Friday, November 6, 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."