Tom Workman’s motorcycling memories

at told by Roy and Chris

Roy’s father with Norton Outfit in 1942

Tom Workman was Roy’s father; he sowed the idea of Roy riding an outfit.  When Tom started his apprenticeship his wages for a 45-hour week did not cover his bus fare so his father helped with the cost.  Eventually he obtained a push bike so he could save a little money.

At some time in the mid-1990s Roy gave his father a writing pad and pencil and eraser, and asked him to write his life story.  The following bits are about Tom’s motorcycling and sidecarring days, as told by him in his own words

At the age of sixteen (in 1930) I was thinking about buying a motorcycle so I went to the Kent county town of Maidstone, to the County Hall there to get a motorcycle licence.  There I spotted an old school friend working behind the counter and I waited until I could be served by him; this proved to be a good move.  I explained that I wanted a motorcycle licence, and he advised me that driving tests would soon be coming in, and that I would be better off obtaining a licence for all groups of transport.  I took his advice and was issued with a full licence. 

At the time I was attending night school and one of the lads there wanted to sell his motorcycle so my father purchased it for me.  It was a 1924 New Imperial, 2.75 hp and it cost £6.00.  The registration number was KL 122.  It had a looped frame, so that the engine fitted inbetween the frame.  It was quite modern for the time having drum brakes that worked well.  Originally the machine had been fitted with acetylene lighting, but this had been changed to electric lighting by a previous owner.  This was powered by a battery which, when it ran down, you had to take it off and take it to the local garage to be recharged!  The motorcycle had originally been fitted with touring handlebars; however, another modification – semi-sports handlebars – had been fitted, and these could cause a problem.  The flat petrol tank had an oil plunger on it – you pushed it down and the plunger would gradually rise and oil the engine.  When the plunger was fully up and you were turning a tight corner, the semi-sports handlebars would strike the plunger – this caused quite a bit of excitement until you got used to it!

On one occasion, riding home at night, the fog was so thick that I could not find the gate leading into the field where Lodge Hill house (my home) stood.  I dismounted and pushed the bike one handed, whilst trying to find the gate with the other hand.  My first gallon of petrol cost 1 shilling and one penny – the equivalent of just over five pence nowadays.  I rode the bike for several months, but eventually the cost beat me and I went back to my bicycle.

Roy’s grandmother with BSA in 1935

Fast forward to October 1934 and I purchased a new 1935 model BSA 150 cc overhead valve motorcycle, registration number BKL 181.  The number plates were hand painted and they looked good.  The cost of the BSA was £32.  I opted for the ohv bike because ohv engines were becoming more popular and faster than the older side-valve engines.  This was a good little bike but a little underpowered.  I felt that I should have spent a little more and bought the 250 cc model instead.

By 1939 I was married, and we went ahead and purchased a Norton 600 cc motorcycle with a sidecar; I replaced the sidecar with a new Watsonian sidecar body. I was teaching myself to ride the outfit and whilst turning left I accelerated too hard and went across the road, mounting the pavement and knocking some palings out of a garden fence.  Being a carpenter, this was not a problem – a hammer and a few nails and the fence was as good as new!  The spokes on the front wheel were a bit weak and if we took a left turn to quickly we usually ended up with a broken spoke – you could actually hear it break.  This involved removing the wheel and taking the tyre off, renewing the spoke and replacing the wheel – we became dab hands at this!

Roy’s mother with the Norton Outfit in 1941

Petrol rationing for the private use of motorcars came into force quite early in the war – petrol just wasn’t available at all.  However, for motorcycles we had another six months’ grace, and our ration was two gallons a month.  However, I got lucky because I was doing work on the Kent coast and I was allowed petrol to get there, but I had to ride on a set route.  I would switch the petrol off a few hundred yards from our home and just make it costing into the garage.  Eventually this particular job finished and my petrol ration was stopped all together and we had to immobilize all vehicles not in use. The police came around and checked that this had been done.

1945 saw an improvement in supplies and we were again allowed a small ration for private use and the Norton outfit was on the road again.  Although my wife was happy with the outfit for a time, but eventually a car was called for.

A bit of history from Roy – My mother’s brother was driving through Reigate in the 1930s and he was stopped by the police and booked for speeding at 31½ miles per hour in a 30 mph speed limit.  He was fined £1.10s (£1.50p).  Weekly wages for a tradesman at this time were about £3.10s (£3.50p) so this fine was nearly half a week’s wages!!  I saw this licence on his garage wall 35 years or so after the event.

Tom never had another motorcycle or sidecar, but he drove cars well into his 90s.  He died peacefully in 2013, just 10 week’s short of his 100th birthday.