Monday, September 3, 2012

My latest read was Ken Sprayson's autobiography "The Frame Man"(Panther Publishing Ltd.), which just came out this year.  Ken was famous to me for building many roadracing frames for some of the greats and for providing a welding repair service at the TT races on the I.O.M.  I had the pleasure of meeting him there when he had a shop set up in a maintenance shed in Nobles Park, just outside the paddock.  But, I had no idea of his wide ranging interest and accomplishments until I read this book.
Ken followed his father and grandfather in the metal trades and includes in the book a copy of his grandfather's membership card in the Amalgamated Society of Engineers from 1878.  Ken grew up in Birmingham and relates his school days where he resisted the academic path.  Born in 1927, he was 13 when Birmingham was being bombed nightly.  He was in the Boys Brigade and, after the nearly nightly air raids, he would bicycle 12 miles to Hospital to get the casualty lists at 7am and bring them to a central office in the City Center, where others would distribute the lists to various police stations so people could check on the fate of their loved ones, negotiating the craters and bombed out buildings in the dark.

Despite  qualifying for exams, Sprayson left school at 14 and started working for a sheetmetal company making components for aircraft.  He relates a story of one of the old-timers observing him work and asking him "who taught you how to file like that?"  He hadn't been 'taught'  by anyone; it just came naturally to him.  It was a different time and he writes of spending a day cutting a 10" X 1" piece of steel with a hacksaw.  "And so I learn that wonderful things could be done with the simplest of tool, something that stood me in good stead in future years."
Ken was called up for National Service just as the war ended and never left Britain.  When he got out of the Army, he got a job with Reynolds Tube, maker of the famous '531' tubing. He worked in the Welded Assembly Dept., which took on one off projects as well as production work. One of Ken's jobs was to make the first example of a production run and this included the Norton 'featherbed' frame which Reynolds had a contract to produce for Norton.  There he got involved in a number of M/C projects, from the mundane fabricating and testing a moped frame, to making one off road racing frames for the likes of Geoff Duke, John Surtees, Arthur Wheeler, and Mike Hailwood.  Initially, he bought a bike, an ex-WD 350 Ariel,  merely for transport.  He eventually took a couple of holidays on the Continent, two up with his wife and luggage.  I find it amusing that now-a-days few would consider doing any touring on a bike smaller than 1000cc by themselves, armed with credit cards, cell phones, and GPS.  Sprayson rode this mid 40's, girder fork, ridge frame 350 1800 miles to Switzerland and back.  By  1956, he had up graded to a 350 Ariel with telescopic fork and swingarm and this took Ken and his wife 3000 miles to Italy and back over two weeks.
Reynolds established a free repair service at the I.O.M. TT races in the mid-1950s which was initially run by one of Sprayson colleges but, when he died in '58, Ken replaced him.  Reynolds eventually abandoned this, but first Shell, then Air Products, and finally the ACU sponsored Sprayson to continue this service.  He did this up through 2008, 51 years of continuous service.
Ken got friendly with Jeff Smith, 500 World Motocross Champion in 1964 and 1965.  In 1966, Smith invited Sprayson to accompany him and his mechanic to the East German, Czech, and Russian rounds of the Motocross world championship.  Ken gives a fascinating account of life behind the Iron Curtain near the height of the Cold War.  This is the dirt version of the Continental Circus, with competitors driving themselves through Europe towing their bikes in a trailer behind their sedans, in Smith's case a Wolseley 110.  This is also a period of transition as Smith's domination on the four stroke BSA is eclipsed by East German Paul Fredricks  on the two stroke CZ.  On  this trip, Sprayson got drafted into being an FIM Juryman.
Sprayson got involved in a British effort to break the land speed record, building a frame for the 'Thrust II'.  Work started on this in 1978, but it didn't run until July, 1980 on a runway in England, and it wasn't until 4 Oct, 1983 that Richard Noble set the land speed record of 633.468mph at the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, a record that stood for almost 14 years.
Sprayson's  wide ranging interests are reflected in his getting involve in organizing primitive retreats in Wales for senior Reynolds management  in an effort to build team cohesion.
In the early '70's, Sprayson acquired a 1923 Ariel powered by a 1000cc Motosacoche when a neighbor died.  It was in quite a derelict and much modified state and, after restoring it, he started participating in vintage events, like the Banbury run.  After he was made redundant at Reyonlds Tube, he did a number of consultancies with a Korean bicycle manufacturer, Goodman Engineering making the H-D powered Featherbed, a revived BSA making a moped, but increasingly working with vintage and classic bikes, some of which he helped make originally.
For someone who eschewed the academic path. Spryson is an amazingly good writer.  And, the photographs are superb.  This book was a real unexpected pleasure and I highly recommend it.
The book is available in the U.S. from; outside the U.S.. check directly with

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