Home • Know your Sunbeams • Sunbeamland • Running 'n' Riding • Workshop • Marston Sunbeam Register • Events • Sales & Wants • Forum


AJS Centenary, Wolverhampton
Saturday 14th November 2009

photo: arrivals at the former AJS works on Retreat Street, Wolverhampton

On Saturday 14th November 2009 AJS Motor Cycles was 100 years old. It had been founded in November 1909 by the Stevens brothers, engineering blacksmiths from Wolverhampton. The brothers had been pioneers of the UK's motor industry, manufacturing engines (for use by others) just prior to 1900. In 1909 they decided to manufacture their own complete motorcycles, using the name 'AJS' from Albert John Stevens' initials. The rest, as they say, is history!

photo: blue plaque on the Retreat Street Works

The original AJS Works on Retreat Street in Wolverhampton survives and it was here that almost 50 enthusiasts met on a wild and stormy Saturday to mark the centenary. From this small back-street factory emerged machines that in 1914 dominated the year's Junior TT races, coming in first, second, fourth and sixth. A phenomenal achievement that helped the new company grow to become one of the country's principal manufacturers.

photo: Jim Stevens with Mike Botting and the 1931 ex-George Rowley TT racer

The appearance of Jim Stevens, now in his 80s, provided an evocative link with the origins of AJS 100 years ago. His father Billie Stevens had been the youngest of the five Stevens brothers and, after serving in the Great War, went on to be involved in the Stevens' business endeavours. These included many years in the Retreat Street Works both during the 1930s following the sale of AJS to Matchless of London (1931) when three-wheelers and 'Stevens' motorcycles were manufactured; and after the Second World War. The Stevens Screw Company continued to occupy the works until 1992. Jim spent a good few hours chatting with those who turned up, providing an insight into the time when the place had been a thriving hive of engineering activity.

photo: more arrivals at the former AJS works on Retreat Street, Wolverhampton

Today, however, it is vacant and empty - no chance of finding a long-forgotten machine in a dusty corner! This did not dampen the interest in having a look inside. The nearby Sikh Temple, which recently became the the owner of the works, kindly agreed to open the premises for the day. This allowed some of the more exotic machines that turned up on the day to be left for inspection under cover.

photo: Mike Botting's tales of the ex-George Rowley machine

First to set the corrugated tin lean-to beside the factory building reverberating was Mike Botting's 1931 ex-George Rowley TT machine. The OHC (over-head cam) 495cc machine was one of the last in the line of the factory's racers before the Wolverhampton company was bought up by Matchless and moved to London. Mike gave an enthralling presentation to the assembled enthusiasts, explaining the machines technical intricacies as well as its history in George Rowley's hands. George adapted the machine for use in the ISDT (International Six Days' Trial) and campaigned it with success in 1931, '32 and '33, winning gold medals and helping to gain the trophy for Britain. Mike explained how it was the success of this machine in George Rowley's hands that encouraged new owners Matchless to produce an OHC machine for the 1933 season. The Matchless-made, chain-driven AJS 7R and G50 then went on to become iconic British racing machines in the post-war era.

photo: Ray Jones's 1924 AJS (courtesy Mohan Singh)

The sound of single cylinder machines arriving always caused heads turn. This was especially so in the case of AJS fan Ray Jones, Honorary Curator of Cars and Motorcycles at the Black Country Living Museum, who rode in on his 1924 sporting 350cc OHV (over-head valve) H5 model. The Black Country Living Museum will be celebrating the Ajay's centenary year at its Festival of Black Country Vehicles on Sunday 25 July. Early indications are there will be a good turn out.

photo: Another Wolverhampton AJS - owner unknown (courtesy Alan Jennings)

Indeed, a good number of AJS motorcycles turned up during the course of the day and it was pleasing to see earlier pre-war models along with those of the post-war years. The little side-valve machine to the left in the above photo appeared but unfortunately I didn't catch sight of its owner. Great to see it there! It would be great to know whose machine it was.


2 photos: Bruce Harrison's arrival on 1934 Sunbeam outfit

Today's event was supported by representatives from the Marston Sunbeam Register. Trevor Davies arrived early to 'meet and greet' whilst Bruce Harrison rode in on his 1934 Sunbeam Lion side-valve combination. Not only Wolverhampton-made but also Wolverhampton registered with its 'JW' number plate.

4 photos: A fine collection of post-war AJS machines (courtesy Mohan Singh)

Visitors also included representatives from both the West Midlands and the Warwickshire Sections of the AJS and Matchless Owners' Club (AMOC) who came out in force to support the event. Cheers lads and lasses - really appreciated! The AMOC is also celebrating the AJS centenary year both at its annual three-day rally, to be hosted in Halesowen in May by the West Midlands Section, and by a relay run between Wolverhampton and Plumstead in London involving its various sections.

