AJW Motorcycles :: History
Chapter 2

Production Starts

Having built his first machine with only minor difficulties in its development, John resolved to put it through a more gruelling test. In the mid-twenties the M.C.C., besides running road trials (such as the ‘London to Exeter’ and the ‘London to Lands End’), held a high-speed time trial at Brooklands race-track, the aim of which was to run a machine at an average set speed over a specified time; a durability test.  John believed this would be ideal to put his new machine to the test.Having built his first machine with only minor difficulties in its development, John resolved to put it through a more gruelling test. In the mid-twenties the M.C.C., besides running road trials (such as the ‘London to Exeter’ and the ‘London to Lands End’), held a high-speed time trial at Brooklands race-track, the aim of which was to run a machine at an average set speed over a specified time; a durability test.  John believed this would be ideal to put his new machine to the test.

He decided to compete and, not wishing to drive the A.J.W. all the way to Weybridge, a practice which was then quite common (ride your machine to the trial, compete, then ride home again), John and some friends borrowed the Wheaton’s business   Chevrolet van, which they loaded with adequate spares, fuel and provisions for the long journey ahead.   They left at 6pm on Friday, leaving them plenty of time to reach the trials that started at 10am the following morning. John vaguely remembered the van driver mentioning something about a small leak in the radiator, but loaded with enough fuel and water for the journey, they thanked the driver and drove off.
The weather was appalling when the petrol tank needed refilling on Salisbury Plain.  It was replenished from the extra fuel they had taken, but on trying to restart the engine it was found to be lifeless.   Unfortunately John had not only poured in petrol, but also the water provided for the radiator leak! They did have one small consolation, they had stopped on the brow of a hill which sloped for two miles into the village of Wylye. The van ran down to the railway-bridge and ground to a halt. John continued on foot.  He managed to find a garage with a helpful owner who towed the van back to his garage, drained the carburettor and tank and refilled the tank with petrol only. John thanked him and drove on to Basingstoke where they stopped for the night.

But this incident had made them so behind that they were late arriving at the time trials, in fact, too late to enter.  Undaunted though, John unloaded the A.J.W. in the hope that perhaps he could ride the bike on the race track after the trials were over.

John and his companions left the bike and wandered off to enjoy the day’s events. On their return they were surprised to find the A.J.W. surrounded by enthusiasts, amongst whom was a reporter. He took photographs, specifications and other relevant details of the A.J.W. and shortly afterward, much to John’s delight, the information appeared in an article in The Motor Cycle published on 4th November 1926 and reprinted below.


“An exceedingly attractive motorcycle is at present undergoing a year’s road testing in the West of England, preparatory to being placed on the market. The machine is known as the A.J.W and two models at present exist, a 500cc ‘single’ and a 1000cc ‘twin.’  It is probable that only the larger machine will be concentrated on when the A.J.W. is put into production.

The big machine must be one of the most compact 1000cc ‘twins’ ever built.  The engine 996cc British Vulpine is housed in a very low duplex cradle frame. In this frame two 1in.diameter tubes run straight from the head to the rear spindle, while two others run from the head to form the cradle for the power unit and gearbox. The gear box, a Jardine four-speed, giving ratios of 3. 4½. 7.and 10 to 1 is slung from a bracket formed by the junction of the central pair of rear chain stays and the saddle tube.  With the exception of the head lug, all joints are welded. The rear engine plates are welded to the frame.  The engine is detachable by the removal of the front plates only. It is stated that the cylinders can be removed with the engine in situ.

The braking system is particularly comprehensive. Both 8 inch expanding brakes are interconnected, and can be operated either, by a heel pedal on the right of the machine, or by an inverted lever on the left handlebar. Furthermore, independent operation of the front brake is secured by a pedal on the left-hand side of the machine.

The wheels have 19in x3in  W. B. rims to take 19in x3.5in  covers. The 5-gallon fuel tank is of the saddle type, one half lying on each side of the duplex top tubes. The space between the tubes is occupied by a three pint oil tank.
Lubrication is by pilgrim mechanical pump and the feed may be varied at will by means of a handlebar control. An ancillary hand pump with a two-way tap that, if required, diverts oil to the chains, is also fitted. Lubrication of cycle parts is by Tecalemit grease gun.

An under shield, starting from the top of the front engine plates to the lower end of the rear mudguard, is to be fitted.

