1st August 2014
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Cotton Centenary 2014
Cotton motorcycles have a remarkable history, and the owners' club celebrates the marque's centenary this year. Richard Jones reports the firm's outstanding successes over the course of a century...
This year is one of centenaries - it is of course, the centenary of the start of the first World War, an event that no one should be allowed to forget given the sacrifice that was made by so many people. As a Welshman I am also conscious that is the centenary of Dylan Thomas' birth, something that has been celebrated by some excellent TV programmes and me listening to my well-worn CD of 'Under Milk Wood'. However there is another centenary that may not have made the national media but which, to classic motorcycle enthusiasts, is one well worth marking.
On the 23rd July 1914 a patent was applied for by one Frank Willoughby Cotton of Ledbury, a Student Motor Engineer at the time. The provisional specification concerned 'Improvements in and relating to the Construction of Motor Cycles' and Mr Cotton addressed 'improvements in the frame and general construction of motor cycles with a strong, light and rigid frame, combined with a low centre of gravity and improved riding position, weight distribution and fuel tank arrangement.' He proposed discarding most of the then standard diamond frame construction and replace it with a series of straight duplex tubes arranged in a triangulated fashion.
The Cotton Owners and Enthusiasts Club decided that this was a centenary well worth celebrating and decided to do so in ambitious style - arranging for at least one hundred Cotton machines to gather at the hallowed venue of the Brooklands Museum (www.brooklandsmuseum.com). Given that Cotton was not the largest marque from the 20th century this was a major task and it was handed to Bob Smith, editor of the Club's journal 'Cotton Pickins', supported by a team of enthusiastic members. To say he was successful is an understatement - 116 motorcycles came to Brooklands for the celebration (although this figure did include two Levis; eminently acceptable given Cotton's close relationship with the firm).
Said Bob; 'The Cotton Owners club felt privileged that the centenary for such a small manufacturer as Cotton could be celebrated at such an iconic venue as Brooklands, a centre of British Motorsport during the interwar years which coincided with the first golden era for Cotton. With members travelling from Canada, Australia, Switzerland and Holland to attend the largest collection of Cottons at a single meeting, the event left a lot of happy Cotton Club members.'
Bill Cotton, as he was known, was working for Butterfield, the manufacturers of the Levis, in Stechford in Birmingham when he made his patent application. Levis manufactured two experimental models based on his triangulated frame, as reported in the Motor Cycle on May 6th 1915. Testing and proving took place during the war years and once hostilities ceased the decision was taken to put the design into production. Although Butterfields offered to manufacture the machine under license, Cotton, encouraged by his father, decided to go into production on his own account at 11a Bristol Road, Gloucester. Cotton production began in 1920 and there was a positive report of a Villiers-engined machine in the motorcycle press.
The oldest machine at the centenary was a 1922 Model 15 with Blackburne 250cc sidevalve engine, entered by Ken and Shirley Blake, which was restored some years ago by the Miller Museum. A slightly later machine was even more unusual: a 1923 Cotton Dart with an OHC 350cc Osmond engine. This was designed by AA Sidney of Osmond Engineering in Bristol, with a chain-driven overhead camshaft. It didn't go into production - probably too expensive for Cotton - and Blackburne and JAP became the main motor suppliers to Cotton in the early days.
In 1922 a young Irishman wrote to Bill Cotton saying he was good enough to be trusted with a Cotton racer at that year's TT, intimating, with some blarney, that he had already been promised a machine for the Lightweight by another manufacturer. Surprisingly Mr Cotton agreed with him and Stanley Woods - for it was he - went on to finish fifth despite a broken exhaust pipe and a moment in his pit when fuel caught fire and briefly set him and his machine ablaze. The following year Woods rewarded Cotton's support with a win in the Junior TT, despite a crash at Parliament Square after which he spent some time straightening the machine's forks. Bill Cotton made much of this success, and at the centenary the machine ridden up the Test Hill by its restorer Rick Haidon was a 1925 TT replica with a 350cc Blackburne engine.
1926 saw a Cotton 1-2-3 in the 1926 Lightweight TT with CW 'Paddy' Johnston, a friend of Woods who also went on to great success at Donington and on the continent, coming first with Fred Morgan and Bill Cougan taking second and third. Thereafter Cotton never had any great success on the Island - the new Blackburne OHC engine was too tall and required changes to the triangulated frame. This compromise led to the machines handling badly and road race success at the TT disappeared in the 1920s.
This 1928 machine is a Model 25 TT replica which was rebuilt by Jack Skip, a founder member of the Cotton club, using a frame found in Scotland. The rebuild was completed in 1976 and the bike was then raced in Europe for many years.
During the 1930s the demand for Cottons fell, possibly due to the lack of sporting success linked to the financial crash of 1929, and Cotton started to compete on price and selling economy models which would have included this 1930 machine with its 175cc Blackburne engine.
