1922: Evolution of the motor cycle

“Progress since 1885. An Historical Review. What will the Future bring?” [This review of the birth and childhood of the motor cycle,, one of several retrospectives marking the 1,000th issue of the Blue ‘Un, is a gem, not least because it was written from personal experience. The feature was bylined BHD=BH Davies=Ixion. Enjoy!]

“The first motor cycle, made by Daimler in 1885, compared with a modern TT mount—the AJS.”

“TO A MODERN MIND the oddest feature about the birth of the motor cycle is that it generally thrashed the prehistoric cars of that date in the leading competitions. This honour it sometimes shared with a steam omnibus invented by the Marquis de Dion, which derived its power from one of the boilers standardised for French torpedo boats, and was thus less experimental than the average petrol vehicle. Actual road vehicles were slow in appearing after Gottlieb Daimler invented his engines, and serious motor cycling commenced about 1895 with the Bollée tandem and the De Dion tricycle: Pennington’s various motor cycles. notably a four-seated three-wheeler, of which the skeleton still adorns the conservatory of ‘The White Lion’ at Cobham, enjoyed a great deal of publicity without ever ‘going into production’ as we should put it nowadays. The De Dion Tricycle had a small aoiv engine, mounted just behind the rear axle, which- it drove direct through gears, and after a little wear it made almost as much noise as a

“The Marquis de Dion on a De Dion-Bouton steam tricycle built in 1888. (Right) One of the early Clement motor bicycles with the small twin engine situated near the steering head.”

threshing machine; pedalling gear was fitted and freely used, even against a wind on the level; oil was inserted by hand from a tin via a removable plug in the crank case: the carburetter was a small tank attached to the top tube, containing an inch or two of genuine 0.680 spirit, through which air was drawn: ignition was by a huge cylindrical non-trembler coil and dry batteries; the front brake was a spoon on the tyre, and the rear brake a band on the axle. From their first introduction these little machines were capable of nearly 20mph on a good road, and were quite decently reliable. Far more awkward to handle was the Bollée tandem, which had a very flabby engine laid horizontally along the rear. chainstays. The frame was by no means rigid, yet it carried the bearings of the gear shafts. There was no clutch, and the rear wheel was bodily levered forward to slacken the flat belt whenever a free engine was required. When new the machine was drivable until the engine ran hot; when old, the gearshaft bearings

“1903 machines with their engines behind the bottom bracket: The Bowden and (right) the Ormonde.”

were so vilely out of truth owing to frame distortion that the engine could not be expected to keep cool for more than a very few miles. Meanwhile isolated motor bicycles began to appear here and there. Col Holden produced a bijou four-cylinder, listed at about £75, with a tiny rear wheel driven direct by the connecting rods, if memory does not deceive me. I never had the pluck to buy one of these, but I was informed that they travelled at great speed for a few miles, after which a new back tyre was required. The Humber and Riley people turned out one or two machines, and the Hildebrand-Wolfmuller was exhibited, but frightened everybody who saw its jerky motion on the road. Ere long three firms began to earn quite decent reputations. In France the famous Werner brothers produced a nice little bicycle, with an air-cooled engine mounted above the front mudguard, flanked by a wick carburetter resembling a biscuit tin, and a red-hot

“Early models of well-known machines: A 1905 P&M which even at this early date had a two-speed gear. (Right) The Enfield of 1902 with its engine over the front wheel driving the rear wheel by means of a belt.”

platinum tube used for ignition purposes: the drive was by a bootlace belt. Its most serious fault was top-heaviness, which caused it to lie down flat in the road at the sight of a spot of rain; the petrol then leaked on to the platinum tube, and the fire brigade appeared. In Belgium the Minerva people produced a tiny single-cylinder engine, attached by two clips to the front down tube of a light bicycle: rated at 1¼hp, it would be considered too small for a scooter nowadays. Presently the Singer Co marketed both a tricycle and a bicycle, on which really creditable mileages were attained, Miss Muriel Hind being one if their first customers. Its power unit consisted of an auto-wheel, furnished with wide, dished aluminium spokes, and its reliability owed much to the Simms low-tension magneto. The auto-wheel was employed as the front wheel of the tricycle and the rear wheel of the bicycle, both being gear-driven; until vibration set up fatigue of the spokes, these machines ran regularly, though the noise and vibration were appalling. Gradually the industry grew more stereotyped. The little Minervas were the first to make good. In England the 2¾hp Excelsior, with an MMC engine assembled into a splendidly built frame by Bayliss, Thomas, Ltd, set a new standard of power and

