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Bike Review - Posted 26th October 2009
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Vauxhall Four - 1921

Vauxhall are famous for building cars, but in the early 1920s they experimented with a design for a prestigious two-wheeler. Bill Snelling has ridden it...

In 1922 Vauxhall commissioned Ricardo Engineering to provide them with a Grand Prix car and a luxury motorcycle. Harry Ricardo built the car, he delegated his chief engineer Frank Halford to build the motorcycle. Halford had designed aero engines and had ridden a four-valve Ricardo Triumph in the 1922 Senior TT. The Vauxhall engine design bears a great resemblance to a four-cylinder aero engine, the main difference being that those units for flying were upside down! The three-speed unit construction gearbox drove a worm and pinion final drive. One of the massive footboards contains the tool box, the other doubles as a silencer. It was a luxury machine, built I think for the sidecar market, as there are massive lugs on the frame.

At the 1981 Manx Grand Prix. Cheer up, mate!... 1922 Vauxhall 945cc Four

An initial batch of six prototypes was commissioned although only two were completed. The air-cooled four-cylinder engine used equal bore and stroke to achieve its capacity of 945cc, with wet sump lubrication and fully enclosed overhead valves. Leading-link front forks were fitted to a duplex cradle frame with a saddle petrol tank - all very advanced for its era. It would have been very expensive to manufacture and sell, however, and the economic signals weren't particularly positive at the time, not even for a sophisticated motorcycle capable of smoothly motoring to 80mph. The Vauxhall Four did not go into production and the prototypes went into storage…

I first met Bob at a Vintage Club trial many years ago in the 1960s; I had turned up to watch and he offered me a ride on his current trials Douglas. Bob ran a motorcycle shop in Bicester, Oxfordshire. It was during this time that, in the middle of a VMCC dinner, he was offered the Vauxhall motorcycle. Bob had been keen to get a four-cylinder machine and was intrigued to find out more.

When he went to collect the machine, it was in fact an assemblage of a very incomplete motorcycle. A large section of the frame had been donated to the war effort, there was no petrol tank and many other pieces had gone awol in the years that the machine had lain in pieces.

In hope rather than anticipation he wrote to Vauxhall to see if they could authenticate the machine. Almost by return he received a full set of drawings, remember this was in the 60s and the machine had been built in 1922! Within a few weeks of receiving the plans, the drawing office at Vauxhall was burnt to the ground…

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He set to with his mechanic and between them they literally hand-crafted a great deal of the front fork from a huge billet of steel. The wheels were missing. When Bob contacted the vendor he was told they had been stored under the floor of a house, but they had moved. Could you imagine knocking on a door and asking if you could tear up the carpet and floorboards to retrieve a pair of wheels? Bob did!

Vauxhall had by this time become interested in this piece of their heritage, so much so that they enlisted their apprentices to fabricate the main frame and the petrol tank. The tank (which many readers may have seen at Murray's Motorcycle Museum on the Isle of Man) was one knocked up by Bob to get the machine running for a Banbury Run. The carburettor had gone missing, yet amazingly enough a correct carb turned up at an autojumble.

Close up of engine and front suspension... 1922 Vauxhall 945cc Four

It was a very softly tuned engine; Bob recalled making a complete lap of the TT circuit in top gear. When we were filming for the Duke tape 'Classic TT Magic', I was afforded the honour of riding the machine, not a great distance but far enough to realise what a fabulous machine had been built, way ahead of its time. Enough parts for four machines were made, two machines were built, the second one was broken up many years ago.

Bob came to live on the Island when Lady Thomas, Sir Clive Thomas' mother, bought Milntown House. Bob had been introduced to Sir Clive when he was instructed to 'teach this man to ride a motorcycle' in the army. They remained good friends for many years and Bob worked as Sir Clive's mechanic in pre-war racing and hill climbs in MG and HRG cars, one of which was converted to twin-rear wheel spec.

Milntown House was never open as a true museum, but Bob and Sir Clive were happy to receive visitors in their den. Many's the day I had been thrown the key to the Mill. 'You probably know as much abut the bikes as I do' Bob would say and I would take friends round the grounds and through the Mill and garages which housed Bob's bikes and Clive's cars.

Since their deaths, the house, grounds and collections have passed into the hands of the trust that they appointed. Sir Clive's desire was that Milntown should be available for the benefit and education of the Manx people. To this end the trustees are building a new restaurant at the side of the main house, an addition that follows closely the original gothic architecture of this historic house. The gardens are being revived and it is hoped that the whole estate will be open to the public in 2010.

The next step will be to display the bikes and cars in a more organised way and to offer proper interpretation. You can follow the plans and get more details by visiting the Milntown website at www.milntown.org

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Pic by FoTTofinders: www.fottofinders.co.uk


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