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Bike Review - Posted 4th October 2010
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Vauxhall Four - 1921

Inspired by earlier reports about this 1920s inline four, Neil Cairns has dug a little deeper into the history and background of Vauxhall's experimental motorcycle...

Just what does a triple-expansion marine steam engine have to do with motorcycles? Well, if you have owned a Vauxhall motor car, quite a bit. The firm began way back in 1857 when a Scottish engineer called Alexander Wilson set up his company, which became the Vauxhall Iron Works, in the Wandsworth Road, London. The area had once been the gardens of the house of one Fulk le Breant, later becoming Faulks Hall, and even later Vauxhall. Wilson chose the griffin as his company's badge and they produced marine steam engines for ships and boats on the river Thames. Two of these engines were still running in the mid-1960s in tug boats on that river. In 1903 the company built its first car, and then moved to Luton in 1905 as they needed bigger premises. The griffin was adopted as the heraldic badge for the firm's products.

Now, you may well own, or have owned, a Vauxhall. Vauxhall now make cars. But did you know that they once dabbled with the motorcycle market? Years before General Motors took over control of this company, and like many other car builders, Vauxhall decided to have a go at the motorcycle market. Alas, like many others they went for the luxury end and not the bread-and-butter market. History is littered with failed 'luxury' cars and motorcycles. The reason that Vauxhall aimed for the top end is really quite simple. Back in 1922 Vauxhall was an independent, if rather small, luxury car manufacturer. They made expensive, posh cars; limousines, cars for the rich, famous and wealthy, so they were not about to build cheap motorcycles!

Vauxhall had moved to Luton from Vauxhall Iron Works in London in 1905. By 1922 they were building big cars such as their famous 'M-type 14-40' and the huge '25hp D-type'. It would be another three years before General Motors took over Vauxhalls, their first British factory, having failed to buy up Austin in 1925. GM had up until then assembled imported CKD American Buicks in Willesden, selling them as 'Bedfords', a name Vauxhall would use again in 1931 for their commercial vehicle arm.

Footboard contains either toolkit  on this side... 1921 Vauxhall Four Motorcycle

So it was Major Frank Halford to whom the designing of the company's new product fell; the 'Vauxhall Four' motorcycle. According to Bill Snelling's earlier report on this site, the four cylinder, inline, pushrod operated valve engine was of 945cc. But Vauxhall themselves in their book 'Vauxhall, A Century in Motion, 1903-2003' say the bike was of 931cc having a 37mm bore and stroke. So, if a cylinder's volume is 'Pi x R squared x its length'... I'll leave that up to you to work out! The 1990 issued ' The Griffin Story' by Vauxhall's publicity department makes no mention of this motorcycle at all.

The specification for the motorcycle as designed by Halford was very exclusive and obviously aimed at the top end of the market. The engine was an inline four with the cylinders as separate castings mounted on top of the alloy crankcase/sump casting. The valves were fully enclosed, quite an upmarket bit or engineering for 1922 I might add. The air-cooled engine produced 30bhp, which was well above what the average 1500cc car engine could muster back then.

Sidecars were then very popular so the tubular frame had large, strong lugs brazed into its construction so one could easily be attached if required. As the bike was almost 1000cc it was probably intended for the sidecar/family market anyway. Solo it could cruise at 50mph and attain an 80mph maximum speed, returning about 70mpg.

Like a car engine the sump carried the oil, termed a 'wet sump' lubrication system. There was no oil pump supplying the crankshaft as lubrication was by 'splash' only with the crankshaft being carried in three ball main bearings. One assumes oil must have been pumped up to the ohv gear as other 'normal' open ohv systems on contemporary bikes had to be lubricated by the rider.

And the other footboard - on this side sits on the exhaust... 1921 Vauxhall Four Motorcycle

Very unusual and rather advanced in its styling for the early 1920s, the Vauxhall Four had a saddle petrol tank (one that sits over the frame's top tube) and of course this tank had those famous chromed Vauxhall Flutes on each side. Again, following car practice the three-speed gearbox bolted to the rear of the engine so being modern 'unit-construction'. The cast aluminum foot-boards were used as well, one side to carry tools the other with the silencer inside it. Ones foot must have got a little warm at times I guess?.

