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14th February 2014

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Coventry Transport Museum

Richard Jones visits the heartland of the original British bike industry and discovers some rare old beasts in a city-centre setting...

I have discovered that one of the benefits of retirement is being able to do things and go places during the week when everyone else is at work. So it was that I packed the new camera, which I have still to get to grips with, together with Mrs Jones' excellent sandwiches and set off from the small rural halt on the West Coast line that lies within walking distance of Jones Towers.

My destination - Coventry - is known for its historical interest; its earliest known building was a Saxon nunnery founded in AD700 by St Osburga upon the remains of which the Earl of Mercia, Leofric, and his wife Godgifu then built a Benedictine monastery. The wife is perhaps better known as Lady Godiva who is said to have ridden around Coventry naked with her modesty protected only by long hair and the citizens of the city having the good taste not to peep.

Scrolling forward to the 20th century Coventry and its citizens suffered dreadfully during the Blitz, so much so that the other side coined the term 'Koventrieren', or 'Coventrate', which meant to annihilate or reduce to rubble. Postwar the city saw the rebuilding of its devastated cathedral to a design by Basil Spence and the town planners incorporated Europe's first traffic-free shopping precinct in the city centre redevelopment. It may not have stood the test of time but it was certainly ground breaking.

However it is for its industrial heritage that Coventry is best known as it was at the heart of the British automotive industry for a large part of the 20th century, drawing on the skills of the workers from the watch and clock trade, first to make bicycles and then cars, commercial vehicles and, of course, motorcycles. In the period from the late 19th century to the latter part of the 20th around 150 different marques of motorcycle were manufactured in Coventry and around 100 examples of some of these are housed at the Coventry Transport Museum in the centre of the city.

Coventry Transport Museum

Although there are bikes included in displays of the ground floor of this two-storey modern building, the bulk of the collection is housed in the motorcycle gallery on the first floor. Before you get there have a look at the cars, bicycles, commercial vehicles and tractors (Ferguson, later Massey Ferguson, was based in Coventry) as well as the record breaking Thrust2 and ThrustSSC which are kept at the museum.

Coventry Transport Museum

I am always on the look-out for bikes I haven't photographed before and this 1922 Hazlewood, resplendent with its sidecar, fits the bill nicely. Hazlewood Ltd set up business in 1876 in Albion Mills, West Orchard, which still exists but now as a rather less interesting shopping mall. The Hazlewood family originated in Banbury and were thought to have moved to Coventry in the 1860s where they set up a bicycle manufacturing business.

Coventry Transport Museum

In the early part of the new century they started making sidecars and then, in 1911, they built their first motorcycles which were powered by 2¾hp JAP engines; by 1913 this had almost doubled in size to twin cylinder 5hp model. Hazlewoods continued building machines throughout the war and in 1920 offered a 654cc V-twin model followed by the 976cc version in 1921. By 1927 they were known as the New Hazlewood Cycle Co and had moved to Upper Well Street but they then disappear into the mists of history, never to re-appear.

The museum's example has the smaller of the JAP V-twins with a three-speed gearbox, chain primary drive and belt final drive - this saved £5 on the purchase price as all-chain drive machines were £90. Although Hazlewood built their own sidecars, this example has a Montgomery chair attached, another Coventry firm who had moved to the city from Bury St Edmunds in 1911. Regrettably the Luftwaffe put paid to this business with a direct hit to the factory in 1940.

Coventry Transport Museum

Another Coventry family concern which set up in business as cycle manufacturers, the Riley Cycle Co arose from the ashes of the Bonnick Cycle Co which William Riley bought in 1890 and re-named in 1896 when Mr Bonnick departed. William was joined by his two brothers and five sons in manufacturing bicycles but in 1898 sons Percy and Stanley took the next step and developed a De Dion type car. From then on it was all motorised with the Royal Riley quadricycle and tricycles being exhibited at the National Cycle show in 1899 with 2¼hp Minerva or Cudell engines. 1900 saw 2¾hp or 3½hp MMC engines being offered but it wasn't until the following year that the first solo motorcycle appeared with a 1½hp Minerva or 2¾hp MMC engine hung from the frame downtube and marketed as the Moto-Bi.

In 1903 Percy with another brother, Victor, set up the Riley Engine Co to manufacture their own engines: 2¼, 3 and 3½hp options being available although the latter was intended for forecar use and came with fan or water-cooling. By 1906 a 804cc, 6hp V-twin was added to the solo range but that was to be the Riley swansong so far as motorcycles were concerned because in the same year they decided to cease production in order to focus on cars. The museum's example is from 1903 and features a 402cc engine, presumably of Riley's own manufacture.

