Testing times

From Cyril's memoires dated 7 November 2006

The Kawasaki ZZR1400, Suzuki Hayabusa, even the ageing and relatively sane Honda Blackbird, we’d all have given a testicle to medical science to have just one day on any one of those bikes back in the spring of 1960. Why? The first stage of the M1 motorway had been opened in December 1959, a 50-odd mile stretch from Watford, Hertfordshire to Crick in Northamptonshire (now junctions five to 18). Mostly three lanes, almost empty of traffic and absolutely no speed limit whatsoever (they didn’t spoil the fun until 1965).

At that time I was Overseas Sales Manager at BSA and for a short while, with the new M1 just a 30-mile hack away from the HQ in Brum, unofficial high-speed testing was frequent and exhaustive. It might have heralded a golden era of test riding at Small Heath, but I’m afraid the whole subject of testing on the M1 came to be seen as something of a curse.

Test riding bikes on the M1 was officially frowned upon by BSA, but despite this, testers would often hammer up and down at full tilt enjoying the relative space and the chance to hold the bike on the stop for sustained periods. Sometimes they’d be spotted by management lackeys and reported, other times news of an unfortunate incident would unavoidably reach HQ. There was the time that Harry Charlton rammed an old Golden Flash test mule beneath a lorry carrying effluent to a sewage works, rupturing the tanker and causing a lethally slippery and nauseatingly pungent slick to spread across the whole carriageway. From then on the bike was known as the Golden Flush and Harry as The Crapped Crusader.

Another incident involved veteran test rider Sid Turnbull, who’d stopped by at a friend’s abattoir near St Albans to collect five gallons of pigs’ offal to feed to his five Red Setters. The offal, in a thick, flexible, black rubber tub, was precariously strapped to the back of an A7 Shooting Star. Just outside Potters Crouch, with about 80mph on the vibrating clock, the bag slipped round, jammed the back wheel solid and the bike went down. Sid ended up in a field, where he lay unconscious for about 20 minutes, meanwhile, the Potters Crouch police, unused as they were to dealing with high-speed traffic accidents, decided that the splat of bloody guts they found on their arrival was the inevitable result of having a speed limit-free motorway. This, they muttered among themselves, was the carnage of which they had warned.

So management got tough and when the next rider was caught on the M1, a youngster by the name of Johnny ‘Fireball’ Jameson (that’s another story), he was summoned by none other than the Chief Executive, the eccentric genius Edward Turner.

Turner was a daunting man. Though nearing retirement he still cut a powerful figure but had always been known for a certain maverick approach. It was around this time that he was putting a lot of effort into designing a scooter to rival the successful Italian models and I suspect the pressure was leading to increasingly erratic behaviour. (Incidentally, left alone in his office one morning, I couldn’t help noticing some scribblings on his desk jotter, possible names for the new scooter. Marilyn, Lana, Betty. No, no. Edna, Ethel. THINK MAN!! Maud, Mary. BOLLOCKS! BOLLOCKS! BOLLOCKS! They eventually settled on ‘Tina’, so to speak.)

Well, young Johnny went into the great man’s office and the door was closed. We’ll never know exactly how the conversation went, but the next thing anyone knew, Johnny emerged with Turner on his back, riding him piggy-back. Johnny was straining to maintain balance and momentum as Turner, a portly man stripped to his vest and pants and sweating profusely, whipped his mount with a clutch cable, shouting, ‘This is how to bloody test ride, you sodding young upstart! I’ll ride you to hell and back, you jive monkey!’

When Johnny finally collapsed just outside the toolmakers’ workshop after an agonising ten-minute gallop, Turner simply strolled back to his office as if nothing had happened and the incident was never spoken of within earshot of management. From that day BSA testers were very cautious about using the M1 for work, lest they too should be subjected to what became known as ‘the Teddy-back ride’.

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