A-Z: a gallimaufry

Biographies, potted marque histories, forgotten words and phrases, technical terms … that’s why it’s gallimaufric.

Abingdon Engineering: Set up in 1856 to make tools. Being based in Birmingham it’s hardly surprising that the firm became part of the burgeoning West Midlands bicycle industry. In 1903, like so many other bicycle manufacturers, it began to fit engines, initially from Minerva, Fafnir and MMC. It adopted the memorable trade mark King Dick, named after the boss’s prize winning bulldog, and by 1910 Abingdon King Dick was producing its own 3.5hp singles and 6hp V-twins, some of which were supplied to other manufacturers including Ariel. Innovations included the Abingdon Spring Fork, featuring an early coil-sprung, telescopic shock absorber. Abingdon King Dick survived the post-WW1 depression; in 1925 it abbreviated its trade name to AKD and concentrated on ohv fourstroke singles from 148-346cc. The last AKD motorcycles were made in 1932 but King Dick is still very much in business, still based in Birmingham and still making hand tools.

This AKD advert dates from 1917.

Acceleration: The rate at which a motorcycle overcomes inertia to reach the desired speed. Inertia increases with the mass of the bike and rider, which is why skinny brats on lightweights can get away from the lights ahead of their fuller-figured elders and betters. Sprinters record acceleration in terms of thousandths of a second over a measured distance; my M21 is better suited to a calendar.

AOIV: Automatically operated inlet valve (basically a springloaded flap (qv moiv).

Don Jeronimo de Ayanz: Knight of the Order of Calatrava, was a Spanish soldier, painter, astronomer, musician and inventor. As a soldier he fought in France, Flanders, Portugal and the Azores; he also foiled a French plot to murder King Felipe II. All of which inspired playwright Lope de Vaga to base a play on his life. As an inventor he designed windmills, a distillery to provide fresh water at sea, scales accurate to fractions of a gram, a means of measuring torque, a diving suit and a type of submarine. And after he was appointed to oversee the hundreds of mines in Spain and its empire De Ayanz devised a way to use steam to pump water out of a mine and pump fresh air in. In one year alone he was granted 48 patents, including one for the use of steam power. The year was 1606 – almost 100 years before Savery’s ‘miner’s friend’ began to pump water from British mines.

William Barnett: In 1838 Barnett patented not one but three gas engines featuring an effective form of flame ignition; they also compressed the gas prior to ignition. These innovations were widely copied and were still in use as late as the start of the 20th century. The ignition system was similar to that later adopted by Hugon and Otto. They had three cylinders but only one of these produced power; the others were pumps to compress the gas and air. Barnett’s designs represented important steps on the way to the first practicable internal combustion engine, built by Etienne Lenoir in 1860.

Father Eugenio Barsanti: In 1854 Barsanti, of the Piarist Fathers of Scolopi, and hydraulic engineer Felice Matteucci patented a hydrogen/air engine in London. They chose London because patent law in Italy did not offer the international protection of a British patent. A prototype was finally built in the 1860s and some Italians still claim Barsanti invented the internal combustion engine.

Blue ‘Un: Nickname for The Motor Cycle inspired by its blue masthead.

Samuel Brown: In 1823 Brown was granted the first of a series of patents for gas engines that seem to have been inspired by the condensing steam engine. Burning gas, rather than steam, expelled the air from a vertical cylinder and cold water was injected to “condense the flame and produce a vacuum”. It was the first gas engine to earn its keep in industry. The August 1824 issue of Mechanics magazine reported that one of Brown’s multi-cylinder engines had raised 300 gallons of water 15ft fuelled by a single cubic foot of gas. By 1832 his engines were powering pumps at Croydon; Soham, Cambs; and Eagle Lodge, Old Brompton.

Bubbler: Slang, circa 1910, for surface carburettor.

Change speed lever: Original (pre-Word War 1) term for what is still known as the gearchange lever; the term survived the move from hand to foot actuation.

