On the road with a TAC

…or, Thanks Four the Memory…or, Tip Top TAC. The Wilkinson TAC was one of the most impressive motorcycles to come onto the British market in the years leading up to the Great War. With a spec including a four-pot engine, three-speed transmission, sprung frame and shaft drive there was no doubting the TAC’s potential. This 1909 report was snappily headlined: ‘An eventful trip on a novel machine–some experiences of a TAC after an 80-mile ride’.

“OH, FOR THE CHARM OF THE OPEN ROAD and the breath of the countryside!” Such were my thoughts as I drove one of the 1909 model TAC through the murkiness of London traffic, trams and motorbuses. Naturally, as I was quite strange to the machine, it being absolutely the first time I had been astride it. I did a good many stupid things that I should not have done, such as racing the engine and muddling the gear change. But I soon got into the novelty of it all, and by the time Hammersmith Bridge was reached I felt quite at home with the machine.
The first stop was in Kingston, with its tramlines and police traps, and here we inspected the King’s Stone which so many pass unheeded. Quite a crowd collected, evidently interested in the novelty of the machine I was riding and the fact that quite pertinent remarks were made about it shows how motoring has caught on, even amongst the general public. I had been longing to get the machine into top, but had to go steady through the 10 mile limit area until we got out onto the Cobham road, when my chance came. Switching off for a second, I jammed the lever right forward, and the next minute was in top gear, humming along at 20 an hour. I must say I found the carburettion a bit tricky in conjunction with the gear changes, owing, no doubt, to the sudden variations in engine revolutions. The machine was certainly fast. I estimate it could do at least 20 on bottom and although overgeared on top, I should think it could manage 45 under favourable conditions.

Wilkinson’s Touring Auto Cycle: monotrack transport for the discerning gentleman adventurer. This early air-cooled example sports Chater-Lea leading link forks.

Passing Esher and Sandown, we came upon a good many thoroughbred one horse-powers being tuned up for the races that day; they did not mind the purr of the TAC which sped along with a fine swooping movement, totally unlike any other motorcycle I have ever ridden. The machine has been styled ‘a car on two wheels’ and the funny part about it is that, though it is certainly designed on car lines, it also gives the sensation of car driving. Let me try and explain my meaning. After we had passed Cobham and Wisley Hut, the Ripley road lengthens out into long straight stretches through the trees and past the heath, all glorious in the sunshine and it was along here that the strange sensations of motorcaring and motorcyling combined were first experienced.
I opened the cut-out to pass a big limousine, and was amazed to hear from beneath me the crackly exhaust of a well-tuned Brooklands racer, quite as loud and quite as healthy as the mighty machines that hurtle round the track at 90 an hour. The smooth, sweeping power of the TAC amazed me, and having cut-out and changed gear, the grip of the clutch as it took hold and shot the machine forward was just the same as I had experienced on a high-powered car a few weeks back. By adjusting the air the crackling exhaust grew sharper, and we soon dropped into a fast pace, but, oh so different to the ordinary motorcycle speed, for this was an even rushing roar over the long white road. The sensation was enthralling, not only in its novelty, but also in its charm.
We soon made Guildford, where some minute legal limit—I do not know whether it was five or ten miles an hour—reduced us to bottom speed. Trickling through the crowded high street with the engine just turning over and cut-out shut, we reached the top of the hill and slid gently in down to the lower part of town. The Hog’s Back was in front, so I thought a pump of oil would not be out of place. The photographer, heavily laden with camera and side-car, showed the way, but I soon passed him, standing by his twin, which was running splendidly but was not driving the machine owing to the belt slipping. I continued to the summit on second speed, and then returned to see how the other machine was progressing. It was coming up slowly, but steadily, so I turned round, and, starting on first, soon got into top. The road over the Hog’s Back was in splendid condition, and we were doing well up to legal limits we sped along, glancing now and then over the great extent of country on either side over the valleys towards Reading on the right and the Surrey Hills on the left.
On this wonderful stretch I tried some tricks with the machine, and by lurching from side to side I got some idea of the action of the roller wheels fitted to the edge of the footboards to prevent skidding. Although I must have canted over at an angle of almost 45 degrees, I was never in danger of falling as the little wheels came into action and a harsh grating noise told me of their contact with the road and set me upright again. This happened on London grease also, so that with such an arrangement skidding is impossible. Outside Farnham the other motorcycle was in trouble owing to one of the tappet guides having worked loose. We attempted to tighten it up, but as a matter of fact this only made matters worse so that it was agreed to lunch at the Bush Hotel and to tackle the matter afterwards. Having fed well and wisely, we embarked on the repair job, which necessitated extracting a ball from the crankcase. The drainpipe for the oil was too small, so that it was decided to take off the camshaft cover and extract the errant ball by overturning the machine.
So side-car and motor-bicycle were turned completely upside-down by our united efforts, and by revolving the flywheel it was hoped that the ball would drop out. Not a bit of it. Plenty of oil came dropping out but it brought nothing with it. An awful thought struck my photographic friend. Supposing the ball were in the pistons, what then? It might be there, so we took off both cylinders and found the pistons full of oil, but still no ball. What were we to do? The whole machine was again reversed, much to the discomfort of the side-car and toolbag which had disgorged all their ill-gotten gains in the way of tools, maps, etc. Petrol was poured in jugfuls into the crankcase, and as a last resort the whole affair was reversed.
Click! Clack! What was that? Hooray, the errant one at last. Glistening, there it lay in a pool of oil on the floor, redeemed at last. The next thing was to collect from various parts of the hotel yard the different pieces—nuts, bolts, etc—that lay scattered about in hopeless confusion. This was done after a while and we then discovered that the spare tappet guide would not fit as the thread was stripped. The engine was assembled, and under the circumstances we thought the best thing to do was to take it back by train. We had only taken a couple of hours on the job, but as it was 5.15 we thought we had earned our tea.

