Imagine you’ve repatriated an old British bike or brought a barn find back to life. Before it can return to the road you have one last hurdle to overcome: the all-important paperwork. Without verification from a marque club or enthusiasts’ organisation yo
Imagine you’ve repatriated an old British bike or brought a barn find back to life. Before it can return to the road you have one last hurdle to overcome: the all-important paperwork. Without verification from a marque club or enthusiasts’ organisation your old bike ain’t going nowhere. Matt Swindlehurst gives us a glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes at the Vintage Motor Cycle Club’s library…
The headquarters of the VMCC were opened in 1991 by the club’s founder, Titch Allen. Based in Burton on Trent, they house the admin functions to this international club of around 15,000 members, as well as a busy retail shop and reference library. The library, which covers all of the first floor, has extensive shelving with large collections of reference books, associated literature and copies of motorcycle magazines dating back to before 1903. There are also individual archives inherited from people like Dave Minton – familiar to many long-time RC readers.
This means the VMCC library acts as a specialist resource and hosts journalists, authors and individuals who are undertaking private research ranging from model identification to historical race results. One of the first activities I undertook was to go back through the early club magazines to find my father’s racing results. On any day there might be a leading author researching their latest book, an editor from the USA fact-checking an article, or an individual member checking the specification of a newly acquired machine.
At the heart of this unique collection are sets of original blueprints and factory records from major manufacturers including BSA, Triumph, Norton and Ariel as well as smaller firms such as Scott and Douglas. As the factories closed, many of these documents went first to the Metropolitan Police stolen vehicle department, and from there to the Science Museum. In some cases these were then copied onto to microfiche and given to owners’ clubs before the originals came to us.
This allows very detailed investigation to take place when it comes to authentication. The VMCC is an approved DVLA vehicle club and works closely with departmental officials. Since starting this work in the 1980s, well over 20,000 vehicles have been processed, and applications for age-related numbers and original number allocation presently run at about fifty a month. A flow chart for this process can be found on the club’s website at vmcc.net.
After moving to the area, my request to undertake volunteer work was given the nod by Michelle and Vicky, the club’s librarians, and I spent the first couple of weeks just finding my bearings. The established volunteers were very patient and after a couple of weeks I was let loose on a request to confirm the age of a trials Ariel. The factory record was quickly found, thanks to the work of one of my predecessors who had indexed over 150 books of Ariel
records, stretching back to before the war. This information was then triangulated using a further two pieces of evidence.
The term ‘triangulation’ in this context refers to a methodology in social research that ties in evidence from different sources to a core piece of data; in this case the factory record. Evidence is categorised in three ways.
Primary source material might be a dispatch or build record, or direct evidence such as a contemporary road test on a factory supplied vehicle or contemporary dealer details.
Secondary sources describe, discuss, interpret, or generally comment on the primary source. Examples might include a technical article in an owners’ club magazine, contemporary photographs or a factory sponsored road test.
‘Grey literature’ includes compilation and ‘coffee table’ books, modern magazine articles, etc. It is unlikely that this type of evidence would be accepted.
For the Ariel, a further search of the library files disclosed an illustrated original sales brochure from the same year as the machine in question. A back copy of The Motor Cycle threw up a dealer’s advert for the same model. Number successfully retrieved!
Some of the VMCC records contain details of manufacturing runs of models and include information regarding engine, frame and gearbox numbers along with ancillaries fitted, date of despatch and the receiving dealer. For Nortons we even have the details of the first owner. The sequential column in these cases usually (but not always) refers to the engine number; which was the most expensive item should a warranty claim be made.
With the major makes it’s usually a fairly straightforward job. but for rare and early machines more painstaking research is usually the order of the day. Of course this can result in some very disappointed customers. In the past we have had to break the bad news with regards to frame numbers that never existed, machines sold as ‘original’ that have had replacement engines, and of course the inevitable faked Rocket Gold Stars, etc.
Visitors at the larger auto-jumbles nowadays are usually met with at least one stall consisting of rows of lightweight continental machines of (usually) unknown make. This builds on the established practice of importing earlier Japanese bikes from the USA. We are now getting an increasing demand for help with getting these registered. If it’s a make or model that was not originally imported into the UK it’s very doubtful that any primary evidence exists in this country. With regards to Japanese imports, the UK importers are increasingly reluctant to help, and in some cases may flatly refuse.
In consequence we are fast developing a database of international reference sources, a recent example being a Honda model that was never imported into either the UK or the USA. We seemed doomed to failure until one of our brilliant librarians tracked down a Japanese enthusiast’s website and then used Google to translate. Another satisfied customer!
Separate from the DVLA work is original research carried out on behalf of owners from around the globe. Recent projects have included searching for evidence of production racing history for an AJS, providing blueprints of JAP JTOR engine components and tracking down details of an Ariel Square Four that was presented to Torrens, a leading journalist and road tester of the 1950s. My personal project at the time of writing is the digital copying of the original Ariel factory records, including wartime records of Ariel WNGs coming back to the factory for refurbishment.
We are constantly refining our processes for gaining approval, including the digitalisation of many of the factory records in order to speed up searches and, as importantly, minimise the handling of unique, and in many cases, fragile documents. We tackle almost any motorcycle-related query; we can’t guarantee to find an answer but we try very hard to help and can often suggest other sources if needs be.
Historical stuff abounds, from bound-up magazine runs to mechanical hardware
The Motor Cycle, back at the sta art of the 1920s Left: BSA, Triumph, Norton and Ariel factory record books
Below inset: One of the Norton record books
Below: Inside Norton world: masses of info, including the original owners in some cases
Files galore, expertly indexed
Above: The Triumph archive is vast Inset: A glimpse into the world of Triumph in 1952; so many of these machines heading off to the USA. And Neasden…
Justin and Peter, getting down to research…
Above: As well as conventional literature, the library contains drawings and blueprints, this from a JAP engine
Below: Photos galore, too. This a military Scott outfit