Friday, November 06, 2009


Dave the Photo Pyrate is at it again, and has turned up a very interesting set of 'public domain' photos in the Library and Archives of Canada, of J. Graham Oates, the subject of the charming paperback 'Aurora to Ariel' (Bill Snelling, Amulree Publications, 1993 - the book can be purchased here). Oates was one of that peculiarly English 'Bulldog Breed' who made their way to far and difficult points of the globe in search of Adventure and Glory.

Of his many accomplishments, which included road racing, endurance events (including several ISDTs), boat racing, etc, his trans-Canadian motorcycle trip of 1928 was surely his most difficult and notable stunt, in a lifetime filled with adventure. This was the first journey across the country by a vehicle with 'rubber tires', and as roads simply didn't exist for a thousand miles within the Canadian interior, railway lines were simply the only option available. The motorcycle was a new '28 Ariel 'Two Port' 497cc ohv machine, with a Sturgess (Canaidan built) zepellin-style sidecar, three wheels being necessary to carry supplies.

Man and machine took a beating, the sidecar in particular nearly falling to pieces many times, as the outfit ran on the SLEEPERS, and not on the tracks per se; Oates' body was constantly pounded, and he must have suffered terribly.

The Ariel had a bit of trouble too, and corks for the clutch and other parts (including, apparently, a new frame!) had to be dropped off by rail to whatever remote spot Oates found himself stranded. And yes, he could communicate with the Railroad via their telephone lines adjacent to the tracks (clearly seen in the photos). The Canadian rail company demanded Oates attend a rail training school in Sault Ste. Marie, to gain pole-climbing skills necessary to use the field telephone carried in his sidecar. The Railroad granted permission to use their rails; Oates became an 'Unscheduled Frieght Train'!

As can be seen on the sidecar, sponsorship was provided by Castrol Oils, who were having a difficult time breaking into the Canadian market. The trip was planned in conjunction with their Canadian representative, Charles Dennis Browne - the two were chums from the Calvary in WW1, and Browne was the nephew of Lord Wakefield, owner of Castrol (and one wonders if a troublesome nephew was sent to the wilds of Canada to be out of Wakefield's hair!) The whole escapade was hatched over a massive booze-up the night before Oates was due to sail back to England; Canada was a stop-over for Oates, who planned to return to his native Isle of Man, after four years in Bolivia overseeing a tin mining operation in the Andes! (The mine was owned by the Guggenheims - as in Museum - and wouldn't it have been nice if Oates' Ariel had been displayed at the Art of the Motorcycle exhibit? Full circle, sort of.).

Oates repeated the exercise in 1932, again with an Ariel, this time a 'Red Hunter' equipped with sidecar, and a clever extendable axle which allowed the outfit to ride the actual rails - which was still a bit bumpy, with transitions at either end of each piece of rail (while European train tracks are welded together, their North American cousins have open joints, making a familiar clackety-clack under steel wheels). This trip was far more extensive than the first, covering 12,000 miles between Aug.1 and Dec.17, with forays to Hudson Bay and into the United States. This time, Ariel was the sponsor , and Oates was by this time becoming well-known for his many stunts. He even spent time with aviator Charles Lindbergh, whose seaplane is in the photo above.

The following is from the Library and Archives website:

"J. Graham Oates (1898-1972), an avid motorcyclist, was born in Douglas on the Isle of Man. England and later served as a dispatch horseback and motorcycle courier in WWI (1914-1916). During World War 1, he was gassed and as a result, lost the sight of his left eye. After convalescence, he recognized the possible growth of the motorcycling industry and decided to manufacture a Manx-built machine known as the Aurora. From 1920 to 1926 he competed in many competitions throughout Britain. In 1926, Oates travelled to Bolivia and worked at the world's highest tin mine in the Andes.

In 1928, on his way back home to Britain, he made a holiday stop over in Canada and met a wartime colleague who was attempting, without a great deal of success, to sell Castrol Oil in Canada. To gain nation-wide publicity, Oates suggested that Castrol Oil sponsor him on an across Canada ride on an Ariel 500 cc motorcycle and sidecar. The trip had never before been achieved on a rubber tired vehicle.

