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AJS Centenary: 'Heritage Open Days' Guided Tour, Wolverhampton
Saturday 12th and Sunday 13th September 2009


10–13 September 2009

Every year in September ‘Heritage Open Days‘ celebrates England’s diverse heritage by offering free access to every age and type of building usually closed to the public or that normally charge for admission. There are also tours, events and activities which aim to bring local heritage and history to life.

Co-ordinated this year by English Heritage, the event taps into the enthusiasm and expertise of local people. With thousands of volunteers and some 800,000 visitors every year, Heritage Open Days is by far England’s largest heritage celebration.

See: www.heritageopendays.org.uk


To mark the centenary of AJS Motor Cycles this year’s Heritage Open Days events in Wolverhampton will include a guided, one-mile, walking tour through the town’s historic motor manufacturing heartland with its many surviving factory buildings.

The tour will celebrate the internationally significant contribution of the town’s vehicle makers to the history of the 20th century and the Modern Age of speed, mass personal transport and the freedom to travel. To be followed by an optional half-hour film about AJS and Sunbeam motor cycles.

      Saturday 12 September 2009
      Sunday 13 September 2009

       Walking tour 12.30 – 2.00pm
       Film showing 2.30 – 3.00 pm

       Outside Central Library, Snow Hill, Wolverhampton



Heritage Open Days: Tour up-date

The tour will be longer than the one mile originally advertised - there's more to see! (see map below). In part this is thanks to the encouragement from Bev Parker at the Wolverhampton History and Heritage Society to look at other makers, and in part thanks to info from Sue Whitehouse, Building Conservation Officer at Wolverhampton City Council.

The venue for showing Lumic's film on AJS and Sunbeam motorcycles is, appropriately, a room in the former Sunbeam Car Company's factory on Upper Villiers Street - which adds a little extra walking to the end of the tour. The room is part of the Bizspace complex. Tea and biscuits will be available.

Finally, to kick-off the tour there will be an appearance of an old Sunbeam motorcycle from about 11.30am outside the Central Library, to mark the gathering space. Pudding basin helmet and goggles have been kindly provided with the generosity from Davida UK (thanks Laura and the team!) for kids large and small who want to grab a photo on the old machine ... all the vogue in the 1920s!

If the weather is bad, there is a 'plan B' to show a one-hour film of the Marston Sunbeam Register's Testers' Run from 1995 - again made by Lumic films of Kingswinford.

I was pleased to see the event get a mention in the English Heritage and Heritage Open Days national press releases - and the Guardian and Daily Mail newspapers! Author of the definitive history of the AJS company Stephen Mills is unfortunately unable to attend but sends his best wishes for the event. An inspection copy of his self-published book and purchase details will be available.

AJS Motor Cycles Centenary

In November 2009 it is the centenary of the establishment of AJS Motor Cycles, founded by the Stevens brothers of Wolverhampton. As blacksmith engineers the Stevens family are nationally significant pioneers of the UK motor cycle industry, having manufactured a commercially available engine (for use by others) in the late 1890s before commencing manufacture of their own machines in 1909. Stevens early engines supplied the Wearwell company, who along with Star began motor vehicle production in Wolverhampton just prior to1900, establishing the town as an important early centre for motor manufacturing.

Photo: AJS Retreat Street Works 1913 - from S J Mills (courtesy Ray Jones)

Along with AJS are neighbouring manufacturers Sunbeam, who produced the first UK car to win a foreign grand prix and the first powered vehicle to break both the 150mph and 200mph land speed records. Sunbeam aero engines also powered the first return flight across the Atlantic and the company were the first to use aero engines to power land speed record vehicles. Also nearby were Clyno cars, at one time the UK's third largest producer after Austin and Morris. The first V8 car engine was produced in Wolverhampton. 

Surviving Heritage

Surprisingly, a good number of Wolverhampton's early motor vehicle factories survive clustered within about a mile of one another to the south of Wolverhampton city centre. Few are protected as ‘listed buildings’, despite efforts, nor are they protected by inclusion within a ‘conservation area’ but most are on the Wolverhampton City Council's non-statutory 'local list'.

Photo: Sunbeamland, Paul Street Works

Despite the buildings languishing, the town’s motor manufacturing heritage is little-by-little becoming nationally recognised. The Heritage Lottery Fund supported a Wolverhampton Central Youth Theatre project in 2007 to stage a production at Wolverhampton's Grand Theatre about 'the Supreme Sunbeam' - followed by the making of a short film.  As well as the obvious headline story, it looked at the lives of factory workers and the changes brought about by WWI. This is a fascinating story that the surviving factory landscape can tell poignantly - in a very different way to seeing restored vehicles at historic vehicle rallies.

How the Industrial Revolution became transformed into the Modern Age with its fascination with speed, mass personal transport and the freedom to travel is a story that Wolverhampton had a significant part in. Men and women working in Wolverhampton factories played a key role in the revolution that produced the motor vehicle-based culture that transformed every aspect of our lives – to the point where we now worry about its impact on the planet’s very survival.

