31.10.08

The anti-lock brakes debate takes Cyril back to his involvement with two very different development projects 40 years apart


From Cyril's memoirs dated 21 May 2005


Anti-lock braking is becoming a contentious issue as companies such as Honda fit it as standard. To some it’s a comfort, yet others consider that it robs them of ultimate control. My personal involvement with ABS brings back rather bad memories.


However, before I begin, I’d like to say that development work wasn’t always traumatic. In the summer of 1951 I was just 15 and an office lad at Ariel. Final testing was underway for a double-adult sidecar developed in conjunction with Watsonian and when the chance arose to attend a session at the test track I seized it with both hands. My duties involved no more than acting as ballast in the sidecar during laps of the course. Riding the 1000cc Square Four was chief tester Bill Jenkins and I was in the fully-enclosed chair with development engineer Stan Chesterton, a large man in his late 50s with a bushy, grizzled moustache stained by snuff.


I’ve always respected the impenetrable methods employed by these men of mathematics and on this occasion, however strange it may have seemed to my young mind, Mr Chesterton required weight distribution to be shifted each lap just before crossing the rippled, eyeball-shaking pavĂ© section. I had to rise from my seat and sit squarely on his lap facing away from him while he gripped my waist tightly for stability. I recall it being vaguely uncomfortable because of the small torch in Mr Chesterton's trouser pocket, which, he told me, he always carried 'just in case'.


This methodology, and the fact that I was required to wear nothing more than swimming trunks, may seem unconventional in today’s computer-driven world and as a naive teenager I could only guess at the good I was doing. But, as a breathless Mr Chesterton explained, he was receiving a lot of extremely satisfying feedback and a mere 212 laps later our work at the track was complete. Mr Chesterton seemed utterly spent, such, I imagined, were the complex calculations he'd been working on in his mind. It was good to know that, in a small way, I had helped in the birth of what became the best-selling sidecar of 1952 – the Intruder Senior.


But back to braking. Many years later, in the early 1990s, I worked for a major bike firm that was experimenting with ABS (my lawyers insist that the company remains nameless). BMW and Honda had ABS-equipped bikes on the market and we were keen to get on the bandwagon with a tourer based on a bike not unlike the GSX1100F.


We took the prototype to the Lucas research department’s skid-pan near Coventry and present that day was myself, chief engineer Keith Armstrong, the test rider Chris Allworth and, to record his observations, Keith Armstrong's secretary Marjorie Priors. It was an open secret that Keith and Marjorie enjoyed a little extra-curricular activity, and common knowledge that Keith and chief test rider Chris Allworth hated each other's guts.


For some reason, Chris decided that outriggers – to prevent the bike flipping onto its side on the slippery surface – were unnecessary. I think his exact words were, ‘Are you suggesting I’m some sort of poof?’ It seems daft now, but none of us realised just how slippery a wet skid-pan could be.


I heard Chris in the distance, counted up three gears and remember thinking that it would surely set him far too fast. He must have been doing 70mph when, as per correct procedure, he slammed on the front and rear brakes simultaneously and pulled in the clutch. The GSX hit the floor like a wet kipper. Bike and rider separated and slid on for 100 yards, coming to rest 25 feet from where we stood. Marjorie let out a scream and we all rushed to help Chris, lying flat on his back and very still, like a giant leathery starfish.


I’m sure you all know the frozen pond scene in Bambi. Well, Keith and I were in leather-soled shoes and Marjorie in heels, so none of us were suited to running on a surface with a friction co-efficient less than ice. Marjorie went down first, lurching forward, then back, arms flailing before landing with an almighty thud on her well-padded rump. The jolt was enough to dislodge her false teeth uppers, which skittered across the skidpan. Mortified, and desperate to get up, she grasped at Keith’s trousers, pulling them to his knees as his braces twanged and sending him into a crazy dance that ended in him landing on all fours, trousers like manacles around his ankles. I have to say, we were all rather surprised, except perhaps for Marjorie, to see a 52-year-old man wearing tight black satin briefs.


Chris sat up, pointing and laughing uncontrollably. Years of bad feeling came to the surface and a furious Keith lunged for the doubled-up Chris, who was struggling for breath between sobs of mirth. At that point, I was still standing and felt that I had to step in, but immediately trod on Marjorie’s top set, which snapped in two. I completely lost my footing, fell on my face and, rather appropriately, knocked out both my front teeth, one of which I must have swallowed as we never found it.


Still, my misfortune seemed to diffuse the situation. Chris, now uncontrollably amused by my gap-toothed expression, was in a panic to relieve himself and left the skidpan on hands and knees, guffawing like a braying donkey. Keith retrieved his trousers and poor Marjorie, broken choppers wrapped in a tissue in her handbag, left the bottom set in place, giving her a strange look reminiscent of that scrawny dog on That’s Life which said ‘sausages’*.


All of which is perhaps why to me the letters ABS have never signified anything more than A Buggering Shitstorm.


*Prince the dog on That's Life

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