Building a Motorcycle

In the early days of motor cycling there was an alternative to buying a bike: build your own. This brave pioneer found it wasn’t the straightforward job he’d hoped for.

1903 buildbike aw

HAVING FIRST diligently read up everything that I could lay my hands on with regard to the theory and practice of the motor engine, I purchased a neat, well-made engine of the Clement type, which I came to the conclusion was the one most suitable for the purpose required. My next endeavour was to find a suitable cycle frame on which to fit it, so I showed my purchase to a practical man, and informed him that I wished to have a suitable bicycle made for the engine, also that it was my intention to place the latter inside the diamond – that is to say, to fix it to the top side of the downtube.
In due course (I may mention that this was in two months’ time) the bicycle was delivered at my house. I immediately proceeded to fit the engine on to the frame; but on doing this, to my horror I discovered that the driving pulley of the engine was on one side and the driving rim on the rear wheel of the bicycle on the other. How this mistake could have been made I am not able to say. The only way out of the difficulty was to have the back fork stays extended and the driving rim on the rear wheel reversed. It must be admitted that this was a very bad beginning; but I am glad to say it did not dampen my enthusiasm.
My next work was to construct a tank to hold the petrol and lubricating oil and also the accumulator. I cut out patterns to fit the frame, after doing which I ordered some sheets of tin about the thickness of the ordinary Huntley and Palmer’s biscuit box. I ordered this because I reasoned that if I were to use thick gauge brass or iron, I should not be able to work it with the defective tools I had; and I am quite certain from later experience that I was correct in this.

Prehistoric Implements.
My readers will not be surprised at this latter statement when I give a list of the tools at my disposal, viz, a watchmaker’s vice, a pair of very blunt shears, and a linen draper’s rule, not forgetting a 2½lb copper soldering iron. Indeed, after my first experience I made a vow to myself never to attempt to make another tank. However, I managed to finish it at last, but at the expense of acid-stained hands and burnt fingers. I must say that I was very proud indeed of the feat I had accomplished, but was not quite so proud after testing the two compartments with liquid; after all the trouble I had taken neither was even water-tight. Well, I had hardened my heart, and was not long before I had the lubricating end of the tank open; but not being aware of the correct method of getting soldered joints apart, the only thing I could think of was to place the tank bodily over the gas stove in my kitchen.
This answered the purpose splendidly (but I may mention that my wife was not at all pleased, as she informed me that the cooking stove was for cooking , and not for melting tin). Anyway, I discovered the leak and managed to repair it.
I may here mention that on measuring the capacity of the tank, which I had neglected to calculate when making my designs, I found that I had made it much smaller than I had intended, and that it would only hold a very small supply of petrol. However, this was soon remedied, as I punched sveral holes through the division separating the petrol compartment from the one which I had intended to use for the lubricating oil, thus making a much larget petrol chamber.

A Tobacco Tin comes in Handy.
But here came in another difficulty. I was left without an oil chamber, so to provide for this I soldered to the side of the tank one of Messers WO Wills and Co’s half-pound tobacco tins, and was very pleased to find that it answered its purpose admirably. Having fixed my tank to the frame, I next proceeded to make an attempt to bend the copper tube which leads from the spray carburettor to the inlet dome. In my attempt to do this the only tools I had at my disposal were a saddle pillar (which I found just entered the tubing) and a discarded pastry-roller pin; but try it as I would I could not get it to bend. At last I did maanage it but as the same time I produced a fearful kink in it; indeed I spolit two tubes in trying to do this.
Here came in a great blow to my pride, as I had at last to call in outside assistance, my first idea having been, if possible, to do without this entirely. However, there was no help for it, and much against my will I was compelled to ask the advice of an expert, who told me to fill the copper tubing with lead, and afterwards bend to shape. As soon as I knew this hint there was no further difficulty, and I only wondered why I had never thought of such a simple method before. Simple method indeed! I did not find this to be the case when attempting to empty the lead from the copper tube after I had bent it to the required angle. For the purpose of doing this I had recourse to my old friend the gas stove, but in this case thought it better to wait until my wife and household had retired for the night.
The trouble I had was brought about in the following way: For the purpose of containing the molten lead, I placed two coffee tins to receive it, and, stupidly enough, forgot to examine them before doing this. They are generally machine jointed, but in this case I found to my cost that they were soft soldered, for as soon as the molten lead had filled one of the tins there was a terrific bang, the bottom dropped out, and with a fearful splutter several drops of lead splashed on to my bare arms, where they stuck like glue. In spite of my fears of what the superior powers of my household would say at my using the gas stove for a second time, when I had been expressly forbidden to do so, I could not help emitting a loud yell of pain.

My Wife to the Rescue.
My wife came downstairs to know what was the meaning of the uproar, with the result that I did a record out of that kitchen, and am convinced that had any member of our rural police force be present, I should have been summoned for furious running! My work after these preliminary difficulties were conquered became faairly plain sailing.
When fitting the ignition gear I fixed a saddle-pillar clip to the copper tube which carries the gas to the engine. this proved a capital point on which to fit a lever for the purpose of advancing and retarding the spark. The other minor difficulties I experienced are really not worth relating. I am glad to say the machine I made is now going well, and I consider worth the time and trouble I spent on it; but, on the other hand, I really would not advise any novice to take up motor cycle building unless he has at his command a sufficiency of appliances for carrying out such work; also that he is not obliged to consider expense, and last, but certainly not least, that he is possessed of a considerable amount of patience and fortitude.
Taking everything into consideration, I do not think I saved anything by becoming my own builder, and when I am tired of my present mount I shall proceed straight to a prominent agent or manufacturer and invest in a completely finished machine in all its glamour of fresh enamel and nickel-plating.

1903 buildbike
The completed project.