AJW Motorcycles :: History
Chapter 1

The Idea

Imagine when roads were not as we know them today, when the main petrol supplies and motor aids were obtained from blacksmiths, chemists and occasional garages, and the hedgerows were covered in white dust blown from the roads by passing vehicles.  This was the setting in which Jack Wheaton and his school chums absorbed the new motoring fever.

In fact it was while he was still at school that Albert John Wheaton or ‘John’ as his contemporaries called him, dreamt of his ‘Ideal Machine’, perfection in his eyes was all important.  Schoolboys have an aptitude to pursue any subject not pertaining to their own studies with keenness that only they know. Young Jack and his chums were no exception and motorcycles as far as they were concerned came before all academic studies.  They prided themselves on being able to differentiate between various models by the exhaust note.  The differences between the Norton and the Douglas were easy to detect; comparing the Norton and Sunbeam was not so simple. The flat twin Douglas could be detected by the whine of the flywheel and the Blackburn engine with the large outside flywheel would chuff-chuff its way along.  They also knew the specifications of many of the more popular machines of the day.  They would meet to plan their ideal machine, incorporating various components from many other machines, culminating in their ‘Ideal Machine’.  Was this phrase the spark that proved to be the motivation behind the manufacture of the A. J. W.?

Wheatons Exeter

The whole enterprise really started when John was still at school. His father, (whose family-run firm of educational book publishers, A Wheaton  & Company, was established in c1850) bought a Coventry Eagle with a 3½hp. Abingdon King Dick engine.   He did not get on too well with this machine and much to young John’s delight, he passed the running of the bike over to his son. John had a lot of fun riding and maintaining the machine and it was not long before he realised his future had to be connected with motor cycles.

On leaving Exeter School (the same school to which Harry Weslake the designer and manufacturer of the Weslake engine attended) he joined a firm of bicycle manufacturers, Bown’s, as an apprentice for about a year.  Their premises were at Summer Lane, Birmingham and as well as bicycles they also built a small number of motorcycles under their own name, using Villiers, Blackburn and J.A.P. engines. The bikes were assembled from bought in components but Bown’s did make their own frames.   John set himself the task of learning about the various components.  This gave him invaluable experience for the years to come: years in which he was still planning his ‘Ideal Machine’.

Now came the great blow to his aspirations.  His father decided that New Zealand offered new opportunities for himself and his family so he decided to emigrate.  Young Jack was considered far too young to leave behind so he had to pack his bags and emigrate, much against his will, knowing that the motorcycle scene would hold nothing for him in New Zealand.  The one concession was that he could crate up the Coventry Eagle and take it with him.  This gave him enormous pleasure and allowed him to tour the island, travelling many thousands of miles.  Not wanting to neglect his chosen career, he managed to get a job with an engineering company, again more valuable experience.

He stayed in New Zealand for two years. Then it was decided that he should return to England and go to Bristol University to take a five-year course in engineering.  The course was not completed because he considered the job prospects at the end of the course did not warrant the amount of time he would have to spend in study to attain the diploma.  The prospect of a foreman’s job in an engineering workshop did not appeal to him at all, so he returned to Exeter and took a job with Frank Chick Ltd, a firm of motor factors.  Here he mixed with the real motorcycle fraternity of Exeter, some of whom were to become founder members of the West of England Motor Club.  A club which, even today is a real power in motor sport in the West of England.

He was now in dire need of a bike and not having enough cash to buy a new one, he turned again to the Coventry Eagle which he had shipped back from New Zealand.  It was in a sorry state; the motor was very nearly worn out after his many excursions on the dusty roads abroad.  It clearly had to be made more reliable, so  the engine was replaced with a twin-cylinder 8 hp Anzani, as used in a Morgan cars, acquired for £28 through his old school chum, Roy Ferguson, who was working for Cotton’s.

After acquiring the engine, his next problem was to fit it into the Coventry Eagle frame. This could have been a dangerous exercise, fitting a larger capacity, heavier engine into a frame for which it was not designed. In truth it was just a matter of replacing the top tubes with a pair about six inches longer. The work went well and hoping the whole thing would hold together, he took it for a run. It handled very well. His first venture into frame reconstruction had been a success! He also modified a Bown motorcycle for his girl friend, Una Chick, the daughter of his employer Frank Chick. This they gave the nonsense title of ‘What is it?.’

Although these were far from his ‘ideal’ his thoughts were still directed towards his ‘Ideal Machine’. In 1926 he had the opportunity of achieving this; it was to be a purely personal venture and no thought of manufacture entered his head. Knowing exactly what he wanted, he started to study the market to evaluate the difficulties and different opportunities open to him. He considered that nobody had the correct combination of components.  So what had the market to offer?  It had to be an 8 hp, he would not consider anything else. The Americans had the Harley Davidson, the Indian and the Excelsior; in his view these were too large and cumbersome to even try to emulate. Then there were the B.S.A., the Royal Enfield, the Royal Ruby and the Matchless, all 8hp twins. This was another category he did not favour; they were all too sedate with sidecars fitted, more a family man’s machine and not much use to a young man in his twenties.   There were the big sporting twins, built for speed, such as the Coventry Eagle, Flying Eight, the Zenith and the McEvoy; all superb machines, but he considered the Brough Superior to be the king of them all.

What could be done to improve on this impressive array of machines? Could he design a better frame, use a four speed gearbox, or fit eight inch Enfield hubs as opposed to the more usual seven inch?  He really believed that he could build a more attractive machine with innovative additions.

