Tom Swallow was the founder of the remarkable Flywheel magazine that was produced by prisoners – members of the Muhlberg Motor Club - in the wooden huts of Stalag IVB from 1944 to 1945. School exercise-books carried hand-written articles with colour illustrations from whatever inks the editorial team could produce from stolen materials, like quinine from the medical room; these were stuck into place with fermented millet soup, kept from the meagre camp rations. One copy per issue was produced, to be circulated among members throughout the camp. When extracts were published in hardback format in 1987, the book ran to two reprints, capturing the imagination of a new readership as well as reminding many old soldiers of the privations suffered at German hands.
Swallow donated all his royalties to the British Red Cross Society in appreciation of its efforts on behalf of the prisoners, which had included the provision of a monthly mail contact with home. It was in just this way that he learned – while still a prisoner – that the motorcycle shop in his native Oldbury, in the Black Country, had closed. He promptly wrote to the BSA Company in Birmingham, explaining that when hostilities ended he planned to open a dealership and would appreciate being considered as its agent. To their eternal credit, in the midst of their operation as a major arms and vehicles supplier to the Allied forces, BSA replied and promised to consider his application at the appropriate time.
Swallow spent several months in hospital after liberation and, as a result of the poor prison diet, eventually had to have his colon and ileum removed: "A bit more serious than a colostomy," as he put it. Back home and newly married to his sweetheart Lily, he sold his prized Morgan three-wheeler to buy a derelict site in Oldbury, and told friends that the 10 shillings – 50p – he had left after the purchase was being spent on a spade to dig the foundations and tank pits for his new showrooms.
This was no small task for a man still undergoing treatment, and he was pleased when a curious local asked what he was doing and advised him to move his pumps back a few feet, where the cellars of the old building would provide a pit. He built the premises himself: "Modest, just one small showroom for the bikes and another for the spares," he explained.
In 1951 Tom Swallow Motorcycles, BSA agents for the Oldbury area, opened its doors for business. Free riding tuition was offered to all customers, and when the National RAC-ACU Motorcycle Training Scheme was launched, Swallow ran the local branch and paid for his customers to complete the 12-week course. When crash helmets became generally available, he offered them at net price and paid the Purchase Tax element out of his own profit. "I wanted to see my customers come back," was his explanation.
Removal of most of his bowel meant wearing a bag at all times, and his doctors warned him that there was no question of him riding in motorcycle competitions. Within weeks of leaving hospital, however, he rode in the long-distance Lands End Trial, an overnight journey that took in difficult off-road sections. He finished that trial and continued to ride in such events, winning the Red Marley Freak Hill Climb in Worcestershire and racing at Silverstone on a BSA Gold Star taken from his showroom.
Swallow's love of long-distance riding had started in his youth when he rode in the 1938 24 Hour National Rally on a 250cc Coventry-built Rudge. In the 1960s, with his son Tom junior in the sidecar, he rode to Germany for the mid-winter Elephant Rally. "In 1963 it was a really bad winter and we followed a snowplough down the M1," Tom junior remembers. "When we stopped for fuel in the Euston road, the ice was falling off us."
Junior's degree exams prevented him joining Tom on the 1967 International Rally in Moscow, when the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution temporarily lowered the barriers to international travel. Tom Swallow prepared himself by listening to Russian tuition tapes on a reel-to-reel recorder carried in the sidecar of his 650cc Triumph before he rode east full of optimism, only to leave his visa behind in East Berlin and be turned back at the Russian border. He diverted and tried to get a new visa in Warsaw, where he was told that his time had run out. He got home sadder and wiser.
Tom Swallow chose to sell only British motorcycles and refused the approaches of Japanese importers as the face of the industry changed. In 1955 he moved his family to a healthier location than the heavily industrial Black Country, leasing out the Oldbury shop and buying a modest filling-station and bungalow at Pencraig, near Ross-on-Wye in Herefordshire.
He later retrained as a cordon bleu chef and converted a garage near Symonds Yat in the Forest of Dean into a motel and restaurant. He was Chairman of the Ileostomy Association, where he proved to be an inspiration to patients newly fitted with a bag, who were encouraged to visit the restaurant where Tom would regularly work 12-hour days. He remained in touch with the old bike scene and in 1988 rode in the National Rally to celebrate 50 years since he'd first ridden that overnight marathon.
With the hardback publication of Flywheel Swallow found new fame, appearing on Blue Peter. The editor of the original magazine was Pat Harrington-Johnson, a Durban-based journalist who remained a firm friend; that link persuaded the MG Owners Club to sponsor a tour in South Africa to support the book launch. It was a demanding whistle-stop schedule, with signing sessions, radio and TV interviews.
Modest about his achievements, Tom Swallow was in demand as a speaker. He remained a shining example of a positive attitude and determination overcoming all the odds.
Thomas Swallow, motorcycle dealer: born Oldbury, Worcestershire 28 March 1918; married 1946 Lily Cooper Billingham (two sons, one daughter); died Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire 17 December 2007.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies