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Grandpa's Bown

by David Stevenson

Those of you who have been collecting information about one particular marque or machine for an extended period will know that what was a flow of data in the first year or two dries to a trickle thereafter. By the end of the first decade that trickle has dried to the occasional eagerly-awaited droplet in an otherwise parched landscape. You can imagine my glee therefore when an envelope with an unrecognised postmark disgorged a letter which basically said: "I am the husband of the grand-daughter of William Bown. Would you like to meet us?" A visit was arranged as soon as my students were elsewhere. I was preparing one of my larger machines for the ride down when the Maths Adviser turned up.

"Pity you can't arrive on a Bown", she said. The die was cast. Why ever do I listen to that woman?

The Bown autocycle and sidecar had not turned a wheel since last Christmas, when the Granadaland Hangover Run had been its final outing with Katy squeezed into its tiny body. I had washed it immediately after we had returned because salted roads play havoc with old bikes. Nevertheless, not only was the brass flywheel green and the aluminium furry but also the decompressor had rusted solid and the carburettor slide was totally stuck. It took a whole evening just to get it running again. Worrying was the enemy, I decided. Grease it, oil it, blow up its tyres, check the lights and if necessary the RAC would take care of the tow home.

The sidecar seemed extremely heavy when all the clobber was squeezed in and the old Bown shook its head at slow speeds like a 'real' outfit, a trait I had not noticed before. A quick ride down the street suggested that it was a viable proposition and at 9:30am on a beautiful Saturday morning we wobbled off in search of Norwich.

You have suffered enough accounts of my long rides so let us just say that there was the usual change of plug, the moment the bloody thing wouldn't start leaving me to run beside it in the baking heat for a quarter of a mile and, yes, I did leave my sun-glasses on a garage forecourt and have to go back for them. I also lost my way and found that, like all involuntary detours on autocycles, the only way back to my chosen route lay up a darned great hill. There were also the good bits, of course. Several miles along a huge drainage ditch with an enormous East Anglian vista moving slowly past under a bright blue sky made the whole ride worthwhile. And finally, after nine hours on the road and nearly 150 miles, there was that wonderful moment when we had arrived. I pulled up outside my sister-in-law's house in Norwich with a grin as wide as the Humber and promptly downed two glasses of chilled white wine like it was lemonade.

Beccles is 17 miles from Norwich and having bathed away a slight hangover (the two glasses had multiplied over the rest of the evening) I set off again. John Hesp was waiting on the pre-arranged roundabout to guide me through the back lanes to his house. Jean and he were suitably impressed by my mode of travel and we unpacked the sidecar to begin the serious business of the exchange of information. I don't know how interested in history the rest of you are, but I love this personal contact for that wonderful moment when someone who I have known simply as a paper figure, a cipher, suddenly becomes "Grandpa". As Jean went over the family gossip William Amos Ravenall Bown, last director of the Bown cycle dynasty, came alive, not merely as an interesting and inventive manufacturer, but as a human being.

Jean Hesp on a Bown motor cycle
Jean Hesp on a Bown motor cycle

As so often happens with family history, it had only really been after the old man's death in the early 1980s that Jean and her brother had begun to realise that Grandpa's involvement with bikes and motor cycles had some significance to those outside of their own family circle, that the Bown family had, indeed, a small but significant place in the larger history of the cycle and motor cycle industry in Britain. When, more recently, their grandmother died, with John's help they had preserved every bit of paper relating to their grandfather's career. This was a treasure trove and again there was that indescribable feeling of touching history as I handled documents relating to the old man's war service and cuttings that he had preserved from the weeklies of the nineteen twenties. What was supposed to be an interchange of information became a one-way flow in my direction.

