Sunbeam Motorcycles

Today in Motorcycle History

Wolverhampton Motorcycle Works

Wolverhampton’s Motor Manufacturing Heritage

The internal combustion engine defines the Modern Age, providing us with both speed and freedom to travel. It pervades 20th century culture, affecting how we live our lives; design our towns; provide our goods and services; spend our leisure time; wage war. The Modern Movement which sought to break with past culture in part grew out of a fascination with capturing speed in art. The sheer number of motor vehicles now threatens the very future of the planet! All this has occurred in a little over 100 years.

The UK was slow to involve itself in this emerging industry. Gottleib Daimler had tested his first petrol-powered vehicle in 1885 and in 1886 Carl Benz designed a prototype motorised tricycle [1]. The first commercially produced motorcycle, the Hildebrand und Wolfmüller, was available from 1894 [2].

The motoring historian David Burgese-Wise credits Daimler of Coventry as the first UK manufacturer, having been established in 1896 with its first vehicles produced in early 1897 [3]. Wolverhampton, one of the principal centres for the 19th century cycle industry (it had 59 cycle-makers recorded in the industry’s 1892 trade directory) [3], had the engineering and entrepreneurial skills to enter the emerging motor vehicle industry. The Star manufacturing company was established in 1897, producing its first Benz-style car under licence in 1898 along with motor-tricycles on the French De Dion et Bouton style [4].

Whereas most of the UK’s early manufacturers built machines under licence from their European designers, the Stevens brothers, engineering blacksmiths in Wolverhampton, can be credited as innovators. AJS historian Stephen Mills relates how in 1897 they acquired an American Miller engine which they dismantled, grasped its principles and redesigned as a more efficient motor [5]. The Stevens Motor Manufacturing Co. was established in 1899 and for ten years supplied engines to motorcycle makers, an early customer being Wearwell of Wolverhampton from 1900 [6]. Wearwell was itself a company that had commenced the early production of motor vehicles in 1899 [7].

The use of Stevens’ engines by car and motorcycle makers Clyno of Thrapston in Northamptonshire encouraged the company to relocate to the town in 1910 [8]. Clyno subsequently became the UK’s third largest car manufacturer after Austin and Morris [9]. It celebrates its centenary this year. Stevens also designed the first motorcycle engine for Marstons, makers of Sunbeam motorcycles and cars [10].

In 1909 the Stevens brothers commenced production of their own motorcycles which continued until 1931 when the company was bought by Matchless of London who continued production into the 1960s [11]. It is this AJS centenary that is being celebrated this year.

The principal AJS site, now a supermarket, is commemorated by the ‘Lone Rider’ memorial sculpture.

● Tempest Street – site of the original Stevens engineering and blacksmith company
● Frederick Street Works – Star motor car works
● Poutney Street Works – site of Wearwell motorcycles
● Stewart Street Works – home to Star and Briton cars, Hayward side-cars (from 1916) and AJS wireless
● Paul Street – Sunbeam Works
● Retreat Street – AJS and Stevens Works
● Pelham Street – Clyno Works
● Pelham Street – AJS and Clyno Works (2 buildings opposite one another)
● Great Brickkiln Street – site of Wearwell and Wolf Works
● AJS Graiseley Works site – the Lone Rider memorial
● Commercial Road, Specialist Coach Co. Ltd. (c.1930) Graiseley Sidecars
● Marston Street – Villiers Works
● Upper Villiers Street – Sunbeam Car Works


[1] David Burgess-Wise (2006) ‘Brighton Belles: A Celebration of Veteran Cars’ (Crowood Press)
[2] Erwin Tragatsch (ed) (1993) ‘The New Illustrated Encyclopedia of Motorcycles’ (Grange Books)
[3] David Burgess-Wise, op. cit.
[4] Wolverhampton History and Heritage Society (see British Resources)
[5] Stephen J Mills (1994) ‘AJS of Wolverhampton’ (published by author)
[6] Ibid.
[7] Wolverhampton History and Heritage Society, op. cit.
[8] Stephen J Mills, op. cit.
[9] Wolverhampton History and Heritage Society, op. cit 
[10] Robert Cordon Champ (1986) ‘The Sunbeam Motorcycle’ (Haynes)
[11] Stephen J Mills, op. cit.

Adapted from an article at Archive