Dugald Clerk: In 1881 Scottish engineer Clerk patented a form of two-stroke engine featuring a separate charging cylinder. The modern, compact two-stroke engine, which uses the area below the piston as a charging pump, was designed a few years later by Joseph Day and proved emminently suitable for powering motorcycles from Scott to Suzuki. Clerk was acclaimed as an authority on internal combustion engines, acting as judge at the automobile trials at Richmond in 1899 and 1900. In 1908 he became president of the Incorporated Institution of Automobile Engineers and was also elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. In 1916 Clerk was appointed director of engineering research for the Admiralty, sat on the advisory committee for aeronautics to the Air Ministry and was knighted in 1917.

Commencer: Slang, circa 1950, for kickstarter.

Darby: Britain was lucky enough to get three Abraham Darbys in succession: lucky because all three did things with metal that put them at the heart of the industrial revolution which would make Britain the workshop of the world. And that was the foundation for a motorcycle industry that dominated the global market. In 1709 Abraham Darby, the son of a Quaker farmer, worked out how to burn coke rather than charcoal to produce brass and iron. This was good timing because increasing demand was outstripping the supply of charcoal, forcing up prices. Switching to coke entailed a move from forests to coalfields. Key centres were South Wales, Scotland, Staffordshire and Shropshire the Darbys were based at Coalbrookdale, on the River Severn in Shropshire. The new fuel cut the price of brass and iron as it boosted output. Darby also set up the world’s first metallurgy laboratory and patented a continuous sand-moulding method to mass-produce cast brass and iron goods so costs fell. His casting methods allowed the accurate production of complex components, facilitating the development of steam engines. There was another useful by-product. Coke was, and is, made by heating coal. The coal gas collected from coke ovens was not only burned to provide light and heat, it was used as fuel by designers of early internal combustion engines. Darby’s son, Abraham 2, went into the family business bigtime, expanding capacity with six new furnaces and learning how to make purer ‘pig’ iron which was just right for forging into wrought iron. He also bought control of the county’s entire output of coal and iron ore – horsedrawn railways from the mines to the furnaces and then to docks on the Severn. This boosted the firm’s transport production twenty-fold. Steam pumps were installed to increase water supplies to the waterwheels that powered the furnaces. And in 1779 Abraham 2’s son, Abraham 3, used wrought iron to make the world’s first iron bridge which is still a potent symbol of the industrial revolution. The 100ft bridge was prefabricated spans the Severn at the spot now known as Ironbridge. It’s still in use and Ironbridge, the birthplace of the industrial revolution, is well worth a visit by any motorcyclist who wants to understand the roots of the British industry. Paintings and posters promoted the revolutionary new bridge and the international publicity certainly helped the company’s expansion. But this success led to a labour shortage. Abraham 3 responded by building good quality housing and buying local farms to guarantee affordable food supplies. He also paid higher wages than the surrounding farms, mines and potteries. Labour problem solved. The dynasty died with Abraham 3 in 1789 but a succession of ironmasters continued the expansion programme. In 1802 Richard Trevthick relied on the expertise of the Coalbrookdale works to produce boilers for his first high-pressure steam engines. Exports included iron pots and other trade goods for Africa, sugar mills for the West Indies and steam engines for the Far East.

Dr Erasmus Darwin: Grandfather of the immortal Charles, was a large, loquacious eccentric whose interests ranged from botany to phisiology, physics and philosophy. He figures in our story not as an inventor but as an encourager of inventors. In 1766 he wrote to his friend Matthew Boulton: “As I was riding home yesterday, I considered the scheme of the fiery chariot, and the longer I contemplated this favourite idea, the more practicable it appeared to me.  I shall lay my thoughts before you, crude and undigested though they may appear to be, telling you as well what I thought would not do as what would do, as by those hints you may be led into various trains of thinking upon this subject, and by that means (if any hints can assist your genius, which, without hints, is above all others I am acquainted with) be more likely to improve or disapprove.  These things are required: 1st, a rotary motion; 2d, easily altering its direction to any other direction; 3d, to be accelerated, retarded, destroyed, revived instantly and easily; 4th, the bulk, the weight, and expense of the machine to be as small as possible in proportion to its use. Let there be two cylinders. Suppose one piston up, and the vacuum made under it by the je d’eau froid.  That piston can not yet descend because the cock is not yet opened which admits the steam into its antagonist cylinder.  Hence the two pistons are in equilibrio, being either of them pressed by the atmosphere.  Then I say, if the cock which admits the steam into the antagonist cylinder be opened gradually and not with a jerk, that the first-mentioned [piston in the] cylinder will descend gradually and not less forcibly.  Hence, by the management of the steam cocks, the motion may be accelerated, retarded, destroyed, revived instantly and easily.  And if this answers in practice as it does in theory, the machine can not fail of success!  Eureka!” Boulton went on to partner James Watt and manufacture what were, in their time, the most advanced engines in the world. We’ll never know how much Darwin inspired them, but they probably read his 1765 poem, The Botanic Garden, in which he wrote:
Soon shall thy arm, unconquered steam, afar
Drag the slow barge, or drive the rapid car ;
On, on wide waving wings, expanded bear
The flying chariot through the field of air;
Fair crews triumphant, leaning from above,
Shall wave their fluttering ‘kerchiefs as they move,
Or warrior bands alarm the gaping crowds,
And armies shrink beneath the shadowy clouds.

