An hour with…

… or ac­tu­ally ‘an hour in…’ for this is­sue, as it even­tu­ally dawned on the editor that a fea­ture around the archive here at CDB Tow­ers could be a good thing.

Classic Dirtbike - - Contents - Words and Pics: Tim Brit­ton

There’s a place within Mor­tons’ head of­fice that ought to have a health and safety warn­ing. No, it’s not the press hall with all the printing ma­chin­ery – though it does have such no­tices in all re­quired places – nor is it the ware­house, though it too has the re­quired safety in­for­ma­tion. The place I’m re­fer­ring to is a seem­ingly in­nocu­ous room just across from the edi­to­rial desks. It is a place where time is recorded by im­age, a place where such in­for­ma­tion de­pict­ing more than a 100 years of mo­tor­cy­cling lies ready to en­snare the un­wary… yes, I’m talk­ing about Mor­tons Archive.

Now there’s not an is­sue of Clas­sic Dirt Bike that doesn’t con­tain some form of clas­sic im­age from the var­i­ous el­e­ments that make up the archive, and while it wouldn’t be im­pos­si­ble to put the mag­a­zine to­gether with­out ac­cess to the im­agery it would be a whole lot more dif­fi­cult and ar­guably less of a read with­out it. The prob­lem is hav­ing used the archive on a daily ba­sis while edit­ing CDB and other ti­tles in the group over a 16-year pe­riod it be­comes some­thing you don’t think about and not un­til some­one out­side the daily sphere men­tions it am I re­minded of how lucky we are to have ac­cess to it.

In my case, it was a men­tion on our Facebook page – yes, we em­brace so­cial me­dia too y’know – and a per­sonal ap­proach by a reader at an event about a cou­ple of im­ages used in fea­tures aired in re­cent is­sues that were the cat­a­lyst for this fea­ture. In case you’re won­der­ing the first men­tion was about the im­age used in the fea­ture about the Cheney Tri­umph rid­den by Jim San­di­ford in sev­eral ISDTS and the se­cond was the one with the smart Ve­lo­cette scram­bler built by the Win­woods in the Six­ties. One im­age was the re­sult of a def­i­nite search for that par­tic­u­lar ma­chine and rider, the other was a pure ac­ci­den­tal dis­cov­ery while look­ing for some­thing else.

The archive at Mor­tons is made up of sev­eral el­e­ments not all of which are mo­tor­cy­cle ori­ented though that’s the fo­cus of this piece and more specif­i­cally the ma­te­rial con­tained in the dirt bike el­e­ments. Way back at the dawn of mo­tor­cy­cling time there were two ma­jor publi­ca­tions han­dling the scene for UK – and world­wide – mo­tor­cy­clists and they were of­fi­cially known as The Mo­tor­cy­cle and Mo­tor­cy­cling but col­lo­qui­ally re­ferred to by even those on the staff as The Blue Un and Green Un.

Mo­tor­cy­cle was first off the presses and launched in 1903 while Mo­tor­cy­cling came along a few years later in 1910. Both publi­ca­tions car­ried on sep­a­rately though com­ple­men­tar­ily un­til 1967 when they amal­ga­mated as The Mo­tor­cy­cle – that car­ried on un­til the Eight­ies when briefly it was Mo­tor­cy­cle Weekly be­fore clos­ing in 1983. Along the way both ti­tles amassed a vast re­source of archive ma­te­rial such as im­ages, brochures, hand­books, man­u­als, line draw­ings cov­er­ing ev­ery ma­jor or mi­nor mo­tor­cy­cle maker in the UK and around the world.

Sadly for us not ev­ery cus­to­dian of the archive has re­alised its value and at one point it was stored in a damp build­ing that vir­tu­ally de­stroyed all of the Mo­tor­cyling im­ages. Thank­fully our ar­chiv­ist Jane Skay­man is more than aware of the archive’s value and we now find the ma­te­rial in safe hands.

Un­der Jane’s ad­min­is­tra­tion the archive is a liv­ing en­tity and also grow­ing as the Nick Ni­cholls Col­lec­tion joined the rest of the im­ages a few years ago. On a daily ba­sis Jane may be deal­ing with re­quests from man­u­fac­tur­ers, news­pa­pers, tele­vi­sion and film com­pa­nies as well as pri­vate in­di­vid­u­als who just want to check if the spec on their ma­chine is cor­rect. She also has to deal with us jour­nal­ists lit­ter­ing up the place as we be­come dis­tracted while look­ing for some­thing then fol­low­ing up on some­thing else that crops up, be­fore all of a sud­den the day is gone.