Oates began the trip at Halifax in July 1928 and soon realized that roads did not exist for many sections of the country and was forced to ride 800 miles between the railway lines. After 21 days of adventure, Oates arrived in Vancouver.

During the next three years, Oates remained in Canada and created a thriving motorcycle and boat dealership. In 1932, he returned to Britain and with the assistance of the editor of the Weekly Times, Oates planned his longest and most spectacular trip throughout England and Canada, this time to promote the sale of Empire Goods. After travelling 1800 miles around England he set sail to Canada and retraced the 1928 trip as far as Winnipeg. He then travelled northward, once more using the rails, to Hudson Bay. He was the first person to reach Hudson Bay on a rubber tired vehicle. There was still a lack of roads across the centre of Canada, but this time Oates was better prepared for rail travel. A small pair of flanged wheels were attached to the front and rear of the machine and the sidecar wheel axel extended outward to fit the gauge of the rails, making it possible to ride on the rails. During the latter part of the trip, the Ariel company, his main sponsor went into liquidation, leaving Oates stranded in Montreal. As a result he worked as an assistant steward on a tramp steamer bound for Glasgow. After his return to Britain, he participated in many motorcycling events throughout Europe.

In 1939, he was recalled to the Royal Army Service Corps. and established a school for soliders about to enter WII as pispatch drivers. He trained new recruits throughout WII and later retired, as a Lt. Colonel.

After the war, Oates assisted with the formation and running of cycling and scooter events. In 1964, he started the roofing firm of J. Graham Oates Ltd., which continues today."


Anonymous said...

Hi Paul thanks for your site , so much great stuff here. You have put in so much work, a labour of love I am sure.
Please have a look at my website I think there will be somethings there you will like. Any feedback would be much appreciated as I have just started with this sort of thing.

Kind regards - Gaston

Anonymous said...


Just a note to let you know that two weeks ago Jimmie Oates was inducted into the historic category of the Canadian Motorcycle Hall of Fame at our fourth annual induction banquet. Our event was recent enough that the bio hasn't yet been posted on our web site but it should be up very shortly.

Oates's lasting legacy in Canada was his role in forming the British Empire Motor Club, which is still active today and was itself inducted into the Canadian Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2008.

Oh, and Sturgess, the sidecar builder, was a family-owned motorcycle dealership in Hamilton, Ontario, which is still in business but no longer owned by the Sturgess family. It's been in operation since 1910 and is Canada's oldest motorcycle dealership. Ted Sturgess Senior was a sponsor of the legendary Billy Mathews but was also a successful racer on his own. In his peak racing years he earned more in purse money than he did in operating the business. He was inducted into the Canadian Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1996.

I'm an avid reader of The Vintagent and find your subject matter much in line with my own interests. With so much recycled third-hand information in the magazines these days, I look forward to your fresh facts and perspectives on motorcycle history.


John Cooper
Chairman, Canadian Motorcycle Hall of Fame

Anonymous said...

Hi Paul ..... like the site ..... interesting stuff. Hoping to find out where roadbooger hangs out! I'm just wondering what to ride in the Cannonball outing. Are you going to get involved?


Anonymous said...

Hello Paul, I just had to express how much I enjoy your blog, The Vintangent. I especially enjoy the vintage photos that you bring up. Many of them, awe inspiring and great reminders to just get on your bike and ride it. A philosophy I cling to whole heartedly. I love seeing what people would put these "vintage" bikes through in the name of adventure.

You have some great reading on there.

I also wanted to ask, have you ever done any stories or information on the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb or race? It was started in 1916 as a promotion to the new roads (widening) of the Pikes Peak Highway. Very historic racing and racer names involved. What I find particularly awesome is that the time places in 1916 was 20 minutes+ to the top, and 90 years later, the best time is just 10 minutes faster.

anyway, just an avid reader of your great stories, also from San Francisco.



Conchscooter said...

I love comments that add to the story. "The Canadian Motorcycle Hall of Fame" who would thunk? I shall have to find out what other wild men the home of socialized American medicine has produced.

Anonymous said...