Thomas Davenport: A blacksmith with three years of schooling to his name. Davenport came from a poor background in Vermont, USA, started his apprenticeship at 14 and at 21, in 1824, set up his own smithy. In 1831 he heard that a local ironworks had installed an electromagnet and went to take a look. It lifted six-and-a-half hundredweight of iron (340kg for younger readers) and Davenport was impressed enough to sell his brother’s horse to buy a magnet of his own. Before long he had built one for himself, insulating the wire for its coils with silk from his wife’s wedding dress. Over the next couple of years he made two more. Then he attached two of them to a rod and set the rod up so it was free to rotate between the other two magnets. Then he attached a battery to the magnets via a commutator (having first designed and made a commutator). And so, in 1834, Thomas Davenport made an electric motor. Two years later he decided to patent his invention. Rather than posting his application he walked to the Patent Office in Washington DC, but during his trek he spent the patent application fee on living expenses so he walked home empty-handed and posted the application. Maybe it arrived, maybe it didn’t. We’ll never know as the patent office burnt down. Davenport was finally granted his application in 1837 and went on to build a model electric-powered cart, an electric printing press (which he used to print his own magazine, the Electro-Magnet and Mechanics Intelligencer), an electric piano, an electric telegraph and an electric railway. All of which should have made him rich and famous. But his electric motors were fragile, heavy and expensive; the devices he powered with them were seen as no more than curiosities. Samuel Morse (who entered Yale College at 14, the same age that Davenport started his apprenticeship), was granted a US patent for his telegraph in 1840, having shown it off to President Martin Van Buren and his cabinet. Davenport died in 1851, aged 48; his sons claimed the cause was a broken heart because Morse had been given credit for inventing the telegraph. But next time you start your bike by pressing a button, spare a thought for Thomas Davenport.

Dr Drake:  In 1843 Dr Drake of Philadelphia, USA exhibited a water-cooled horizontal gas engine featuring regulator valves controlled by a governor. The ‘lighting gas’ was mixed with 10 times its volume of air and ignited by hot-tube ignition. Drake was granted an English patent in 1855. The engine ran at 60rpm and developed about 20hp; it was later converted to run on petrol.

End, The: Slang, circa 1910, for Land’s End.

Flapper bracket: Slang, circa 1925, for pillion seat (qv Peach perch).

FT: Abbreviation, circa 1916, for flat twin; sometimes combined with valve configuration, eg OHVFT for overhead valve flat twin. The term ‘flat twin’, to replace the somehow more formal ‘horizontally opposed’ was coined by The Motor Cycle and resisted by some American motor cycle journalists. The Motor Cycle gleeful;ly reported its spread from Europe to the colonies.

Gas: Slang for petrol (clearly an abbreviation for gasoline) associated with the USA but also used to describe the vapour produced by a carb. Eg: “The motive power is a 6hp JAP engine, which is supplied with gas from an Amac carburetter.” (From The Motor Cycle 1915.)

Gee:  Slang for motor cycle, circa 1914, presumaby derived from ‘gee-gee’, the common term for a horse. Ariel would use the equine link in its advertising slogan ‘cheval de fer’, iron horse.  And more than one motor cycle club used the name ‘iron horsemen’.


