WHEELSIt was pointed out to me some years ago by my children, that I have an unnatural interest in wheels. I hadn’t realised this before, but upon reflection must admit that it is true. As this particular memory is about my childhood in Cold Blow, Bexley, I have decided to try and recall the extent and possible origins of this ‘interest’ by recounting some childhood tales. I must however warn some readers that this is very much a boy’s story as I don’t believe that girls have any interest in this subject !
I can remember myself, aged about 5 years old pushing a Dinky Toy backwards and forwards, on a window sill close to my face, so that I could see the individual segments of the rubber tyres moving in a magic way around the periphery. It was as if the tyre was laying a continuous narrow carpet for itself but at the same time, rewinding itself around the wheel. A sort of optical illusion I suppose but very hypnotic at the same time.
I had a wooden (steam) engine that I could sit on and scoot along but the first real wheels were on a child’s tricycle. Just as the bicycle was a great liberating device for women in the late Victorian period, my tricycle opened up endless opportunities for me as a small boy. The ability to start moving away from the immediate vicinity of our house at 7 Wansunt Road, down safe pavements and endless manouvers testing steering and brakes, gaining in confidence all the time. However, small boys soon realise that a tricycle is just a step on the road to the real thing – the bicycle.
My mother had a traditional bike with shopping basket over the front wheel and a child’s seat on the rear and I can convince myself that I remember the odd trip down the ‘snikket’, past the churchyard to Bexley. I can feel the sensation of being moved along by an invisible and powerful force – my mother’s thigh muscles. It was on this bike that I learnt to ride a two wheeler. Being a ladies bike, it was possible to stand on the pedals and on our back lawn I made progress, proceeding in wobbly circles, rising up and down with the pedals whilst hanging on and steering at the same time. It sounds very improbable and dangerous but this memory is very real.
Having learnt to ride, my first bike was something very second hand but it was magic all the same. Together with my best friends Karl and Jason, the extent of territory suddenly extended enormously. I don’t recall any lessons in road-craft or safety but we must have been taught the rudiments a s we were soon riding round Wansunt Road and venturing down to the Dell. The streets were very quiet in those days and lots of pavement riding also occurred. Boys and bikes are just such a natural combination. Competitive riding was never far away and helped hone the necessary skills. Slow speed without putting your foot down, standing up on the seat, riding without hands on the bars – "look Mum – no hands……(later)….look Mum – no teeth !" Of course, out and out speed was also attempted but generally just short sprints. Kim talked about the clothes peg and cardboard to make a goodly noise on the spokes and we all did that of course.
We ventured as far as the ‘Glory Bumps’ at Leyton Cross where the anti-aircraft guns were located. This area was also used by model aircraft enthusiasts and it was the first time that I had seen a ‘radio controlled’ model. They were fairly large in those days as the radio equipment was valves with large batteries. I was enthralled, little realising that I would earn my living designing low power radio systems, but this must have been a seminal career moment. We observed the tragedy of a crash, when a beautiful high wing monoplane was destroyed in an earthward plunge. The distraught owner handed us some remnants as we crowded round the crash site, and tried to share in his anquish.
None of us had any gears on our bikes until Karl had a wonderful Christmas present – not just drop handlebars but a 5 speed Sturmey Archer. We all had a go and couldn’t believe the magic effect of these gears. Strangely around this time, and I think it was probably earlier than Karl’s present, we had independently discovered the Sturmey Archer hub gear. It came about as we carried back an old bicycle wheel from one of our expeditions in Churchfield Woods. Jason had two elder brothers – much elder and into Morgan 3 wheelers – but more about that later. They must have suggested that we could take apart this hub gear and examine the insides. Tools were loaned and spokes were cut out. With some help (presumably) the retaining ring was unscrewed and the still oily contents could be extracted. This seemingly complex device could be taken apart with the minimum of tools and we quickly learned how to assemble and dissemble it, eventually having timed races. As we had cleaned the gears completely, we could do this indoors on the carpet whilst watching television although no ‘grown-up’ saw this activity.
Bicycle wheels were also important to our local ‘gentleman of the road’ – Smokey Joe. He wandered the area, pushing a bike with his worldly possessions hanging from the handle bars. He drunk tea from a bottle which would be topped up by local shopkeepers in Bexley. As boys we came across him in the woods where he had a sort of camp. He had a fire going and an old bike wheel lying across the fire. It turned out that this was his way of removing the unnecessary tyre rather than struggling with non-existent tyre levers.
When I was 11 years old my Dad bought me a brand new Hercules Courier bike as I was by then cycling to Sidcup where I was starting at a new school. I soon persuaded him that gears were essential to get to school on time and a three speed derailleur gear was added at a bike shop in Sidcup. The ‘open’ nature of these gears where all the workings could be seen increased my enthusiasm for ‘mechanisms’, although these early derailleur gears were vulnerable to damage if the bike was dropped to the ground on the wrong side.
