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.
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.