn’t tell his mum what he’d ordered and was suspecting that she would refuse the payment, she paid the delivery boy and then handed the motor to him without any complaint!

At the Saito residence, Mrs. Saito welcomed us at the door. Every bit as down-to-earth as her husband, she and my wife enjoyed swapping ‘modellers wives’ tales whilst the ‘chaps’ hung out in Saito san’s commodious and very well stocked (stuffed to the gunwales!) workshop. Not a single O.S. or other motor in sight, every model was of course finished off with a Saito power-plant. Although very much a scale enthusiast, Gen’s model collection is catholic and vast, and he has interests in most forms of prop-driven model, for flight testing and demonstrating new versions of the company’s products. He has also experimented considerably with four-stroke helicopter conversions, from the very early days (Schluter’s Bell Huey Cobra) to recent 0.30 size Japanese craft.

His transmitter collection alone would rival the displays of any shop, and most of these have been worn out from use, not just bought and stored! The same goes for the models, they are all either retired after honourable service or else still in use.

Time for a final cup of tea and a snack before leaving, we joined the ladies upstairs in the ‘no models allowed’ guest room… however, much to Mrs. Saitos’ dismay, models are creeping in there as well! Glass display cabinets, mostly full of model motors, dominate the room. Some of the oldest Japanese spark motors and the original Saito four-strokes share space with the latest technology such as the British RCV (first time we’d seen one), and Gen Saito brought out another ‘live demonstration’ special to show us.

Showing his comprehensive knowledge of the world of automotive power, he fired up one of his collection of Stirling engines with a small gas burner. During the energy crisis of the 70s, Saito worked with major auto-makers in developing designs like the Stirling engine for automobile use. One of these runs on solar power!

Time to say farewell, and the Saitos would not even allow us to buy our own train tickets, escorting us right to the platform. Japanese hospitality at its old-world best. I hope you enjoyed this inside look at the Saito model engine organisation as much as I did.

  • Gen Saito passed away in 2007, aged 86. The company celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2009.

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