I have already mentioned Jason’s older brothers – Jasper and Jeremy. They were sometimes interested in some of our activities and their readily available toolkits and knowledge were wonderful opportunities for learning through play. Both brothers had Morgan 3 wheelers – Jasper’s had a JAP engine and Jeremy’s was a Matchless. The open valve gear on the top of these beautiful V-twin engines was fascinating to watch and although we must have often got in the way, they indulged our interests whilst telling us when we should ‘go off and play’. On one occasion I had my foot run over by the front wheel, not too painful and amply made up for by a ride up past the Maypole, and down the Rotchester Way, then back through Bexley. The sensation of speed, the noise, the constant adjustment of the steering wheel mounted throttle lever, are all abiding memories. I must have spent most of the time looking out of the side, as I was surely too small to sit in the passenger seat and look over the scuttle.
It was Jason’s older brother’s who gave us three boys, a wheeled device that was better that any other kart in the neighbourhood. I have already talked about my child’s tricycle and it was by sacrificing this that Jeremy and Jasper were able to build the ultimate ‘kart’. I’ll try and describe it…….The chassis was a piece of scaffold planking with the usual centre pivoted piece of wood at the front that carried a pram axle and wheels. It was at the back end that the ‘special engineering’ occurred. Taking my old child’s tricycle, they cut off the front wheel and attached the rest to the plank so that the pedals could be operated by hand, by a second lad standing up at the back. So we had a two-man kart, with ‘pedal’ drive and pump-up tyres at the rear. There was a basic friction brake that operated against one of the rear tyres and a seat back to protect the front man from the mechanism.
We had immense fun with this kart and immediately started embellishing it with gizmos. An early addition was a smoke generator. An old tin can with holes in the top and bottom, containing a smouldering piece of rag was clipped under the plank. Forward motion would keep the cloth glowing and a steady stream of smoke made it all seem much more realistic. Cycle lamps were attached and night time sorties along Wansunt Road made us feel very special. The most frightening aspect of these type of simple karts was maintaining accurate steering a speed. At the tender age of 10, I didn’t know about Ackerman steering and castor angles although Jason’s brothers surely did. A ‘beam axle’ has no natural self centering, and once moved off ‘straight ahead’ can start to generate forces that are difficult to control. When we proceeded down the slope of the ‘snikket’ towards Bexley, high speeds could easily be achieved and it took skill and strength to hold the beam axle steady with ones feet by applying equal force from both feet and bracing one’s legs to prevent any steering wobble. I don’t remember any high speed spills but perhaps that’s because we were aware of the possible damage that might result to the kart, rather than to ourselves !
I’d dearly love to have a photograph of that kart but in this case, memories must suffice.
My interest in wheels prompts other Cold Blow memories. The track between our gangland and the Dell passed through a beautiful orchard. The smell of apples takes me back to that time and place. The aroma was particularly strong in the storage area and packing shed that was on the left as you entered the orchard track.
In one of these sheds three inquisitive boys came across a young man building what would now be called a ‘special’. To us it was a beautiful sports car but in reality it was probably just a fibreglass body on a Ford chassis. We used to hang around watching progress although I don’t remember ever seeing it run.
The orchard was torn down and turned into a cul-de-sac of bungalows when I was about 8 years old. This must have been shocking for ‘grownups’ but to us kids it was just an opportunity to watch lots of interesting machinery in action. This was the first time that I had seen a dumper truck in action. I watched it being started by hand, a feverish amount of work on the handle to get the flywheel up to speed before the decompression lever was released. The cloud of smoke as its single cylinder engine fired up and the bellowing noise all impressed me greatly. I dreamed of making a model of this fascinating machine.
This same building site gave me my first glimpse of gear wheels in action. A ‘mechanical shovel’ was being used to dig drains. I could see a large diameter fixed cog wheel on the chassis and had a Eureka moment when I saw how the single small meshing cog on the upper section allowed this upper part which included the shovel to rotate about the lower tracked section. It was all so obvious. Rotate the small cog and it runs around the periphery of the fixed cog. These seminal moments of engineering insight have remained with me and were key stages in my eventual choice of career.
Other peoples ‘Maypole Memories, have spoken about sitting and watching the traffic on the Rotchester (Rotty) Way. We would do the same when we weren’t exploring the gun club or roaming the field boundaries and hedges looking for ‘stuff’. Sitting and watching wasn’t really enough and given the element of ‘wheels’ we soon wanted to learn more about the heavier traffic. There was a lay-by and maybe even a transport café halfway up the hill on the gun club side. We would wander amongst the parked lorries, savouring the smells, and admiring the sheer size of them and the interesting names. This was the first time that I had examined the radiator of a Guy lorry, close-up. The radiator cap was a beautiful metal red-Indian in full headdress with the motto –‘Feathers in our cap’. We had to start collecting……not radiator caps but the next best thing…..number plates. Armed with little red notebooks we started learning. Straight away we recorded not only the number plate, but also the make of the lorry. Initially we didn’t get things exactly right but close-up examination in the lorry parks soon gave us the correct spelling.
