Mervyn Pantin at Royal Enfield

Interviewed by Anne Bradford

Mervyn Pantin: Himbleton, Worcestershire

When I left school in 1955 I wanted to go into the RAF as a radio or radar operator but my dad refused to sign the papers. Instead, I found myself being interviewed by Tony Wilson-Jones with a view to an apprenticeship.

I was in Assembly first of all, doing odd jobs such as fitting brake pedals and licence holders. Every afternoon I used to collect up the orders for the canteen from the men and get their Tizer, crisps, etc. For that they clubbed together to buy me a daily bottle of Tizer.

There I was, a young boy of 16, brought up in the country all my life, never even having seen the inside of a factory and I found myself working in one. It was overwhelming. I went home with a headache every day for the first few months - and Assembly was a quiet department! It was just the continual hum.

Sweet and innocent, I wasn't used to the down-to-earth comments of the factory floor. For example, one of the Foremen was generally known as 'Shagger'. Eventually, I discovered that this was because he and his secretary 'just happened' to take their holidays at the same place and the same time. I wasn't used to a gang of folks who spoke like that, I just used to stand there and blush!

The Foreman was Fred Bicknell, he was a very pleasant man. He didn't say much but what he did say was positive and you always felt that he encouraged you. He was very precise in everything that he did. We used to say that if he planted peas one inch apart, he would get his ruler out and measure them.

The atmosphere was marvellous. I can't describe it except to say that it was like a family. The wages were secondary, which was a good job, because when I started I was only earning 2 0s 6d (2.02) and that included 6s 8d (33p) a week travelling allowance. I tried not to spend my travelling allowance and rode my pushbike from home to Redditch each day, a round trip of 26 miles. On my night-school night, or if the weather was bad, I stayed with my brother in Redditch. I did that for eighteen months until I bought my first motorbike, a little RE2. It cost 45, so I paid 30 and arranged to have 1 a week stopped out of my wages but sometimes, after the various stoppages, I hadn't earned as much as 1 so they couldn't deduct the repayments!

Although in some ways the discipline was very strict and you knew that you could get the sack on the spot, the management knew when to turn a blind eye. I once went into work the worse for wear after a stag night. The men said, 'I know what's best for you, lad' and they put me under the bench, packed cardboard boxes round the front so that I couldn't be seen, and left me to sleep it off. I remember another worker coming in ten o'clock on New Year's Day (this was before it was an official holiday) not able to walk straight. The Foreman and one or two others got him some whisky then put him to sleep in the store cupboard.

Everyone used to try and smuggle motorcycle bits out of the factory (although we weren't as bad as the Austin who lost a car a day through petty pilfering). The Works Police used to stand on the gate, watching everybody as they went past. We were up to all sorts of tricks. If you strapped an exhaust to your bike alongside the cylinder it looked like a twin cylinder and the Works Police would let it pass. When the Crusader first went into production, one of the workers wanted to get hold of a cylinder barrel, so he stuck it in a flower pot and put a great big bloom on top. The Works Policeman said, 'What's that?' and he called out, 'Wedding Anniversary!' I later bought an old 1936 Morris 8 which soaked up the oil so I took a Tizer bottle into work and got my supply of oil that way.

I spent six months in Assembly and was then transferred to the Tool Stores under Sid Hearne. I catalogued and stocked drills, all machine tools and other bits and pieces; and I had to cut up material for the Tool Room to make jigs and fixtures. The Stores were also in charge of large blueprints stored on huge boards. During the annual holidays we could go in and work if we wanted, to earn extra money. It was worth our while to go in, because Sid Hearne was so efficient that he knew where and what everything was so that we finished stocktaking after two days and spent the rest of the week doing crosswords and playing noughts and crosses and battleships.

After a few months working on a Capstan in the Diesel Department under Bill Kings, I went into one of the most unpopular Departments - Plating. Enfield's did their own chromium plating in acids supplied by W Canning held in six huge vats, each about twenty feet long by seven feet wide. The fumes were terrible, we had fans in the roof but no breathing equipment. Rows of long copper tubes were stretched across the vats and everything to be chromium plated had a wire attached so that it could be hung in the acid. The acids dropped everywhere and although I wore a big rubber apron, rubber gloves past my elbows and wellingtons, my trousers usually fell to pieces after a couple of weeks. The Foreman was Harry Anderson.

