1931

The first edition of The Highway Code was distributed free to every household in the land so, in theory, pedestrians and motorists alike would know and follow the rules of the road. Fat chance.

Zenith was relaunched by London-based Writer Motor and Cycle Works, using JAP engines from 350-750cc.

The US-based Excelsior company, determined to avoid a financial crisis in the wake of the Wall Street Crash, stopped production of the Henderson four and the V-twins it had sold in Britain as the American-X banner to avoid confusion with the British Excelsior (which had just launched the 129cc ohv Bantam, not to be confused with the twostroke Beeza. And don’t mix up the BSA D7 Bantam with Excelsior’s 247cc ohv D7).

Although the minimum riding age had risen from 14 to 16, anyone under 16 who had held a licence for more than six months was allowed to keep it. Every motorcyclist was required to take out third-party insurance and pillion riders would no longer be allowed to ride side saddle.

France allowed ‘velomoteurs’ (powered bicycles) to be used without roadtax or even registration. More than 20 factories were soon churning them out; production hit 35,000 a year. They did 25mph/120mpg and were light enough to be ‘girl-handleable’. But one carried a 14-stone rider up Shap Fell, with a little LPA near the top.

As the recession bit ever deeper Rudge, Scott and even BSA decided to save money by staying away from the show. France and Germany cancelled their national shows, but not Italy. The Green ‘Un warned: “We must watch Italy. She has forged ahead in sport and is forging ahead in manufacture.” Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini held membership card No1 of the Moto-Club Italia; bikes under 175cc were exempt from road tax. No wonder its show was packed with lightweights, but centre-stage was held by a blown transverse-four  Moto Guzzi racer.

Germany extended motor cycle road-tax exemption up to 200cc.

The British  industry lobbied the government to follow suit and the possibility of road-tax exemption for lightweights led to a surge in demand for the 98cc Villiers Midget two-stroke which had previously primarily powered lawnmowers. Sun, Dot, Wolf and Coventry-Eagle fitted Midgets as did Triumph. However, presumably embarrassed by its venture into the utility market, Triumph sold its tiddler under the Gloria trademark which it had previously used for bicycles.

Norton, doubtless smarting from Rudge’s domination of the previous year’s TT, roared back to the Island to start a long winning streak. The cammy engine’s lubrication problems had been sorted by Number 8 Hats Joe Craig and Arthur Carroll, allowing Tim Hunt to become the first rider to win the Junior and Senior TTs in the same year. In the process he knocked 8min 30sec and 10min off the Junior and Senior  records. With Guthrie and Woods 2nd and 3rd in the Senior, Norton also became the first manufacturer to score a Senior hat trick since Indian in 1911. To put the cherry on the Norton cake Simpson, having recorded the first 60 and 70mph TT laps, lapped at over 80mph before retiring. The Norton  team went on to win 10 Continental grands prix that season. In the six years from 1931-36 Norton would win 11 out of 12 Junior and Senior TTs.

Graham Walker and Tyrell-Smith were 1st and 2nd in the Lightweight TT on Rudge’s radial-valve 250cc and Rudge would have scored a hat trick but Ernie Nott could only manage 4th . Mind you, he was forced to continually adjust a slack tappet by hand. Tell kids today…

There’s no doubting the TT was tough on bike and rider alike. Of 50 starters in the Junior just 15 stayed the distance; in the Senior there were 56 starters and 13 finishers; in the Lightweight there were 41 starters and 13 finishers. The Blue ’Un warned: “Much remains to be learned about engine design.” It called on designers already using multi-cylinder engines in luxury tourers to build multi-cyclinder racers and expressed concern over “the way certain of the machines appeared to steer at speed”.

Velocette tried supercharging its cammy single. A distinctive induction note inspired racing workshop boss Harold Willis to dub her Whiffling Clara.

Having won the Junior Manx Grand Prix for the second year running Velo rider DJ Pirie collapsed and had to be carried from the track. He recovered in time to be called before an Island magistrate who congratulated him on his victory, then fined him £2 for riding with an ‘inefficient silencer’. Of 41 starters only 14 stayed the course.

The Sunbeam MCC’s Pioneer Run was restricted to bikes made before 31 December 1909; nowadays it’s 1914.

AJS launched an impressive 598cc 50º transverse V-twin at the Milan Show but the company had expanded and diversified at just the wrong time and ran into cashflow problems. Following unsuccessful negotiations with BSA it was snapped up by Matchless so production moved from Wolverhampton to Woolwich. The sale also killed off AJS’s final project, a 630cc ohv inline four. The design and tooling of the Ajay transverse twin was sold to Japan, where the engine was used in lightweight commercial vehicles well into the 1950s.  AJS’s liquidator was able to pay every creditor in full with enough left over for the Stevens family to keep the famous Retreat Street works. They were quickly back in business with a three-wheel commercial vehicle, followed by proprietary engines. They could not be sold as Ajays so, rather cheekily, the Stevens brothers adopted the name Ajax. Users included AJW.

