Geoff's memories of A.J.S.

Although not always accurate, Geoff's memories give a good impression of the pride that the Stevens family had in their great enterprise; A.J.S.

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 originals.

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 ever!

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 forks.

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 greater reliability.

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 1990.

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 shop.

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’ item.

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 Club.

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