It was certainly interesting for me to read that post. Thanks for it. I like such themes and everything connected to them. I would like to read more on that blog soon.

Liz said...

Oh...hello! Nice to find your site...had fun thrifting with you the other day!

Anonymous said...

Hey Paul,

Love your blog!!
Just bought this wonderful book at 'Deus ex Machina' (great bike shop in Sydney);
Mick Walker's 'British Racing Motorcycles'.
Perhaps you allready know it, it's from 1998, if's a gem!!

Good luck with the blog,
Mike van der Giessen

Anonymous said...


I was wondering if you could put the word out about a old 1939 Velocette MSS 500 I am trying to find. It belonged to my grandpa, Bill Somerville sometime in the 80's who lived in Hamilton Ontario Canada. He found it in a barn near Montreal up to the axles in mud, and restored it. It won the Toronto International show in 1982. I found some pictures of the bike, and I managed to get the Vin number off the engine. Their is one on the crankcase: MSS6872 and one on the cylinder: M226B The only other thing I know about the bike which could seperate it from the others is that it had some optional seat on the fender or something, for a passenger, and apparently it's a rare option. The bike also had a plate on the front fender when he found it, and he restored the plate along with the bike, and sold it with it, the plate is FA 8493. When he restored it, he also put back all the coins that the factory used as washers, rather then switching to normal steel washers. Last I heard it was sold to some guy near Ottawa Ontario Canada. Another thing that could give it away is that he made the diamond looking part of the exhaust pipe.

Any help would be greatly appreciated,
Brandon Somerville

R.Dress said...

Hi Paul!

Thanks for this tea spoon of inspiration and the intro to J Graham Oats. I must add Aurora to Ariel to my library. I think it's imperative to have men in our lives like Oats. It builds character and personality. Something that many a men on modern bikes lack.

zoomfrog said...

Nice article......Bill Snelling wrote a nice book putting the full story to paper.

Graham had to climb a pole and wire for 2 boards so that he could end-to-end them over a rail bridge.

On a later trip to Churchill Manitoba he slipped while pushing the bike over a railway bridge and was dangling from his grip on the sidecar wheel if I remember it correctly.

maybe there's another story detail to add into my film script hehehe

Bill said...

I am currently (half past midnight on January 1st 2010) working on an expanded and revised 'Aurora to Ariel' which will be available later this year. I have added a great many more pictures to the book, plus more of Graham's writings from his diaries.
Also working on a revised and updated version of David Wright's Travelling Marshals on the Isle of Man. Also the biography of Frank Fox, 1953 Junior Manx Grand Prix winner. Frank unfortunately passed away two months ago, but son Shaun has approved its publication.
best wishes to all, ride safely, Bill Snelling

Dave Barkshire said...

Bill, I'm working on the Second Edition of 'Black Ariels' (1926-1930) and am always looking for period photos of these Ariels. If you come across any hoards of images which you aren't going to use in your book, please let me know.

Billbo said...

Aurora to Ariel has just come back from the printers. Price is £14.99, plus £2.00 postage (UK) £3.50 (Europe) and £5.00 (Rest of World). Sterling cheques only, made payable to W. Snelling and sent to: Bill Snelling, Lossan y Twoaie, Glen Road, Laxey, Isle of Man, IM4 7AN, British Isles
or we can be paid through our Paypal account:
Happy Reading!

Anonymous said...

"J. Graham Oates (1898-1972), an avid motorcyclist, was born in Douglas on the Isle of Man. England and..."

The Isle of Man isn't part of England. It isn't even part of the UK. We are an island nation, part of the British Isles, and as you now know, we Manx feel pretty strongly about it!
Great site however, thanks!

Anonymous said...

Good day all,

Thanks for the great blog. It provided a wealth of information I fully intend to utilize.

I am in the planning stages of an endeavour that will hopefully pay acceptable homage to Mr. Oates historic feat. I need only procure just a bit more corporate support and the show is a go! I've already made it up to Hudson Bay by bike last winter but this year I plan on something a bit more uppity.

Facebook search "The Brokentooth Project" and keep your fingers crossed for me.

Here's a link from the first video