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The Testers' Run 2003
Saturday 16th and Sunday 17th August 2003

(Illustrated 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 Testers' Run.

Considering there 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.

Bridgnorth provides 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 Davies whose 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.

This 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 beyond 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 envious!

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 up-hill push 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 lunchtime stop.

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.


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