2 photos: Lee Mitchell's young son gets to grips with the George Rowley machine

AMOC member Lee Mitchell's son - youngest attendee on the day - became the centre of attention when he tried the ex-George Rowley machine for size. Seemed to get the hang of it, 'though the it will be some time before he masters the foot-change on that gearbox! Lee's daughter was also able to give the experts some advice!

photo: Prospective AJS test rider discussing the merits of the machines!

Furthest travelled on the day were undoubtedly Jane and Ian Akers from Kent. Having weathered 160 miles of wind and rain to arrive at the event, it was great to see Jane's 350cc side-valve machine from 1930. Jane and the little side-valve appear as one of the few AJS machines in the 1995 Wolverhampton Testers' Run video by Lumic Films. With only three other similar machines from 1930 know to survive, it really is a rare little beast! Jacqueline Bickestaffe, expert on all things HRD, rode across from Daventry on her 1926 HRD - the marque originating in Heath Town Wolverhampton and founded by former AJS TT racer Howard R Davies. With only gas lamps for lighting, Jacqueline's late afternoon departure must have made for an interesting ride home! The Wolverhampton-registered Sunbeam 'UK 8475', formerly owned by Walter Edge, first Chairman of the local section of the Vintage Motor Cycle Club (VMCC) was also present.

photo: Jane Akers' 1930 350cc side-valve AJS

photo: Wolverhampton's HRD, AJS and Sunbeam marques

photo: Jane Akers' 1930 AJS and Jacqueline Bickestaff's 1926 HRD

photo: Jacqueline Bickestaff's 1926 HRD (courtesy Mohan Singh)

AJS aficionado Ivan Rhodes turned up, bringing with him some fine Wolverhampton-made machines. His 1923/24 'Big Port', running on methanol, and 1927 sporting 350cc model attracted attention as  soon as they were unloaded. He also brought along the last surviving engine of the eight made by AJS for the 1920 TT, in which one in four of the 32 machines that entered the Junior race were Ajays, such was their reputation. The race, because of the Great War, was the first since 1914 when AJS had dominated the course. Unsurprisingly the AJS of Cyril Williams came in first in 1920.

4 photos: Ivan Rhodes' arrival with 1927 sporting OHV 350cc AJS

The lowest-powered machine on the day was the Wolverhampton-made Sunbeam bicycle brought along by Warren Cox. To everyone's delight he cycled around Retreat Street and acted as local guide for those heading over the road to see the former Marston's Sunbeamland Works. Thanks Warren!

photo: Warren, Jane and Sunbeam bicycle

For some the opening of the Retreat Street Works was an opportunity to explore the building's layout. Local history and heritage expert Bev Parker was able to gather info for his Wolverhampton History and Heritage Society website - and regale the assembled motorcyclists with his in-depth tales of Wolverhampton's motor manufacturing history. Retired engineer Mohan Singh, now with the area's local 'History Detectives', also turned up to have a good look around and enjoy the sight of the motorcycles. He helpfully brought along a copy of Stephen Mills' history of the AJS.

The interior of the works also provide somewhere to display the bikes out of the weather to allow visitors to have a good look over them.

photo: Sporting 350cc AJS machines from 1927 and 1923/24

photo: 1923/24 350cc sporting AJS - powerful engine in bicycle frame!

Finally, as the day drew to a close, a chance for a last photo shoot outside the Retreat Street Works before time to lock up the factory and head home.

photo: An array of Ajays outside the Retreat Street Works

photo: Jane Akers' 1930 AJS side-valve machine

photo: Ex-George Rowley 1931 TT racing bike

Despite the company's foundation in November 1909, the first AJS machines did not emerge until well into 1910 - the centenary of which is good reason to continue the celebrations of one of motorcycling's greatest marques with a number of events over the course of next year.

Finally, thanks must be given to the current owners of the works, who kindly agreed to open the premises for the day and made the day's event to celebrate the centenary of the foundation of AJS in its original home possible. Many thanks from all who attended!

Post script

An enamel badge, manufactured locally by GLJ Badges of Nechells, Birmingham, was commissioned to commemorate the centenary meeting at the AJS Retreat Street Works.

If you attended the event and have not received a badge please contact the website. E-mail contact on home page.

(photo courtesy Warren Cox)


Also, worth mentioning that Bev Parker of the very fine Wolverhampton History and Heritage Society website has researched the history of the Retreat Street Works following the centenary visit. A fascinating read! The link is:-



Return to: Events