She is the most glorious liner ever built, a masterpiece of the Clyde. But QE2's sea trials, 50 years ago this week, were hampered by problems. Sandra Dick recalls how the Pride of the Clyde's crown slipped, and the bitter fallout that cast a shadow over the world's most graceful of ships.

Elegant and refined, a gleaming model of Scottish engineering from her curvaceous bow to the distinctive orange flash at her waterline; she was – and remains – the ‘Pride of the Clyde’.

QE2 has held her crown as the world’s best-loved liner, a final word in timeless style and ocean-going travel, for five decades.

Today reborn as a floating hotel in Dubai, 50 years ago this week the eyes of the world were trained on Clydebank and the shipyard and engineering works responsible for delivering such beauty, as QE2 set off for sea trials and the countdown to her much-anticipated maiden voyage.

Her launch in September 1967 had been a triumph. Tens of thousands crowded the river banks to see The Queen, dwarfed by the towering masterpiece of design and engineering, send Cunard’s glittering 58,000 tons flagship off for her first taste of sea water.

It was, reflects Ian Johnston, author of Ships for a Nation: the History of John Brown & Co. Ltd, Clydebank, a bitter-sweet moment for a highly-skilled workforce fighting for survival in a world increasingly infatuated with the speed of air travel.

But if her launch was a time for celebration, by late November 1968 it would all go horribly and painfully wrong.

To the horror of the Clydebank workers who had poured heart and soul into delivering Cunard’s showpiece £300m liner, QE2 would be temporarily stripped of her affectionate title ‘Pride of the Clyde’, and – through no fault of John Brown’s – be re-christened ‘Ship of Shame’.

And, sadly, a man who had devoted his career to shipbuilding on the Clyde would pay the price for others’ mistakes.

The months between the liner’s launch by The Queen and her sea trials had been a time of great anticipation as Cunard touted £1000 tickets for her first Christmas cruise and – behind the scenes – Clydebank carpenters battled to complete her cabins and features.

All was looking good by late November 1968, when Prince Charles, stood on the bridge - the liner’s first civilian passenger - alongside Master Designate and first Captain Bill Warwick, Cunard Chairman Sir Basil Smallpeice (CORR) and John Brown chairman Lord Aberconway, as she gracefully departed John Brown’s shipyard for the open sea.

“They’re all there, grandstanding on the ship as it passes under the incomplete Erskine Bridge,” says Johnston. “The ship gets to Greenock and is about to run preliminary trials when a faulty valve allows oil into the water feed for the boilers.”

Crocked with oil in her steam system, QE2’s sea trials grind to a halt. Instead of testing her engineering, she limps to dry dock in Greenock.

“Cunard has planned a Christmas cruise, but this problem of oil contamination will take a week to put right,” recalls Johnston.

Indeed, by Tuesday, December 3, 1968, grim news reports had confirmed that sea trials due to begin the following week were delayed, plans for the glamourous Cancer Relief Fund cruise scrapped, 600 tickets refunded and by way of apology, a chunky donation handed to the charity by Cunard.

With the vessel’s handover delayed until January 1, 1969, just nine days before her first commercial voyage, a 120-year link between Cunard and John Brown’s was becoming increasingly stretched.

Within weeks, it was set to snap.

“Cunard scheduled a shakedown cruise off the west coast of Africa to test equipment like air conditioning,” says Johnston. “She has run high speed trials at 32.5 knots off Arran, it’s looking good.

“The first indication of something wrong is a vibration on the starboard turbines, and the ship has to slow down.

“She is crawling with press. This is the most famous ship in the world and it becomes world news almost instantly that she has broken down and has to limp back to Southampton.

“They open the turbine to see what has gone wrong, and find a load of debris inside and the blades inside the turbine snapped.

“They realise these turbines have to be taken out and delivered to Clydebank for repair. It's not going to take a few weeks, it will take months.”

Reports of the incident – not helped by the presence of around 200 Clydebank workers still bustling away below decks trying to complete work – were scathing.

“One headline said ‘Ship of shame’,” recalls Johnston. “It was awful.”

John Rannie, 6ft 2in, 16 stone of hammer-wielding muscle, born a mere 400 yards from John Brown’s shipyard gates and who had risen from apprentice to become managing director, wore his gaffers’ bowler hat with pride.

Having built countless ships on the Clyde, he had postponed retirement to see his pride and joy, QE2, safely to sea and was widely tipped for a knighthood for his efforts.

“He was a Clydebank man, dyed in the wool, hugely respected,” says Johnston. “I can’t emphasise enough how highly regarded he was.

“He was at retirement age and had agreed to stay on to see the ship completed. But there is a furious row and he’s pretty much fired on the spot.”

With Rannie’s retirement suddenly brought forward and New Year's Honours CBE instead of that anticipated knighthood, relations between John Brown’s and Cunard plunged fresh depths, with cruises cancelled, costs mounting and outrageous suggestions that the Clydebank yard wasn't capable of handling the repairs.

And they would hit rock bottom with a shock declaration from Cunard that they would not accept delivery of the showpiece vessel, branding her below design standard.

“Relations deteriorated significantly and there was no formal communication unless through lawyers - that is how bad it got,” says Johnston.

With questions in the House of Commons and a personal trip to Clydebank from Tony Benn, the then Minister of Technology, the fine name of John Brown’s was under threat of being tarnished forever.

And, points out Johnston, that was entirely unfair.

“What had happened was nothing to do with the shipyard,” he says. “And it was all to do with the design of the turbines.”

The turbines had been designed by Parsons & Pametrada, a specialist company initially based in Newcastle which had transferred to Clydebank for the work on QE2.

“The design for QE2 was a one-off, and could only be tested at sea,” says Johnston. “The problem was diagnosed by John Brown’s engineering team. To redesign and refit the turbines took months.”

It would be April 1969 before QE2 would complete a short cruise to Las Palmas – four months after what was supposed to be her first glittering Christmas cruise - and the following month before her official maiden voyage to New York.

Eventually those troublesome steam turbines would be replaced and QE2 would emerge as a diesel-electric powered ship after a 1986 refit at a German shipyard.

During her sea life, she would go on to log more than five million miles at sea, before her last day in open waters ten years ago this week (26 Nov 2008) as she headed to her retirement home of Dubai.

Today a plush floating hotel, her sea trials mishaps are long forgotten, the stain which they threatened to leave on the proud history of shipbuilding on the Clyde has faded, along with the towering cranes and thousands of jobs.

“You’d think having just built the most fabulous ocean liner in the world, the yard would be well placed to win other contracts,” add Johnston. “But John Brown’s days as a shipyard were numbered. It lasted just two more years after QE2.”

Still, 50 years on from her most challenging episode, there is comfort for all associated with her construction, says Johnston.

“She was and is a beautiful ship, a design masterpiece and the very best of British.

“It’s testimony to the skills of Clydebank, that she is still in existence today.”