1909 RED TAC
Later versions of the TAC had a larger engine, water-cooling and Druid girder forks..

After this, the next thing was to get my machine going for the journey back to London. Owing to the oil itself and the amount I had given the engine, I could not start the machine by means of the lever provided for the purpose, and it was only after removing all the plugs and priming the engine with paraffin that I could free it at all. The necessity for this procedure has been eliminated on the new models, where, by undoing a couple of thumb screws, the inlet valves are exposed for priming purposes.
Before starting, I thought it wise to tighten the clutch a little, which I did with my hands alone, for on the down journey I thought I noticed a tendency of the engine to race every now and then. This done, I got under way, and was soon speeding back up the long climb on second speed. The wind was against me, but owing to the arrangement of shields on the machine I was quite warm. I might remark, in passing, that the TAC is splendidly mud and weather proof and very comfortable to ride. The bucket seat just gives the necessary support to the back, and with the sloping footboards (reminding one of the dash of a car) and long handlebars, an almost reclining position was possible. I did not try the wheel-steered model, although I understand that those who ordered the HB pattern are now asking for the wheel, probably because the long handlebars make steering difficult at very low speeds and when starting this was certainly my experience.
Guildford High Street reduced me to bottom speed, and after ascending this I pottered along with the local speed limit. But misfortune was in front of me. Suddenly, from a side street, a boy on a bicycle dashed out. He hesitated for a second, so did I, and, being on a strange machine, I muddled the control, and a collision took place. I saw myself making for a lamp-post, but, bracing up for the effort, I just managed to graze it. The boy took me broadside and fell off his bicycle. My headlamp was smashed but that was all. The boy never said a word, but got hold of his machine and rode quickly away, evidently fearing that I should report him for carelessness, as he was on a side street, whilst I was on the main road, Luckily the TAC was undamaged, so I sped on to Ripley to get in before lighting up. I had to buy a new lamp of the cheap cycle pattern, which lasted for ten miles till the burner blew out.
However, London was drawing near, and although I lost myself somewhere on Barnes Common and had to steer the machine through a Saturday evening crowd at Kingston, I eventually found myself back again on Hammersmith Bridge. After this, it was necessary to drop back to bottom speed to thread my way through the mass of traffic. Wherever I stopped to enquire my way a large crowd collected, and it was amusing to see how they jumped out of the road when I started the engine from the seat and opened the cut-out. They evidently were not accustomed to hear the noise of a 120hp racer issuing from the common or garden motor-bicycle. I got home safely after a glorious ride, partly due to the novelty of the machine which is made by the Wilkinson Sword Company, Oakey Works, Acton Vale, London, and partly due to the dry roads and fine weather.

That test appeared in the Green ‘Un; here’s the Blue ‘Un’s take on the big four.

OF LATE LITTLE HAS BEEN HEARD of the four-cylinder TAC—the car on two wheels—and, judging from the number of queries we receive from readers at home and abroad as to its merits, the performances of the two machines of this make in the January quarterly trials must have been watched very eagerly. It is now common knowledge that they acquitted themselves in first-rate style, accomplishing non-stop runs except for a stand dropping down on one of them. A separate department has recently been set aside in the Wilkinson Sword Co’s works for the manufacture of TACs, so that more is likely to be heard of these machines in the future.
A week or so ago we were accorded a trial of the identical mount Clifford Wilson rode in the quarterly trial, and must say that we enjoyed our novel experience. The 6-7hp TAC is an intensely fascinating machine, but not exactly an ideal mount for the novice. At least so we thought when we were being introduced one by one to the array of control levers, but after all it may have been strangeness that gave rise to such an impression, for after a 100 miles’ run our bewilderment had vanished, and we felt quite accustomed to the control of the machine.

1909 1911 TAC TEST (BU) PIC
“Clifford Wilson on the 6-7hp TAC he rode in the Quarterly Trial, and which was afterwards handed over to us.”

