Sunderland’s Edwardian motorcycle man

STAR TURN: Charles Grimshaw with his 20HP Grimshaw JAP bike in 1908.
STAR TURN: Charles Grimshaw with his 20HP Grimshaw JAP bike in 1908.
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A VINTAGE vehicle enthusiast is hoping Wearsiders can help trace the family of an Edwardian engineer who invented one of the world’s most powerful motorbikes.

Charles Bertram Grimshaw left his competitors in the dust when he showcased the machine – which featured a massive 2.7 litre engine – at hill climb contests in 1908.

But his time in the spotlight was cut tragically short by TB just months later, when a course of treatment at a Scottish sanatorium forced him to give up biking.

“He appeared like a shooting star, then disappeared just as quickly – but his work should not be forgotten,” said vintage vehicle enthusiast and restorer Martin Shelley.

“His bike – the 20 HP Grimshaw J.A.P. – was the machine to beat for a brief time. It was an amazing piece of work – I can’t imagine how he even managed to ride it!”

Charles, the youngest son of cement manufacturer Charles Wood Grimshaw and his wife Margaret, was born at the family home of Hylton Grange in 1881.

His father’s thriving business, Hylton Cement Works, ensured young Charles enjoyed a privileged childhood – with his every need catered for by housemaids and cooks.

But, by the time he finished his education at Ackworth School in West Yorkshire, a Quaker-run boarding school, it was all change for the family – at least business-wise.

Records reveal that, once the lease ran out on the cement works, it was put up for sale in 1898 – with the lot including ten kilns, two washmills and five reservoirs.

It finally sold in March of that year, following four auctions, to a Mr Yeaman. The aspiring businessman paid £7,000 – up to £6million today – for the “going concern.”

Charles senior, however, refused to retire on the profit. Instead, he started a new firm in Union Street, building horse-drawn carriages at first – before turning to motor cars.

“Charles junior and his older brother Alfred joined the family business after a while, and it became known as Grimshaw and Sons,” said Martin, from Scotland.

“The 1901 census shows young Charles as an apprentice carriage builder at the thriving firm, while Alfred was manager. Charles senior, then 57, was the employer.”

Just two years later, in January 1903, Charles senior took the brave step of embracing new technology – becoming the first businessman in Sunderland to manufacture cars.

“It is always pleasing to record the introduction into Sunderland of a new industry, and the step being taken by Mr C. Grimshaw is commendable,” reported the Echo.

“He is getting the engines of about 4½ horse power, which are required to drive small motor cars, and to this he adds made-to-measure carriage portions.

“The firm are also making a feature of painting, varnishing or repairing motor cars, in preparation for the new industry. We trust they will be thoroughly successful.”

It was against this mechanical and entrepreneurial background that young Charles started tinkering with motorcycles – eventually inventing his own 2.7 litre super bike.

The machine left North East bike enthusiasts “amazed,” according to Motorcycle magazine at the time – especially when Charles competed in local hill climb contests.

“Obviously, he pretty much fixed a motor engine to a bicycle – but the result was impressive. A 2.7 litre bike engine is bigger than anything sold today,” said Martin.

There are no further press references to the Grimshaw J.A.P. after the middle of 1908. Once Charles disappeared to Scotland, so interest in the super bike disappeared too.

But records show he went on to marry his sweetheart Margaret in 1913, later moving to Hampshire for his health – where he died on June 18, 1923, leaving £2,107.

His father, Charles senior, outlived Charles junior by 13 years. He died in Wales aged 91 – leaving £64,424 to surviving son Afred – the equivalent of £20million today.

“I am trying to find out more about Charles Grimshaw junior – a remarkable young man – as well as more about the remarkable machine he created,” said Martin.

“Perhaps Echo readers can shed some light on this tantalising glimpse of a bygone age. Maybe there are relatives who still have albums with photos of the machine.

“The bike was such an outrageous vehicle – but an absolute masterpiece. The task of getting it running is unimaginable. But Charles did it – and his story should be told.”

•Martin can be contacted by email at or by phone on 01259 759113.