History of the
Stevens family and the early days of A.J.S. by
Geoffrey Stevens, aided by brother Alec, cousin Jim,
and Jack's daughters (cousins Rue and Peng).
Joe Stevens senior was born in
the early 1850s and had 5 sons and 4 daughters:
Harry born in 1876
George born in 1878
Joe (my father) born in 1881
Jack born in 1885
Billy born in 1893
Lucy married Bill Hadley
Lily married Jabez Wood
Daisy married M. Mervyn Weir
Ethel married Bill Simpson
Joe Stevens senior was an
engineering blacksmith in Wednesfield. The
Blacksmith in those days was a highly skilled
engineer, and Grandfather would make garden tools,
hinges, etc. and repair any metal equipment from
wheelbarrows to bicycles. He also did a lot of work
for the lock trade, and manufactured nuts and bolts,
nails, etc. as well as the traditional work of
horseshoeing and work on harnesses.
Harry, the eldest son joined
his father and showed early skill at designing and
manufacturing special purpose machines and tools for
his father’s trade (some of these machines for
straightening and screwing etc. were still in use at
the Stevens Screw Company in the 1930s).
I have a copy of a letter
written by Billy Stevens dated 20/7/1951. At this
time all the brothers were still alive so the
content should be reasonably reliable. It states
that Harry built an engine in 1894 in Tempest
Street, Wolverhampton. Castings were bought from a
firm in Derby, machined by Harry and Joe. The engine
was built into a B.S.A. frame, it had no name. As my
father was only 13 years old in 1894, his memory of
the date might be slightly inaccurate.
It seems that whatever
experimental work Harry may have been doing in the
1890s, production of the Stevens engine started
in1897, the firm now being J. Stevens & Son, in
Tempest Street, Wolverhampton. The engine was based
on the American Mitchell engine. I never heard any
mention of the Mitchell by any member of the family
and have no idea how grandfather came to possess
one. It could have been used to blow the hearth, or
perhaps purchased out of curiosity. It certainly
would not have been powerful enough to drive the
machinery, which in those days was belt driven from
overhead pulleys on a line shaft.
At this time Harry was working
full time in his father’s business. To help finance
the development of the Stevens engine, George, Joe,
and Jack took outside jobs, then helped with the
machining in their spare time.
By 1904 the four older brothers
had taken premises in Pelham Street and were
producing air, and water-cooled engines. I have
copies of the following adverts, Jim Boulton has the
Adverts from The Motor dated
April 6th, 1904:
2.5 hp. 76 x 85 mm automatically operated valve
3 hp. 82 x 89 mm mechanically operated valve
3.5 hp. 85 x 95 mm A.O.V.
Adverts from The Motor dated
May 29th, 1906:
4 hp. air-cooled, single cylinder
4 hp. water-cooled, single cylinder
4 hp. ditto for boats and stationary work
6 hp. W.C. twin cylinder
7/8 hp. W.C. twin cylinder
8/10 hp. W.C. twin cylinder
16/18 hp. four cylinder
Also clutches and silencers.
Harry fitted one of the water
cooled engines to a lawn mower for Mr. Osmond Evans
of the Culwell Works. Possibly the first motor mower
Although Stevens engines were
fitted to cycle frames in those early days (I have a
photo of Lily Stevens and an early bike with the
name Stevens on the tank) this was experimental and
not for sale.
It was in 1909 that the
brothers decided to manufacture complete bikes while
continuing to sell Stevens engines to the trade. For
this reason the bikes were called A.J.S. this being
the initials of Jack (Albert John Stevens) the only
brother with three initials.
Production of the A.J.S. was
largely financed by the money paid to Harry for
designing the first Sunbeam engine (For details of
the engine read Robert Champ’s “Book of the
Sunbeam”). So again Harry was instrumental in
setting the family on the road to success.
Engines were made at Pelham
Street and the A.J.S bikes assembled at Retreat
Street. All five brothers rode in reliability trials
to test and develop the bikes with great success. We
treasure the hard won Gold Medals of our parents. In
1911 they decided to enter the Isle of Man T.T. Jack
Stevens who was probably the most active and
enthusiastic of the brothers entered, and finished
16th. He would have done better had he not, as he
put it "Taken a tumble" and had to straighten the
After three busy years at the
factories it was decided to again enter the Junior
T.T. in 1914 with great enthusiasm and some neglect
of factory output. The T.T. engines were based on
the standard side valve 350cc. The cylinder heads
and ports, flywheels, and connecting rods were
highly polished. The cylinder barrels were machined
from the solid, and plain bearings were used for
It was realised that the
engines would be damaged by the fast descents on the
mountain course so Harry devised, in addition to the
standard gearbox, a secondary 2 speed drive. This
was by two different sized chain wheels running free
on their shaft. The drive being taken up by a
sliding dog keyed to the shaft. The dog was operated
by a handlebar control via a Bowden cable. It was
difficult to use and only suitable for short time
because although the chain centres had been devised
to start equally, it was not possible to compensate
for uneven wear. However the four speeds proved an
important factor in achieving first, second, fourth,
and sixth places.