By an amazing piece of luck, I recently came across a single sheet from one of these early notebooks, hidden between the pages of a book. It shows some errors in the recording of the lorry names but is a rare remnant from my childhood that I will treasure.
Watching the traffic for hours we soon began to see trends and patterns. The massive rolls of newsprint being carried up to Fleet Street on red Bowater flatbed lorries – Mammoth Majors. The green Fodens belonging to the Reed paper group based at Aylesford. The London Brick Company in red and black livery with their logo – a bricklayer holding a hod. Occasionally a prewar lorry would trundle by – usually a Leyland with the characteristic prewar number plate format comprising two\letters and four numbers. I think that I can claim full membership of the ‘nerds’ club if I now recall from memory the lorry makes in alphabetical order: AEC, Albion, Atkinson, Austin, Bedford, Commer, Dennis, Dodge, ERF, Foden, Guy, Jensen, Karrier, Leyland, Maudsley, Morris Commercial, Scammell, Seddon, Sentinel, Thorneycroft, Trojen, Vulcan
To finish this rather lengthy piece on the theme of wheels, I want to describe a sad event and the spinoff that became a defining moment in my own future career direction. Bexley probably had several taxi firms, but one was located close to the station. Some sort of ‘incident’ occurred which involved a fire in the Station Road office and the subsequent dumping of at least one taxi on a piece of land by the cricket club at the bottom of Salisbury Road. Our gang soon noticed the taxi, which was a large pre-war black Packard. I know this because amongst the many parts that I removed from the taxi was the beautiful enamel badge that was the ‘horn’ button in the centre of the steering wheel. Having carefully preserved this remnant for about 50 years, I found it a good home back in the USA via Ebay a couple of years ago.
I mentioned a defining moment in my choice of career and it was the elaborate ‘flashing indicator’ mechanism that I retrieved from the Packard that caused this change. Up until then I was an embryonic ‘mechanical’ engineer but when I carefully unscrewed the device from the roof right above the drivers left hand, and took it home to examine, I was soon to become a budding ‘electrical’ engineer. The device in question was a clockwork mechanism that was wound up via a knob, turned either clockwise or counter-clockwise, depending on which was the required direction of turn to be indicated. The spring mechanism then ran back down, and whilst doing so, repeatedly opened and closed a pair of contacts that would control the flashing indicator lamps on the car. The clever part was the additional pair of contacts that ‘steered’ the signal to feed either left or right hand side indicators.
I discovered this intricacy by careful examination. You might think that I should have become a clock maker, but when I had wired up a battery, and bulbs on a wooden panel and had the original ‘flashing indicator’ scheme from the Packard working again, I was hooked on a career path that eventually led to the Sinclair C5 – but that’s another story !
We moved from Bexley in 1958 to Westerham and our house was located on the famous hill, where a long unmade road called ‘the avenue’ loops right round from the top to the bottom. This was a perfect place to ride motorcycles without tax and insurance – no helmets in those days. My father, seeing my interest in Engineering arranged for me to work at the garage in the middle of Bexley, by the fishmongers, and under their supervision, repair a BSA Bantam as my first motorbike. My dad was still travelling back to Bexley each day whilst he continued at his butterfly business in Salisbury Road, so I came with him. After many weeks, the bike was declared fit to ride and with "L" plates displayed I made my way via Orpington, Pratts Bottom and Knockholt to Westerham Hill. I avoided the hill itself on this first occasion by going around the previously mentioned ‘avenue’ and arrived in one piece, elated at the experience and obvious freedom that two wheels supplemented by an engine can give.
The Bantam was soon chopped and hacked to it’s bare bones with alloy mudguards, a racing seat and ‘Ace’ bars. Having past my test I was able to move up to bigger machines and a 350cc BSA on sale in Biggin Hill immediately caught my eye. To me at that time, it was the most handsome machine in the world and when I owned it and could polish and cherish it, the feelings it engendered can be invoked again at any time I want by thinking back to those days. I soon learned that in the world of BSA’s and indeed ‘café racers’ of all ages, the BSA Gold Star was the ultimate machine but beyond the reach of most. The closest most could get was to customise the ‘cooking’ version, the B31 with the usual bits and pieces, but in particular with that beautiful swept back exhaust pipe and silencer, the latter capable of emitting a unique ‘twitter’ on the over-run.
I’ll close with a ‘poser picture’ from that time, of me on my ‘fake’ Goldstar, taken in the car park of ‘The Hand & Spear’ car park near the famous Brooklands Motor Racing circuit – a place that held a special fascination for me in my teenage years.