Road testing was carried out on every motorcycle manufactured at AMC's Plumstead Road factory. The team of riders who carried out this important function were seen by the younger members of the workforce as the gods of the motorcycling world.
Although a large proportion of the employees were keen motorcyclists themselves, who might have envied the testers their freedom and variety of work on a fine sunny day, most would have been cowering in fear and trepidation if asked to do their job on a bleak winter morning.
As it was, for these true dyed-in-the-wool riders, weathered and hardened by the thousands of miles ridden in every season of the year, it was not a glamorous or easy life. Even when being paid to ride a new motorcycle every day, testing an untried machine or putting up huge daily mileages in all weathers demanded a unique blend of dedication and skill.
When not actually out on the road, the testers were based at the end-of-track area of the assembly department, near the lift on the second floor (later to be located in what had been the drilling bay on the ground floor).
The normal course of duty would have been to take out each finished bike for a road test of at least 12 miles to check that the machine met with its normal performance specification in terms of power, smoothness, handling and braking, as well as noting any unusual noises or sensations that might point to a particular problem area.
Before leaving the factory, though, each tester would carry out a pre-ride check for cable adjustments, wheel alignment, chain tensions and, only when he was happy, would he take it out on to the road for its test.
Normally, with the high build quality at AMC, the bike would be passed OK at the end of the test or, if there was a minor adjustment or correction required, the tester himself would fix the problem before signing it off.
If any more serious problems were found, then the machine would be handed to the rectification team with the tester's report for correction of the faults.
In the course of a normal day's work, each tester would be expected to take out between eight and ten machines for their proving runs.
You can view a very short video clip of the testers riding Commandos in Burrage Grove by clicking on the following image.
As well as ensuring that every machine off the production line had a clean bill of health, the testers were also the ideal team of people to provide expert feedback to the design office, especially valuable on newly introduced models.
Many of their comments and suggestions for improvement would be incorporated into the next batch of machines, much to the benefit of their eventual owners.
The testers were also required to do 'mileage' testing on bikes selected for the purpose.
The objective was to put as many miles as possible on the machine in the shortest period of time to prove the reliability of a development before it was released for production.
Regularly riding upwards of 300 miles per day over long distances would not be uncommon, and the road testing of ISDT bikes before a competition could be for 3000 miles.
With the AMC factory situated as it was in a fairly built up area, clocking-up the initial mileage on the new machines whilst on normally speed restricted roads was a bit of a problem for the testers and routinely brought them into contact with the local police motorcyclists.
Although some realised that the testers were only doing their job, others would take their law-enforcing role more seriously and try to give chase whenever they spotted one of the factory riders exceeding the limit.
Bill Brooker, for one, would literally give the boys in blue a run for their money resulting on one occasion with an officer pleading with him when finally stopped, 'not to go so fast on his Commando, as his old Triumph couldn't keep up with him!'
The police also had another problem in apprehending any offending riders as, because all the bikes being tested on the road on a particular day looked identical, all the testers had to do when they got back to the factory was to quickly take off their trade plates, leaving the poor plod uncertain as to which of them they had been chasing after.
Normally though, being keen motorcyclists themselves, the police riders were usually more interested in finding out about the new models that the testers were taking out for their spins; in some cases even requesting to swap bikes so that they could try them themselves. This shows how close a group motorcycle riders can be even when they are sometimes on opposite sides of the law.
It was a fact of life at the factory that a high proportion of its more dedicated employees would exhibit noticeable physical damage; limps, mis-shaped arms, scars, etc. as a result of their own personal motorcycling "adventures".
Naturally the testers would have been the most at risk, partly due to the high mileages that they covered every day, in sometimes hazardous conditions, and partly because they were also called upon to put miles on an experimental prototype, any part of which might fail while travelling at speed.
Legend has it that one tester held claim to the fact that he had broken every bone in his body during his long employment with the company, but that was probably a gross exaggeration!
By contrast, tester Alan Jones, who estimated that he had covered in excess of 1.8 million miles on around 30,000 different bikes during his testing career, had an incredible accident free record, and was presented with a certificate to prove it.
You can read an article about Alan's career as a tester, "I've Ridden 30,000 Bikes", on the Links page.
Not quite so well glued to his saddle, though, was Bill Brooker who earned his nickname of "The Horizontal Ace" for his ability to fall off a bike with alarming frequency (his record being three times in one day, whilst trying to get back to Plumstead when it was snowing very heavily.)
Three of the intrepid team of test riders in not quite the best weather conditions.
(It's not always like this in England - honestly)
Alan Jones recalls that winter testing conditions were either intensely cold or continuous rain, with fog and snow thown in for good measure! He says that 'he would return from testing some times, when it was so cold, with icicles hanging off my clothing and, on entering the factory, would have to shake them all off.
For another picture showing these and other testers (out of the snow), see Main Assembly Group pic.
The Summer months, however, weren't always completely hazard-free as, even when the weather was relatively dry, the testers would sometimes run the risk of a soaking on their return to the factory when a well-aimed water bomb (a balloon filled with water) was lobbed off the factory roof by some practical jokers - fellow testers among them - just as they were wheeling their machines back into the firm.
Bob Rowlan, who has lived in New South Wales, Australia since 1970, recalls that for several years up until 1956, his father Bill worked at the AMC factory,
first on the assembly line and then as a road tester.
Bob, who was born in 1947, still has very clear memories of Dad riding the firm's bikes saying that 'He would occasionally take me to school on a test bike, be it a road machine or even a competition model, with me perched on the mudguard! I was the envy of my school chums, on a different new bike each time they saw me.'
Not sure that the younger generation would be allowed to experience the same thrilling exploits these days!
Bob also sent along this photo showing a large team of test riders on bikes outside the factory
around 1955, and thought to have been used for publicity purposes in a German magazine.
However, all is not quite as it appears!!
Bob last spoke about this picture with his dad when he visited the UK in 1986. He says 'It is supposed to be showing a large team of road testers at that time, but Dad told me that not everyone there is a tester. Also, as you progress along the row of bikes, from L to R, so they progressively become less complete! The one on the far right having no engine or gearbox fitted!'
As they might say, 'All's fair in love and publicity'.
|David Bean||ex. Norton apprentice|
|Fred Billot||also ISDT competitor|
|Tony Botting||ex. trainee (d.2014)|
|Charlie Challis||1946 - 54||later in transport workshop|
|Tim Gibbes||1955 - ?||ISDT (Aus)|
|Robert A Hancock||1940 - 46|
|Bill Hawkins||1951- 69||to Andover until 1976|
|Nick Hyde||1967 - 69|
|Alan Jones||1955 - 69||prev. m/c shops and rectification|
|Ray Lightfoot||? - 1969||ex. trainee|
|Bill Rowlan||? - 1956||prev. assembly track (d. 1995)|
|Brian Slark||1965 - 66||prev. competition shop|
|Archie F T Timberlake||1911 - 14|
|Jim Walby||also 7R & G50 tester|