Having decided what was wanted, he sat down at a drawing board and formulated his plans.   John had a flair for design and invention, inherited from his grandfather Alfred Wheaton who, in 1920 had taken out a patent for the invention of improvements to direction indicators for road vehicles.  (Later John would patent the Super Four steering.)

Anzanl Vulpine 996cc-19 Engine

John Wheaton was impressed by British Anzani’s Vulpine engine.

The engine he chose for his ‘Ideal Machine’ was the new Anzani Vulpine, which had one or two revolutionary ideas.   It was a 996cc ohv twin with hemispherical cylinder heads. The rockers were encased in an oil bath, fed by a pump from the crank-case. The magneto, usually mounted on the front of most machines and driven by chains, was situated on the right hand side of the engine and driven by bevel gears. This had two advantages, it eliminated the noisy chain and protected it from inclement weather. The most curious innovation, was the use of stirrup valves, a devise to try to counteract the breakage of valves springs, a fault in engines of those days, due it was thought to badly tempered steel springs. A clever idea, it was set up as follows; Anzani used a very short valve, on top of which they had a stirrup device in which the rocker arm operated, above the stirrup was the spring held up by a case. The idea was to keep the spring away from the heat of the engine and let the air-flow cool the spring.

Stirrup connection between valve spring and stem

Stirrup connection between valve spring and stem

This engine was definitely ahead of its time. The rocker gear was totally enclosed and the rockers themselves were wick-lubricated. The magneto was bevel driven on the side of the engine, some thing quite unheard of in those days.  The performance of the engine generally was something really outstanding.

The gearbox was another newcomer to the motor cycle field; a four-speed Jardine, hand change by means of long lever direct from the gearbox, giving a direct connection between the sliding dog and the gear-locating rack, the gears being kept in constant mesh.  A skilled rider would lower the hand change lever and locate the gears with his foot, a common practice in the days before the positive stop gearbox. The carburettor, one of the new Binks three-jet, mouse-trap designs, also contributed towards the performance.

Eight inch Enfield hubs were chosen for the wheels and a Miller lighting set, forks, handlebars, levers, cables and mudguards were obtained from suppliers. The petrol tank, exhaust pipes and rough castings were especially made.  The headstock and foot-rests were machined in house.

At first glance the petrol tank appears to be a direct copy of the Brough. When asked about this John Wheaton said that the tank had to be exceptionally wide to cover the top tubes of the frame he had designed and was the only practical shape he could conceive.  The petrol/oil tank was light blue with a nickel-plated front. The two exhaust pipes ran parallel until merging into a large torpedo-shaped silencer, which gave an excellent exhaust note. Motorcyclists thought a great deal about the sound of their machines in those days, the more throaty the better.

Having decided on the components he was to use in his machine, John looked for someone to build the frame that he had designed, as the equipment required was not available to someone building a one-off machine. On the staff of his father’s printing works was a Mr Hutt, whose son, Sid, was works manager of the Heavitree Engineering Company, small jobbing engineers, whose parent company, the Exe Engineering Company, were machine and tool makers. Sid made part of the premises and equipment available to John. There, in his spare time, he constructed the frame with the help of an experienced engineer, George Cowd. George, a great character and highly skilled engineer, was able to turn his hand to all aspects of engineering. This was important, because it was not easy to build a frame when there was no intention to proceed further and construct other machines. It was decided from the outset to make the frame an all welded construction, eliminating the necessity to make any lugs, in fact there were no malleable lugs anywhere. A. J. W. at this time used a duplex type frame that was a perfect arrangement for the engine, because the valve springs stuck out beyond the rocker gear.  They could pass between the duplex tubes and therefore did not prevent the frame from being built tightly around the engine. All this enabled him to keep the wheel-base short and the saddle height very low, a phenomenal 24 inches above the ground, and this attributed the very good steering qualities which the machine had. Riders were sceptical about the safety aspects of the all welded frame, because of the risk of breakage at the joints.  (Many professional riders preferred silver soldered or brazed frames.)  But since John was building the machine for himself he was able to take the risk, particularly with a machine of this horse power, and, as things turned out, the welding proved to be a complete success, although there were one or two modifications to be made later.

The entire frame was constructed from ten gauge blue steel and plate with the exception of the head lug which was turned out of a solid billet. The all welded construction afforded him great flexibility of design, which meant he could create a frame of almost any shape he wished. From start to finish, working in his spare time, the machine took about three months to build, and on the twenty first of April 1926 FJ 4235 appeared on the road.

AJW FIrst Motorcycle

Only John Wheaton can not express his true feelings on the day he first rode his new machine.

“I don’t think I shall ever forget the thrill of that first ride. The bike seemed to be an absolute winner. The engine was an absolute beauty. Acceleration was colossal. Steering was good and everything worked as it should. “

Brave words indeed, and those of you who have had a particularly difficult rebuild can appreciate his feelings. Mistakes had of course been made but they could be quickly rectified.

John ran the bike for several months, covering many thousands of miles all over the country.  After three months, he took it across the channel and, with a sidecar attached, drove it to Switzerland and back, a journey of about two thousand miles. The machine, by this time, had done something in the region of 10,000 miles and everything was proving satisfactory.

John built a second machine FJ 4236 for Una Chick, his girl friend. It was registered on the same day as the larger model and it was virtually identical, with the exception of a lighter frame, gas lamps and a smaller engine. It is shown in the picture below taken in Northernhay Park, Exeter on April 24th 1926.

Una Chick’s machine with a 500cc Anzani engine

Una Chick’s machine with a 500cc Anzani engine