Other items in the specification include Druid heavyweight forks, adjustable handlebars and footrests, 7 inch mudguards supported by ½ inch tubular stays, a one piece aluminium chain case and Lucas dynamo lighting. The dynamo is mounted between the engine and gearbox and driven by chain from a sprocket on the engine shaft.

The smaller machine, which has a 486cc o.h.v. M.A.G. engine, is built to a similar but ‘lighter’ specification. The tank in both cases is finished in light blue and has a plated nose. It is hoped to market the big machine at a remarkably low price.’                                         ————————————(The reporter states that the engine fitted to the smaller 500 machine is a M.A.G.  however the pictures taken at the time it was registered show a British Anzani 500.)

British Anzani 500cc Engine

British Anzani 500cc Engine

To his surprise John received about fifty letters in the first week after publication of this article asking for information and specifications and one person even offered him the use of his agency service.
John consulted all his friends about the possibility of setting up a small factory for limited production of the A.J.W. and all agreed that he should go ahead and market the machine. An advertisement was placed in Motor Cycle, proclaiming the A.J.W. on the market.Orders started to arrive and production commenced.

It was not too difficult in the twenties to set up a business with the right product and John had the skills acquired at Bown’s and his boundless enthusiasm.  His father offered to put up the necessary capital and taking over an empty warehouse in Friernhay Street, at the rear of the printing works, John set about converting the two-storey building into a motor cycle factory. It believed that a few machines were produced from his own home before the factory was completed.

The building had ground floor space, no larger then a Nissan hut, with a similar second floor. The factory was split into four distinct sections. The machine shop covered the greatest area of the ground floor.  Here frames, engine plates and rough castings were machined, assembled and cleaned ready for enamelling, which was carried out on the remainder of the ground floor, The machine shop was equipped with frame jigs, a Drummond lathe, a power saw, a forge and a drilling machine.

The assembly shop and sales office were on the first floor. The frames were placed on wooden benches for final assembly. The completed machines were lowered by block and tackle to the ground floor. (This would not have passed today’s stringent safety rules.)  John’s own domain, the design and sales office, was also on the first floor.

Assembly shop and sales office

There were no assembly lines; this was more a cottage industry.  The small work force had to be flexible.  Although everyone had their own particular craft, they had to be knowledgeable in other trades and be able to move from job to job as the work progressed.  In the first year (1927) I believe John built around 20 V-twin powered motorcycles with only two workers.  They were helped by Sidney Hutt, who did most of the welding, as well as still working for the Heavitree Engineering Company
With orders coming in the work force grew. In the machine shop Percy Abrahams, the shop foreman, inspected thoroughly every piece of work that had been completed and then signed it out in the works journal, some times adding caustic remarks in relation to the work which had been completed. The works journal, Mechanical Notes and Machine Processes of the A.J.W. Motor Cycle, Exeter, which still survives, is a book about 9inx7in.  It starts in 1931 and continues until 1939 and fortunately Percy meticulously kept detailed records until 1934. It shows daily notes of the frames built with frame numbers (1569 in all) and remarks alongside noting any problems with any frame during build (e.g. Very good, no heating, all jigged up cold.). The person in charge signed out each day’s work.

The book shows many drawings, instructions of how to hold various parts in a vice, what tools to use and details of how to complete the operation.  Also shown quite clearly, is the development of the next year’s models.  As parts were altered all the changes were recorded, as were the drill sizes and where they were stored.  Instructions as to how to use the Drummond lathe and other tools are included.  Altogether there are 365 pages full of invaluable information regarding this marque. There are also diagrams of parts made for the printing works.
The following information gives details of some of the A.J.W.  employees.

Walter Dodd, Percy’s right hand man in the machine shop, had a flair for motor cycles and later successfully converted an A.J.W. frame to monoshock.  He would tell the tale that during their dinner break, they would try to pick up an old penny placed against the wall whilst riding a motor cycle.  No wonder he managed to win a Bronze in the Scottish S.D.I.  on an ageing O.G. Ariel, which he had modified.  During April 1934 he took over from Peter Abrahams as foreman in the machine shop.

Henry James, foreman of the upper floor assembly shop, supervised the assembly of machines and the enamelling area on the ground floor. He was a maintenance engineer in the printing works and it is believed that he built the wheels for A.J.W.    He was a great friend of Frank ‘Buster’ Buckland, (tobacconist) who was possibly the passenger in the A.J.W.  Super Four sidecar at Brooklands.

