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23rd January 2006

Books: Motor Bicycle Building, 1906, edited by Paul N Hasluck

A hundred years ago, if you wanted a motorised two-wheeler then you built one yourself. Humbernut, aka Bob Rodgerson, read the book on how to do it...

This American publisher, Lindsay Books, specialises in new and old titles for experimenters, inventors, tinkerers, mad scientists, and a very few normal people… Their introduction to this book says:

'Here you get a reprint of a very scarce book from 1906. Back then if you wanted a motorcycle, you had to build one. From scratch! Here you get the details on building a 3-1/2 hp engine (3-1/2" bore x 2-1/2" stroke) around which you build a bicycle frame. It's not speculation. This is a motor bicycle that was actually built and probably terrified the local gentry. Most of the book deals with the castings that form the joints in the frame, and the fabrication of the engine itself. And that means lots of detail in fabricating the piston, connecting rod, muffler, points, cams, valves, spray carburettor, ignition coil, and all the rest. If you were sharp enough to build the engine, then you were expected to know how to adapt wheels, handle bars, brakes and the usual other components from a standard safety bicycle of the era. This was a multi-part construction article that appeared in "Work" magazine (British) at the turn of the 20th century.'

Motor Bicycle Building, 1906, edited by Paul N HasluckSo what do you do with a book about building a motorcycle from scratch? You give it to a man who builds motorcycle components from scratch, and ask him to read it! Over to you, Bob…

This book is a gold mine of information for anyone who is into the maintenance and restoration of veteran motorcycle frames. A reproduction of a 1906 work, it really shows how time marches on and how things change radically over the years.

There are details of how to make frame castings and -- to demonstrate how things have changed -- it states in the opening pages of the book 'thousands of workers possess sufficient skill to make their own patterns and work up the castings from the instructions given in this handbook'. I seriously doubt, nowadays that there are more than a thousand pattern makers in the country and also I don't think too many people would be able to 'work up' the castings without a great deal of trouble!

If however you have the ability to use a milling machine and have the desire to spend a lot of time final shaping something with a file then it would be possible to replicate some of the frame castings in mild steel, although by the time you got all of the bits finished you would be sick of the sight of a file... There are some that would be impossible to machine internally, such as the rear and front fork crowns, but I suppose you could make them from solid, provided weight was not at a premium.

Looking at some of the tubing sizes and section shapes I doubt whether all of them would be available today especially the D-section and oval section tubing, as well as some of the round tubes. No doubt if you were wanting to make a frame then you would probably have to get the nearest metric equivalents and adjust sizes of the castings to suit.

The description of the brazing of the frame is fairly straightforward but it leaves me full of admiration for those who actually made such a machine with the equipment available at the time. Most of the brazing would have been done with a blow lamp, probably of about four pint capacity which would have been difficult to use and tiring to handle. It also leaves me wondering how many unwary souls came a cropper when the brazed joints they thought were OK didn't take properly -- and the frame subsequently fell apart when on the road.

One thing that I found strange, considering that this book is about self construction, is that it states at the end of the section on frame building .' The frame may now be filed up and sent out to be enamelled and plated.' I would have thought that hand painting would have been the order of the day for the person willing to go this far with the project!

The 3˝ HP four-stroke engine described is delightfully primitive, having plain bush main bearings and big ends, cast iron piston, inlet over exhaust valve arrangement with an automatic inlet valve. The valves are truly primitive -- being made from plain steels or mild steel stems with a separate cast iron head. Again reliance is placed on one's ability as a pattern maker to be able to reproduce the cylinder casting. This is an extremely complex casting that would cost a small fortune to get the patterns and core patterns made. Most sidevalve engines made up until the early 1930's had an all-in-one cylinder and head casting, making it impossible to machine and shape from the solid as I did for my OHC Humber engine. This I believe would make it beyond the scope of all but the most determined and wealthy builder.

However I do believe that if you had an old cylinder casting from a veteran machine of similar design that was in good enough condition to be used, then the remaining parts of the engine could be adapted to suit to enable you to reproduce a working replica of a veteran engine.

If I were to build such an engine then I would recommend making things like the exhaust valve and the inlet valve from modern materials that are better equipped to withstand high working temperatures, and consequently last much longer than the original ones would have.

From the description of how to make not just the engine, but all parts of the motorcycle, it is evident that the author assumed his readership had a degree of workshop skills far higher than the average that exists today. This would probably have been considered normal one hundred years ago.

Looking at the crankcases, it would be possible to machine this from solid billet and finish off by hand, although there wouldn't be much point if you hadn't got cylinder castings. This would require a sizeable lump of 10" or 11" diameter bar that would cost you a hundred quid or so at today's prices.

First, cast your frame lugs...

Given the right workshop facilities all of the other components for the 3 ˝ HP motor appear to be within the scope of someone with a reasonable amount of experience under their belt. I was surprised, given the primitive nature of the engine that a surface carburettor was chosen rather than the spray type. The description of the spray carburettor is very good and should you need one for a very early vintage or veteran bike the design here could be adopted to your needs.

There is a section that goes on to describe various ignition systems opting for the Trembler coil type ignition. As far as I remember the Trembler coil is a low tension type of ignition system that, although good, will not reliably produce sparks at higher revs so died out with the passage of time as engines became higher revving than they were in the early days.

I must confess to having a dislike to all thing electric; whenever I tackle these things they end a dismal failure, however the description given in the book seems relatively straight forward though I doubt seriously one would be able to procure a lot of the items described and modern day alternatives would have to be chosen. This would probably be better anyway as insulation materials such as epoxy resins would probably be better than paraffin wax as recommended.

Random Autocycle Stuff on

This more or less covers the book's contents apart from the description of a clip on motor for a bicycle frame that would be of interest to some of our autocycle fans. Again this is a similar design to the larger engine described but would prove difficult to replicate unless you happen to know an extremely skilled pattern maker who would make you a set of patterns for the cylinder casting.

All round it's an interesting book but one that would be of relatively little use to anybody who was not into early vintage or veteran motorcycles. You might not want to actually build your own motor cycle, of course - in which case reading about how it was done a century ago could be a fascinating way to spend an evening…

Motor Bicycle Building, 1906, edited by Paul N Hasluck has been reprinted by Lindsay Publications. It's a softcover of 160 pages and normally costs around $11. If you contact them, tell 'em we sent you!


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