Monday, May 25, 2009

British Covered Motorcycles

Throughout the 1930's and 40's designers and concept artists envisaged the motorcycle of the future as aerodynamically streamlined with an enclosed body. While streamlined fairings had appeared on racing bikes, they rarely featured on production bikes, which remained noisy, dirty, mechanically intimidating.

In the late 1940's Bohn Aluminum and Brass' concept artists painted a vision of the future that was sleek stylish. It was a vision that no motorcycle company embraced but would later be realised by scooter manufacturer, Piaggio.

The Scooter Revolution
In 1950 Vespa was Europe's best selling two wheeled vehicle. Even in the US, Vespas, rebadged as the Allstate and sold through the Sears mail order catalog were outselling the domestic scooter giants, Cushman and Salsbury. The success of the Vespa shouldn't have been a surprise to anyone - not only were they a practical vehicle, they were cheap and stylish, and Piaggio's promotion of their product was sophisticated and relentless. Vespa advertising invariably featuring buxom young lasses in summer dresses, scooting along happily with a picnic basket or bag of shopping. Of course, any imagery featuring young women is appealing to young men, and it's easy to focus on the overt sexism of the ads, but that misses the point. These adverts were explicitly targeting women. Hiding away the dirty, noisy and complicated engine meant you didn't need to be a man or know about machinery. Piaggio was saying "you too can ride a Vespa. It's easy!"

While Piaggio may not have envisaged these adverts spearheading women's' emancipation they did implicitly recognise the importance of female opinion in the purchasing process. When faced with a choice of buying either a motorcycle or a Vespa, Piaggio was counting on women to cast their vote in favour of the Vespa as something that they could ride on. Piaggio's rival, Innocenti, clearly failed to recognise this. The early Lambrettas, with their tube frame and exposed engine, were built for a male audience that was looking for function and power. By the mid 50's, however, they too had given up and the Lambretta LD was every bit as streamlined and sexy as the latest Vespa.

The state of the English motorcycle industry
The English motorcycle industry entered the 1950's in a state of crisis. War production had been a prop for many famous marques who had been teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. Despite needing to find a niche for themselves in a desperately poor post-war Britain, most companies seemed to have abandoned innovation to their continental rivals. Companies such as Ariel and BSA were still producing exactly the same bikes they had been producing since the 1930's. The most significant innovation of the post-war period was BSA's use of the German DKW two-stroke engine, seized as war reparations, in the BSA Bantam (in fact, the DKW engine was such a good engine that everyone wanted the design. The US gave the engine to Harley-Davidson, the USSR to Ural, and in East Germany it went to MZ). But however one looks at it, the introduction of a German designed engine can scarcely be called an innovation. The English motorcycle industry was in a rut.

Vincent break the mold
Vincent, a small company specialising in very high powered bikes decided to break the mold with a radically new bike that would later go down in motorcycle legend - the Vincent Black Prince. To all intents and purposes the Black Prince was based on the 998cc C-Series, a speed record breaking bike that had been around for almost a decade. Taking a leaf from the scooter industry, the entire frame was enclosed in fibreglass body panels. It caused a sensation when debuted in 1951, but the fibreglass body proved to be difficult to manufacture and the supplier failed to make good on deliveries. Only 200 were completed as the Black Prince (or Black Knight) before the company was forced to declare bankruptcy. A further 300 were sold without bodywork as the Black Shadow.

Ariel introduces a winner
Ariel's situation was symptomatic of the British motorcycle industry's inertia. Their top two models, the Square Four and the Red Hunter, while excellent and popular bikes, were virtually unchanged since they were introduced in 1930. In the early 50's they installed a BSA engine a new model (Ariel had been bought out by BSA in 1944), but this was scarcely an earth shattering development and Ariel's fortunes continued to decline. In the late 50's however, Ariel decided on a radical change. They developed a powerful and compact 250cc engine based on the German Adler two-stroke engine which they fitted into a totally new motorcycle design. They did away with the traditional motorcycle tube frame, instead centering the design around a pressed steel box frame which enclosed the fuel tank. The engine was suspended beneath the frame and, like the Black Prince, the Ariel Leader featured fully enclosed bodywork, this time in pressed metal rather than the troublesome fibreglass.

