The Testers' Run 2003
Saturday 16th and Sunday 17th August 2003
with blurry photos from an old 35mm 'point and click' camera!)
Saturday and the 1931 Lion burbles along Wobaston Road,
turning smartly into
Marston Aerospace with its distinct saw-tooth roof, to be acknowledged by the security guard at the gatehouse. I had arrived. It
is 11am at the Marston factory in Fordhouses
on the suburban outskirts of Wolverhampton. Tea and breakfast 'butties' are
being distributed along with the route maps as Sunbeam riders gather in
the proximity of the factory's old sheds in preparation for this year's
are 200 miles and two days of motor cycling ahead of us, including the
infamous Bwlch-y-Groes (the Pass of the Cross) the highest road pass in
Wales, everyone is relaxed
and laid back. The very pleasant weather helps. Trevor Davies, from the Marston
Sunbeam Register, organises riders with his usual easy-going manner.
The 'home team' is a little reduced this year. Familiar faces such as Brian
Cowen, Ray Jones, David Davies and Jane and Ian Ackers are absent. But, the
turn out of 10 testers is a good number (one resorting to a rogue, 1920s'
Ariel!), plus there is the regular support crew including Reg in the Marston rescue van.
George Peck, a long-retired employee of John Marston
Ltd who saw motor cycle production at Sunbeamland, is there to wave us off.
He's assisted by Geoff Stevens, son of
Joe Stevens Junior, one of the four founding brothers of AJS motor cycles
(photo above). It is great to see George's interest in the machines and
hear his tales. He is able to regale us with the stories of how the various
components of the machine were hand-made by the work force. It seemed he had
worked his way through many of the jobs himself during his time there. A
real mine of information and a pleasure to listen to. He was very taken with
a flat-tank Model 9. Unfortunately for Geoff Stevens, this year saw no AJS
motor cycles amongst the testers' machines.
The last arrival was
Nick - in the nick of time! - who had ridden in from Nottingham that very
morning on his Model 6 Longstroke of c.1926 (blurry photo above). He just
had time for a breather before the 'Beams were fired up. Waved off in
formation by Messrs Peck and Stevens, followed by a salute from the
gatehouse, we make a right turn pointing us towards Dinas Mawddwy
some 90 miles away. A few twists and turns, with dexterous use of clutch,
gear lever and brakes gets us out into the Staffordshire lanes, then on to
Bridgnorth, across the Severn and into the rolling Shropshire hills. A few
modern race replica biking 'brothers' seem to take great delight in venting
their frustration from the time it took to pass us by 'buzzing' us a little
closer than necessary. Pointlessly annoying but soon forgotten.
a marvellous test of brakes as old machines descend down 'the Hermitage' into the Severn
valley and Bridgnorth's Low Town river crossing. Above us on the ridge is High Town
with its church and tower silhouetted. Beyond 'Bridgo', to use the
vernacular, modern bikes are far fewer and lanes quieter. Roads through the
Clee Hills have probably changed little since the days of the factory
testers in the 1920s and '30s. It all becomes much more enjoyable,
especially with the warm late-summer sunshine.
As we spread out
the average speed settles to about 50 mph, with surprising little harsh vibration
from the Longstroke engine. With wide bars, a sprung mattress saddle and
Webb-style girder forks it's actually very comfortable as I add on the miles
- more so than modern bikes say fellow testers who have modern bikes for
comparison. More enjoyable than the MZs and odd Suzuki, Kawasaki and Harley
I've ridden, too.
The lunch time stop is at the Sun Inn en
route to Craven Arms (photos above and below). It is coupled with a press call
for the local Shropshire Star newspaper. Press photographers, I'm sure, have
a mission to make the rest of us look unnatural and awkward. This is borne
out by three of our testers being talked into grinning inanely, knees bent at unnatural angles to
square-up shoulders as they were asked to 'cuddle' bottles of the Sun Inn's home-brewed
beer. Just moments before they had been standing perfectly naturally,
chatting over a pint. A far less embarrassing picture!
Fed, watered and photographed we are off once more.
A few of us stop for petrol at Craven Arms - a pretty, countryside town yet
still retaining its real, working, rural character. We create a bit of
interest for the locals at the petrol station. Then, it is on to some
wonderful Welsh roads - even quieter than
those that took us through Shropshire. We passed through
picturesque countryside and villages in the Welsh Marches. There's sunshine enough
for tee-shirts and Belstaffs but with just a hint of a chill in the air to
keep it fresh rather than stifling.
Somewhere in mid-Wales I take a wrong turn,
adding a few extra miles. Too much watching the scenery and not the map! In chasing the pack I come across Trevor
bike had lost
power in a cloud of black smoke. It refuses to fire up again. Reg trailing
behind us in the rescue van soon has him on board. For me there follows a nerve-wracking
episode getting through market-day traffic in Welshpool whilst the Lion is
over-revving and running hot. An adjustment of the carb at a junction sorts the first
problem (all that vibration had moved stop screws) whilst unimpeded, steady motor
cycling beyond Welshpool on the road to Dinas Mawddwy sorts out the latter.
Finally, Sunbeams gather to top up with petrol at the garage in Dinas in
anticipation of tomorrow's early start.
year we are all booked into the Red Lion at Dinas (photo below). It is the
most pub-like of the three hostelries used regularly as stop-overs on the
Testers' Run (the others being the Buckley Pines and
the Brigands hotels). No complaints on that score! To what seems the genuine delight of the clientele
the Sunbeams park up, with riders soon queuing at the bar for well-deserved pints.
