In 1912 Fry’s Magazine of Outdoor Life offered a stirring insight into the lifestyle of a motorcycle tester. It clearly wasn’t a job for softies.
Testing a motor cycle
by Chas F Johnson
IF THE LATE WS Gilbert had been 30 years later with his rhyming he might truthfully have averred that, like the policeman’s, the “motor cycle tester’s lot is not a happy one.” Motor cycle testing calls for pluck and grit of the highest order, a large amount of mechanical skill, and a hardness of body which laughs at the vagaries of our English climate. Every motor cycle manufacturer of repute subjects his machines to rigorous tests before they are despatched to the customers; and as the output of motor cycles goes on steadily all the year round so does the testing of them, in spite of wind and weather. In summer a holland dustcoat over workshop clothes is the usual garment; in winter, the cold and biting winds and driving rains call for a full rig-out of oil-skins and sou’westers, and to see a tester emerging from his shed bent on a test run in pouring rain is a sight something akin to a weather-beaten fisherman in his ‘oilies’.
It is a first essential that the tester should possess a thorough knowledge of the modern motor cycle. Several years at the bench are usually served before the more important business of testing is undertaken. As the tester is the last man to handle the finished machine – with the exception of the one who cleans it down prior to it being packed up – it must leave him in a state of perfection: valves and magneto correctly timed, carburettor properly set, and a dozen and one other accessories in a state of efficiency.
The testing on the road may last for a five-mile spin or, if it fails to satisfy the tester at less, it may be driven 100 miles before it is finally passed. A long stretch of straight road and a formidable hill are the chief requirements for a testing ground. Just outside Coventry is a very well-known hill at the village of Stoneleigh [see picture, page 69 – Ed] Here testers are busy from early morning to dusk nearly all the year round – a steep incline will quickly reveal any tendency to develop that failing known among the motoring fraternity as ‘conking out’. It is no uncommon thing to see, outside the towns most intimately associated with the motor cycle industry, a string of testers returning to their various factories. Now and then a friendly ‘dust-up’, in speed – or a ‘blind’, to again use motor cycling parlance – ensues, but the makers are averse to this sort of thing and discourage racing among their men on the open road. If they fall into a police trap the men are made to pay their own fines.
Several makers have their own tracks where machines can be taken straight from the workshop and tested for a few minutes and then returned to the workshop for any readjustments without the delay of getting out into open country. The Enfield Cycle Company has such a track at the rear of its Redditch Works, and it is put to good use. But there is another side to the motor tester’s life which adds a spice of variety to his daily round. Down at Brooklands quite an army of expert machanics and testers are constantly engaged in trying their firm’s machines against the watch. There any speed a motor cycle is capable of is safe; providing, of course, that it is ridden by a skilful and level-headed rider. Few makers place a new model on the market without first putting it through its paces on the Brooklands track, and during the months of August, September and October, when new models are strongly in evidence, Brooklands is alive with the best men of the motor cycle trade.
Then there is competition riding. In all the leading hill climbs, reliability trials and speed contests, trade riders are entered by their respective firms. The annual Six Days’ Trials of the ACU, the Scottish Six Days’ Trial and numerous other events are well attended, and the securing of the chief award is a feather in the cap of the successful rider. But these protracted trials are no mere holiday jaunts. Even the amateur rider who enters for the mere love of the thing knows that a reliability trial means not only expense but careful preparation. With the trade rider it is even more so. He is not out for the sporting side of the thing, he is entered to get through at the top; and if he fails to do so his firm will want to know why. Naturally only a firm’s most experienced testers are chosen for competition work, and a man may make or mar his immediate career by success or failure.
Incentives to win the TT
The Blue Riband of the motor cycling world is annual Tourist Trophy race in the Isle of Man. Motor cyclists from all quarters of the globe gather to see and compete in this classic event, and the success of a trade rider means a higher value on his services and frequently a very substantial monetary appreciation following his success. One can understand the value to his firm of the successful rider’s performance when it is said that winning the Tourist Trophy race is reported to have increased a certain firm’s output by 1,000 machines in a single season.
Although serious accidents are rare and, happily, fatalities more so, there is considerable risk in competition riding. Yet the average tester takes little heed of what may happen to his fellows. It is his business to win; and to win he rides with all his heart. Though he may see another rider violently thrown from the saddle by a skid at a dangerous bend, or by the bursting of a tyre at a critical moment, he leaves the starting line as nonchalantly as only a man of pluck can do. He knows that speed in a race is the only thing that counts, and the desire for it eats like iron into his very soul.
Taken altogether the motor cycle tester is a good specimen of manhood. Fit and strong he must be, or he does not last long at the game; and while he may be prone to indulge in a little boisterous horseplay when gathered with others of his class, his devilment is of an innocent kind. Bohemian as most outdoors men are, careless to a point of dress and appearance, now begrimed with dust and dirt, now dripping from a rain-soaked journey, one cannot but admire him. And when you, reader, bestride that new motor cycle you have promised yourself, just give a thought to the sportsman who has probably turned out in the raw cold of a winter’s morning to get it ‘tuned’ to a pitch of perfection which will send you speeding over the good hard road, pleased and delighted with this 20th century product of mechanical skill and ingenuity.