Debuting in 1958, the Leader featured many advanced features, including indicators as standard, luggage panniers and an integral windscreen. Ariel's advertising explicitly positioned the Leader as the best of both worlds, offering scooter styling and all weather protection with motorcycle performance. Initial reaction was positive and Ariel stopped production of all other models and were soon turning out 1,000 machines a month. In 1959 Motor Cycle News declared the Leader the motorcycle of the year. The following year it was the Arrow's turn.

Despite all this critical acclaim and initial sales success, the Leader proved not to be the success Ariel hoped. While it did cater to a niche that were looking for a comfortable and clean motorcycle, it failed to satisfy traditional motorcyclists, who simply didn't like the scooter styling, or scooterists, who weren't really looking for a powerful and expensive bike (it retailed at 219 pounds plus extras). It also rather unfortunately arrived on the market at the same time as the Mini and consumers would much rather buy a cheap car than a luxurious motorcycle. Ariel responded by releasing a cut-down 'sports' version without all the fairings, the Arrow and Golden Arrow in 1959. Ariel tried to export both the Leader and Arrow to the US, but there they were up against the market dominating Harley-Davidson and their unusual styling simply didn't appeal to the American aesthetic. The Leader and Arrow continued in production until 1965 when, unable to compete with cheaper Japanese imports that began flooding into the market, BSA pulled the plug on Ariel. In the end some 35,000 Leaders and Arrows were built.

Velocette goes off the rails
Of all the British motorcycle companies that could have developed a successful faired motorcycle, Velocette should have been the one. Since the 1930's they had produced a partially faired motorcycle, the LE, which had become the mainstay of the English police force. The LE was so closely associated with the police that it was nicknamed the 'panda bike', due to it's black and white police colour scheme. Scarcely stylish, the bike was solid, fast and reliable.

The Velocette LE panda bike

In direct response to Ariel's Leader, Velocette came out with the Vogue in 1962. Outwardly similar to the Leader, it followed Vincent in using fibreglass for the body panels. Filled with extra, luxurious features, including twin headlights, it was more expensive than it's rival at 260-275 pounds (depending on extras). Unfortunately, it's high price, combined with a poor performing 192cc engine spelt its death knell. Although the good reputation of the LE ensured that some local police forces in the British midlands purchased them, sales were appalling and in five years only 400 were built. Velocette reverted back to more traditional motorcycle designs until they finally closed their doors in 1970.

The Vogue - a disappointment that ultimately undid the company

DMW has a crack
Dawson Motors Wolverhampton debuted their covered motorcycle in 1961. It featured a forward mounted 250cc Villiers twin engine (in a similar arrangement to the Velocette Viceroy scooter). Like it's competitors, it failed to make any impression on the market, so in 1963 they introduced a police special version. This too was a failure and production of the police special was limited to 33 units. The Deemster roadster continued in small scale production until 1966, although by that stage the Villiers engine was replaced by the Velocette Viceroy engine.

Jess James'impressive and outstandingly rare police Deemster and collection of 4 police Leaders, two civilian Leaders, three Arrows and... a shed full of Ariel projects.

Although all these bikes failed to make an impression at the time, the truth is they did point the way of the future. In the 1970's BMW would release a whole range of covered touring bikes. The Japanese would follow suit and soon enough the modern super bike would hit the streets covered in sleek fibreglass panels.

What went wrong with the British scooter industry?
With the British motorcycle industry in such disarray in the 1950's, certainly someone could have come up with a scooter to take on the Italians? Unfortunately not. If motorcycle design was paralysed by inertia, scooter design was characterised by incompetence. There were some interesting designs, such as the Piatti, Oscar and the Dayton, but these were never fully developed and disappeared quickly off the market. Motorcycle manufacturers disdained scooters as a fad for far too long until by 1959 scooters sales were outstripping motorcycles by such a margin that they could no longer afford to ignore them. Triumph released the Tigress and the Tina, BSA came out with the Sunbeam, and Velocette started work on their luxury scooter, the Viceroy, a machine of impressive style, complexity and cost. It wasn't so much that these scooters were bad - the Viceroy was fabulous (but prohibitively expensive) - but they were ultimately ill-timed.