“Popular 1903 designs: De Dion-Bouton and (Right) Minerva.”

workmanship. The Quadrant people worked on similar lines, producing first a 2hp, and then a 3hp. The Werner made an even better break, for in lieu of clipping the engine to the down tube it built it into the centre of the frame, though the correctness of their idea was not perceived for some time, as the Ormonde Co elected to put their engine behind the saddle pillar tube. No sidecars yet existed, passenger work was performed either with a two-wheeled trailing car carrying a wicker chair, or a fore-carriage slung between two front wheels. A few quadricycles were made, chiefly in France, though Dennis Bros, of Guildford, made a good example with the De Dion engine; the gear-driven tricycles died hard—they had two-speed gears and engines with water-cooled heads, the best being the Ariel, which had its engine inside the wheelbase. By 1903, when The Motor Cycle was first issued, motor cycles were sufficiently numerous to claim their own governing body and a separate trial, instead of being sandwiched into car events. The Automobile Club formed a special motor cycle committee, and 100 miles were to be

“Sports models of 20 years ago: Peugeot and (right) Starley.”

covered on each of 10 days.  The organisers were inexperienced, and their official garage was a small tent situated in a swamp within the grounds of the Crystal Palace. The Palace regulations forbade engines to be run inside the grounds, and the exit was up quite a steep hill. Twenty out of 43 starters survived to compete in the concluding speed tests on the Palace track, where an average speed of 28mph was attained, thanks to a liberal time allowance for tuning up after the road trial. Horseshoe brakes and belts were responsible for most of the roadside stops, for the engines of 1903, if weak, were moderately reliable. But the MCC people ran the best trials at that date. They had gathered most of the keen men into their fold, and had fixtures nearly every week-end, and by 1904 machines were good enough for the first Edinburgh run to be held, though there was heavy betting against anybody getting through inside twenty-four hours. For some years vague regulations permitted this event to degenerate into something approaching a race. 1905 saw the debut of the 3hp Triumph, easily the best cycle built

“Pioneers-men and machines: A Quadrant of 1906. (Right) Popular in 1903—the 2¼hp Minerva.”

up to that date, though a few Northerners spoke heartily of the otherwise unknown P&M, which actually had chain drive and a two-speed gear. Year by year trials were stiffened up. In 1905 the Auto Cycle Club took us up Birdlip in the Six Days—there was no penalty for failure, and crowds of willing pushers were at hand. In 1906 the first End-to-End run was held, and three single-geared Douglas machines created a huge sensation. 1907 was a dead year, for the trade protested that the ACC was going ahead too fast. 1908 produced the first Scott, with kick-starter and two-speed gear. In 1909 the Edinburgh Club did yeoman service to the industry by including lots of really bad hills in their first Six Days, and the ACU offered a 25 mark bonus for clean ascents of test hills in their big trial. So every designer began thinking about variable gears, and if a miserably, inadequate adjustable pulley was the first and most popular suggestion for a time, the tendencies at least were right. Recent comers to the sport will not credit how obstinately many makers, many riders, and many technical authorities combated the thesis that a decent motor cycle ought to be able to go over any main road under its own power. Meanwhile, just as


“Tessier with one of the early BATs. (Right) Originality in frame construction—a 1906 model.”