The great successes of the
A.J.S. in track racing, reliability trials, and road
racing are well documented. In these notes I
concentrate more on the production side and on the
Stevens family of that generation. The 1920s were
the great days of progress, on quick detachable
wheels. The design side of A.J. S. developed an
overhead pushrod in 1920, an overhead camshaft in
1927, and used chain drive from 1911. In addition to
these major features, all of which are still widely
used in the 1980s, A.J.S. took out 49 patents, 18 in
the name of Harry Stevens.
Harry had also experimented in
radio during World War 1 and he was reported to the
police by the neighbours in Oaklands Road who
suspected he was in touch with the Germans by his
mysterious "wireless"!!! In the 1920s a large number
of wireless sets and radiograms were produced in the
Stewart Street factory. In 1927 the A.J.S.
commercial vehicles (coaches and lorries) were
produced at the extensive Walsall Street works.
Graiseley sidecars were also made at Walsall Street
and for many years car bodies were made for Clyno.
In 1930, seeking to diversify
more, the A.J.S. car was produced. An excellent and
good looking, although expensive car at £240. It had
a one litre side valve engine by Coventry Climax. In
all 3,300 cars were made, but I don’t know how many
of these were built by Crossley Motors who took over
after our closure.
Motor cycle production, at peak
reached 600 per week, with overtime and a night
shift but with demand being seasonal, there was also
short time working. The Express & Star in 1932 gave
a figure of 3,000 employees. So by 1930 the brothers
had built-up a full range of motorcycles from 250cc
to 1,000cc (s.v., o.h.v., o.h.c., single cylinder,
twin cylinder, and transverse twin) a small car,
commercial vehicles, and radios.
In 1931 it was the year of the
slump. The Midland Bank manager was Bernard Docker
who was also Chairman of B.S.A. The bank foreclosed
on our loan, and the company went into voluntary
liquidation. The name and goodwill were sold to the
Collier Brothers of Plumstead, and the A.J.S. car to
Crossley Motors. When A.J.S. closed down in 1931 the
workforce and all Wolverhampton were devastated. The
loyalty of the workers is symbolised by a Mr.
Butterworth, who having been offered a job by
Matchless, came to see my father to ask if it would
be disloyal to take the offer. Needless to say ‘Mr.
Joe’ told him to take it.
Unfortunately, having taken
financial advice from a member of the family who had
every reason to be grateful to my grandfather, but
was busy lining his own pockets, the Stevens
brothers ended with no personal fortune. Far from
being crushed by having the name A.J.S. pass out of
their hands, the five brothers returned to the
factory in Retreat Street, one section of which they
still owned, and worked all day and late at night to
produce in 1932 the Stevens Light Commercial
Vehicle, a three-wheeled van, powered by a 588cc
water cooled engine of their own manufacture.
In 1933 they again made engines
for the trade, and their own 250 o.h.v. Stevens
motorcycle, followed in 1934 by 350 and 500cc
models. Also at Retreat Street works, Harry Stevens
helped to design George Brough’s ‘Dream bike’. Jim
Stevens (Billie’s son) worked on this project at
Retreat Street, where he still has his business in
Denis Griffin (or Griffiths) is
Hanford Stevens’ brother-in-law. He wrote in Motor
Cycling under the amazing nom de plume of ‘W.
Harding Manners’ and joined Stevens Brothers in
1934. Denis estimates that about 200 bikes were
produced each year until 1938 when war work started.
From the small factory in Retreat Street an export
trade was built-up and in the 1980s there is still a
thriving Stevens club in Australia.
About the Stevens Brothers:
Harry, the eldest, was, as I
have shown the "King Pin" on engine design & special
purpose machinery. Without Harry there would never
have been an A.J.S.
George soon saw the commercial
possibilities and remained in charge of the
commercial and sales side being largely responsible
for the extensive export business.
Joe was in charge of production
and overseeing racing, later to take over management
of Walsall Street Commercial Vehicles and machine
Sadly Jack was crippled by
polio after being the most energetic of all in the
early days, riding in trials and the T.T. He was in
charge of the drawing office and design.
William, forever to be known as
“Young Billy”, was Director of Spares and Service.
With the help of Bob Phillips he produced a most
comprehensive spares catalogue, now a collectors’
While paying tribute to Harry
as the founder we must remember that all the family
were gifted engineers. They combined their talents
on all major policies. In their successful years all
enjoyed life to the full. They were athletic, liked
company, and appreciated good music. All shared a
unique sense of humour.
I have tried to put together as
accurate as possible, this short history of the
early days. Much happened before my time, so, in
addition to family members I have drawn information
from Ray Jones and Jim Boulton of the Vintage Motor
Cycle Club. Also from the writings of George Rowley,
Gregor Grant, C. E. Allen, Ivan Rhodes, and John
Allen, historian of the A.J.S. and Matchless Owners