Remembering Tony Denniss
As was the practice for those technically-minded apprentices at the AMC factory in the '60s, both Bill Cakebread and Peter
Attwood (this website's co-authors) spent the final year of their training in the hallowed atmosphere of the Drawing Office.
This was quite a change in situation, from having been working in the various noisy workshops for the previous four years, and one that took a bit of getting used to.
The transition from overalls and boots to shirt and tie could have been quite awesome for a twenty-year old but, fortunately, the change was made easier by being in the charge of an office manager who was a rarity in enineering firms.
His name was Anthony H.K. Denniss, but was Tony to everyone - from management board level down to the lowest factory worker.
He was a graduate engineer with the letters Cert E. and AMI Mech E. after his name but was completely free of any pretensions of superiority in his official position of Chief Draughtsman.
It is to be hoped that the following extracts will shed some light on to a person who we both admired and were grateful to have known in the formative years of our respective engineering careers.
In this extract from Bill Cakebread's book 'Motorcycle Apprentice', he recalls his first impressions of Tony, who had just began his job at AMC.
At the time of my transfer [from the Tool Room], the Drawing Office was being managed by Horace Watson. A kindly and gentle person, he was in the
latter stages of his career, and it was clear that a graduate engineer, Tony Denniss, was being groomed to take over from him.
Tony was a slightly eccentric character but gained my immediate respect by his acknowledgement that he did not possess the vital practical experience to enable him to manage the department effectively. Before accepting the full responsibility, therefore, he opted to go through a form of compressed apprenticeship and worked the first part of each day in the factory.
It was strange to see this nornally immaculately suited character return to the office in a boiler suit dripping with cutting oil. He still wore a collar and tie under his overalls, though!
You can find out more about Bill Cakebread's AMC books on the Links page.
Peter Attwood also recalls his time in the AMC Drawing Office under the supervision of Tony Denniss.
As with Bill, I was to spend the final 12-months of my five year apprenticeship in AMC's drawing office after having shown myself capable,
by way of my academic results, of being capable of benefitting from the more technically demanding experience that it would entail.
To say that I was apprehensive would be an understatement, but from my first day I realised that I had finally got a chance of achieving my working goal of helping design the motorcycles components that I had been involved with in my previous 4-years of factory work.
What made the move easier than it might otherwise have been was the help provided by all the other office staff; draughtsmen, tracer, office clerk, secretary and print room lady, but the greatest contributing factor in my induction was made by Tony Denniss, the D.O. manager.
Tony was someone who invariably had a smile on his face and always seemed to be able to find time for anybody who needed assistance or advice.
Although I may not have realised it at the time, this must have been a rare feat as, not only was he responsible for the people under his direct
control (allocating jobs to everyone and making sure that they progressed according to plan), Tony also needed to co-ordinate the department's
efforts with many other areas of the firm; from the Chief Designer to the Experimental Shop, Tool Room and Tool Design, Purchasing and Production
Planning departments as well as keeping tabs on the many drawing change requests. And this was all in pre-computer days!!
On top of this, there would also be the need to deal with outside contractors on any components that were not manufactured in house; castings, forgings, chains, tyres, electrical equipment, all of which required information to be passed backwards and forwards. But, in spite of this huge workload, I cannot remember any occasion when Tony lost his temper or resorted to shouting at anyone, always seeming to be able to handle any set back in a calm, practical way.
Another characteristic of Tony that I admired was his keenest to join in with any out-of-working-time events that were organised within the office,
or in conjunction with the Tool Room staff, which included regular trips up to London's West End to see films at the plush wide-screened cinemas.
(Other, slightly more 'adult' entertainment, known as Smoking Concerts, attended by the male office members, were also well supported by Tony. But we'd better not go into that!!)
Finally, one of Tony's skills was in knowing the abilities of those he was responsible for, nurturing the plus points such that everyone became
an 'expert' in his particular field of interest, to the extent that their knowledge eventually eclipsed his own.
Not a hint of egotism - pure good nature.
Bill adds, "Tony was a thoroughly likeable person, as you well know.
He was a boss who led his team from the front, much to his personal credit, and it is sad that he is not around for us to be able to tell him so."
Bill explains how Tony could take a joke in an otherwise serious situation, in another extract from his book.
One thing that I have never been good at is getting out of bed in the morning, and this failing manifested itself at its peak when I
joined the Drawing Office, and landed me into hot water with my new boss, Tony Denniss. Eventually the repeated reprimands became
tiresome and I rather foolishly decided to liven things up a bit.
The Drawing Office was on the first floor. It was accessed from stairs at each end, one flight leading from the office entrance on Plumstead Road and the other being a stone staircase connecting to the factory. From the Plumstead Road entrance, there was a small lift to the office (the normal entrance) whose doors opened directly in front of the Manager's Office. Tony had the habit of anticipating my late arrival and would stand with his hands behind his back, like an old-time ploiceman, waiting to face me as the automatic doors opened.
On this occassion, however, I stripped off my motorcycle clothers and placed my boots, neatly folded trousers and over jacket, topped by my gloves and helmet, on the floor of the lift and pressed the button to send it on its way. I then sprinted along the lower corridor and up the stone staircase to the far end of the office. I managed to get quietly seated at my drawing board without being seen before Tony emerged from his office to greet the empty lift! It caused a good laugh and, to Tony's credit, he bore no lasting grudge.
