Copied from a post in the TriumphRat.Net "Classics & Vintage" section-
Classic Bike magazine
David Myers sent us this wonderful letter, in response to our feature in November on BSA-Triumph's abortive 'P30' Fury/Bandit 350. In it he paints a fascinating insider's picture of life at Umberslade Hall during a difficult time. Too long to print in full in the mag, we felt it was worth posting here. Ready for a trip back in time?
It was interesting to see an article again, where Umberslade Hall was mentioned: I worked there from November 1967 to June 1969, as a draughtsman, and in the same office as Dennis Stowe, whose usual superb standard of draughtsmanship and art was featured in his drawing of the P30 350 engine, November’s issue.
When I started, Dennis was drawing the 750 Triumph 3, and I’d never seen a drawing like it – I’m sure that it was almost 10 feet long and magnificent (BSA / Triumph were not metric sizes then, and were only just adopting unified threads). Even without a signature, it was easy to recognise his work – just look at the illustration of a ball bearing, and the reflected highlight, an interrupted crescent moon shape, and that’s Dennis.
He was a character, and really loved Triumph, always wearing a lapel badge which stated, ‘Triumph, the best motorcycle in the world.’ His Triumph Combo had done 78000 miles when I first saw it, and whilst I was being shown around, on my first day, the man taking me popped behind the corrugated lean to where it was parked and produced a polythene bottle of dirty oil, and poured some under the crankcase…. ‘That will keep Dennis occupied at lunch time…’.Lunchtimes Dennis smoked his pipe, and ate his sandwiches in the sidecar, almost disappearing in the fug – he didn’t call it the sidecar, but the ‘Double adultery.’
I was only 20 when I started, and had seen very little serious engineering up until then – I had had bikes since my sixteenth birthday, and had sent a photo of my modified Ariel Leader to BSA, and received an invitation for an interview which was held at Meriden, and conducted by Brian Jones, an ex Douglas man (I’d had a Mk V). He was really dynamic, and seemed to grasp any design really quickly, but seldom spent more than five minutes anywhere.
Dennis drew with the plastic film draped over each end of his board, and with another piece of film on top, which had a hole in it, through which he drew, using stubby little pencils, slowly moving from detail to detail. He did it his way, and whilst there were numerous engine arrangements from earlier on, by other draughtsman, I’m sure that none would be embarrassed to agree that Dennis’s were the best. Peter Mason had drawn a unit 500 Triumph, very nicely, and there was a man from BSA Small Heath, nicknamed ‘Freehand Ferdinand’ or ‘Ferdy’ whose renditions did not match the precision of Dennis’s work.
Dennis ate oranges and pies, at his desk, and in combination with his numerous stubby pencils, it was a miracle that he achieved what he did – the drawings were always clean and beautiful. When the masterpiece was completed, the time came for instructions on which engine was to be drawn next, which came from Don Stanton, assistant section leader to Gerry Bayliss, in the office. Don looked at Dennis and said ‘It’s the A65..’ and there was a horrified expression on Dennis’s face – ‘But that’s a BSA! I work for Triumph, not BSA. I won’t do it.’
Don looked calm, and said, ‘We’re all together now, Dennis. How many times did you apply to Triumph for this job?’ Apparently he had applied fourteen times, whilst working for GEC (‘The generous electric company…’), but Dennis stood firm, ‘I don’t care’. There was tension in the office, and Don delivered his punch line, ‘Well, you’ll have to go, then….’ Moments passed before Dennis resolved the situation by saying, ‘Alright Don, I’ll do it – but it will be none too fussy, mind.’ Needless to say, the drawing was superb, and followed by the B40 arrangement, some months later.
Umberslade has been very much maligned, but so far as I’ve read, in all these years (47 since I started), always by people who did not work there, or worked in a place where the day to day workings of the company were not involved. On my first day I saw a wooden model (looked real – surely someone must have it, somewhere) of a beautiful three cylinder overhead cam 250, sitting on a window sill – abandoned. I was interested in everything, and despite being surrounded by the motor industry, this was not merely a job, for me. The place was managed from outside – from Small Heath, and Meriden. So far as I can tell - I was very far from management, and definitely the youngest on the site - we only acted on instructions, mainly doing droves of small modifications to sustain the existing ranges (Triumph were ‘Ranges’, BSA were ‘Groups’). My first job sounded rather daunting, ‘Modify all BSA 500 and 650 machines for 1968’, which actually involved rubbing out the ‘7’ in ‘67’, and substituting an ‘8’ and this took weeks.
When I started I think that there were 37 staff on site, and more from Small Heath and Meriden appeared all the time. On the top floor – probably former servants’ quarters, were four small offices, and ours, the largest. It was soon obvious that I was not going to be involved in engine design, but there was an office of five designers who seemed to be masters of their skill. Most interesting was the modular engines that were schemed, twin overhead cam 125 single; 250 twin; 350 three, and 500 four, with the priority given to the 350. I did see glimpses of it, and it was in the hands of Oliver Knowles Plunkett, an amazingly fast and bright draughtsman who had worked at Norton, and told me that he had the drawings that he had done of a 500 Norton four cylinder, in 1956, under his bed at home. I saw iterations of the new drawings, and the crankcase was not split vertically, but at about 45 degrees, enabling access to the crank with the engine in the bike. It was very compact, and would look good and probably be entirely suitable today, but Oliver was being ‘messed about’ from someone above. First it was a triplex primary chain, then modified to ‘duplex’, the overhead cams were chain driven, then with a toothed belt, and maybe with gears, too. These days with CAD, it is such an easy task, but then it involved duplicating the master drawing on transparent film (but it was brown), rubbing detail from the back, and then drawing the new detail on the front, which, when copied, showed patches – the BSA 3 engine general arrangement was done like this, with its sloping forward cylinders.