Coventry Transport Museum

Thomas Humber is thought to be connected to one of the earliest motorcycles and is said to have built his first velocipede in 1868. In 1874 he set up Humber, Marriott and Cooper as cycle manufacturers in Nottingham, opened a second factory at Coventry in 1885, went through something of a company transformation after a fire in 1896 and then started building Leon Bollée tri-cars known as the Coventry Motette (there is one in the museum). However it wasn't until 1901 that they built their first serious motorcycle with a 1½hp engine slung from the downtube of a bicycle as was the fashion. More engine options were added but in 1905 production ceased as cars became Humber's focus.

The name returned in 1909 with a 3½hp model with belt drive, the option of a two-speed rear hub, a silencer and sprung front forks. In 1911 Humber developed a 2¾hp, 339cc V-twin to compete in the Junior TT which had moved to the Mountain course; all six entries completed the race and Percy Evans won at a speed of 41.45mph. In 1913 a small batch of an unusual model was produced featuring a horizontally opposed three-cylinder engine which had one 373cc cylinder facing forward and two 185cc cylinders with a common combustion chamber going the other way. Manufacture of motorcycles continued during and after the war with various models from 349cc to 601cc but, once again and finally this time, motorcycles were dropped in favour of cars in 1933. The example here is a 1913 Ladies Autocycle with a 198cc single cylinder engine; I did ask the chap standing behind to move while I took the picture but he, rather rudely I thought, ignored me.

Coventry Transport Museum

The motorcycle gallery has two racks of machines awaiting restoration of which this 1911 Rudge Whitworth 499cc is one. There is a room on the ground floor where the restoration work is done but I couldn't get in - curses!

Coventry Transport Museum
Triumphs on Now...

Lea-Francis is another Coventry manufacturer which had its genesis in cycle manufacture before moving to motorcycles and cars, the former in 1911 with a 3¼hp JAP V-twin model. They had a strong reputation for building good quality machinery and one of their first customers was George Bernard Shaw who had taken up motorcycling in his fifties. As seems to have been customary motorcycle production ended in 1924 in favour of cars but the museum has this handsome 1916 496cc JAP V-twin model, which cost £69 when new, to remind us what the company produced.

Coventry Transport Museum

As well as displaying Ted Simon's round-the-world 1974 Triumph T100 which featured in 'Jupiter's Travels' the museum also has this 1927 Rudge Combination 499cc upon which Stanley Glanfield set off on his global expedition on July 22nd 1928. This was in a world where machinery was less reliable, fuel supplies sporadic and roads worse, if that's possible, than today. He took eight months to travel 18,000 miles and passed through 16 countries and four continents; the route is helpfully painted on the sidecar which was used to house Stanley's spares and provisions. The journey was far from easy and involved a fire, a broken frame, a spell in prison, accidents, illness, appalling weather, unfriendly natives and the ever-present curse of red tape.

Coventry Transport Museum

No article about Coventry would be complete without mention of Triumph which were manufactured in the city between 1902 and the night of 14th November 1940. It was then that the Luftwaffe destroyed the Priory Street factory which relocated first to Warwick before moving to its new home at Meriden in 1942. The site of the destroyed factory is now occupied by the city's cathedral and university. The museum has 27 machines of the marque listed in its collection with examples from 1914 to 2006; here we have a 1923 Ricardo 499cc and a 1977 T140 Jubilee 750 Bonnie.

Coventry Transport Museum

Yes - I know I featured this 1922 Revere in a previous article but I have an update. It was thought that Walter Henry Whitehouse who manufactured this marque had disappeared in 1922 without trace. However a very helpful lady called Sue contacted me via RC with some news. She had been researching a house her daughter and son-in-law had recently bought in east Berkshire and discovered it had been owned by the same Mr Whitehouse who built Reveres. He had named the house The White House and died in the late 1920s; Sue mentioned that there had been a large but, by now, unoccupied workshop on the ground floor - perhaps manufacture continued in the Home Counties.

Coventry Transport Museum

So there we have it - a visit to the museum is highly recommended and as entrance is free it provides excellent value for money. The only minor and niggling criticism that could be levelled is that some of the bikes are so closely packed that an old photographer struggles to get a good picture (although if anyone from the museum is reading this I'd happily come back to take photos when bikes on the racks are in the workshop).


Further information about Coventry Transport Museum:

More photos from this trip and many other classic bike events at: here...

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