In fact, the episode only served to make me more aware of the stupidity of my irresponsible attitude to timekeeping, and I changed my ways forevermore thereafter.
Although the Drawing Office manager, Tony was not averse to investigating design problems first hand as this memory, taken from road tester Alan Jones' article 'I've Ridden 30,000 Bikes', relates.
In all the years of testing I only came off twice and one of those was deliberate. When they brought out the 250 CSR
the silencer came straight out the back, parallel to the ground.
I said to the designer, Tony Dennis 'You’ve got to change that'. He said 'It’s perfectly alright, we’ve measured it'.
I said 'Alright, grab that helmet, get on the back of me and I’ll show you something'. He jumps on the back, we go round the Arsenal, first bend we come to it touches the ground, lifts the wheel and we go spinning down the road on our arses. I said 'I bloody told you'.
And of course they came out with slanted pipes after that.
You can read Alan's full article here.
Bill Cakebread has another tale about Tony Denniss, this time with his boss being the naughty boy.
Tony was a bit of a mystery character, and his private life and relationships were always a big secret with him. Eccentric? He had three passions:
a 750cc Royal Enfield twin, Triumph Tigress scooter, Jaguar saloons (not always in the best of condition) and Scalextric. These preoccupations provided the office with plenty
Now, Tony was the archtypal English gentleman, and his Jaguar would always be seen complete with bowler had and rolled umbrella on the rear parcel shelf. However he had an aversion to paying for his road fund licence, and none of his vehicles were ever taxed, in spite of the senior management postion that he held. The Government did not spend all of the money on improving the roads and, therefore, no reason to pay for a 'road fund' existed.
Tony's route home took him close to where I lived and, on one occasion when I had just returned one of the company's test bikes, he offered me a lift in his Jaguar, a rare luxury for me. As we approached the junction at the top of Deptford High Street, the traffic lights turned against us, and to my horror, a policeman was standing in a shop doorway close by the car. I saw his eyes survey the car and his move towards us as he spotted the vacant space on the windscreen where the tax disc should have been.
Tony stared straight ahead and, doing his best to speak without opening his mouth, whispered "Lock your door and don't look at him." I obeyed.
The policeman came to my door, knocked on the window and indicated that he wanted Tony to open it. Tony looked back, shrugged his shoulders and held up both hands in a gesture of incomprehension. The performance was repeated several times. By now I was quite petrified at what would happen next, but Tony remained cool as the process was repeated.
Eventually, the lights changed to green and, this being the height of the rush hour, horns started blaring around us as the junction headed for gridlock. Frustrated by the situation, the policeman relented and with a rapid gesture waved us on. I sat there in disbelief that this refined and educated professional could act in this way. Such was his eccentricity.
Extract from Classic Bike Guide article on Norton Commando
[Dennis] Poore was told that the best engineers at Villiers had left just before he took over.
One was Bernard Hooper, who had joined BSA in 1952 as a design draughtsman at the Redditch factory,
where he worked on updating the D1 Bantam and also a successor to the 500cc OHC Sunbeam S7 and S8
(the OHV S10 never made it to production).
Hooper left BSA in 1956 and set up a design consultancy with Hermann Meier, another BSA engineer
who really knew about strokers.
Two years later Hooper was seduced by an offer from Villiers, where he would later design the Starmaker
two-stroke race engine, but he left in 1965 before the company went tits-up. Poore and Bauer needed Hooper
on board, along with transmission designer John Favill, who also worked on the Starmaker.
In his mid-30s, Tony Denniss was already working for AMC in Woolwich, and had a reputation for getting things done on time. He would be in charge of turning prototypes into production models.
Extract 3 from 'Norton Commando' by Mick Duckworth (re-published by Andover Norton International - stockists of Commando spares.)
Joining AMC in 1956, Tony Denniss received basic instruction in the drawing office under its head, Horace Watson. He then had the benefit of in-factory
training, being placed in various departments over a period of 18-months.
Returning to the drawing office, he took charge of it when Watson was seconded to work on the P10 project with chief designer Charles Udall and oversaw the process of making a production model out of the US-born concept that became the Norton P11 scrambler.
When Manganese Bronze Holdings (MBH) took over, the Wolverhampton-based team foprmed a good working relationship with Denniss and, as Udall had left, he assumed the huge responsibility of taking the London Show mock-up [of the Commando] of 1967 and making it a volume production motorcycle for sale in 1968.
Remaining a key member of the Commando development team, Denniss stayed at Norton through the NVT days and latterly worked on the Rotary at Shenstone. He died in 2003.
The following articles concerning Tony Denniss are also worth reading:
- Tony's Commando Bike
An article, courtesy of Andover Norton International, about The Commando Fastback motorcycle given to Tony Denniss by Dennis Poore, in recognition of his key role in the design team's successful results.
- Norton Rotary Development
A technical article, written by Tony Denniss, giving a very detailed history of the development of the Norton Rotary (Wankel) Engine.
- Pluto Frame and Unified Twin Power Unit
An article by Anthony Curzon, courtesy NOC Roadholder magazine, that un-earths the history of another project undertaken by Tony Denniss whilst at Shenstone.