One incident which amused us was when the labourer at the Department bought a ring that he said was solid gold. He had paid an arm and a leg for it. We said to him, 'That's never gold, give it to us and we'll test it for you'. So we fastened it to a piece of wire and hung it in the acid. The next morning, just the shell of the ring was left. It had only been gold-plated.

I then had a short spell in the grinding department under Teddy Butts, moving on to the Service Department where the Foreman was Eddie Young. On my first day Eddie said to me, 'Can you build bikes? There's an RE over there that's been involved in an accident, see what you can do with it'. I stripped and rebuilt it and it passed testing the first time. I was very pleased with myself over that.

We also repaired pushbikes. The repairs to the worker's bikes sometimes stretched the imagination a bit, for example, one employee rode in on a rusty old ladies bike and rode out on a brand new Bermuda, bearing a ticket which just charged him for a respray.

Then I found myself in Rectification, where bikes were corrected after testing, under Percy Holder, a short, stiff man with a ruddy face and a bit of hair pushed back. After this came Development under Brian Crow. There were just three of us, Brian Crow, Jack Moore and myself. Jack was a cockney and went home to London nearly every weekend on a little pushbike with an engine running on the rear wheel. He needed a new pair of tyres every week. He later bought a 500 Bullet which went up in flames soon after he bought it.

For some months we were up at MIRA nearly every day of the week. MIRA was a long, oval, banked track, about three miles in circumference. Inside that was a timing straight with a stop and start light, a stretch of cobbled road known as the 'pave', and the 'washboards'. There was also a dust tunnel and a water splash. Brian Crow was doing a lot of testing on a 700 cc engine that had been put into a Berkeley four-wheeler. I was spending some of my time on a 150 Prince.

The very first time I went to MIRA, Brian Crow had a nasty accident. He was testing a 500 Bullet when the gearbox seized. First of all I thought he'd held it, the bike went from side to side but then he did a handstand in the air and came down on his hands, fracturing his forearm. The bike was taken back to the factory for examination and the gearbox was stripped while all the Heads stood round, Jack Booker, Tony Wilson-Jones and several Foremen. Someone had put the wrong-sized part in.

During the late 1950's the Development and the Competition Department were put together under Charlie Rogers and I was working with Mac McGowan, Mick Bowers, Tony Donaghue and Harry Watton. Harry mainly worked on the trials bikes. We built the trials and competition bikes for John Brittain and the other works riders, Peter Stirland, Peter Fletcher and Benny Crawford. Bill Lomas, the racing biker, was my idol as he was an ex-Enfield employee. I used to read about him in the motor cycling magazines.

Tony Donaghue and I used to go to MIRA together. At the end of the day we would return to Alvechurch at about four o'clock in the afternoon then phone in to say we were just starting out. That way we could be home in ten minutes and have the rest of the day off. Tony used to ride a 250 Crusader, he was a brilliant scrambler and took part in the first televised scrambles.

Tony was the National Boy's Boxing Champion and we used to have a bit of gentle sparing. In the middle of the Competition Department was a big stove and we used to pile coke on in the winter so that it really glowed and we were able to make our toast on it. One day I caught him on the jaw and he fell backwards into the coke box. I shall always remember him sitting there with his legs in the air. Did he give me a good hiding after that!

I used to build the bikes then bring them home and ride round to do mileage. At the weekends I would go all over the country in scrambles and road races. I was often Despatch Rider for the large national trials such as the Vic Brittain Trial at the Craven Arms and the British Experts in Llandudno Wells in the Welsh Mountains. I had a helmet with a peak on it and one winter's day, when I was riding a 700 Constellation, the snow piled up on the peak and froze so that I couldn't hold my head up. I was so tired and so frozen when I got home that I just leaned against the wall on my bike and my old chap had to come and lift me off.