reliability trials emphasised the shortcomings of the bicycle itself, racing was slowly developing our engines. The pacing of pushbike records was the first racing opportunity of the motor bicycle, and the French used to turn out cumbrous monsters of over 20hp. Presently pure motor cycle races commenced at Canning Town and the Crystal Palace, Sam Wright, Harry Martin, Bert Yates, J Crundall and the Colliers being leading exponents. In 1904 we competed in an international race of 168 miles at Dourdan. It was silly of us, for the French only gave us eight weeks’ notice to prepare special machines under a weight limit of 108lb. Our team, consisting of a Quadrant, a JAP, and a Lagonda, was outclassed. The next year we got 19 machines ready for an eliminating trial in the Island, most, of them big twins, and all under 1081b. GA Barnes actually had a twin of 94x100mm inside this weight. CB Franklin (JAP) and Harry Collier were in the team, with Campbell on an Ariel; the International was run in Austria, and the native riders won with the aid of travelling sidecars full of spares. Our humiliations in these international events had taught us the value of racing, and 1907 brought about the first TT race and the opening of Brooklands track. The lessons derived from such

“An early water-cooled model—the French Pailard of 1903. (Right) Colver with one of the first Matchless racing models.”

racing experience have unquestionably lifted our motor cycles to their present pre-eminence. The first Tourist Trophy race was a quaint business in all conscience. Thanks to the influence of the No 8 hats on the Automobile Club Committee, it was run on a fuel ration, 1 gallon per 90 miles for singles, and 1 gallon per 75 miles for twins. Seventeen singles and eight twins started, Charlie Collier winning at 38mph. At the finish the course was sufficiently littered with derelicts to make manufacturers study reliability. Brooklands did not see a motor cycle race till April 20th, 1908, when 24 machines started level, and a 9hp Peugeot, geared 2⅝ to 1, was an easy winner at 63mph. Trials and races thus combined to produce decent bicycles with powerful engines, and the way was slowly being paved for a satisfactory passenger-carrier. The trailer, once so popular, was never more than a temporary makeshift. Never too safe, it was completely unsociable, and its unfortunate. occupant was exposed to the maximum of noise, smell, and dust. The fore-car or tricar had greater possibilities than have ever been realised, and it is extremely odd that no example of this form of three-wheeler except the Morgan can claim an existence of any standing. Originally the fore-carriages were detachable, and we used to detach them several times a week, for, on the one hand, we were anxious to take our girls with us whenever the girls could come, and, on the other hand, having only

“Early twin cylinder motor cycles: 1903 XL-All with cylinders set at 90°. (Right) 1906 spring frame RIP.

one gear, we found it worth doing an hour’s work to improve climbing powers for a solo run. About 1906 tricars blossomed into regular three-wheeled cars, complete with gear boxes. The Lagonda was the best; most of the others were disfigured by bad workmanship or items of clumsy design. But they did not go at all badly. I used to climb hills like Sutton Bank with consummate ease and at a good speed long before I could be sure of getting up on a bicycle. The greatest single improvement ever introduced was the high-tension magneto, which I used, I believe, for the first time in the Edinburgh run of 1905. Prior to that date our ignition consisted of: (i) a shilling porcelain plug, which was never expected to last more than a few hundred miles; (ii) a 20 ampere-hour accumulator, stored in a compartment of the tank, from which numerous flimsy cables issued through small holes with knife-like edges; (iii) a coil, preferably of the trembler variety, because its buzz was an aid to diagnosing troubles; (iv) a contact-breaker operated by a cam on the engine, closely resembling a watch in the minuteness and number of its parts, and made of substances which I can only describe as metallic butter.

“1906 Prim with the petrol tank as part of the frame. (Right) 1905 four-cylinder Binks.”

Nobody dreamt of tackling a run without a pocket voltmeter and spare screws and blades for the contact-breaker, and profiteers used to sell us German silver points camouflaged as platinum. So deep-rooted was my ignition cynicism that years elapsed before I dared travel without a large plush-lined box of -magneto spares, none of which were ever actually needed. Passenger enthusiasts will regard all-chain drive as an introduction of equal merit with the magneto. As a keen soloist I still regret the almost complete disappearance of the belt. Admittedly it could give plenty of trouble even on two-wheelers. Long after ‘bootlaces’ and even built-up leather V belts became obsolete, the combination of a heavy storm and a terrific gradient has caused me great anxiety on belt drive. On the other hand, can any modern motor cycling sensation quite compare with the old experience of adventuring oneself on a long tour amidst the mountains with a single-geared belt drive? The machine was light to handle and would climb excellently on a low ratio, while the adjustable pulley probably enabled one to gear down to 6½ to 1 temporarily—of course, the belt would not stand many miles on so small a pulley. The climbing of hills is not the only uncertainty that has disappeared from the sport. Time was when we used to take the road with as many as three spare belts furled round various portions of the machine a spare 8ah accumulator in a rabbit pocket; a cheap German gas lamp on the bracket, and a cycle lamp in a box on the carrier; plus two

