Planes, cars and bikes explored at Shuttleworth

Guy Thomas in front of red vintage aircraft in museum hangar

GTO’s Aviation and Motoring Heritage Correspondent Guy Thomas enjoyed a great day out at the Shuttleworth collection of vintage planes and vehicles housed at Old Warden Aerodrome in Bedfordshire at the beginning of October. On the way, he took an interesting detour to find out more about the history of Vincent motorbikes in the area.

Vincent motorbikes

Guy had stopped off on his drive up the A1 towards the Old Warden Aerodrome to visit the delightful Stevenage Town Museum. One of Guy’s missions was to see if there was a link between the once-prestigious Vincent Motorbike series built locally in Stevenage and the Shuttleworth collection. The Stevenage Town Museum has a small section paying tribute to the once-famous local motorcycle manufacturer.

Though its modern-day aerospace industry is still a major enterprise, and also features in the museum, it’s not widely known that Stevenage was once the home of the Vincent HRD motorbike factory. Guy was keen to find out more about the history of Vincent, before driving on up to the Shuttleworth Aircraft and Motor Collection in Bedfordshire.

During his short stop at the Stevenage museum, Guy found out a bit more about Vincent from both the display there, and through a chat with helpful and knowledgeable museum curator Jo Ward.

Vincent, “the makers of the world’s fastest motorbikes”, expanded quickly after the purchase of HRD Motors Ltd by Philip Vincent in 1928 – becoming a major local employer and iconic brand. (HRD had in fact been founded by the Royal Flying Corps pilot, Howard Raymond Davies – hence the initials – who was shot down and captured by the Germans in 1917). Vincent HRD produced motorbikes from 1928 to 1955 at its Stevenage factory, perhaps the most famous bike being the Vincent Black Lightning which won at Silverstone in 1952 and later took the world speed record of 185mph in 1955. John Surtees, Motorcycle Grand Prix, and later Formula One world champion driver, began his career as a Vincent apprentice.

Guy Thomas and Vincent motorbike at Stevenage Town Museum

On to the Shuttleworth Collection

Arriving subsequently a few further miles north, at the Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden, Guy was pleased to meet Sophie Jeffrey, the Collection’s Marketing Executive, who explained the current visiting arrangements under the Covid-19 restrictions, and also kindly ran through the exciting plans for further events between now and Christmas. The attraction has worked hard to keep open despite the pandemic, and has even staged a number of airshows since resuming activity in July after the lockdown. (Their future events include one of the few firework shows still going ahead in the UK this November. Unfortunately it’s already sold out – but you can see some other possibilities in our article here.)

A unique feature of their new air show format has seen visitors welcomed to a ‘Drive-in’ style airshow, where visitors are provided with a designated area for their vehicle, with enough space for picnicking and designated ‘welfare zones’ for refreshments, toilets and hand sanitizer. Commentary and pre-show music are broadcast through FM radio, for the respective flying programmes.

The collection

A rich variety of unique and unusual pre-Second World War planes forms the core Shuttleworth collection, and walking through the six hangars quickly engaged Guy in some fascinating discoveries.

The famous collection itself was founded by Richard Ormonde Shuttleworth, a racing motorist, aviator, and prolific collector of veteran cars and aircraft, and remains one of the jewels in the crown of worldwide aircraft preservation. Richard, who was killed in an air crash on a night RAF training exercise in 1940, was the grandson of Joseph Shuttleworth, co-founder of agriculture and motor engineers Clayton & Shuttleworth, some of whose original vehicles are on display.

Every vintage aircraft from 1910 to 1970, veteran motor car and motorbike (alas no Vincent HRD bikes were on display!) is in working order. The Collection’s regular air displays are an opportunity for visitors to see a cross section of their 65 aircraft and motor cars/motorbikes and bicycles in action. There are even some excellent replicas of the very earliest ‘heavier than air machines’

A great day out

The exhibits are displayed in a line of six hangars, linked together to enable the visitor to walk through all of them without being exposed to the elements. There is also a separate engineering hangar used to keep the aircraft fully serviced and maintained in airworthy condition, and a range of Clayton agricultural machinery including an unusual 1921 ‘charabus’ (a closed-top charabanc), which took employees to outdoor shows.

Clayton charabus (centre)

In addition to the Shuttleworth Collection, all admission tickets now include access to the impressive adjacent 19th Century Swiss Garden and historic Shuttleworth House.

Incidentally, Guy believes he did find a link between Vincent HRD in Stevenage and the Shuttleworth collection. As a pilot with the Royal Flying Corps during WW1, Howard Raymond Davies is very likely to have learned to fly on the Avro 504K biplane – an airworthy example of which is one of the aircraft on display at Old Warden, along with some evocative pictures and memorabilia of the very earliest military aviators.

Another little known fact!

In the waning days of the Vincent Motorcycle Company in the 1950s, a screen adaptation of George Orwell’s classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four was made. It utilised the services of the Vincent Owner’s Club to provide a chilling mobile Thought Police force – filming their nearly-new Vincents in a bombed-out area behind Guildhall, London. The photograph above is from the September 1st, 1955 issue of The Motor Cycle, which had a small feature on the motorcycles in the film.