Gills: Fins, as in cooling, before they were cooled fins, circa 1910.

Grease: Common usage for mud, circa 1910.

Green ‘Un: Nickname for Motor Cycling, inspired by its green masthead.

Muriel Hind: In the early 1900s Agnes Muriel Hind reputedly became the first woman in Britain to own and ride a motorcycle. She competed successfully in long distance trials and other events. Hind was born in 1882. Her first machine was a 2hp Perks & Birch ‘Motor Wheel’ made by Singer. Shortly afterwards Hind relocated to Coventry because of its growing involvement in the motor industry. Hind was determined to ride “in a graceful manner” and adopted a style that became associated with her: a hat held in place with a tulle scarf, an ankle-length tweed coat and skirt, gauntlet gloves and tall lace-up knee boots. In 1905 she became a member of the Motor Cycling Club. In 1906 she won a gold medal in the ACC London-Edinburgh 24-hours trial, followed by a bronze in the six-day Land’s End-John o’ Groats trial, both in a 9hp Singer tricars. As manufacturers began to look at the female market Hind began testing ‘lady’s models’ and reviewing them in the motor cycle press. In 1907 Rexbuilt the ‘Blue Devil’ to her specification. From 1910 she wrote a fortnightly column in the Green ‘Un called ‘The Lady Motorcyclist’, encouraging more women to take up motoring; that year she wrote: “I like the feeling of power, life, the mighty rushing wind beating on one’s cheeks with the roar of the passing breeze and the beat of the exhaust deafening one’s ear. This is the power that drives and here is the motorcycle’s charm. But I am waxing too garrulous and must throttle down to legal limit or else the Editor will extend a warning hand and bid me stop.”
Through her business dealings with the Rex Motor Company Hind became friendly with R Lord who was one of its directors; in 1912 they married. In 1931 she became the first woman to be elected a life member of the Association of Pioneer Motor Cyclists and in 1950, became an honorary life member of the Motor Cycling Club. Muriel Hind died in 1956 at the age of 74.

Hutchis: Hutchinson waders, first mentioned in the press before the Great War, were fisherman’s waders adapted to suit motor cyclists. ‘Hutchis’ would be a mainstay of all-weather motor cycling for years to come, often combined with a waterproof poncho; the phrase ‘Hutchis and poncho’ was a commonplace, later superseded by ‘stormcoat and waders’.

IOE: Inlet over exhaust valve configuration, quite popular until the Great War; more common in the US than Europe

Ixion: Nom de plume of Canon BH Davies who wrote for the Blue ‘Un from its inception in 1903 until the 1960s. The greatest motor cycle journalist of his or any other generation he was, for decades, at the heart of the motor cycling movement. (‘Ixion’ is pronounced, he once explained, ‘Icks-eye-on’ with the stress on the middle syllable.) He wrote on a number of other topics but was first and last a man of the cloth. Ixion’s books Motor Cycle Cavalcade and  Reminiscences of Motorcycling are wonderful.

Jehu: Slang, circa 1910, for the rider of a bicycle or motor cycle; derived from slang for a coach driver. The name appears in the bible; it’s link to motoring remains a mystery.

Knut: Slang, first found 1912, for noisy motor cyclists obsessed with speed, previously known as Promenade Percies (qv). Examples of usage: “…as soon as the flashy bounder or “Knut” sees that he himself will be in danger when blinding through traffic on a silent machine he will slow down…” “The ‘spell of the knut’, as he called it, was over the whole nation, and speed was the chief factor kept in mind by most designers.” “I was informed in every instance that the power and speed were too low to appeal to the pubiic, viz, the ‘knuts’.” “I was informed in every instance that the power and speed were too low to appsal to the pubiic, viz, the ‘knuts’.” “Simplication of control and maintenance of power in prolonged use are the factors which weigh most heavily with a majority among us. The open exhaust, dropped bar ‘knut’ is distinctly over-articulate.” “It is a shame that a few would-be ‘knuts’ and budding motor cycle manufacturers should bring obloquy on us all.” “I have often been amused when some member of the ‘knut’ brigade has ‘sprinted’ past me on the road, and whom I have overtaken further along repairing a broken belt—a sadder, but perhaps a wiser man.” “‘Anti-Knut’ complains that three motor cyclists rode to and fro with cut-outs open in front of Barnet Church last Sunday during divine service. Such behaviour is most reprehensible, and we hope the offenders will not repeat it.”