From a full-page ad in the trade press: “Matchless Motorcycles (Colliers Ltd) beg to announce that they have been favoured by a contract from the War Office to supply a considerable number of Matchless ‘Silver Arrow’ motorcycles for Army purposes. This contract has been placed after 15 months of the most strenuous testing to which any motorcycle can be subjected.” Matchless also supplied the London Mobile Police with big-twin X/3 combos.

The ISDT moved to Italy for another high-speed mountain blitz. For the second year running mechanical failures and crash damage knocked out the Brits, leaving Italy to take another Trophy with the Dutch team claiming the Vase.

The ACU, which now listed almost 400 affiliated clubs throughout Britain, responded to the recession by halving the TT entry fee to £16.

Local speed limits still applied but following the withdrawl of the national 20mph speed limit it was theoretically OK to go as fast as you dared on the open road. To prevent chaos offences of ‘careless’ and ‘dangerous’ driving were introduced, empowering the police to prosecute motoring malefactors in Police Courts. The new Pedestrian’s League which called for all motorcycles to be banned and a national speed limit to be reintroduced and reduced to 12mph, falling to 6mph in towns. Responding to a police crackdown on ‘technical offences’, a correspondent in the Yorkshire Evening News warned motorcyclists: “Ride clear of the West Riding if you value a clean slate. It is no place for innocents.”

An RAC Guide (as patrolmen were known) leapt into action when he spotted a bolting horse dragging a milk float along the Great North Road near Grantham at a full gallop. He gave chase on his motorcycle, managed to take hold of its bridle and kept the horse to the left of the road for more than half a mile, avoiding oncoming traffic, before bringing it to a halt and handing the uninjured beast back to its owner, who had followed in a car.

The industry desperately needed a boost – Dot was in such dire straits that salesmen was flogging handfuls of tiddlers to dealers off the back of a trailer to pay its weekly wage bill. Ironically, its 98cc Special was one of the best of the new breed, sporting a saddle tank and electric lights as standard.

The ACU asked the press to refer to speedway as speedway, rather than dirt track.

Encouraging riders to explore the Continent, The Motor Cycle’s Wharfedale reassured enthusiasts: “Food is varied and cheap. So are wines and cigarettes. Essentials, in fact, are low in cost…” Anyone wanting to ride overseas had to join the AA or RAC and take a special test before being issued with an international licence. And in those pre-MoT days the bike had to pass a roadworthiness test too.

In South London the Mobile Police were prosecuting riders of leaky exhausts –  a trace of soot at a joint was enough evidence to attract a fine. One unfortunate rider stopped on Clapham Common was warned that a slack exhaust tappet made his bike “excessively noisy”.

Automatic ‘robot’ traffic lights were in use in more than 120 towns in England and Wales.

There were 3,370 motorcycles in Ceylon (which we now have to call Sri Lanka); all but 34 of them were made in Britain.

All vehicles built after 1 June had to have springs between the wheels and the frame – except for mobile cranes and motorcycles.

The Times published a series of letters suggesting a more elegant term for passengers than ‘pillion riders’ Popular choices included ‘pillionettes’ and ‘pillionaires’.

The Japanese military took delivery of a 1,200cc flat twin from JAC, joining the growing number of Harleys made under licence by Rikuo.

New Hudson adopted enclosure of the driveline and underside of its duplex frame, reviving a pre-WW1 design by fitting a kickstart that doubled as a propstand. Despite a stunt in which a 550cc sv outfit was ridden from Brooklands to Lands End and back 20 times without stopping the engine, teething troubles hit sales. Within a couple of years motorcycle production had ceased and the factory was making braking and suspension systems for Girling.

Ariel won the Maudes Trophy for what became known as the Sevens Test, involving all seven models in its 1931 line-up. A sv 350 averaged 52.58mph for seven hours at Brooklands; an ohv 350 covered 115 miles on 7s (35p) worth of petrol and oil; a factory spannerman set out to decoke a 597cc sv within seven minutes (it actually took him 4min 19sec); an ohv 500 was set the target of covering 70 miles in an hour (it covered over 80 miles); a 550 sv sloper was riden for 70min non-stop in each of its four gears; an ohv 500 sloper made seven climbs of seven infamous hills including Porlock; and a 600 Squariel did 700 miles in under 700 minutes (averaging 62mph).

During August motorcycle and component imports were valued at exactly £688. Exports were worth £80,386.

A 196cc Villiers twostroke converted to run on diesel was displayed at the Shipping and Engineering exhibition in Olympia. A major advantage of the conversion was that diesel cost less than petrol…

A German engineer designed a hydraulic torque converter and fitted it to a 500cc ohv Horex. Replacing the clutch and gearbox, the converter was said to offer improved smoothness and acceleration.

Phil Irving moved from Velocette to Vincent-HRD.

Scott had to call in the receivers but kept trading and developed a highly promising water-cooled triple. Sadly it never got into production.