It must have been extremely frustrating to make all these mods, but when news came out that Edward Turner’s 350 had done 112mph, probably one dank November day in 1968, at Baginton near Coventry, it must have been heartbreaking for Ollie (sadly no longer with us) and the team around him. His new engine was to be made with minimal number of parts, in a revolutionary way for BSA / Triumph, and following the cost effective methods used by the Japanese. Labour costs would plunge, but accuracy and performance would benefit – and who, in 1969 would not want a Triumph or BSA 350 ‘three’ with twin cams – and a five or seven speed gearbox? It was dropped like a stone, and the trial of Edward Turner’s 350 was not witnessed by anyone we knew. It ran, it went fast, we could use existing tooling (good old vertically split crankcases), and could be in production in little time with minimal investment – or such was the dream. A frame for the P30 was designed at Umberslade, and at least one was made. A model P30, painted metallic purple, was photographed just outside our office (we were on the ground floor, by then, in the ballroom, complete with glass chandeliers). The frame was so low that the engine almost appeared to be dragging on the ground – it’s not surprising that it was changed. It seemed that the P30 was designed at least twice, after Edward Turner’s demonstration run, and I did hear that crankshafts were breaking on prototypes.
It is a long time ago, but I think that the BSA /Triumph three cylinder 750 engine had 14 castings to fit together, somehow. The engine became strong (it certainly wasn’t when I first saw it: I was told that not one prototype had been further than Stratford - 23 miles - before snapping its con rods, or doing something else terminal). It cost a fortune to build. Another tale about the engine was that when Umberslade later had engine test cells installed (I was at Rover Gas Turbines by then), the 750 was subjected to durability trials, and one of them involved running the engine unloaded, flat out. It ran between 10 200 rpm and 10 600 rpm for two days, and fed up of hearing it, someone snapped the throttles shut and it destroyed itself.
I think I was told that the engine had Imp big ends and Cortina main bearings (or vice versa), and a Mini Cooper clutch, but I cannot be sure.
You mentioned the Ariel 3 – ‘Here it is whatever it is’ – the tubular framed prototype was at Umberslade, and was great fun to drive, but in BSA /Triumph’s hands it showed how wrong they could be. Surely it was an act of desperation ‘It might just work…’ The design was conducted in the next office to the one that I worked in, and I found the cardboard and tinfoil prototype in the same room as I’d seen the prototype Rocket 3. We all went to see it, and it was nicknamed the ‘Bearcycle’ (something that a bear might be seen to ride, in a circus) or more simply the ‘Farcycle’: no explanation necessary. I found drawings of decals
for it which said, ‘Triumph Trixie’, yes, really. In all its stages it was a calamity, and its first wheels would not have supported a child’s wheelbarrow. The axle casting must have been redesigned ten times before it did what it needed to do, and the prototype handmade pressed steel frames (beautifully made), endured endless change. The company notice board had ‘Where is it, whatever it was’ written on it, quite briefly.
I do not recall that Doug Hele or Bert Hopwood were common visitors to Umberslade, and was under the impression that Bert Hopwood hated the place. I understand that in a book that he later wrote, he referred to ‘modular engines’, and that they would have been the saviour of the group, but I think that he ‘designed’ them two or three years after those schemed at Umberslade. It was very much too late. The very thought that anyone would have called Bert Hopwood ‘Bert’, is unthinkable – he would have vaporised.
As time went on, numbers in Umberslade steadily increased, and new ‘engineers’ occupied the middle floor. We saw very little of them, and I never actually entered a room, there. Some came from Blackburn Aircraft, some from Ford, some from Massey Ferguson Tractors, and perhaps they were highly qualified in some way, most were useless to a company sinking as fast as BSA / Triumph. There were people on site who were capable, and had a track record, but they were the last that the new stream of management was interested in. They did not know, and they did not want to know.
There was a ‘showroom’ and this contained an example of all the bikes that the group was making, which was very useful for reference. Besides the three wheeler prototype there was a 100c two stroke – the ‘Mighty Atom’ and a BSA Barracuda with a Sachs Wankel engine. Work on a BSA Wankel was taking place on the ground floor, but where exactly I never found out – there was just a man called ‘Vic’, who I saw from time to time, attached to the project.
In the basement there was an American stylist who was working on a bullet shaped record breaking bike, and close by, frames made by the group, going back many years, were being tested for torsional rigidity, some flexing so much that they might have been made out of modelling clay.
When numbers reached about 175, and we were hearing new stories every day, I concluded that the firm did not have long to go, and said so to my boss, who replied, ‘Listen, David, they’ve been telling me that this place would collapse since 1936, and I assure you it will be here in another 30 years..’
It really was a wonderful experience, being there, and getting to know so many good people, and I’m still in touch with half a dozen: I remember sixty names, where they worked, and what they did, and possibly a story about most of them. Do not blame Umberslade: make no mistake, it had some excellent people, but the management was abysmal, and there was only one way that the company could go – and it did.