Surrey Branch talk by three ex Factory Road Testers 14.9.2016

Surrey Branch talk by three ex Factory Road Testers 14.9.2016

 

On the 14 September 2016 the Surrey Branch welcomed three ex AMC, and Norton Villiers, Norton Matchless Division road testers to our club room at the Stepping Stones, in Westhumble in Dorking. They were Alan Jones, Ray Lightfoot, and Bill Brooker three very remarkable riders, designers and engineers.

 

Alan Jones has covered over 1.8 million miles in his testing career, and he has done allot more that this as going to and from home to work on a factory bike was not factored into the above number of miles. Alan started at AMC in 1955, and went on to be a full time tester, with both AMC, and the later company Norton Villiers, Norton Matchless Division, at Plumstead, South East London before moving to Andover to help set up their testing programme for the newly introduced Norton Commando.

 

Bill Brooker started in 1967, and he was working in a furniture factory and but he was then made redundant and he managed to get a job working at the Plumstead factory. He explained that the whole place was an anachronism, and he was given a job in the press bay. He made clutch plates and he stamped out clutch plates. The machine that he was using had a date stamp of 1905 on a plate attached to the side of it and it had come from the Woolwich Arsenal, which was just across the road. It must have weighed about 10 tons Bill said and they the employees must have dragged it across the road to the Plumstead Road factory. He asked for another job in a different part of the factory and he managed to get a job in the experimental bay and this was his first job in experimental. His hours were from 7am till 6pm, and also on a Saturday and his basic wages were £25 15 shillings, & 1 penny or £25-15s-1p, in old money.

 

He was sent to MIRA, for over two weeks testing. The first job he got in experimental was to make little brackets to attach the trade plates onto the bikes. Bill was also involved in the testing of the two Norton Atlas bikes that were to be raced in the IOM TT. Bill also used for his own personal transport for getting to work a Stevens three wheeler, and this was built by the then renamed Stevens factory after the AJS brand was bought by the Collier family based in Plumstead and moved the AJS name brand and the building of complete bikes to South East London.

 

Bill Brooker was nick named the Horizontal Ace, as he had fallen off so many times, and he also fell off three times in one evening. He fell off three times trying to get back to Plumstead, when it was snowing very heavily. He explained that he did not have that many brushes with the law, and when he got stopped by the Police it was because they were interested in the bike he was riding. This was also true of both Alan Jones and Ray Lightfoot and the Police were always interested in the very latest bikes that were coming out of Plumstead.

 

Bill Brooker was also involved in the design of the latest electric bike that has been built and raced by Peter Williams.

 

Ray Lightfoot explained that he started at AMC or Matchless in 1959. He was given a job via Jock West the ex BMW racer and very well known personality that was part of the AMC motorcycle manufacturing business at that time. Ray had a BSA C11, in a shed at home that he was then doing up, and putting together to ride it on the road. He got into the testing department via Brian Slark. He was about 22 to 23 when he got onto to testing with Alan Jones and they tested 7 to 8 bikes a day and they did between 5 to 10 miles on each bike each day. Ray was on the companies show stand at Earls Court in 1964 along side Vic Eastwood the then factories works scrambler rider. Ray still has the factory badge from that Earls Court show. He also explained that Gacimo Agositini was a visitor to the AMC show stand. He was not involved in the testing of the Norton Commando but he road tested all the other bikes that AMC produced from 1959 onwards. Ray also went through all the engineering departments at AMC, so he had a very good knowledge and understanding of all the products that were made at Plumstead.

 

The bikes that he liked the most were the 1963/4 onwards G15, N15, AJS 33 series of bikes, and he now owns one of those Matchless G15 models that he is now restoring. He has also restored an AJS 31CSR which really is an amazing restoration and a machine of shear good looks when it was out side his garage when I visited him one day. Ray’s picture is on the front cover of the Matchless G15CS silver series brochure, and that picture was taken not far from where Ray now lives in Kent. Ray explained that he had allot of fun while working at AMC, at Plumstead. Alan Jones is on the front cover of the Norton N15CS another of the silvers series of brochures issued by AMC, and the later Norton Matchless Division. These would also include the later Norton P11 single seat, high pipe desert racer, and the later example of the Matchless G15CSR as well as the later Norton Commando. These brochures show bikes particularly that of the Matchless G15CSR example as this particular bike shown in this brochure was never built by the factory. There is also in this series of brochures a Norton N15CS with Amal Monobloc’s and a Lucas magneto, but the brochure explains that the latest N15CS will have the new Amal Concentra’s and the very latest Lucas contact breaker assembly mushroom. The picture shown being different to what the factory was now going to be producing and dispatching to their dealers.