Refreshed, Trevor's bike is examined. The reason for
its breakdown is discovered. The timing had slipped a few degrees
top-dead-centre. Could we break the taper on the upper magneto sprocket to
re-set it?! Could we heck! Everything is tried but to no avail. We conclude
that as the upper sprocket was stuck so fast, it must be the
lower mag sprocket that was slipping. By this time no-one has the enthusiasm for
the disassembly needed to get to it. Trevor's bike is consigned to the
rescue van for the remainder.
Out of our riding gear and freshened up,
you could hardly recognise us as the motorcyclists from an hour or two
earlier. We enjoy a communal meal in the
bar - after negotiating a special dispensation from the landlord to get
ourselves out of the quieter dining room at the back. Brian Watton genially provides
the bottles of red wine as we tuck into leak and potato soup and followed, for
me, by a fine cheese 'n' vegetable bake with chips. Clive, one of the 'home
team' riders, announces that his cycle computer reads 88 miles. I keep quiet
about my minor 10-mile detour which occurred when I wasn't paying enough attention
to the the printed direction sheet we were all issued with! I regarded those
extra few miles as added pleasure, and I didn't want to make my colleagues
Dinner is walked off with a stroll along
the lanes around Dinas. A combination of bad jokes and motor cycle banter
being the order of the day -
interrupted by the occasional flight to the road-side verges as we startle
passing motorists as dusk
descends. Eventually we return to the Red Lion, where night caps are moderate and bed much-welcome.
Sunday morning requires a prompt 9.30am start
(photo below). Not too difficult
after we have 'fuelled up' on a traditional fried breakfast, taken in the
pub's back room. Trevor and Brian had arrived last for breakfast but, like a
well-rehearsed double act, they soon have us in fine spirits - at one point
encouraging us to accompany them in a medley of Chapel hymn favourites!
There's many Wolverhampton folk with Welsh heritage! Then there is the
weather. It looks as if it is going to be perfect
for the day's motor cycling ahead of us. What more could we want and the Welsh Hills
are soon ringing to the sound
of Sunbeams being fired up as we punctually commence the return journey.
There is a choice of return route. For
those who do not relish the challenge of the Bwlch-y-Groes pass over the
Cambrian Mountains there is a less demanding, northward route taking in Bala
Lake. It joins up with fellow testers who had gone the 'whole hog' and
tested themselves and machine against the pass.
The route over Bwlch-y-Groes commences
with a hair-pin, reverse camber bend! A sign on a gate warns about the likely
closure of the pass in bad weather. That's just the start! There is then
quite a climb - nearly 1,800 feet at its high-point. The side-valve engine seems to cope but I have to drop down
to second gear and take it at a leisurely speed. It is a real thrill to see,
and hear, a Model 9 and 90 in action roaring past me! Then, with the top of
the climb in sight, my trusty Lion cuts out! My inexperience in using the
retard lever shows. Far too much retard I'm told by Brian Watton. He puts me
right, quoting the advice he had received from AJS expert Ray Jones: always stay on
full advance with only very little retard if absolutely necessary on
a climb. Here I was on nearly half retard with all that combustion doing
little work and just making the engine hotter than it need be! I get an
start from Brian and Trevor (my thanks for their strenuous efforts) and the Lion did what it was supposed to and
powered itself to the top (photo above).
The viewing point on Bwlch-y-Groes is
fabulously clear, with views of Cadair Idris in the distance (photos above). It always is when Brian Cowen (one of
Marston's regular 'home team') isn't on the run, someone quipped! Brian is
credited with some of the worst weather riding on the Testers' Runs. We are
joined by two Welsh riders on 1920s' Norton and Sunbeam who it seems take
in Bwlch-y-Groes as a regular Sunday ride out! Group photos taken, we start
the decent. 'Test yer brakes aer kid', I am advised! Very sound advice. They
heat up to the point where they start to lose their grip on the descent.
Once the ordeal of crossing the Cambrian Mountains
is over and we're travelling through the Berwyns, our
mid-morning tea break is at Llangynog, to the west of Oswestry. Here, at the
New Inn Hotel we meet up with the riders who have wisely taken the less
demanding route around Lake Bala (photos below).
Once we're back on the road, the Welsh countryside flies by. Through
Welshpool and into the borderland Marches, with the sunshine and country
roads making riding a treat. The Lion runs like a charm, not missing a beat.
I'm revelling in the delightful sound of the big thumping engine, and the
fabulous views. Far too soon Craven Arms appears, soon followed by our
The lunch stop is once again at the Sun
Inn on the route back to Bridgnorth from Craven Arms. It is aptly named
today. The late summer sunshine allows us to sit outside. Shirt sleeves are the order of the day. We are
greeted by George Peck who joins up with us to hand out the event awards to
this year's testers. As for me, it is great to receive an
award for the Riders' Choice of Motor Cycle. It made up for the disappointment
of breaking down half-way into the outward leg of last year's Testers' Run.
Then, fed and watered on a fine cheese
and onion baguette, washed down with a glass of beer, all that is left to do
is fire up the 'Beam for one last time and join the queue to get back on to the B4368 to Bridgnorth and home.
Wolverhampton appears at last. One tired but
rather happy (and successful) tester returns along with
Sunbeam Lion of 1931 vintage and a large bag of tools 'n' spares, complete
with waterproofs (surprisingly, unused!). Just time for one last photo at
Marston before what has been a memorable weekend closes.