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22nd July 03

Motorcycle Memories

Tom Workman wisely got his bike licence before all that nasty test business arrived. Wouldn't it be great to go back to the days when life was that straightforward?

I started work as a carpenter and joiner apprentice for five years at Frank Parham's, builders of Gillingham in Kent, on Monday 3rd February 1930. The first month was a trial period, and I was paid at 5/- (25p) a week for 47 hours. The following eleven months were paid at 7/6d (37p) per week. In September 1930 I started evening classes at Rochester Technical School, where I met Frank Holly, who was an unemployed shipwright from Chatham Dockyard.

Frank and I got talking and the result was that I purchased his New Imperial motorcycle for 7. On the application form for the insurance we upped the value to 10. Compulsory third party insurance was introduced in April 1931 by law. People were getting injured in traffic accidents, and the drivers were unable to pay compensation. The expression at the time was; 'you can't get blood out of a stone', hence the need for the insurance.

The Norton outfit in Lenham, Kent, taken in June 1942.

My first driving licence started on 23rd October 1931. I was lucky here -- I took myself off to County Hall at Maidstone to get a motorcycle licence, and found an old school friend working behind the counter. I explained what I wanted, and he advised me that driving tests would be coming in soon. He said that I would be better off obtaining a licence for all groups before the test came into effect. I took his advice and he issued me with a full licence.

My New Imperial motorcycle, registration number KL122, was a 1924 model. It was very modern for its day, having drum brakes, chain drive and hand gear change. On top of the flat petrol tank was a spring loaded plunger; when pressed down this oiled the engine; the plunger then came slowly up, and when fully up you repeated the process. The engine was a side valve and rated at 2 HP. The cc capacity was not shown in the log book.

Frank Holly had fitted semi-sports handlebars -- these were slightly curved towards the rider but level. I expect that the originals were the 'sit up and beg' type. The drawback of the semi-sports handlebars was that if you turned a tight right hand bend, then the handlebars would hit the oil pump plunger, and if it was not well down you couldn't turn the handlebars further. This led to some exciting moments until you got used to it -- on any sharp right bends the plunger was pushed right down. The motorcycle had a looped frame, so the engine was fixed inside the frame, unlike today when on some machines the engine is part of the frame.

It was a nice stable machine. You could apply the back brake hard and still stop in a straight line, with no sliding sideways. Originally the lighting was acetylene, but Frank had fitted electric lamps and a battery. There was a drawback here because, having no dynamo, the battery had to be removed and taken to a garage to be recharged every so often. This didn't worry Frank as he lived in the town and used pilot lights only, the street lamps lighting the way. However I lived out in the country and needed the headlamp on so the battery did not last so long. If you parked your bike on the road of a night you had to leave the side lights on, or the nice policeman would have a word with you.

The stand was typical of the time -- it clipped onto the rear mudguard. To put the bike onto the stand you lowered the stand and pulled the bike backwards. I only did a few hundred miles on the New Imperial because I could not afford to run it, although Power petrol was only 1/- (5p) a gallon. I eventually traded it in for a three-speed pedal cycle.

Tom's mother with his BSA 150, taken in July 1935 at Lodge Hill House in Kent. The cat never got the hang of stunt-riding.

My next purchase, in October 1934, was a brand new 1935 model BSA, a 1 HP machine which cost 28.7/6d (28.37p). This included the number plates, which were black with white painted numbers, and the registration number was BKL 818. This was a lovely-looking machine. However it did have a nasty habit. If you braked hard the back wheel slid out, and if it was raining the machine could turn half a circle and you would end up facing the way you had just come from!

The plus side was having the luxury of a dipping headlight. My friend, Richard Sleman, had a Francis Barnet which only had headlight and pilot light, so when we met in the lane I had the advantage of not being left in very poor light. Quite a few of the older vehicles on the road at that time only had either high beam or pilot lights.

Looking back on it now, I should have purchased the BSA 250cc model. However this was sidevalve, and overhead valve was the thing to have. I was doing a lot of work along the North Kent coast and if there was a strong wind blowing the bike did not have enough power to keep going in top gear on a level road, so I had to drop it into second gear just to keep it going. When I got married in 1936 the bike was eventually sold.

In the event of invasion, the sidecar doubled up as a samll boat.Three years later I purchased a Norton 500, and sidecar. I believe that this was a 1931 model, and it had been converted to a foot gearchange. I purchased a new sidecar body from Watsonian and this made a nice outfit. I had fun learning to ride the outfit. Someone told me that you accelerated around left hand bends and decelerated around right hand bends. On my first left hand bend I accelerated and finished up on the opposite pavement, knocking a couple of planks out of a garden fence. Being a carpenter I quickly went home and collected some tools and repaired the fence, and left it looking like new.

Driving a combination after riding a solo machine is quite different so, again listening to advice, I cruised down a long, gentle slope to get the feel of turning the handlebars. At some time previous to me getting the Norton, the front wheel had been damaged so when the outfit was ridden fast into a sharp left hand bend, I could hear a 'ping'. I knew at once that a spoke had broken. This meant that when we got home the front wheel came out, and we replaced the spoke. The wife and I got this down to a fine art.

If the Norton would not start, I found that by turning the bike into the road so that the front wheel was higher than the rear, it would then start all right.

Some time after the War started, cars only had petrol for essential business use, but motorcycles had a small ration for private use until July 1942, when all private motoring was off the road. Due to the imminent threat of invasion all vehicles not in essential use had to be demobilised, so I removed the ignition cap and kept it safe indoors. The police did come around to check that this had been done. Eventually, after the war was over, we were allowed a ration of three gallons a month for private use, for which we were very grateful. My wife found that the sidecar was not so comfortable as she now had our son sitting on her lap, so eventually the outfit made way for an Austin Ruby car, but I have a lot of happy memories of the motorbike days.


Do you have memories to share about motorcycling days gone by? We'd love to hear them, especially if you have any photos of yourself and/or your bikes of that time.

Email TP@RealClassic.co.uk with all the info, and you could see your story here!



How easy was it to get your motorcycle license?


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