Juvenile Knut: “Sit tight, mater, this is rather a bad hill, but you’re safe enough where you are!”

Etienne Lenoir: On 24 January 1860 Frenchman Etienne Lenoir patented the world’s first commercially successful internal combustion engine. It ran on coal gas, which was readily available as a by-product of coke ovens, and was sold with power outputs from about 1hp to 20hp to compete with steam engines in a variety of roles including road transport. In 1863 a 1½ hp 2.5-litre engine was used to power a cart called the Hippomobile. It covered the 11km from Paris to Joinville-le-Pont and back in about three hours, including stops for running repairs. Word of this feat attracting the attention of Tsar Alexander II and a Hippomobile was sent to Russia, where it vanished. The Lenoir design featured a double-acting layout with spark ignition, though this proved troublesome and Lenoir switched to flame ignition. Although it ran reasonably well, the engine used a lot of gas (about 100cuft per hp per hour), it was noisy and tended to overheat so if sufficient cooling water was not applied it seized. Nonetheless,in September 1860 an over-excited reporter for the Parisian newspaper Cosmos wrote that the steam age was over. By 1865 Lenoir had sold 143 engines in in Paris alone and the Reading Gas Works had started to make them (the design was protected by a separate English patent). In all more than 500 were produced on both sides of the Channel, but in 1863 Lenoir sold his patents to Compagnie Parisienne du Gaz. He turned to his attention to marine engines motorboats and in 1888 built a four-stroke fuelled by naptha.

Professor Archibald ‘Archie’ Low: Archy Low was, for 24 years, chairman of the ACU. He was chairman of the RAC motor cycle committee. He raced successfully at Brooklands and designed a motorcycle of the ‘Everyman’ type. He even rigged a speedway bike with a rocket engine. You can’t have much more of a career in motor cycling than that, but motor cycling was only one of his interests. Archibald Low was born in 1888. In 1914 he invented ‘televista’ and transmitted moving images up to four miles. The images were fuzzy, the range was short, but this was a working TV system 12 years before John Logie Baird came up with television. If the First World War hadn’t diverted him Low, not Baird, might well have been Mr TV. He appreciated its potential, and not just for entertainment: “There [is] no reason why, when the invention is further developed, the enemy could not be watched from immense distance and all their movements recorded. At sea, too, hostile ships would have their every movement seen. Surprise dashes would be made impossible.”

Archie Low’s 1922 design was a motor cycle designed on Everyman lines.

During the Great War Low, with the rank of Captain, served in the Royal Flying Corps as an ‘experimental officer’, leading a team developing radio controlled aircraft with explosive charges as guided missiles. They also worked on radio and wire-controlled rockets. The Germans took his activities seriously enough to mount a couple of assassination attempts. After the war the Brits lost interest in this technology; the Jerries didn’t, as shown by the remote controlled missiles they used against British shopping in the Second World War and the V weapons.

Captain Archibald Low, RFC, led a team which worked on guided missiles.

From 1919-1922 Low served as Associate Honorary Assistant Professor of Physics at the Royal Ordnance College. After which he adopted the title Professor Low. In 1922 he designed an ‘Everyman’ motorcycle; a term coined, probably, by Ixion of The Motor Cycle as part of a decade’s-long quest for a motor cycle suited to the ‘non-enthusiast’: clean and cheap to use, easy to start and ride, incorporating weather protection. The Low Engineering Company’s version featured a pressed-steel frame with a fully enclosed four-pot 500cc two-stroke engine and shaft-drive. It could be hosed down like a car and was, in Low’s words, designed to be ridden by both “men in white tennis pants as well as women in skirts”. Low was a futurist; in 1933 he wrote a feature for The Motor Cycle predicting what motor cycles would like like in 1953 (this will be found in the 1953 features section of the timeline); the same year he joined the nascent British Interplanetary Society (he was its president from 1936 to 1951, and was inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame in 1976).