Take the Ve­lo­cette scram­bler im­ages as a case in point. Look­ing for a pic­ture of a Pan­ther side­car out­fit I found the pic on page 23, is­sue 44, of Mike Win­wood, which had been mis­filed some­time in the past. This led to find­ing the orig­i­nal fea­ture in Mo­tor­cy­cle and in turn pointed me to the rest of the im­ages used in the fea­ture. I’d gone in some­time around 2pm for a few mo­ments and my at­ten­tion was at­tracted by Jane call­ing out “will you make sure the lights are off in there when you come out…” as she was putting on her coat and head­ing for home. That’s what makes the archive a most dan­ger­ous and use­ful place for us. As for the Jim San­di­ford im­age, that was a rel­a­tively quick search as I knew the event, knew the year and knew the rider and within 20 min­utes had sourced six pics and went for the one that hadn’t been pub­lished be­fore.

Of the many thou­sands of im­ages taken of mo­tor­cy­cles, at events, dur­ing shows, on launches, of tech­ni­cal work, tours, stunts, sport, cloth­ing, ac­ces­sories and many other odd-ball and un­usual things re­lated to mo­tor­cy­cling, al­most any­thing can be found re­lat­ing to our hobby. Once thing that can be cer­tain is if it was hap­pen­ing in mo­tor­cy­cling then what­ever ‘it’ was some­one from ei­ther pa­per would be on hand to record it, write about it and, more im­por­tantly for us today, save the im­age in an archive.

In the early days of the publi­ca­tions these im­ages were recorded on glass plates in a neg­a­tive im­age to be printed off on to pa­per so the pos­i­tive im­age could be seen. I sup­pose the ar­che­typal im­age when one thinks of glass-plate pho­tog­ra­phy is of a Vic­to­rian gen­tle­man sport­ing a mas­sive beard and wear­ing a frock coat and top hat, which he re­moves be­fore dis­ap­pear­ing un­der a sheet at­tached to a cam­era the size of a small semi-de­tached house. There’s a hand­held flash gun with mag­ne­sium pow­der and potas­sium chlo­rate ig­nited with ex­plo­sive re­sults to pro­vide light for the im­age and in the com­edy films of the day the photographer and sub­ject are shown as hav­ing sur­vived an ex­plo­sion. By the time our mag­a­zines ar­rived the process was slightly more re­fined and soon elec­tric­ity was pro­vid­ing the light. How­ever, these glass plates were in use as late as the early Six­ties by which time the cam­eras us­ing this tech­nol­ogy had be­come slightly more com­pact be­ing on a par with film cam­eras and as easy to use. The archive con­tains many of these orig­i­nal glass plates, all neatly stored in boxes packed into spe­cial cab­i­nets, and well pro­tected be­cause the glass is pa­per thin and very frag­ile.

By far the big­gest cache of im­ages in the tra­di­tional part of the archive is made up of prints and slides. They’re sec­tioned off into el­e­ments, which can be broadly classed as ma­chine files, rider files, ex-guard books, events and gen­eral. The first two are fairly ob­vi­ous and cat­a­logued from A to Z are ev­ery pos­si­ble mo­tor­cy­cle we still have im­ages of. Ob­vi­ously the big­ger man­u­fac­tur­ers such as BSA, Tri­umph and Nor­ton have more than one box ded­i­cated to them and some of the short-lived makes from per­haps the vin­tage and vet­eran eras have fewer im­ages in a folder in one of the boxes.

It is a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion with the rider files and those com­peti­tors such as the Lamp­kin fam­ily, Jeff Smith, Sammy Miller have quite a good-sized file to their name but pretty much if a rider has been fea­tured in an is­sue of the Blue Un or Green Un then he or she will be in the rider files. As for events, this sec­tion is a smaller one and re­stricted to ma­jor sport­ing hap­pen­ings such as the ISDT and SSDT which

have im­ages from as many years as were saved from the damp.