The fact was 1959 was the peak year for scooters and the British had missed the boat. If the industry had bothered to understand the market they were now trying to penetrate they would have recognised the signs. Instead, the massive, late investment of Triumph, Velocette and others was ultimately wasted. This didn't stop Triumph pushing their T10 scooter into the face of declining sales right up to the end of the 1960's. By the 1970's the face of British motoring had completely changed. Nationalisation was the word as most struggling manufacturers were swallowed up by the monolithic British Motors.

The Last Gasps
In 1965 Ariel attempted a comeback with a cheap 50cc scooter, the Pixie, which made use of many surplus Leader parts. But the Pixie was up against the world beating Honda Cub and never really had a chance It died a quiet death after less than a year in 'production.'

Five years later Ariel tried to resurrect itself with another scooter - the Ariel 3. It was an ingeniously conceived three wheeled personal transport vehicle with a tilting drive train that would have been a great success today, or if it had been released anywhere but Britain. A few of the surviving examples can today be found in places such as the Greek Islands, where their stability and maneuverability allow them to be driven up and around steep, winding roads. But again Ariel failed to understand that there was no market for these vehicles in Britain and never actually looked for the market overseas. The Ariel 3's marketing slogan of "Here it is, whatever it is" says it all.

The Ariel 3 was technically ingenious but totally misplaced.

The British approach to advertising must also bear part of the blame. Motorcycling was still seen as a gentlemanly past-time and motorcycle and scooter adverts tended to be somewhat patronising, especially towards women. The Ariel advert above is typical, aimed at the bowler hat wearing gent. Scooter ads often featured women of course, but they never really had the joie-de vivre of the Vespa advertising. Nor did the motorcycle companies shy away from their expectation that motorcycle owners were should have a high degree of mechanical competence.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Klaus' scooters

No sooner had I pressed publish on the post last night (in 2009) when a whole bunch of odd-scoots hit the Australian market. These are being sold by Klaus in Melbourne, who sold me the Troll and Heinkel a year ago. Once again it's time to clear out one of his sheds. There are some interesting scooters in this lot and possibly more to come. Who knows? So, if you're interested in picking up something unusual Klaus has probably got something for you.

1962 IWL Berlin

First up is this beautiful IWL Berlin. The Berlin is the princess of the IWL range and a real head turner. It's not running but would definitely be worth the effort of restoring. I would really have loved to own one of these.

1955 Adler Junior

Definitely one for the collector. The Adler Junior is a rare beast wherever you go. Apparently running but in need of a good panel beating. Of all the scooters on offer, this would definitely be the one I'd go for, but ....

1958 Vespa VNA

I must admit I'm kinda off the Vespas and Lambrettas (another story) but this is an interesting one and with five bids already in one day, that's a good sign.

Cushman Scooter

I suppose you could say Cushman scooters have a certain kind of charm, but they certainly leave a lot to be desired in looks and style. I don't know what you can really say about this little... machine. If it were a Turtleback, I'd buy it immediately. But it ain't. Can any of our American colleagues advise on this scooter?

Update - This is a Cushman Trailster built between 1960-65. The Trailster was especially built for off-road riding. All the surviving examples I've seen have been yellow (although most are in a rough condition). This is a good example of a real US bush-basher. Here's an interesting link -

It's good to see a few interesting machines in the market. I look forward to seeing these auctions play out and hope that one day I hear how all these projects turned out.

These and Klaus' other auctions can be found here:***oo747

Friday, May 15, 2009

Infinite desires versus finite resources

As anyone with an old scooter knows - they are addictive. No sooner was the Troll running and the Heinkel packed up waiting to go than I began prowling the internet to see what else was available out there. There aren't many odd scoots on the market in Australia, and even less in Perth, but these past couple of months (this was written in May 2009) has seen some interesting activity.