Once the design had been approved by the directors, six were laid down and parts for four were made, but only two were actually completed. Here again the information diverts a bit. Vauxhall say the engine was designed by Halford, who LATER went on to design aero-engines. Bill Snelling says it was a small copy of the aero-engines Halford had ALREADY designed, though they were usually with their cylinders facing downwards. Whom do we believe? Probably Bill Snelling as Halford was by then was quite a famous TT rider and had served in WW1.

Note central gear lever... 1921 Vauxhall Four Motorcycle
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Either way it was a very smooth running bit of kit. Maintenance of the engine had been carefully thought out as each individual cylinder could be removed on its own without disturbing the rest of the engine. Likewise the gearbox and clutch could be removed in-situ once the saddle frame pillar had been removed. In those days frames were often bolted up unlike the all-welded ones of today.

Front suspension was by leading link and these were mounted upon a duplex tubular cradle frame. The three-speed, hand-change gear lever ran in a slot in the centre of the petrol tank unlike nearly all the competitions whose gear levers were on the side of the tank. The front and rear spoked wheels were quickly-detachable, the rear one being shaft-driven and both carrying seven inch drum brakes. The shaft drive was of the spiral-bevel underslung type. The clutch was quite massive with multi-plates alternatively of steel and bronze six inches diameter running in oil. Again, we divert a little as Vauxhall say the clutch was foot operated; Bill Snelling who has ridden the replica built by Bob Thomas in 1951 makes no comment; a retired Vauxhall employee Mike Walls says he remembers it had a very heavy clutch that required a hand AND foot control to be used to disengage but the hand control was sufficient to control its engagement.

As the Vauxhall company's badge was a griffin, one wonders why this motorcycle was not itself called 'The Griffin'?

Enclosed valves, horizontal sparkplugs... 1921 Vauxhall Four Motorcycle

By 1924 company policy had changed and the motorcycle project was cancelled. The two completed machines were sold, one to an Ernie Swain for 45 (quite a lot then) and the other to a Vauxhall apprentice. The other bits were given to the workers. The bike then joined the long list of forgotten maybes. But in 1951 a dismantled 'Vauxhall Four' was found in an Oxfordshire collection and these were acquired by Bob Thomas to rebuild into a proper machine. Research uncovered a bit of a story of how of the two completed motorcycles, one had been scrapped in the 1930s, and the other had been brought by a chauffeur in London. He used the bike for years, stripping it down every winter to overhaul it. Then one year half way through the overhaul, he died. The bits were purchased by another chap who left them outside his house when someone stole the frame, possibly for the war effort!

Bob says, 'All I got was the engine, gearbox and wheels.; Over the next eight years using Vauxhall original blue prints, a tame mechanic and the efforts of Vauxhall apprentices, another 'Vaxuhall Four' rose from the bits. Sadly, with a few weeks of receiving the drawings, the drawing office at Vauxhall burnt to the ground taking with it all the old records. Vauxhall had become quite interested by then and charged their apprentices to build the massive duplex frame and the fluted petrol tank for Bob. If you recognise the name Bob Thomas, he ran the' Murray's Motorcycle Museum' in the Isle of Man.

Cheer up, Bill; in a few years they'll invent colour photography... Bill Snelling riding the 1921 Vauxhall Four Motorcycle

Bill Snelling has ridden the bike and says it was 'a sophisticated motorcycle capable of smoothly motoring to 80mph.;

Where is it now? Hopefully in the museum being organised at Milntown House on the IoM.

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  • More Vauxhall Four: www.realclassic.co.uk/vauxhall.html
  • And more coverage in: https://classicissues.com/bidetail.asp?AutoNo=1002862
  • And maybe the bike itself at: www.milntown.org

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    Photos courtesy of Geoff Davies


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