“Well-known twins of their day: The 6hp Riley, a 1906 model. Observe the riding position. (Right) A symmetrical twin of 1906, 5½hp GB.”

pockets and one toolbag full of spare parts. We might get home the same day; we might not get home till late on the morrow. All this uncertainty was very thrilling, and the road stoppages were not the least enjoyable part of the proceedings, for there was almost always a chance to get going, whereas if we ‘pack up’ in 1922 it is generally a case of waiting for a kindly Ford van to happen along. At the present time the motor cycle is so abominably perfect that serious trouble seems quite incredible until on some rare occasion it overtakes one. I personally start out on excursions of as much as 2,000 miles into the wildest corners of Great Britain with no spare parts except a sparking plug, and I not infrequently return home with the virgin plug still under seal. So adequate are our machines that competitions have narrowed themselves down to three phases, two of which are entirely illegitimate. In one type riding is done to a split second schedule. In another the promoters’ chief obsession is to multiply road surfaces on which 100-ton steel will unravel into its constituent fibres, or which would make vaseline feel like concrete. In the third type, pure speed decides the guerdon, and pure speed in these days demands a quadruple alliance, to wit, an engineering genius, an unrivalled plant, a syndicate with a profound pocket, and an unimaginative youth blessed with rubber muscles and a perfect gift of physical balance. How much better were the old days in which everybody had trouble, and he who fought it best came out on top. It follows that

“Clement racer or 1903. The tank is at the rear of the saddle. (Right) Predecessor of all the Douglases—the 6hp Fairy, 1906.”

competition work has very largely served its turn so far as the general progress of motor cycling is concerned. To-day the main tendencies of evolution point in other directions. Machines are very little more comfortable than they were 20 years ago, allowing for the pulverisation of our roads. We get bumped almost as much as ever. We still get dirty. Trusting to the new standards of reliability, we ride in winter and so we get rather cold. Then, as the pastime grows more and more utilitarian, hardy youngsters cease to be its only or its chief devotees. There is an increasing clamour for cheap, light machines suited for short-distance work in the hands of weak, elderly or feminine owners. The scooter boom—silly and ill-timed—revealed the extent of this demand. Nothing looks specially like filling the gap, with the possible exception of the Harper Runabout, which is probably too expensive at present. Again, the problems of a passenger motor cycle have not yet been completely solved. A glance backward reveals the progress which has been made between, say, 1903 and 1922—the period of this journal’s activities and influence. During these 20 years, effort has been almost exclusively concentrated upon reliability, speed, and hill-climbing. The Motor Cycle, as a disinterested observer, has

“A De Dion tricycle of the type which several British manufacturers marketed in 1895. (Right) A 1898 front driven Werner—a machine which all veterans are wont to quote as their first mount. It was capable of 16mph on the level.”

made many suggestions, some of them remarkably fruitful—variable gears were a notable instance. But,  broadly speaking, our suggestions have been listened to far more attentively when they were directly concerned with speed, climbing and reliability, than when they affected weight, comfort, passengers, and price. Now that we have attained a miraculous standard of reliability; when we can climb any hill on a tenth part of our engine’s output; the path of progress must swing in new directions. There are people who fancy finality has been attained. The motor cyclist of 1903 would have swooned with ecstasy if some fairy godmother could have dangled a 1922 Brough Superior before his eyes, shown him Pullin’s Douglas ‘kilometring’ at 100mph, or displayed a handful of chosen cracks creeping steadily up the Screw Hill. I have no doubt that if the readers of this issue could go to sleep till 1942, and then awake to see the current machines of that era, they would find equal progress had been made in the next two decades. By that time the ‘posh’ mounts of to-day, perfect as we rank them, will seem crude and ridiculous, fit only to be consigned to some museum where man’s earlier eccentricities, the front-driven Werner and the Bollée tandem, even now expectantly await them.”