The Mitsubishi Silver Pigeon

This super rare 1958 Silver Pigeon came up on eBay in Perth a couple of months back. It had been fully restored but wasn't currently running as there was a problem with transmission and electrics. There was no interest in it the first time it was posted on eBay and I only came across the listing 5 minutes before it expired. A month later it was posted again and this time I made enquiries. The owner wouldn't let me inspect it but I put in a bid anyway. Unfortunately I was pipped at the post and missed out. I've always wondered who out there bought it.

The Fuji Rabbit S601 Superflow

This scooter came on the market in the eastern states only days after the Silver Pigeon action finished. It was originally posted at $4000, but quickly dropped to $3500. Way back, when I first purchased the Heinkel and was debating buying a second scooter, I was tossing up between the Troll and a Fuji Rabbit Superflow. My brother recommended the Superflow as it has nicer lines and more chrome, but there was 'apparently' more work to do on the Rabbit while the Troll was 'running'... supposedly. I've always remained partial to Rabbits, but I just couldn't get excited by this one. It was fully restored and running, which should have made it a no brainer. Being superficial, I'd say it was just a matter of the purple colour and the red and black powercoating on the chrome trim (why oh why?). It ended up passing in with no bids. It was relisted a couple of weeks ago and again passed in with no bids. That's an ominous sign for a odd scoot fan - it's a small market out there. I know I'll never recoup my costs on the Troll but then that's hardly the point is it?

The Puch R125

Simultaneously with the Rabbit, this rare 1958 Puch was posted on eBay. Unlike the Rabbit, this really sparked my interest and I made enquiries. I watched the auction for while and as there appeared to be no interest I determined I would buy it. Unfortunately for me there was a sudden flurry of interest for this scooter and it quickly went over my price limit. I'd be delighted to see the outcome of this restoration.

The two Puch's

The week after the first Puch was sold these two 1961 Puch Alpines came up. Perhaps because the Puch fans' blood was up there was serious interest in these two. I really would have liked to have bid on these but as there were serious bidders in play I let them go (to a good home hopefully). It was pleasing to see some real interest in Puchs.

The 1955 TWN Tessy

This lovely restored Tessy was posted on the Scootersales website. It too had been advertised for several months. I assumed it had already been sold when I stumbled over the ad for a second time. Out of interest I contacted them but it had in fact already sold, they'd just forgotten to take down the ad. It sold for $4000.

The 1958 Cezeta

After the Puchs' were sold my interest diverted back to the Rabbit Superflow, which was then being listed a second time, this time at $2000. The lack of interest in the Rabbit actually tempted me to make a bid for it, but then this 58 Cezeta appeared on eBay. The Cezeta is right up there in the desirable scooter stakes and I immediately initiated enquiries. I was seriously intending to buy this scooter and had even sourced a repair manual but after pressing the seller for some more details he finally confirmed that the engine was seized, so I let it go. Someone else picked it up at the last minute for the asking price of $700.

With the exception of the Tessy and the Rabbit, all the other scooters were restoration projects and sold for under $1000. If I was going to buy another scooter it would have to be either very cheap or completely restored but most importantly, extremely cool. Shelly had been quite clear with me that three scooters was more than enough, but then kind of left a door open by musing that "maybe I should buy something more interesting next time. I mean, the Heinkel and the Troll look pretty much the same." Really!? Anyway.... I was pretty sure I could get the Cezeta past my wife, but the others would have been a bit more of problem.

Other Business
It was inevitable I guess that I'd start looking motorcycles as well. I'd been a regular browser through 'Just Bikes' and 'Motorcycle Trader' magazine. My interest was always drawn to unusual vintage bikes, mostly English marques such as Ariel, BSA, and Triumph. Some 6 months ago I spotted an Ariel Leader. Although it hadn't been ridden in years it was in really good condition and still running. At $6000 it was kind of out of my price range, but I eventually gave in to temptation and made an enquiry. Unfortunately it had sold that week. Damn! But the Ariel was shortly followed by a Velocette Vogue. The Vogue had been fully restored and was the same price but I ended up passing it by. Shortly afterwards a DMW Deemster hit the market. I initiated enquiries but it was quickly snapped up. All these unusual vintage English bikes are rare in Australia. Their respective stories are quite interesting and I'll do a bit of a write up about them later.