Despite the economic difficulties Cotton experienced in the 1930s they did have a large model range for much of the decade - there were 17 in 1933 - and they also used other engines besides Blackburne and JAP. This is a 1936 Model 25 with a 500cc, 4-valve Rudge Python engine which was still housed in the Cotton triangulated frame as were the rest of the range.
It wasn't all bad news for Cotton in the 1930s; in October 1935 Eric Fernihough and Charles Mortimer used a 250cc JAP Cotton to break twelve world records at Brooklands from the 500km to the 12 hours during a single twelve hour session at the circuit. This machine is also from 1935 but is a 350cc 9/J model.
However by 1937 the model range had shrunk, using Villiers engines for the small two-strokes and JAP engines for the rest of which this 500cc model is an example.
In January 1940 Bill Cotton appeared in the Gloucester bankruptcy court. A trustee was appointed who identified a deficiency of £8538 and that Cotton had been trading at a loss since 1936. The company was not liquidated but instead struggled on by supplying motorcycles for military use. However by 1946 the factory staff apparently comprised just the works foreman, two young boys from school, a part-time secretary and Bill Cotton himself. No new machines were being manufactured and instead the business was refurbishing secondhand bikes for re-sale.
1953 saw the first renaissance of the Cotton company when two Gloucester friends, Pat Onions and Monty Denley, acquired the company and set up E Cotton (Motorcycles) Ltd, keeping their existing jobs until the new enterprise got off the ground. The first model launched in 1954 was the Villiers-engined Vulcan, initially with the rigid triangulated frame and telescopic forks but soon superseded with a swinging arm suspension model. The example ridden by Alan Pett on the Test Hill at Brooklands dated from 1963 and whilst it would have left the factory with a Villiers 9E engine this has, during its life, been replaced with the earlier 1953 8E version.
The Vulcan was soon joined by the Cotanza which featured the 242cc British Anzani engine; now rare, the example above, photographed by Noeline Smith (www.noeline smith.com)is a later 1957 320cc Anzani-engined model to be restored by Fred Clutterbuck (left) who won the Central Wheel Components prize of £100.
1957 saw the use of the 248cc Villiers 2T engine and the following year leading link Armstrong forks were being used, a Cotton trademark feature for some years thereafter. By 1959 there were 24 people working in the factory, Pat and Monty had left their day jobs to focus full time on Cotton and new models were coming thick and fast. The example above is a 1961 Continental with the 2T engine but there was also the Messenger, the Double Gloucester and the Corsair.
The new Cotton was also known for its sporting models; in 1960 Fluff Brown was recruited by Cotton to assist with development and competition - he was a scrambler of some note. This machine is the Cross Manufacturing Company Ltd's test development machines used to prove a concept based on the 246cc Villiers 34A engine developed by them for Cotton. Cross used a linerless light-alloy barrel and semi-slipper pistons of the same material thus obtaining the benefits of equal expansion coefficients. This was said to improve power output significantly and certainly Bryan 'Badger' Goss had some success on what became known as the Cross Cougar Model before, apparently, pressure from Villiers ended the project.
The arrival of the Villiers Starmaker engine in 1962 allowed Cotton to first build the Telstar road racer, on which Derek Minter won the 1964 British 250cc Championship, and then the Conquest in 1965 which Derek Minter, this time with Peter Inchley, took to a class victory in the 1965 500-mile race at Castle Combe. This Telstar is the earliest surviving example with frame #5 and was repatriated from the USA by the British Motorcycle Charitable Trust and is on loan to the Gloucester Folk Museum.
In 1968 Villiers stopped producing all engines except the Starmaker and even this would not be provided to independent manufacturers, a huge blow to Cotton. Once the firm used all its stock of Villiers stock, it ceased manufacturing road, scrambles and Telstar models in 1978 although a 170cc Minarelli engine was used for trials bikes. Here a 1971 Minarelli ISDT Enduro reaches the top of the Test Hill.
After the Villiers' decision, Cotton was first hit by the early death of Monty Denley in 1970 and then the compulsory purchase of its premises. The business was bought by Terry Wilson in 1976 but after being unsuccessful with a contract to provide the Army with replacement machines for the BSA B40, moving Cotton to Bolton (without Pat Onions who was made redundant) and failing to launch the EM34 road racer, Cotton went into receivership and was bought by Armstrong Industries (who successfully developed the EM34).
In a final throw of the dice Wilson used a company he still owned, Cotton International, to build the Jan Fellstrom designed Centaur which featured a monocoque chassis and 125cc Rotax engine. Regrettably the deal fell through and the example pictured above is the only prototype. Apart from Fluff Brown building replicas in the 1990s that was effectively the end for Cotton but, as can be seen from the tremendous turnout at the centenary, interest in this small but perfectly formed marque is still significant.
The Cotton Owners' Club welcome enthusiasts and owners at: cottonownersclub.com
You'll find more of Richard's excellent images, from a wide range of classic motorcycling events, at www.flickr.com/photos/cerrig_photography/sets/
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