There could be no better guide to the earliest practicable motor cycles than BH Davies, who wrote under his own name as well as his nom de plume, Ixion. Davies was in the thick of things from the start of British motor cycling; in 1911 he reviewed some of the bikes that, in his words, ‘teuf-teuffed’ onto the road in the first decade of the 20th century.
IT SEEMS DIFFICULT to believe that ten years ago precocious infants were being spanked by irate parents for saying they had seen a “sicicle” going uphill “all by itself”; that within a similar period precocious engineers were receiving the key of the street for suggesting to cycle magnates that a motor bicycle was worth designing and making. Yet such are the facts; and the purpose of the present article is to picture the evolution of sundry pioneer machines which made their bow to a suspicious and irreverent public ten years ago, and are now breathing through their silencers with quiet malice the unwelcome sneer, “I told you so!”
First, hats off while we mourn the dead. Not every firm which saw the start is in at the death. What has become of the Minerva, once in the guise of a somewhat hideous red and black finish the sole motor cycle exhibit at a Stanley Show.
What of the front-driven Werner, which used to side-slip and half kill you, then jump on you and pummel your prostrate body, finally cremating you when the huge carburetter ignited? What of its immediate posterity—I remember the “protected” carburetter, ensconced in a small tin box with sharp edges, the flat engine pulley with leather washers threaded thereon, which was fitted to the English-made article, and similar fitments?
What of the Excelsior-MMC—one of the first reliable and powerful motor bicycles ever made? What of the Ormonde, with Kelecom engine under the saddle, behind the seat tube, and projecting sparking plugs in wait to send a record shock up the marrow of your thigh bone? A petroly tear dims my moistened eye as I muse on these once great names; turn we with relief to the stalwart few who have survived the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and are reaping rich rewards for their constancy to-day. Let the order be numerical, lest envy embitter congratulation.
An Outline that has Survived the Test of Time
My first memories of the Bat do not include Mr Tessier, though no doubt he was there, behind the scenes somewhere. I almost wonder if Bowen and Bashall and some others were out of their prams then. In their places I recall a burly, genial, individual named Batson, who drove a MMC car and designed the Bat–“best after tests”. Even as early as 1903 it had a spring frame, and a great reputation in speed events. The makers were prone to ascribe its alarming velocity to a patent pulley, composed of rocking sections, designed to obviate belt slip. Incredulous outsiders like myself preferred to admire the De Dion engine (2¾hp) and gasometer caburetter, together with an exceptionally rigid frame and many tuning secrets. At any rate, the early Bats were enviably invincible from the first.
The outline has remained practically unchanged ever since. The 1903 model scored heavily in the reliability trials, and ever since the Bat has been one of the favoured few which can bring tears to the eyes of the impecunious enthusiast. I question if any makers have retained their original frame so closely, or so steadfastly their faces against pedalling and the elusive and deceptive merits of lpa until quite recent days. AG Reynolds used to disport himself on one of the old 2¾hp Bats, which must have covered its 50,000 miles by now, if it yet breathes petrol. It ought to be handed over to the British Museum at its decease.
The Early Browns
I don’t know where Brice was in 1902-3, but the Brown was already with us in the guise of the saucy bantling represented in our photograph of Coles arriving in London at the end of the Glasgow run of 1903. No thrilling hill-climb sprints had as yet tested its merits, but the 1902 price list modestly asserted with regard to a still earlier model “it could climb steep gradients”. Rather a notable merit is the possession of a spray carburetter which, the makers remarked, prevented your petrol going stale if you laid it away for long. The engine was luckily only of 1¾hp at a generous estimate, which was just as well when you note it was neatly clipped to a neat frame by two small aluminium lugs on the crank case. The modern Brown engine would convert itself into a rotary type under similar conditions.
Judging by the 1902 catalogue the makers were quite absurdly pleased to think the microscopic oil tank and tap on the top tube rendered it unnecessary to climb down every twenty miles to oil up. A delicious myth in the naive catalogue points out how easily the round belt can be slipped off in the event of any “derangement which it is not convenient to remedy at the moment”. This machine weighed no more than 75lb. By slow steps the Brown has climbed from such a modest beginning to its present eminence, and the 3½hp engine of to-day consumes no more petrol in a given mileage than its lilliputian grandparent.