Tom Dennis worked with Henry building up machines and probably helped with enamelling.   ( Employees were moved to where the work was most urgent.)

Edgar Dennis worked for A.J.W. from 1932-40.  He had worked with motor cycles all his life and said of life at the factory, “It was more like a family, with management working together with us.”   His wife stated, “Edgar sometimes came home in the small hours of the morning having prepared and delivered a competition machine to the railway station for Geoffrey Godber-Ford.”  Geoffrey was arguably the best trials’ rider A.J.W. had.

Geoff Corby worked in the factory and became works manager in 1934.

First Production Bike

The First Production Bike

Other workers were Shaw, Davey, Techner, L Fay, Harold the office boy and others.  When the factory was at its peak there could have been up to twelve workers.

One of John’s first orders was from a man in North Wales. “I lent him my first machine for six months until we got established,” says John smiling at the thought of how the public’s interest had caught him unawares.

The first production machine, FJ 4759 was registered on 11th March 1927, eleven months after the original machine was built.

Many snags were encountered, the major one being that the Anzani Engine Co. suddenly modified their engine design with higher valves.  This meant that the frames had to be re-designed. However, these difficulties were overcome and some very impressive machines were built. As with all designs teething troubles were experienced. Amongst these were unexpected difficulties with the welded head lug, which at this time were machined from solid billets of steel.  Warping and twisting caused so much trouble that they were obliged to revert to a malleable iron casting for this component. However, all joints remained welded and no further breakage occurred.

 Rear wheel hub and frame under development

Rear wheel hub and frame under development

One of the many features of A.J.W.’s was the ability to remove the rear wheel by pushing it forward in the frame and lifting off the undivided chain from its sprocket.   The wheel would then slide out. The original photo on the left shows the development of that feature. Notice the notes around the outside of the print.   All A.J.W.’s from the first production machine to the last in 1939 had this feature.

J. T. Burgess, & Sons Shopfront

J. T. Burgess, & Sons. 10 Goldsmith St, Exeter in 1963. These shops have since been replaced with a modern shopping precinct.

The factory used a number of suppliers, including J.T.Burgess & Son, iron mongers of 10 Goldsmith Street, Exeter who manufactured the petrol tanks and silencers; John Jordins &Sons of Nottingham, the gear boxes; W.F.Wills, Bridgwater, the castings; Druid, the forks   and Dunlop  the  wheels. B.B.F. co. Coventry also built petrol tanks for the big V machines. Also the Midland Gearcase Co. made tanks and other parts.

Originally it had only been intended to fit the 996cc Anzani engines, but before long requests were coming in for machines fitted with J.A.P. engines, both the 845 ohv engine and the 830 side valve engine. It became necessary to supply machines with these engines fitted and, although this did involve a certain amount of alteration the design generally remained basically the same.
John Wheaton said, “I thought the best looking machine I ever built was one fitted with an Anzani four-port engine.  The Double Port Special.”

“The Anzani people never intended that the double-port cylinder head should be fitted to a twin-cylinder machine, but it was especially at my request that they did so. As one can imagine the result was a motor cycle which was most beautifully balanced on both sides.”

Keen to promote his product, John entered three Vulpine engined A.J.W. outfits in the Motor Cycle Club’s 1927 Land’s End Trial. Although one outfit retired early with a broken sidecar spindle, John and fellow entrant Fred Knill ( who won a gold medal)  made the fastest climbs of the notorious Beggars Roost Hill south of Lynmouth.

R.S. Inglis, of 28, Upper Marylebone St. and Gt. Portland St. W.1 was A.J.W.’s sole agent for the London district. They put the following advertisement in The Motor Cycle of May 12th 1927.

MOTOR CYCLING. “Amongst the sidecars undoubtedly the fastest climbs were made by A.J.Wheaton and F.H. Knill, both on 996cc A.J.W. outfits. They took the gradient at a good 30 m.p.h. and scattered the spectators as they tore around the bends with front wheel sliding and sidecar bouncing into the air. “

DAILY EXPRESS. “Two motorcycles combinations of a new designs, of nearly ten horse-power, took the Roost as though it never existed, at something that must have been thirty miles an hour.”