Among Low’s skills was an ability to persuade a rider to sit on a rocket-propelled speedway bike.

In 1947 he bolted four solid-fuel rockets to a speedway bike which lapped Wembley speedway track though this wasn’t quite a first; Fritz von Opel strapped six solid-fuel rockets to the back of a 496cc Neander in 1928 (check out that year in the timeline). Prof Low didn’t only predict the future of motor cycling. In various articles he looked forward to mobile phones, smartphones, the internet, space stations, space travel, telecommunications satellites and, rather whimsically, wrote: “Dancing in the future would probably be enjoyed in an armchair, with a seat swaying slightly, lights lowered, and possibly some drug. People would be too lazy to dance, and they would have to achieve the sensation in an armchair.”

MOIV: Manually operated inlet valve; eg a valve opened by a cam and closed by a spring (unless it’s desmodromic)  (qv AOIV).

Manxland: Slang (UK), circa 1910, for Isle of Man.

Mote: Slang, verb (UK) circa 1900, for ride or drive, presumably abbreviated from ‘motor’.

Oilies: Slang (UK) circa 1910 for oilskins.

One-lunger: Slang (UK), dating back at least as far as 1910, for a single-cylinder motorcycle.

Peach perch: Slang (UK), circa 1925, for pillion seat (qv Flapper bracket).

Promenade Percy: Slang (UK), circa 1910, for a noisy, antisocial motor cyclist.

Francois Isaac de Rivaz: In 1806, the year after Admiral Lord Nelson did his stuff off Cape Trafalgar, de Rivaz designed an internal combustion engine. What’s more he built it, made it work and installed it on a cart. It only did 2mph and only covered a few yards but nonetheless this was an automobile, of sorts, and it ran a clear 64 years before Siegfried Marcus made his self-propelled cart and 79 years before Daimler built his first prototype. De Rivaz was born in Paris and earned his crust as a soldier, politician, enrepreneur and inventor. Towards the end of the 18th century he experimented with steam-powered vehicles but after retiring to Switzerland his attention turned to gas engines. First he extracted hydrogen from water and ignited it with a spark using a Volta electric cell. Then he developed an engine fuelled by hydrogen stored in a balloon and fitted it into a cart that was six metres long and weighed almost a ton. It wasn’t what you’d call high revving—the driver had to open a foot-operated valve to fill the cylinder with gas, close it and switch on the current to make the electric spark for each revolution. But it worked.

Alphonse de Rochas: In 1862 de Rochas, a Frenchman, published a booklet in which he established the four prerequisites for an efficient ‘explosion engine’: The greatest possible cylinder volume with the least possible cooling surface; the greatest possible rapidity of explosion; the greatest possible expansion; the greatest possible pressure at the beginning of this expansion. The way to achieve this, he concluded, would be with a ‘suction’ stroke followed by compression, ignition ‘at the dead point’ and ‘expansion during the third stroke’. This amounted to a clear description of the four-stroke internal combustion cycle famously reinvented by Dr Otto 14 years later. However, Otto put the theory into practice while for de Rochas it remained an intellectual exercise.

Sidecar combination: First used circa 1915, before which “sidecar” was commonly used to refer to the entire vehicle. Commonly abbreviated to “combo” or “outfit” (“outfit” was in use by 1916), from “sidecar outfit”.

Single: In modern parlance, a single-cylinder motorcycle (qv one-lunger) but in pioneer times a bike with no forecar, sidecar or trailer–which we would now describe as a solo.

Starcher: Slang (UK) circa 1917 for Sturmey-Archer gear,

WL Wright: In 1833 WL Wright patented a gas engine powered by “the explosion of a mixture of inflammable gas and air” acting directly on the piston, which transmitted power via a conrod to a crankshaft, just like a modern engine. The single-cylinder engine was double-acting, with the piston receiving two impulses for every revolution of the crankshaft. Judging by the patent drawing Wright’s engine looked like a high-pressure steam engine with gas and air pumped into each end of the cylinder at a few psi above atmospheric pressure. Ignition, controlled by an external flame and a touch hole, caused alternate explosions at either end of the cylinder. Induction was regulated by a centrifugal governor.

365: Slang (US), circa 1910, for year.