So, you ask, for all my sentimental twaddle about contacting the dead and "touching history", did I learn anything new? Certainly. The Hesps kindly supplied me with photocopies of the Bown cycle and motorcycle catalogues for 1923 which revealed a 150cc model of which I previously had no record. A 1913 catalogue of Aeolus (the Bown Trade name) frames and fittings revealed that Bown were already making motorcycle and sidecar frames. Previously, I believed they had started in 1914. A Bown cycle catalogue from the 1930s gave the firm's address during a period in which I knew, from information supplied by a late member of the VMCC, that they had continued trading, but not from where. All this was interesting but more fascinating still were the sidelights cast by the new information.

Early on in my Bown research I had come across a short article in Motor Cycling for 23rd April 1953 which began "Knowledgeable critics comment favourably on the Bown lightweight. When first I saw it I felt sure it must have been evolved by an engineer who is also a practical rider", and finished "W A R Bown was a trials enthusiast in his earlier days". I wrote to the late Bob Currie and asked him if he knew anything about this but he replied that there were so many pre-war amateur trials that it would be very difficult to verify. The new information showed, however, that Bown's exploits were not obscure to his contemporaries but that they had occurred long before Bob Currie was old enough to remember them. In the early 1920s Bown received small but useful notice of his trials riding abilities on one of his family's machines climbing a Welsh hill called Alt-y-bady in October 1920. The machine was 250cc Villiers powered and the papers expressed admiration that so small a machine could make a clean climb. Bown used the feat in their next year's advertising campaign. Thanks to the Hesps I have photocopies of documents and photographs confirming all this, including Bown's receipt for the bike.

Those viewing a Bown autocycle or small motorcycle for the first time often comment on the "over-engineered" quality they perceive in the duplex cradle frame. Such frames were commonly used to improve handling and reduce the transmission of engine vibration on larger machines but appear a little superfluous on 100cc utility models. What was confirmed by my meeting with the Hesps was that this reflected a tension between the two halves of the firm that made them. Aberdale, who took over Bown in the late 1930s, was run by the Levy brothers and made a name for itself between the wars mass-producing cheap cycles in its modern North London factory. Bown survived by a hand to mouth existence but the bicycles it made during the 1930s included top of the range models using 531 tubing aimed at club-men and racers. W A R Bown remained interested in cycle racing for the rest of his life, Jean said, and grandmother's opinion of the Levy brother's undoubted talent for managing money could not be printed here without risking a libel suit from their descendants. So what The Classic Motor Cycle of January 1992 described as the "grandiose" claims typified by Bown's slogan of "Handbuilt for the Connoisseur" did reflect, within the somewhat confined parameters of the ultra-lightweight market, a genuine commitment to quality and rideablity. Indeed the tall bespectacled figure shown riding the slightly modified Bown in Motor-Cycling's 19th July 1951 test is W A R himself.

As we were eating lunch prepared from the Hesps' own garden, Jean looked up to find me, rather rudely, scrutinising her face. I had a picture of Grandpa open on the arm of my chair and was trying to detect a family resemblance. Perhaps more importantly on the subject of genetics, Jean's brother, Paul Bown, has spent his working-life boat-building having inherited the family flair for design and invention first shown by their great, great-grandfather, William Bown, in the new Birmingham light engineering industry of the 1860s.

So did the product of all this wonderful ingenuity get me home again, you ask. Well actually, no. With five hours daylight left I set out to cover the 100 miles between the Hesps and the youth hostel at Thirlby. Eighty miles out an unusually rough village street drew my attention to a deflating tyre. Examination revealed a split in the rear cover so, praying unusually hard for an atheist, I pumped the tyre up and rode gingerly on. The next stop revealed a larger split and by Thirlby the inner tube was bulging through the hole, but we made it.

The next morning the Maths Adviser came to rescue me, as she bloody well ought, and that evening the family came down with me to return the Bown on the trailer, ignominiously to its garage. We sat in the pub garden on the journey home, a happy family group. Katy had just finished school for the summer and been treated to a MacDonalds. I had just enjoyed the crowning moment of my passion for Bowns and Sheila had the quiet satisfaction of knowing, once again, that she had been absolutely right in querying the sanity of the whole expedition.

First published - December 1997

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