I also helped to build the prototypes and often took them to MIRA for testing. At one time we were working on a five-speed gearbox which was a terrible thing, there was a neutral between each gear and when you tried to engage a gear, it wasn't positive enough. The bike was to be called the Super Five but I said to Charlie Rogers, 'Don't put this gearbox into production!' It died a super death because Roger Boss suggested building a GT racer for teenagers which came out just after I left.

We were making the Indian for the American market at this time and a beautiful new cylinder head, all polished, was sent over from America to experiment with. It lay around the Department for ages, so one of the apprentices fitted it to his 500 scrambler. When it was fitted to a bike you couldn't tell the difference between that and an ordinary cylinder head but did it make his bike go! Unfortunately, the management decided that they needed it and everyone was searching high and low for it. This other apprentice and I had to pretend to look for it.

Then in 1960 we were working on a bike with an electric starter. It had two 12 volt batteries, one each side of the carrier. The trouble was that you couldn't handle it once it had started, the handlebars swayed about. Pat Wiltshire did a lot of riding on that.

There was a cafe at Meriden where you could get a mug of tea and a piece of toast for a shilling, and all the testers used to meet there together, from Triumph, BSA, and Aerial, there would be about a dozen of us. Then we would all clear off to MIRA together.

I had my first bump at MIRA. I was putting mileage on a 700 Constellation and going at 70 mph when the twist grip simply came off the handlebar. I went up in the air and came down in a heap but fortunately I was only bruised.

Another time I had just finished putting 500 miles for the suspension on pave and was coming back through Nuneaton when the car in front suddenly put its winker out - it was one of those old cars with an indicator that flapped up off the side. I pulled on my brakes but slid into the back of the car then bounced off and rolled over in the road. Coming from the opposite direction was a lorry which came straight over me but luckily the wheels passed each side of me. Charlie Rogers came and picked me up in his car and took me to the Manor Hospital at Nuneaton but all I needed was seven stitches in my knee.

I now have arthritis in my spine and I'm sure this began after an accident at Earlswood when I was out with Mick Bowers. I was negotiating that part of the B4102 were the road takes a right hand bend, then a left-hander, when I felt the bike going from underneath me. I came off and skidded across the road on my back with my legs in the air then I whammed my underneath against the edge of the pavement. A lady took me into her house but I felt very bad and I felt ill for days. My back was black and blue. Mrs Wareing, the Welfare and Social lady, arranged for me to have time off with pay.

From 1958 to 1959 I served on the Apprentices Committee. Although Tony Wilson- Jones and Bob Sandilands were in charge of the thirty or so apprentices, about half-a-dozen of us were selected to form a committee to look after apprentices' rights and also to help to co-ordinate, and sometimes organise, various events such as dinners and outings. We had some clout, one of our campaigns resulted in apprentices not having to work short time. We felt that this was fair as apprentices were only working a four-day week anyway, one day a week being spent at College.

Several outings were arranged for us each year. We went to Triplex Metals to see how castings were made, and we had a look round the Austin factory. We also went to see the underground factory at Westwood, I always remember that particular visit because one of the apprentices was meddling with a machine and he turned a handle and did several thousand pounds' worth of damage.

We were taken, at great expense, to see the Motor Bike Show in London. We used to look round the show for an hour then scarper, and spend the rest of the day living it up in London. One year, my mate and I got lost in the Underground and we nearly missed the coach, we arrived back just as it was pulling out!

The highlight of the year was the Apprentices and Office Girls' Blackpool trip, organised by three or four ladies in the offices. On my first year my mate and I enjoyed the Blackpool nightlife so much that we got locked out of our hotel. Fortunately, some of our party were sleeping in a basement bedroom and we were able to pull the grill out from the pavement outside and let ourselves down into their room. There was no "en suite" in those days and we slept two to a bed with two beds in each room.

The following year I went round Blackpool on my own. The seat next to me was empty so Hilary, my future missus, came and sat by me, we went to the fair, the pub and the winter gardens together. At the end of my first day back at work, I came out of the factory gates and there she was, waiting for me for a lift home. We started courting from then on. We both liked the sporting side so we had a mutual interest.

Copyright © 2000 Anne Bradford

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