The First FN
The FN, which comes second, also spat its first oily smell into the scandalised atmosphere about the year 1902, and its single-cylinder engine was of 53mm bore and 6Omm stroke. Fancy Victor Holroyd hitting Birdlip on such dimensions! It had an outside flywheel, with a 1in wide flat belt pulley; one guesses there was a bit of rock in the bearings before long, if the engine ever got humming. It is noteworthy that this is the only FN model which had the standard diamond frame. Its makers were quick to realise that power-propelled cycles required cradled engines, and that aluminium clips spelt trouble. (Don’t I remember my belt coming off on another make because the engine had twisted round amd was peering forrards from under my left leg!).
This particular FN engine stood up vertically from the junction of the main down and seat tubes, and its transmission was better than most, because a wooden rear belt-rim provided a good co-efficient of grip. The following year saw a 2hp with cradle frame, enclosed flywheels, and castiron crank case.
The hint in the catalogue that the’ engine bearings for 1903 would be very long doubtless alludes to a sentence above, and covers tales of woe. This engine was years ahead of its time in that the exhaust valve was mounted in front of the cylinder for the sake of cooling, and that a lever was interposed between cam and tappet to reduce wear.
The 1904 model was the far-famed 2¼hp, which in its day was second to none. Many of these engines are still running, and running well; it was on one of them that WH Wells made his name. It was swiftly followed by its big sister, the 3½hp, and the first four-cylinder, which caused a sensation.
I have not forgotten. Enriched by a hundred detail improvements and a large increase of power, the four-cylinder has been the FN Co’s stand-by for several years now, though the shaft-driven two-speeded lightweight has kept it company of late. But no modern invention has made quite the stir that the Belgian rider Osmont’s tour of the Riviera on the first ‘four’ created. The FN’s evolution is marked by an early grip on basic principles; I recall days when their spray carburetter was almost the only sample obtainable, and many of their prehistoric ideas still masquerade as ‘startling novelties’ on other machines when show time comes around. We have not heard The last of the exhaust valve in front of the cylinder.
Some of the younger riders imagine that the world-famous little Motosacoche is a latecomer to our ranks. Not a bit of it. I first heard of the ‘motor in a bag’ as early as 1901, and it actually made its bow to Swiss riders in 1900, under the auspices of the brothers Dufaux of Geneva. In those days it lacked its familiar black metal protectors, the power unit being mounted in a tubular frame, and shielded by flaps of leather; but so long as it depended for ignition on a somewhat flimsy and lilliputian accumulator svstem it failed to make strong appeal to the British long-distance tourist. As soon as the miniature magneto had transformed it into a sound roadster it began to acquire its public over here, and now it is a household word. Long may it remain so.
The Pioneer Chain-driven Machine
The Phelon has hyphened a Moore on to its original cognomen, as it has become more aristocratic. In its 1900 days it scarcely deserved a double-barrelled name, for it had a tin crank case, and its proud owner measured out his oil in an old cartridge case every twenty miles and poured it in by hand. It has, however, stuck faithfully to its main outlines for eleven years–witness the engine position, chain drive, and efficient silencer.
In 1901 a number of machines were sold, of which a survivor is still teuf-teuffing about Ireland. But the real P and M boom dates from 1905, when Mr Moore astounded the motor cycling world by making one of the two clean ascents of Birdlip in the big trial. Since then North-country riders especially are familiar with his demure habit of seeking out phenomenal hills, and selecting the worst knuckle for a standing start on that invincible low gear of his.
Single Lever Control
The name Quadrant still has power to thrill my bosom. Many readers must recall the grey tank with the unwieldy legend ‘The Quadrant Autocyclette’ painted thereon in red letters an inch high; or, the famous single lever control, whereby one long black handle switched on the current and controlled both throttle and spark, thus eliminating the twist handle and the third lever; or the little niche on the ‘interrupter block’ wherein a small brass disc (or a nimble sixpence) must repose ere a start was possible. With 1hp and 1¼hp Minerva engines, the Quadrant dates from 1900, and in 1902 nearly a thousand machines were sold.
In 1903 the first Quadrant engine, possessing the stupendous power of 2hp made its bow, and, thanks to the simple control and one of the first reliable contact-breakers I ever struck, the machine became famous. By 1904 horse-power had begun to tower and I well remember the sensation created by the 3hp when it came down to demonstrate its paces in hilly Devon.
