« Main Menu      Brazing    Cables    Capstans    Drilling    Finishing    Gear Cutting    Grinding    Hardening    Milling    Pipe Bending    Presswork    Semi-Autos    Welding

Capstan Lathes

selection of turned parts pic
Typical selection of turned parts

In order to produce the vast number of turned components used in their range of motorcycles (engine/gearbox shafts and gears, wheel hubs, spindles and sprockets, steering and fork tubes, etc.), the AMC factory needed a very large turning department which, during their peak-production period of the mid-'50s, was re-housed in an extension of the original works, occupying the whole of the first floor and half of the second floor, and equipped with over 150 lathes of different sizes and types.


The department was known as the Capstans and/or the Herberts; the former name referring to the specialist type of lathe used for repetitive production work and the latter being the make of the machines.

The capstan type of lathe had evolved from earlier types with the addition of a an indexible toolholder that allowed multiple machining operations to be performed on a part, using a different tool in easy, rapid succession, with no need for the operator to perform setup tasks in between.

As the photograph below shows, the larger machines had turrets fitted with head steadies which engaged in turn with a large bar on the lathe body, to ensure that the machining forces did not affect the accuracy of the cutting tools.

Capstan lathe turret pic
Capstan lathe set-up for machining gearbox housing
(Heavy-duty turret fitted with head steadies)
Machining crankcase half-casting pic
A machinist carrying out facing, turning and drilling
on a crankcase half-casting, all on one machine.
(Courtesy Motor Cycling Illustrated - March 1959)

Up to six different tools could be set up on one "turret" to allow drilling, reaming, boring, facing, countersinking and tapping operations to be carried out, all with their own depth stops and feed rates pre-set up.

Capstan lathe turret diagram
Capstan lathe turret diagram

To carry out a particular sequence of machining operations, the first tool would be positioned in-line with the chuck and fed forwards to carry out its cutting role. On retraction, the turret would then index around to bring the second tool into play and this would likewise be fed towards the work part, up to its own depth stop.

This sequence would be repeated until all the tools had been utilised and the finished part then removed from the machine.

For manufacturing long, cylindrical parts like gearbox shafts, the raw material would be in the form of standard sized bar (of either circular or hexagon profile) which would be fed through the rear of a matching collet chuck.

Components such as crankcases or fork sliders would have required special fixtures to hold the rotating castings, which would need to be carefully balanced to avoid generating dangerous vibrations when being turned at high speeds.

Capstan Dept on last day (1969) pic
Capstan Department on last day (1969)


John Rourke spent over 30-years of his working life at AMC, some of it in the capstan bay.
You can read about his time there on Page 16 of
'Memories of Plumstead'.

In 1962, the Dutch Motor magazine published a series of articles following a tour of the Plumstead Road factory.
You can read their extensive observation of the Capstan department in Parts 1 to 3 of 'This is How Your AJS and Matchless is made'.
(Note: The majority of the information was, however, previously published in the Alfred Herbert 'Machine Tool Review' article, a fuller version that can be found on the Links page).

Crankcase Machining on the Auto-Lathe
Crankcase Machining
Man Behind Matchless - Crankcase turning
Crankcase turning

This Motor Cycle magazine cover page and sales brochure featured work carried out in the capstan lathe department.
(Click on the images to see enlarged views)

You can view the complete collection on Cover Pages.

Capstan Lathe Personnel
Les Arnold
(Mrs) Arnold
Ken Blackman
Colin Blackman
Arthur BrookerManager
Charlie Cilia
Frank ColwellSetter
John Coshell
Fred DabbsChargehand
Alf Denman? - 1969Setter
Morgan (Mogs) Drewell
John (Jack) Garrett
Jack Grimsey
John Halsey
Ron MaddocksMachinist
Peter StevensMachinist
Tom Truelove
Reginald ConieForeman