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Bike Review - Posted 12th July 2013
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Levis Popular

In the early 1920s, the lightweight Levis two-stroke was all the rage. 90 years later, they're proving to be a popular mount for the vintage motorcycle enthusiast, too...

Levis, as classic scholars will tell us, is the Latin for 'light' and these suitably sprightly machines were manufactured by Butterfield Ltd of Stechford, Birmingham in the first half of the 20th century. Lore has it that the Levis concept started life in the Norton workshops, but when Pa Norton wasn't interested in the two-stroke then its designer approached the Butterfield Brothers concern, which was building bicycles at the time.

Manufacture of Levis two-strokes started at Butterfields in 1911 with a straightforward, single-cylinder, single-gear lightweight. Initially named the 'Baby', the 211cc model soon changed designation to the 'Popular', and indeed lived up to that name and stayed in production until 1926. The Levis owed some of its sales success to its ease of use; the rider didn't have to manually manage the two-stroke oil supply as lubrication was delivered by a drip feed from a separate oil tank. So while other riders were shaking up petroil or trying to mix oil and petrol in the tank by wiggling a stick in the petrol tank, the Levis owner enjoyed a rather more sophisticated experience for the era.

Lovin' the headlight... 1921 belt-drive Levis Popular sold at Bonhams

Maintenance and repairs were also kept to a minimum by the robust one-piece crank which was supported by plain, phosphor bronze bushes. Scraping the build-up of carbon from the piston required a steady hand, however, as the cast iron pistons of the era were fairly fragile and tended to break long before they were worn out.

Initially the lightweight Levis weighed around 120lb and developed 3bhp or so - horsepower went a lot further back then! This was sufficient to propel the Levis to 35mph; more than enough for a machine with no rear suspension and basic Druid-design front forks. Part of the appeal of the lightweight Levis was that it was small enough to be manageable but brisk enough to carry a passenger without needing pedal assistance. A ladies model with an open frame soon joined the range, and both versions could easily cover 100 miles on a single gallon of fuel. Indeed, at modest speeds 150mpg was possible!

Levis experienced considerable competition success in the early 1920s with an enlarged version of this design, boosted to 247cc. The firm took first, second and third in the 1920 Lightweight TT, came second in 1921, and won again in 1922.

Bit of air in the tyres and she'll be right... 1925 Levis Popular "Before"

This 1925 Levis was displayed at the CBG Winter Classic event at the start of 2013. As you can see from the 'before' photo, it was found in a shed in very poor condition - although, as the owner explained, this at least meant that it had never been messed around with or altered, and everything on it was original. Acquired in 2011 it only took Ken Thirtle seven months to transform the wreck of the Levis into the smartly-turned out machine seen at the show, which is a remarkable feat. First registered in 1925 and supplied by the Lancing Motor Works in Essex, the bike would have cost 29.10 new, and a horn would have been 10/6 extra.

Can I do my 'pair of Levis' joke now?... 1925 Levis Popular "After"
Levis Stuff on

As this example post-dated WW1 it will have been one of the more sophisticated versions with countershaft gearboxes and chain-cum-belt drive and, as a T3, it would have benefitted from a three-speed Burman gearbox. Levis went on to produce four-stroke machines too and had models ranging in size from 247cc to 591cc in the 1930s. They continued in production until 1940 when the marque sadly disappeared.

Thanks to their popularity back in the day, Levis machines remain firm favourites with vintage motorcycle enthusiasts today and they come up for sale fairly frequently. A couple of years ago, Bonhams auctioneers sold the 1921 belt-drive example pictured at the top of the page. It used stirrup front brake and rim rear brake, and had been owned by one chap for half a century. The Levis retained much of its original equipment including Senspray carburettor, acetylene headlamp, spare drive belt, rear carrier and leather tool box.

A slightly later example of the Popular, a 1923 model, was sold by also Bonhams at auction recently. By 1923, the Levis marketing material was modestly describing the Popular Model T as 'the world's best lightweight'. The hand-change two-speeder used a Burman gearbox combined with cork-insert clutch, and retained the original engine dimensions of 62mm bore by 70mm stroke. Two options were available for carburetion; either Senspray or Amac. The 1923 model used a new design of frame with a sloping top tube, 'carefully constructed of the best quality weldless steel tube and lugs.'

I wonder what the Levis Unpopular looked like?... 1923 Levis Popular

The new frame had added to the machine's mass somewhat, so it now tipped the scales at around 135lb. The padded pan-seat saddle was available in two forms to suit either a 10-12 stone or 12-14 stone rider, and was 28 inches from the ground. The bike's wheelbase was 51-inches with just four inches of ground clearance. Apparently, brave young men would fearlessly corner the machines until the footrests hit the ground - but the little lightweight would feel pretty fragile by modern standards so don't expect to see many Levis motorcycles ridden to extremes these days.

Titch Allen remarked that when riding a single-speed 1921 Levis; 'dogs were something of a problem for many could out-accelerate a Levis Pop!' However, once the canine contingent had been left behind; 'there's nothing to do but purr along. The happy cruising speed is about 30mph. You soon tire of twiddling the throttle and air levers. Find the optimum position and you can ride for miles without adjustment.'

The Levis could cope with even quite steep hills, said Allen, chugging up them at 15mph. But in extreme cases you might lose momentum altogether and then 'there's nothing for it but to leap off and run alongside!'

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Words by Rowena Hoseason with generous assistance and research from Richard Jones
Photos by Richard Jones and www.bonhams.com

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