Before this time Tom Silver’s name was a household word, thanks to his End-to-End record in 1903 (of which I still possess an original schedule marked ‘confidential’), the Glasgow to London ride against the motor cars, and other marvellous achievements. In 1905 the 3½hp with its now familiar dimensions of 81mm by 88mm came out, and carried all before it. Did not seven of the machines arrive at Groat’s in the first End-to-End reliability trial of 1906, thrashing us all on every hill? Since then there has been a little misfiring in connection with Quadrants, of a commercial rather than a mechanical nature, but their innumerable friends are glad to see them coming again with the old rush. By the way, the Quadrant was the pioneer in spring forks, and most people were glad to copy their pattern more or less closely for a time.
The Rex followed the advice given to your brides and “began as it meant to go on”. Bursting on our view with a 1¾hp engine at the National Show in 1900, it was the only machine to climb the hill in the Crystal Palace grounds without lpa—and lpa was lpa in those days, remember! The next spring it won races on the Palace track, but was simultaneously superseded by a model with vertical engine, and the half-tone illustration of this shows that the Rex designers had a keen insight, for the standard machines of to-day are on exactly the same lines, so far as the silhouette of design goes—vertical engine, tank, double-girdered forks, etc. Since then we owe many sensations to the prolific brains behind the Rex–the silencer cast with the cylinder, the beehive exhaust box, the dropped rear frame, the twin tyre, the rear hub clutch, the twenty-five guinea mount, the cantilever seat, the foot brake, the Muriel Hind dromedary, and a host of hill-climb thrills, road and track records.
But the present machines all bear a filial resemblance to that 1903 vertical–they are chips of the old block, and are widely copied. Note how gradually the frames were lowered and the handle-bars made longer and wider.
The Originator of the V Belt
V-shaped belts may sound like an accessory, but I believe Mr Stones, of Lincoln, was the first rider to employ a V belt on a motor cycle; his original sample, made up in the Rex Works, was finally entrusted to the Lincona people, and a mighty trade they did with poor beggars like myself, then afflicted with round and flat belts in mountainous districts. The C hooks were the chief bother, until Mr Edward Lycett came to our rescue (about 1903) with his eyelet rivets.
The Roc used to hail from Guildford when I first remember it; it always had the low frame, vertical engine, and trussed steering head so usual to-day, while it can certainly claim to be the ancestor of all free engines. It was running in 1902, and scoring in trials by 1903, in spite of the fact that its sponsors never believed in pedals, and preferred footrests from the very commencement, which a 3hp engine rendered practicable even on the hills round its Surrey nest.
Magneto ignition, a Gerard under Eisemann patents, was also a Roc introduction. The first Roc I ever rode belonged to A Wright, and had a live axle clutch, but no change speed gear. The free belt-rim was mounted on a large aluminium-spoked wheel, and excited great envy; no other frame that I know of allowed the rider to sit in the saddle with his feet on the ground, and owing to the clutch it was most comfortable in London traffic.
At one time the members of the Guildford club were mounted on Rocs almost to a man, and when they brought out sidecars their ‘swank’ against us fixed gear men was sickening. Nowadays, as everybody knows, the Roc gear, under its own name and by licence to the Rex and Humber Companies, is still one of the sidecarist’s chief resorts. Future historians will write of the Wall Auto-wheel and the torpedo tricycle—they are infants in arms as yet.
The Triumph entered the industry comparatively late, for to the best of my belief it never passed through the 1¼hp Minerva engine stage, which figured in the youth of most of the earlier pioneers. As I first remember it, it was fitted with the 2hp Minerva engine clipped below the front down tube (which was shortly afterwards replaced by a 2½hp inclined JAP), and was distinguished by a spray carburetter (then rather uncommon), a better bicycle than most engines could boast, and several yards more festooned low-tension wire than the average jigger of those days–but then Triumphs never stinted their customers.
A shade later a very taking model came out with a 2½hp JAP engine, vertically mounted in the proper place, but—shades of Hulbert—with a carburetter in front of the cylinder, and an equilateral-triangle toolbag under the saddle.
Then followed the 3hp Triumph with Fafnir engine, and soon after there appeared the first 3hp Triumph bicycle with ‘own make’ engine, upon which two or three enthusiasts and myself fastened at once with a perfectly inspired eye.