The ex-guard books are prob­a­bly the most in­ter­est­ing part of the archive. In the old cut-and-paste days im­ages would be pro­duced from neg­a­tives – be they film or glass plate – and they would be at­tached to a huge art-folder type of book and from these an im­age to grace the mag­a­zine would be sourced by the art depart­ment. Once these im­ages had been used they would be re­turned to the guard books and safely stored. These old books are grad­u­ally fall­ing apart and the im­ages are be­ing trans­ferred to archive boxes in which they are cat­a­logued by year and month and re­fer di­rectly to the mag­a­zine is­sue they orig­i­nally ap­peared in. This was how I was able to source the Ve­lo­cette im­ages. The date the print was used in the mag­a­zine was on the re­verse of a pic­ture, which di­rected me to the ac­tual mag­a­zine so I could see if there were more im­ages used. There were. The date of the mag­a­zine told me where the photos for that is­sue were and up turned the full pho­to­shoot.

The gen­eral files are ded­i­cated to those things that don’t fit into other cat­e­gories, for in­stance there are ac­ces­sory fold­ers, cloth­ing, tank mak­ing, a whole sec­tion on win­ter and snow scenes and that sort of thing. This is why we can try to put a bit of history into all the fea­tures, where ap­pro­pri­ate. The thing is though most, prob­a­bly 99% of those im­ages are black and white be­cause even in mag­a­zine for­mat the Blue Un and Green Un used a cheap pa­per akin to newsprint and colour wasn’t that easy to deal with, plus it cost more to source.

Luck­ily for us then the Nick Ni­cholls Col­lec­tion came along. Nick worked in bank­ing in Lon­don – in a high-street branch rather than in­vest­ment – he used his hol­i­days and time off to pho­to­graph all sorts of events, na­tional and in­ter­na­tional in all sorts of dis­ci­plines and his archive is largely colour. With slides – or colour re­ver­sal film – the im­age is seen in a pos­i­tive way un­like neg­a­tives, which have to be re­versed.

Nick’s archive is cat­a­logued in a log­i­cal way with slides in en­velopes with the event date on and who is in ac­tion. These en­velopes are filed into tri­als, MX, grasstrack and speed­way plus odd-ball stuff such as ice speed­way. There are sec­tions for por­traits of rid­ers, bikes and en­gines and even a bit of glam­our.

Culled from this archive in the last is­sue are the pic­tures of Joel Robert used with the line draw­ings of his ac­tual world cham­pi­onship-win­ning CZ. All of which neatly brings me to the most breath­tak­ing part of the archive… the bit which con­tains ex­ploded di­a­grams, line draw­ings and artists’ de­pic­tions of all sorts of things. These draw­ings fas­ci­nate me and the skill which has gone in to their mak­ing is un­be­liev­able to some­one who has dif­fi­culty draw­ing a straight line with a rule. A few is­sues ago an archive piece con­tained draw­ings and sketches of the lat­est ideas for the ISDT in the early Fifties and the artist re­spon­si­ble had gone on the test day with his sketch pad and laid out the work in the field too… just fab­u­lous.

But, what can the archive do for you? With gen­uine fac­tory pho­to­graphs, orig­i­nal hand­books and man­u­als all avail­able to ac­cess, there is no rea­son not to have your bike the way it should be. Want to know how the fac­tory did it? There are ref­er­ence charts to show how to as­sem­ble such things as BSA unit en­gines.

These were pro­duced by the fac­tory for dealer use and show all sorts of hints and tips for re­builders. Not sure of the spec your car­bu­ret­tor should be? There is the Amal, Binks, Brown and Bar­low or Amac leaflets. How about the mag­neto needed? Check the Lu­cas or BTH cat­a­logue. Per­haps you want to see what the orig­i­nal brochure looked like for your model or… well… and so it goes on.

Some things take more time to re­search than our ar­chiv­ist, Jane, can fit in. In these cases it is pos­si­ble to ar­range a time to come in to do the re­search your­self. Ob­vi­ously such time slots are lim­ited, the archive is housed in a rea­son­ably large room but the ma­jor­ity of it is taken up with shelv­ing. If you’re plan­ning on re­quest­ing archive time then a bit of re­search on your part will pay div­i­dends and al­low the archive to be used to the best of its abil­ity but, be warned, you may find time van­ishes with alarm­ing ra­pid­ity as you be­come side-tracked by what you dis­cover. 

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