With gold and silver medals won in the 1927 International Six Days Trial, John had plenty to celebrate when he booked A.J.W.’s first stand at London’s Olympia Motorcycle Show that November to display three new models and details of improvements on existing machines.  The Motor Cycle then published the following:

“A.J.W. Stand 110 (NEW HALL)
One of the big attractions, in addition to the side valve and overhead valve machines introduced last year which have been improved in detail only, three entirely new models are shown. Two of these are identical except for the power unit, and represent the last word in luxury in the sporting big twin.”

“The new model Double Port Special is fitted with a new two-port twin-cylinder Summit (Vulpine) engine. and the other houses the 996cc ohv J.A.P. power unit. The new cradle frame is designed to protect the crank-case from any possibility of damage on rough going.  While a Leckie saddle incorporating shock dampers is fitted. “

Speed'o Drive. Front Hub

Speed’o Drive. Front Hub

“A left-hand toe pedal applies both brakes. An inverted lever on the right handlebar also applies both, while a lever on the left handlebar operates the front brake only. A decided novelty is a Best and Lloyd hand pump mounted on the tank top and fitted with a two-way tap, having one lead to the chains and the other to the overhead rocker boxes. With full equipment, which includes dynamo lighting, electric horn, speedometer and clock, the machine sells at £170. The speedometer drive, which consists of a steel pinion in mesh with a fibre pinion, is fitted inside the front brake drum, where it is adequately protected from mud and rain, a wheel showing this arrangement is exhibited, and this feature alone is well worth a visit to the stand. “  In fact John said that he was the first to introduce the enclosed drive of the speedometer in the front brake drum of motorcycles, although it had already been used before on cars.  It worked well and was quickly taken-up by other manufacturers.

A third new comer to the range of resplendent blue and silver- tanked machines was introduced to meet a popular demand; it is shown fitted with a single-port o.h.v. Summit engine (a J.A.P. engine model was offered as an alternative) and its price was £95.


Joe Wright aboard the Temple AJW probably at Brooklands

John was determined to raise A.J.W.’s competition horizons and thought that if only he could get the Flying Kilometre record that this would promote his business. Claude Temple held the record at the time on a machine of his own build. McEvoy and others also held it at different times.  However, John says it was always Claude’s bike but with changes of tank transfers.   He was not in favour of this idea so he had a meeting with Claude where it was decided that John would build a special machine and Claude would manage the whole record project.  As Claude’s girl friend did not want him to ride the machine on safety grounds, it was decided to ask Joe Wright to ride.

They built the first machine and took it to Brooklands for testing, but it did not handle well.  Joe reports that it was shaking at speed on the banking.  On return to Exeter an examination found that, although the frame appeared to be stiff it was not keeping the wheels parallel.  A stiffer frame was built with a shorter wheel base and this proved to be successful.

In those days the Flying Kilometre was held once a year in France on a straight section of road at a place called Arconshol where on a Sunday morning the police would close the road to all traffic for about five miles.  The R A C was in attendance to verify the times achieved with an electric timer. Beforehand the tuning and testing was carried out a few miles away at Montlhery, which was the Brooklands of France in those days, so that when the Sunday morning came everyone was prepared.

The Temple AJW

The Temple AJW showing the carburettor modifications

Many people, including Jack Baldwin with a Zenith, were all trying to get their machines ready, but for some reason John could not get his to run properly. The J.A. P.  850 ohv  was a good engine, but around 90 mph it would start spitting back from its twin carburettors. Try as they would with modifications to the fuel supply and the air flow around the carburettors they were not able to solve the problem, so they decided to become spectators and attempt the record again the following year.

Initially Jack Baldwin, even with a one mile run up to the timer and two tries, could not improve on Temple’s time of 100 m.p.h.   Eventually it was pointed out to him that his trouser legs and elbows were flapping in the wind, so they were taped up and on his next run he achieved 103 m.p.h.

The 8.50 J.A.P. ohv Racing Model, fitted with specially tuned J.A.P. engine, racing magneto, two racing carburettors, Sturmey Archer close ratio gearbox, and an especially designed all triangulated frame, racing tank, etc,  was later offered to the public for £160:0:0.

triangulated bike frame

Could this be the triangulated frame in question? A photo taken in the A.J.W. factory 1927/8.

The Brooklands BMCRC opening meeting on March 31st 1928 had two A.J.W. big twins entered, but  the weather caused a postponement.  At the second meeting on April 21st Claude Temple entered an A.J.W. 996cc V-twin Summit engined machine ridden by Joe Wright who finished third, behind Baldwin on a 996cc Zenith, in the three laps scratch race.