After many months of seeing this Ariel Leader advertised in the back pages of the Just Bikes magazine I decided to make a call. It's been a slow process negotiating a deal. Again, it's situated on the east coast so I'm buying 'sight unseen' and it all comes down to trust. It's cheaper than the other bikes I've enquired about but still over what I am looking to spend. Basically if I do go ahead with this purchase it's gonna mean the Heinkel project is put off till next year as I'll have spent my repair budget. But, these bikes don't come up for sale very regularly so sometimes you've just got to take the plunge.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Troll - Running In

The weather in Perth this autumn has been glorious for scooting and every weekend I've taken the Troll out for a spin. My wife, Shelly, has always been somewhat lukewarm with my scooter 'thing.' She agreed the Vespa looked nice, but would never get on it - and I don't blame her, given the problems I've had with it! But shortly after the Troll restoration was finished she started dropping hints like, "Maybe I should get a helmet?" So last Sunday morning I borrowed a mate's helmet and took her for a spin.

I must admit I was a little anxious. I had never ridden with a passenger before and knowing how susceptible the Troll was to crosswinds I was concerned that she would not handle very well. However, I was pleasantly surprised with the Troll's performance. Power was not a problem - it hardly felt as if I was carrying a passenger - and, to my surprise, stability was much improved. Obviously the weight of the passenger kept the rear end stable and improved traction on the rear brakes. Perhaps more importantly, Shelly enjoyed her first ride on a scooter so we can look forward to more jaunts together.

Shelly, the Troll and friend in Freo. Shelly now has her own Nolan helmet.

Unfortunately, on the return journey the speedo/tacho went PING! Another problem to fix. Over the past couple of weeks a number of small problems have been flushed out as I run the Troll in. I've had to order a few more additional parts, such as a new horn, a new fan belt, and a new clutch cable. The clutch has been a bit of a problem as it occasionally seizes and I lose all the gears. It's caused me just a little bit of grief when it happens at the traffic lights - car drivers don't appreciate being held up by a scooter! I'm hoping this is a symptom of having to re-use the old clutch bowden during restoration and replacement with a new one will do the trick. We'll see.

Another minor problem I encountered was with the repro exhaust. The Troll has an unusual exhaust that loops around itself like a paperclip. The original was a single piece with a rounded front end. The new one is built in sections and has a flat front end. The seams between the segments don't seem to be sealed so the exhaust was basically spurting straight out of the front of the exhaust. It didn't really do anything to the performance but it was messy and soon the whole front of the underside was coated in oily exhaust residue. I hadn't realized it was so bad until I peeked under the footplate. Nevertheless, it wasn't a problem to fix - basic exhaust sealing putty was sufficient to fill all the gaps and get the exhaust flowing the right way.

Exhaust looking a lot better after sealing the leaks. Prior to sealing the exhaust was pumping forward through the segment joins.

More Fixes

After four solid days of pouring rain and squally wind, Sunday 24th of May turned out to be a beautiful day so I decided to take the Troll on what might be the last run of the season. Before setting out though I gave the scooter a careful once over. A couple of things came to light. Firstly, I discovered the cause of the tacho failure - the tacho bowden had been rubbing against the top of the front wheel and been completely worn through. More concerning the front brake cable was also rubbing against the wheel and had worn through the plastic coating down to the metal. Both cables really needed to be tied up and lifted away from the wheel. I've tied up the brake cable temporarily but it will have to go. I've tried to organize all new cables but have again run into the problem that almost all the German suppliers with parts in stock operate a cash and carry business only. It's frustrating!

I think I've also found the cause of the slipping clutch. It's not the cable at all. The clutch arm that attaches to the engine was so loosely connected that I could slip the arm completely off its pinion. Another concern! I've tightened it up now and for the first hour of riding it was making an agreeable firm 'click' every time I changed gears, but into the second hour it began to slip again so I'll have to check it again before the next ride. I've also found that after about an hour of riding when the engine is hot (I'm assuming) I start experiencing problems with the petrol flow. It might be just a matter of dirt in the carb but I'm not entirely convinced. Just another thing I'll have to monitor.