A sharp pull of the starting lever, and the engine readily responded with a 2,.000rpm buzz, the speed being kept down by judicious use of the handle-bar magneto cut-out. Having taken our seat, the clutch was disengaged, and the gear lever put in the third speed notch, and away the TAC glided with all the ease and grace of a lordly car. Again the clutch was eased and the second gear engaged without difficulty, likewise the high ratio of 3½ to 1. All the time the machine was speedily gathering way there was a noticeable absence of effort or fuss so characteristic of a four-cylinder engine. At first the steering seemed heavy, the machine showing a decided inclination to make for the right, consequently we kept the engine well in hand at first, but eventually after a spin of thirty miles or so, we succumbed to the temptation of tasting the delights of speed. How comfortable the TAC really is! This can readily be imagined when one considers the laminate springs provided fore and aft, the luxury of the upholstered bucket seat, and the even torque of the four-cylinder engine. Would that every motor bicycle were as comfortable as this one! The riding position is extremely low, so low, in fact, that, coupled with the unusual appearance of the machine, a crowd of curious sightseers can be guaranteed to gather whenever a stop is made, while the rising generation simply shriek with delight as the TAC rider flies past.
The long footboards, inclined at the front, permit of a change of position, so that one need not be cramped on a ride, however long. The acceleration powers of the machine are wonderful, the throttle and air levers can be opened with one fell swoop when the engine rapidly gathers way from a comparative crawl to a speed not far short of a mile a minute. The sensation of riding this rakish four with its armchairlike riding position is altogether different from any twin or single-cylinder machine. There is a keen rush of wind in one’s face, and that is all, for the purr of the exhaust is only just audible, the gases being swept to the rear by a pipe under the footboard.
The exhaust valve lifter is particularly sweet in action, there being a total absence of valve clatter when descending hills with the lever raised. The worm drive seems to be thoroughly satisfactory, is silent, has a clean exterior appearance, and is unlikely to give trouble.

1909 1910 TAC COMBO
Take one three-speed, shaft-drive TAC luxury motor cycle, complete with its bucket seat and optional steering wheel. Add one coach built sidecar, upholstered to match the bike, with the sidecar wheel suspended on leafsprings that also match the bike suspension. Is it an outfit? Is it a light car? Is it the new Bluesmobile?

The mudguarding of the TAC struck us as being better carried out than on any machine we have ridden. It will be seen from the illustration of the complete machine that the front wheel is half enclosed, effectively preventing mud splashes reaching the front of the machine, even if the wide footboards were non-existent. To prevent oil splashes reaching the rider’s legs or the hot cylinders burning his trousers large guards are provided which serve their purpose admirably. The encasing of the engine is completed by a neat under pan. The petrol compartment is over the back wheel, and we must say that we were quite astonished at the low consumption. Our previous experience with four-cylinder machines of various makes has left us with a pronounced impression of a thirsty appetite, but the 60x60mm TAC with its B and B carburetter can boast nearly ninety miles to the gallon. This economical result can be explained to some extent when we mention that the automatic inlet valves are adjusted to open but a single millimetre.
As regards braking power, we had not opportunities of trying the retarding effect of the brakes in traffic, as our brief run was confined to the main Holyhead Road, but Wilson, who kindly piloted us through the city, seemed to experience not the slightest difficulty in negotiating the intricate traffic of the Metropolis.
Fast hill-climbing is the chief delight of the average motor cyclist, and the sensation of gliding up gradients on top gear to the music of a well-tuned four-cylinder engine was indeed splendid. All ordinary hills can be climbed without changing, but on the second gear of 5½ to 1 the speed is by no means slow. The first gear we found no use for, but it should bring hills of the calibre of Chalk Pit and Amulree within the capacity of the TAC. Our riding experience has left us with an excellent impression of the qualities of this ambitious design of motor bicycle, and on returning the machine to the firm’s representative we half whispered, “Oh for a lighter, shorter, and less powerful mount with such comfort!” which expression brought forth the retort that a lighter model on the same lines, but with shorter wheelbase, is already in its chrysalis stage.

“Latest design of the four-cylinder three-speed TAC, which, as will be observed, has a water-cooled engine and bevel drive. The new model is more than ever ‘a car on two wheels’.”

WILKINSON SWORD PRODUCED MOTORCYCLES from 1908 to 1915. The Touring Auto-Cycle (TAC) had been designed as a military scout by PG Tacchi, who was granted patent rights in 1908. He designed it to carry a Maxim machine gun on the handlebars but the idea was rejected by the War Department and Wilkinson carried on with its luxury touring version.
The TAC was long and had an in-line four-cylinder engine, clutch, three-speed gearbox and shaft-drive to a worm at the rear wheel. Its original engine capacity was 678cc, the crankcase cast-iron and split horizontally, the drive from clutch to gearbox by spring steel to absorb shocks, and starting by hand lever. To begin with, Chater-Lea leading-link forks were used, but these were soon changed to a Druid fork. The rear wheel was supported by four quarter-elliptic springs. The oil tank went just behind the headstock with the petrol tank on the rear mudguard; a steering wheel was an optional extra.
In 1912 The capacity went up to 848cc and finally 1,087cc and, originally air-cooled, the engine was redesigned as a water-cooled unit. Ironically a design originally proposed as a military vehicle was killed off by the wartime ban on civilian motorcycle production.