Even with accumulator ignition this was a most desirable and satisfactory little mount. But with the addition of a magneto (I owned one of the first batch so fitted) and also with a spring fork (I broke the experimental fork with but a single coil spring) it became positively enthralling. Mind you, it had not the Triumph quality of to-day, as shown in maintenance of power, and, tune you never so wisely, a good percentage of the original 3hp was missing after 1,000 miles; but it was reliability itself, and at that time nobody asked for anything more.
Even the accumulator type was super-excellent–the usual flimsy make and break, mounted on a base soft as butter with screws of putty, was not good enough for Mr Schulte, and he employed two sturdy contacts, mounted vertically in a rigid case.
Then came the standard 3½hp, and all records began to be broken, until to-day we have grown used to the gilding of the lily, and the annual appearance of ingenious new fittings, all perfect at the first time of asking, occasions no surprise—I need only mention the neatness of the handle-bar controlled carburetter and the ingenious multiple disc hub clutch.
Amateurs in 1905
It seems weird to recall that as recently as 1905 GE Roberts and myself were the only Triumph amateurs in the London-Edinburgh, and that in 1906 Lister Cooper and myself were the only Triumph amateurs in the Six Days. Perhaps the finest achievements of the 3hp were its climbs at Fenhurst, Haslemere, with F Hulbert and RW Ayton (not to speak of the sandbags then employed by the ACU in its hill-climbs, on a weight-equalisation basis). Considering the date and the modest dimensions of the engine, the speed and certainty of those climbs was remarkable.
I had almost forgotten a well-tried mount hailing from abroad in the shape of the NSU. The 1901 models had surface carburetter and tiny engines on the down tube. This firm was one of the first to adopt the high-tension magneto with separate coil and had a vertical engine in a diamond frame ignited in 1903. In 1904 the outline of the NSU was little different from modern practice, and in detail such items as overhead mechanically-operated valves, spray carburetter, etc, were already well established. When I reflect that at my first introduction to motor cycling one stop per mile was not thoroughly disheartening, that we were prepared to pedal hard up Guildford High Street, that we expected a belt stoppage every twenty miles at least, that we knew our ignition would stall us within fifty miles, that a night’s preparation was a usual prelude to a run; and contrast such a state of things with to-day, when a novice of my acquaintance has covered 2,000 miles from the factory door without a compulsory stop, and can only ejaculate in pious admiration that in ten years the trade has accomplished a real miracle.
Firms which Retired Temporarily
Nor must we omit sundry machines which have coquetted with us like the ‘lady’ in the three-card trick, at one time being very much in evidence, at another far to seek. In this connection we recall the Ariel, especially the staunch little 2½hp lightweight, ridden by Penzer, and the beautifully made 3½hp with skew valve gear forced often to victory by Theo Hooydonk. Or the Kerry—perhaps the first 5hp twin to be really rideable. Or the Clarendon-cum-Arno. Or the Excelsior, on which Martin and Sam Wright won so many victories, and a machine which I always regard as one of the most reliable of the older patterns–now brought bang up-to-date by the firm of Bayliss, Thomas and Co. Or the Humber–who of the old brigade has forgotten the ancient I¾hp and 2¾hp chain-drivers, with their marvellous hill-climbing and side-slipping propensities? Many of them are still running, and after a brief period of absence they are again gloriously incarnate in the
excellent Humbers of to-day, though the chain drive has gone. Or the Centaur, another chain-driver; did I not only last week meet a vet riding one of the first machines the firm ever made? Or the Alldays, whose early model was almost as popular as the once famous ‘Traveller Voiturette’? Or the Rover and Singer, staunch comrades of many an old stager’s novitiate? I particularly recall the prehistoric Singer bicycles and tricycles with their ‘motor-wheel’—an aluminium-spoked circular box of great breadth, enshrining engine, gear drive, low-tension magneto, all complete, very reliable, very noisy, very heavy, and very costly (£75 for the bicycle, if you please, but no end of a ‘wunner’ to go!). The Singer is again with us in up-to-date form, bristling with promise. The Rover, too, has come again, and well it might, for its early types were sound propositions. My wine merchant (ie, the gentleman who annually supplies my gallon cask of small ale) until this year went his country rounds on a Rover tricar dating back to 1905 or so.