Ex-AMC mileage tester Nick Hyde recalls his experiences during the last two years of the Plumstead factory.
At the beginning of 1967 I was working at a factory just off Lowfield Street, Dartford, and would meet Bob Smith who ran a bike shop in the same street during my lunch hour. It was Bob who talked me into going for the mileage/tester job at the AMC/Norton Villiers factory at Plumstead. I got the job in March 1967 and started to learn how to really ride motorcycles. Being paid to ride someone else’s motorbike as fast as you can without having to worry about repair bills is fantastic. All thanks to Bob and AMC /Norton.
Having been interviewed by Wally Wyatt, Foreman of the Test Shop, I turned up there on the following Monday. The first job was to get kitted out with riding gear from the nearby Army and Navy Surplus Store; Barbour suit, fireman’s boots, gauntlets and my own helmet. Then I was introduced to other other members of the Race Shop – John McLaren, Bert Lambert, Eric Goodfellow, Jim Boughen and Bill Brooker. I have remained friends with Bill ever since. I was also introduced to the P11, basically an Atlas-engined Matchless scrambler/desert racer, marginally adapted for the road. I had not ridden anything as big as this before or even kick-started one. I had to be shown the necessity of following through on the downstroke, if a vicious blow to the calf was to be avoided, by John Hudson.
On my first day I was told to take the bike out that morning. I proceeded from Plumstead to Dartford and then south to Eynsford, carrying on down the Darenth valley through Hildenborough and Tunbridge Wells through most of the Weald of Kent. The memory of that ride is still powerful as was the experience of the P11 compared to what I had been used to. The day developed wet but the P11 felt very controllable and the broad power band gave a sense of control and invigorating freedom.
On a number of occasions I met Police riders who mentioned that I had been spotted and pursued on several occasions but without success. Their bikes were not a match for the Commando. With Bill aboard, it was perhaps a little faster if we were both in a hurry although we were rarely let out together as Wally didn’t trust us. I had a good dice with a Ferrari, the last of their front-engined sports cars, along the A20, only managing to overtake approaching the last bend down ‘Death Hill’. The car was a lot faster than the Commando but I think that I knew the road better. Another time, in Wiltshire, near Warminster I think, an Army helicopter kept pace with me at about 100 mph and 100 feet altitude along the country roads until he got bored and I continued to Frome.
There are many memories of incidents and other bikes, some of which follow:-
Having got used to riding the Atlases, the P11 and the old P10, I became aware of a new design being talked about. It became apparent that a new engine/transmission was beyond the production capability at Plumstead so new cycle parts and engine mountings were evolved at Wolverhampton. The new design was tested day and night by Bill Brooker and others at MIRA in Leicestershire. I also went to MIRA to ride the Commando and the improvement that enabled full power to be used for sustained periods was dramatic.. There was very little vibration; it was like turning up the power on a turbine after the disabling vibration (for bike and rider) of a conventional parallel twin. The prototypes came down to the Test Shop at Plumstead and my mileage work on the Commando began. It was superb to ride and be able to use all that power but being worked so hard revealed fragility in several areas. Over the following months these parts were improved and tested. The Commando became more durable although a high wear rate remained a feature. This is not surprising as many components were still effectively Atlas.
However, one advantage was that the Commando was initially a very light bike so its acceleration compared to the developing, mainly Japanese, competition was better, as the early Commando was about 400 lbs dry - lighter than the Atlas and most other big twins, with the exception of the P11 and the Triumph Bonneville.
One bike that was great fun to ride was a P11 fitted with a TT Atlas engine which had much increased power and a lightened flywheel. It was very responsive and prone to wheelies. With a slightly steepened fork angle, this machine was superb through slow and medium speed bends up to 70 mph and P11s were generally very nice to jump. Another memorable experience at Norton/AMC was testing the Commando, Atlas and P11 at the Army testing circuit at Chobham Ridges. This involved riding over Belgian pave, sets (posts laid horizontally), and concrete tank test slopes at about 30 degrees with a 3 foot elevation. Not having any previous experience of jumping bikes, Bill and I spent many enjoyable weeks improving our skills.
Other memories weren’t so enjoyable; testing in freezing conditions until I couldn’t feel my knees and Bill’s gloves starting to burn after his home-made electrical adaptation caught fire. He looked like a rather large bird trying to get airborne with little success!
Caught in a progressing weather front in March, I arrived in Brighton after a wet but unseasonably warm ride and returned to Plumstead in freezing conditions and a snow storm. Vehicles were slipping off the road but, although I coped, I had to stop with the engine running and put my hands on the hot cylinder heads to warm them. I began to envy the ditched vehicles and wanted to just slide into a ditch and sleep. However, I recognised the onset of hypothermia and resisted the temptation. On arrival at the factory I was sent to stand between two furnaces and was only allowed to ride home when the steam came out of my riding suit and my limbs had resumed their normal function.
On one fast ride from Crayford to Norwich, to visit my sister, I think that I averaged 66 mph including stops for the Dartford toll and petrol. This was on an Atlas with a top speed of 105 mph, at which speed it vibrated horribly. A few days later, it was discovered that both piston skirts were cracked. By comparison, the P11 felt well balanced up to 80 mph but was aerodynamically less stable above 90. It felt good on loose surfaces though and very nicely balanced in jumps. The Commando felt well balanced on tarmac, wet or dry, but a weave could occur in the transition between straight ahead and settling into a curve. Generally speaking, this stabilised once the bike was well into the curve but sometimes a gentle dab on the rear brake was needed to break the oscillation. The S type differed only in having wider handlebars and, sometimes, different gearing. - America bound machines were geared for 115 mph, European ones for 122 mph. They were easy to balance and control at over 100 mph, the front end feeling planted and the rear controllable both in the wet and the dry and not bad on snow. On loose surfaces the front end could feel heavy when correcting or altering a line for a 5 foot 10 inch rider weighing 9 stone 7 pounds without kit.
Around early 1969, it seemed that much was changing at Plumstead and the factory was likely to move. Eventually production ceased at this Edwardian factory and was moved to an assembly facility at Thruxton, Hampshire. I decided not to move with them and took up an interesting offer from Jack Difazio. I had very much enjoyed my time at AMC/Norton and had learned a lot. I had worked with some good and talented people and had gained a lifelong friend in Bill Brooker.
Nick Hyde - October 2016