 

The name for the Isolastic engine mountings for the Commando’s came from some one working in the Plumstead factory. It was Bill Brooker who designed the petrol tank and seat unit for the Commando R type, produced for the American market. Bill also produced and showed us the original drawing that he had drawn for that bike on a very large sheet of paper for those assembled at this talk. This redesign was done as there was allot of resistance from the American market to the Norton Commando’s Fastback design. Bill was trained at the Royal College of Art, before he joined AMC, and he explained that after all that he had done in the world of design his first job in experimental, was making the tea and sweeping the floor.

 

Sam’s of Woolwich provided the clothing for the test riders, and Bill was not told for a year that he could get a free riding outfit that the company would pay for. Alan Jones explained that many times after retuning form a test rider some of the employees at Plumstead would wait on the roof and hurl water bombs or balloon’s filled with water onto the returning test riders. Alan explained that he could take any bike home and he would regularly swap new bikes for the Police to ride them on his way home. Alan explained to us all that it was the best job in the world for him.

 

Alan Jones and Bill Brooker were both involved in the testing or trying to break the Commando frame at the MOD tank testing site at Chobham in Surrey. This was after five people were killed on Commando’s in America. It was then found out that these bikes were being used off road or in the desert and environment that hey had never been designed for.  The test riders were trying to break the frames by riding them along a paved road, as well as along some railway sleepers. Alan Jones took a film of all the testing sitting on the back of another Commando and this film was show to those that had assembled for this talk. This film shows the brutal testing that was conducted on the Commando frame, and this film was then sent to the then Norton importers the Berliner Corporation at Plant Road, Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey, New York, USA. The Commando’s imports were going to be banned from being importing so after this film was shown to the relevant authorities the import of the Commando was resumed. As every one now knows the frames structures weakness was made structurally stronger by the adding of an extra piece of tubing running from the headstock to the rear sub-frame.

 

Bill Brooker showed us some amazing footage of riding in wellies, shorts and barely a helmet at speeds of 70mph on a Commando over the obstacles at the MOD Chobham Tank testing ground.  The footage was absolutely amazing it was astounding that both bikes and riders generally survived although they did manage to highlight where / why Commando frames had snapped in USA desert riding and this was rectified by famous frame builder Ken Sprayson.

 

The factory testers used to ride very day from Plumstead to the MOD site for the testing of the Commando’s frame and they could all do this in less than 30 minutes. Those were the days with out the M25 or a motorway, so they must have been incredible riders and this shows how fast and a great handling a bike the Commando was and still is to this day.

 

Alan Jones explained that when they were testing that it was either intensely cold or always raining, and they also had to contend with rain, fog and snow. Alan also explained that he would return some times when it was so cold with icicles hanging off his clothing and when he returned to the factory he would have to shake them all off his clothing. All three of the testers explained that there were very many very competent people that worked at AMC Plumstead that produced some amazing motorcycles.

 

The talk attracted 34 members and we also welcomed Skip Brolund from Ohio, USA, who was in London due to his company sending him to work in the city as they were having new offices and restructuring work being carried out. Skip was there talk to the contactors and make sure that it was all going smoothly. I myself collected Skip from East Croydon station and then off to my house for a cup of tea and then down to Dorking for the talk. Out side the Stepping Stones there was a long line of Norton’s  that our members had arrived on as it was such a good night to be able to ride a bike. Nigel Heugh arrived on his newly purchased red Commando Roadster, and Dave Cooper brought along his 16H single. This was of interest to Skip as he had a friend who was trying to rebuild one so they were both deep in conversation about this particular Norton. Skip could now put a person to the name that he sees on the clubs forum on the web site. One of those being the very knowledgeable on all aspects of the Norton twins, Phil Hamann who is a regular on the NOC’s web site forum who come from his home in the Solent area of the country. Simon Smith also brought along a friend of his that was visiting from Canada, Nigel Bell, from Qualicum Beach, Vancouver Island who was very impressed with the talk, the bikes and the members that had assembled for the talk at the Stepping Stones.