Guided 'Heritage Open Days' Tour and Film

To mark the AJS centenary a guided one mile walking tour is proposed to take in eight former factory buildings / factory sites with interpretation leaflets provided. The
Wolverhampton History and Heritage Society have been very helpful and encouraging. Their information is invaluable (www.localhistory.scit.wlv.ac.uk)

The tour is on Saturday 12th and Sunday 13th (12.30-2.00pm).

Local history film-maker Lumic Ltd of Kingswinford have given permission to screen their half-hour film on AJS and Sunbeam motor cycles made in the mid-1990s which features interviews with surviving factory workers, archive photos, footage, etc. A venue in the area is currently being negotiated. Obviously, attendance will be without any charge.

Map: extract from Geographers' A-Z Map Co. Ltd.


Wolverhampton’s Motor Manufacturing Heritage: A history worth celebrating

The internal combustion engine defines the Modern Age, providing us with both speed and freedom to travel. It pervades 20th century culture, affecting how we live our lives; design our towns; provide our goods and services; spend our leisure time; wage war. The Modern Movement which sought to break with past culture in part grew out of a fascination with capturing speed in art. The sheer number of motor vehicles now threatens the very future of the planet! All this has occurred in a little over 100 years.

The UK was slow to involve itself in this emerging industry. Gottleib Daimler had tested his first petrol-powered vehicle in 1885 and in 1886 Carl Benz designed a prototype motorised tricycle [1]. The first commercially produced motorcycle, the Hildebrand und Wolfmüller, was available from 1894 [2].

The motoring historian David Burgese-Wise credits Daimler of Coventry as the first UK manufacturer, having been established in 1896 with its first vehicles produced in early 1897 [3]. Wolverhampton, one of the principal centres for the 19th century cycle industry (it had 59 cycle-makers recorded in the industry’s 1892 trade directory) [3], had the engineering and entrepreneurial skills to enter the emerging motor vehicle industry. The Star manufacturing company was established in 1897, producing its first Benz-style car under licence in 1898 along with motor-tricycles on the French De Dion et Bouton style [4].

Whereas most of the UK’s early manufacturers built machines under licence from their European designers, the Stevens brothers, engineering blacksmiths in Wolverhampton, can be credited as innovators. AJS historian Stephen Mills relates how in 1897 they acquired an American Miller engine which they dismantled, grasped its principles and redesigned as a more efficient motor [5]. The Stevens Motor Manufacturing Co. was established in 1899 and for ten years supplied engines to motorcycle makers, an early customer being Wearwell of Wolverhampton from 1900 [6]. Wearwell was itself a company that had commenced the early production of motor vehicles in 1899 [7].

The use of Stevens’ engines by car and motorcycle makers Clyno of Thrapston in Northamptonshire encouraged the company to relocate to the town in 1910 [8]. Clyno subsequently became the UK’s third largest car manufacturer after Austin and Morris [9]. It celebrates its centenary this year. Stevens also designed the first motorcycle engine for Marstons, makers of Sunbeam motorcycles and cars [10].

In 1909 the Stevens brothers commenced production of their own motorcycles which continued until 1931 when the company was bought by Matchless of London who continued production into the 1960s [11]. It is this AJS centenary that is being celebrated this year.

The Heritage Open Days tour will take in a dozen factory sites – most with surviving buildings, three of which are statutorily listed whilst others are included on the Council’s local list. The principal AJS site, now a supermarket, is commemorated by the ‘Lone Rider’ memorial sculpture.

● Tempest Street – site of the original Stevens engineering and blacksmith company
● Frederick Street Works – Star motor car works
● Poutney Street Works – site of Wearwell motorcycles
● Stewart Street Works – home to Star and Briton cars, Hayward side-cars and AJS wireless
● Paul Street – Sunbeam Works
● Retreat Street – AJS and Stevens Works
● Pelham Street –Clyno Works
● Pelham Street – AJS and Clyno Works (2 buildings opposite one another)
● Great Brickkiln Street – site of Wearwell and Wolf Works
● AJS Graisley Works site – the Lone Rider memorial
● Marston Street – Villiers Works
● Upper Villiers Street – Sunbeam Car Works


[1] David Burgess-Wise (2006) ‘Brighton Belles: A Celebration of Veteran Cars’ (Crowood Press)

[2] Erwin Tragatsch (ed) (1993) ‘The New Illustrated Encyclopedia of  Motorcycles’ (Grange Books)

[3] David Burgess-Wise, op. cit.

[4] Wolverhampton History and Heritage Society web-site (www.localhistory.scit.wlv.ac.uk) accessed 26 August 2009

[5] Stephen J Mills (1994) ‘AJS of Wolverhampton’ (published by author)

[6] Ibid.

[7] Wolverhampton History and Heritage Society, op. cit.

[8] Stephen J Mills, op. cit.

[9] Wolverhampton History and Heritage Society, op. cit 

[10] Robert Cordon Champ (1986) ‘The Sunbeam Motorcycle’ (Haynes)

[11] Stephen J Mills, op. cit.



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