(Reproduced from Motor Cycle News' article of 16 November 2015)
Ex Matchless, AJS and Norton road tester Alan Jones recalls life in the golden age of the British motorcycle industry.
After I'd been in the army in Egypt for three years I came back to England in the winter of 1954. Although I was a gardener by trade I couldn’t face the cold after all that time in Egypt – so I went for the first factory job I could, in the Matchless/AJS factory.
I bought an AJS Model 20 500 twin to ride so I could get to the factory, but I had no idea how to ride it. My brother told me you revved it up and let the clutch out – so I did and rode straight into a tree.
At first my job was to file Indian stone off the presses that made the petrol tanks, so they didn’t get creased. I soon got fed up with that, though and luckily a job came up in the test department. I got it because I was always hanging round there on my breaks, and I’d got friendly with the testers. At first I was a rectifier – fixing the things the test riders found on their rides, valve timings, bad earth, brakes out, steering head loose, that sort of thing. I was itching to get out on the bikes myself. Luckily one of the testers went to take part in the Six Day Trial and I took his place riding the bikes.
I don’t remember getting any special instructions. It was just great to be out riding in the middle of the working day. The test rides were six to nine miles each – and you could go where you wanted, do what you liked. We all had our favourite roads. Mine was down along the Sewer Bank by the Arsenal, where you could get them up to speed, do a few emergency stops, adjust the brakes and carbs. It was a privilege to be doing it. So many people spoke to you every time you stopped. Little boys, women, police – you were more or less like a god.
When I went home one night I noticed a police rider waiting at a roundabout. He pulled me over and I thought I was in trouble. He said “Do you mind if we swap bikes for a bit?”. He just wanted a go on the new bike I was on at the time. We used to do that every so often after that. I overtook my wife in our car on the police bike once. That put the wind up her.
When production went up we tried to test 11 bikes each a day – but we still did the same miles on each bike. Every single bike off the production line had to be tested. I was working from seven in the morning until seven at night, but I loved it. The atmosphere in the firm was great – when I came back into the factory sometimes the boys were waiting on the roof to drop water bombs on me.
We used to take whatever bike we’d finished the day on home in the evening or over the weekend. They didn’t like us to put miles on them, so we used to disconnect the speedo.
Testing went on in all weathers. In 1963 the snow lay from Boxing Day to middle of March and I tested every day. It was perishing. When I came home at night I had to brush the frost from all over me.
My favourite bikes were the Matchless CSRs with the Siamese pipes, and the Nortons when they came in, though they were rough when we first started with them. When I was testing the Commandos I used to take them to my favourite bit of road and wring their neck up to 100mph, then I’d drop my head and that would see me to 120mph. They were terrific.
In 1969 our Norton racer Peter Williams was asked to help out in the Daily Mail Transatlantic Air Race – a competition to see who could get from the top of the Post Office tower in London to the top of the Empire State Building. But Peter had to go to hospital, so he asked me to do it. I had to carry one of the competitors on the back of a Commando from the GPO tower to Heathrow. He’d never been on a bike before and I had to grab his knees to pull them in as we went through the taxis. It took 22 minutes from him at the top of the tower to boarding the plane. I was clocked at 95mph going into the underpass at Heathrow.
In all the years of testing I only came off twice and one of those was deliberate. When they brought out the 250 CSR the silencer came straight out the back, parallel to the ground. I said to the designer Tony Dennis 'You’ve got to change that'. He said 'It’s perfectly alright, we’ve measured it'. I said 'Alright, grab that helmet, get on the back of me and I’ll show you something'. He jumps on the back, we go round the Arsenal, first bend we come to it touches the ground, lifts the wheel and we go spinning down the road on our arses. I said 'I bloody told you'. And of course they came out with slanted pipes after that.
Life was great in the factory in those days. There wasn’t a sense it was all coming to an end. When the first Honda came into the country I was called down to to the offices to see it. The director turned to me and said ‘Don’t worry about those Alan – they’re made of tin, they won’t last five minutes’. I thought it was beautiful.
When the factory moved to Andover I went there for six months to train the testers there, but the local people weren’t friendly to us Londoners. You’d get served last in shops and pubs, and after the six months I went home. When I got back to Plumstead the production line had gone and it was dismal really, so it was time to go.
I started working on a farm and I have done ever since. I’ve still got a Norton Dominator I ride and I love bike racing. Rossi’s my favourite. Why? Because he comes off and gets back on and still finishes fifth – that’s a rider, that is, not like these boys who kick the bike and walk off.”