 

Ray Lightfoot brought along his own large archive of factory pictures and he had also made allot of copies to be given out to all those that attended. These were very eagerly looked at and many questions asked, from the members of these three remarkable testers and riders. Ray Lightfoot while he was at factory when the G15 series of bikes was being produced was there when the foreman of the production line tried to take a cylinder head off a G15 while the engine was still in the frame. He gave up and walk away defeated in disgust in what he had tried to achieve. Then up stepped Ray, who worked out how to take the cylinder head off, and left it on the bike when the foreman returned, much to the consternation of the foreman, as Ray could do and had managed to do what he the foreman could not. I spoke to Ray about this, and asked him how he did this, and did he take out the exhaust rocker spindles to be able to take off the cylinder head while it was still in the frame, and he said that he had not. This making this achievement all the more remarkable so I can see why the foreman would have been really ticked off about it. Ray was a very remarkable test rider and still is a very talented engineer going by the restoration of his own AJS 31CSR.

 

Can I add all our thanks and total appreciation to our very own and very efficient Mike Duffell for bringing along all the component parts for the talk, which included the screen and PC to be able to show the film and the other factory related pictures as well all the other necessary things that were required to make this event such a success. To the three factory testers thank you for your involvement and sharing all your wonderful experiences. This is only a very tiny part of this amazing in-depth talk, that I have managed to write and those that never came along you missed a really incredible night and it rocked totally for all of us that were present.

 

The Surrey section has many more very exciting events planned for this year and next year, as well as being able to secure the services of a very well known motorcycle celebrity to come along and be our guest of honour at our next annual dinner in January 2017. I have also been given confirmation of another very well known industry personality who will be coming along to one of our club nights to give us a talk in the not to distant future, or when he can make it along to one our club nights for us. There is also going to be a talk in the not too distant future concerning an ex dealer employee and his experiences in the various racing departments of the different dealers he had worked for. There is also our Surrey section stand at the Ardingly Classic Bike show on the 23 October 2016 which will also have an added section display that is being organised by Phil Hamann of the new Norton 961 models.

 

Our AGM in November 2016 will also feature Phil Hamann giving us another one of his talks with allot of now updated information that he has now obtained and will be incorporating into this talk for us. The AGM will be to elect new members for our Surrey sections committee.

 

Anthony Curzon Press Officer Surrey section

 

 

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ay Lightfoot in glass, Alan Jones, and the tall Bill Brooker surrounded by the Surrey sections members.

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Steven Eccleshall the current chairman of the Surrey branch, Skip Brolund from Ohio USA, and Alan Throssell the Secretary of the Essex Branch.

Other Upcoming Events
Jan
10
Wed
7:45 pm Club Night @ The Stepping Stones PH
Club Night @ The Stepping Stones PH
Jan 10 @ 7:45 pm – 10:45 pm
Club Night @ The Stepping Stones PH | Westhumble | United Kingdom
We’ve Moved! – Come and find us at our new Meeting venue of ‘The Stepping Stones’ in West Humble – just down from Ryka’s near Box Hill. It’s still the 2nd Wednesday of each month[...]
Feb
14
Wed
7:45 pm Club Night @ The Stepping Stones PH
Club Night @ The Stepping Stones PH
Feb 14 @ 7:45 pm – 10:45 pm
Club Night @ The Stepping Stones PH | Westhumble | United Kingdom
We’ve Moved! – Come and find us at our new Meeting venue of ‘The Stepping Stones’ in West Humble – just down from Ryka’s near Box Hill. It’s still the 2nd Wednesday of each month[...]
Mar
14
Wed
7:45 pm Club Night @ The Stepping Stones PH
Club Night @ The Stepping Stones PH
Mar 14 @ 7:45 pm – 10:45 pm
Club Night @ The Stepping Stones PH | Westhumble | United Kingdom
We’ve Moved! – Come and find us at our new Meeting venue of ‘The Stepping Stones’ in West Humble – just down from Ryka’s near Box Hill. It’s still the 2nd Wednesday of each month[...]
Apr
11
Wed
7:45 pm Club Night @ The Stepping Stones PH
Club Night @ The Stepping Stones PH
Apr 11 @ 7:45 pm – 10:45 pm
Club Night @ The Stepping Stones PH | Westhumble | United Kingdom
We’ve Moved! – Come and find us at our new Meeting venue of ‘The Stepping Stones’ in West Humble – just down from Ryka’s near Box Hill. It’s still the 2nd Wednesday of each month[...]
May
9
Wed
7:45 pm Club Night @ The Stepping Stones PH
Club Night @ The Stepping Stones PH
May 9 @ 7:45 pm – 10:45 pm
Club Night @ The Stepping Stones PH | Westhumble | United Kingdom
We’ve Moved! – Come and find us at our new Meeting venue of ‘The Stepping Stones’ in West Humble – just down from Ryka’s near Box Hill. It’s still the 2nd Wednesday of each month[...]