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Vintage James Motorcycles

History of 'The Famous James' Cycle Company

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The James Cycle Company Ltd. was founded by Harold William James (aka Harry or Henry James) in c.1880, beginning as a highly-successful manufacturer of high-wheel (penny farthing) bicycles at the The James Cycle Co. Works at 121 Constitution Hill in Birmingham UK. James was but one of the countless West Midlands bicycle manufacturers to enter the burgeoning motorcycle market.

The company began building motorized bicycles in 1902, powered by the Belgian-made 2 hp, 239 cc Minerva clip-on motor, and designed by Frederick Kimberley. The James Cycle Company soon expanded to a larger facility on Sampson Road North, and the James was now using a French-built Werner 500 cc 4-stroke single-cylinder engine from Michel and Eugene Werner. Motorcycle production was temporarily suspended in 1904, commencing again in 1908 after moving to a larger factory on Gough Road in Greet, Birmingham.

James & Villiers Engineering Co. Ltd.

By around c.1910, the company began building their own complete motorcycles using two-stroke motors supplied by Charles Marston's Villiers Engineering Co. Ltd. in Wolverhampton. The 269cc engine, known as the "Flying Bedstead," was designed by Villiers engineer Frank Farrer, and became a staple of The James. Each engine was labeled with a badge reading "Villiers VEC Wolverhampton."

James Cycle Company Works
The James Cycle Company Works on Sampson Road

Although James is sometimes credited with the invention of the fully-enclosed chain drive, John Marston of the Sunbeam bicycle company developed his "Little Oil Bath" fully-enclosed chain-drive case at the turn of the century. During the early 1900s, James continued to manufacture pedal-cycles, tandem bikes and tricycles.

The company motto for "The James," or the "Famous James" as it came to be known was "distinctive in design... dependable in service," which soon earned a reputation as an affordable, practical and dependable commuter vehicle.

At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, many of West Midlands' motorcycle manufacturers from BSA to Royal Enfield, Triumph and Sunbeam turned their production over to the British war effort. James supplied pedal-cycles to the British military, as well as supplying 4-stroke v-twin motorcycles to the Belgian and Russian army.

Villiers 2-Stroke Engine
247 cc Villiers 2-Stroke Engine

James acquired Frank E. Baker Motorcycles Ltd. of Northfield, Birmingham, manufacturer of "The Baker" motorcycles which also used Villiers engines. Baker was an early supplier of engines to A.H. Haden Motorcycles and Sun motorcycles (The Sun Cycle & Fittings Co. Ltd.), but later became known for their chassis frames which James used for some of its later models.

1929 James A.11 DeLuxe Sports
1929 James A.11 DeLuxe Sports

In the mid 1920s, James introduced its first production OHV 4-stroke big twin, unveiled as the "Famous James 500 c.c. Sports Twin," and declared under a "Royal Proclamation" that it was the "King of Motorcycles." The 1926 Sports Twin retailed for 60, and there was also a De Luxe 750 c.c. model retailing for 80.

The James Autocycle & ML Clockwork Mouse

James introduced its economical step-through model, the J18 Autocycle in 1938, retailing for a mere 18.90, as well as the L20 De Luxe model introduced in 1940, and using a Villiers Junior DeLuxe motor.

After the start of World War II, The factory began producing aircraft parts and armaments, but continued to build motorcycles for military use such as the 2-stroke James ML "Mechanical" or "Clockwork Mouse." The Autocycle was also continued for civilian use, but the James Works was nearly destroyed in by German bombing in 1940.

1939 James ML Clockwork Mouse
World War II era James ML 125cc "Clockwork Mouse"

The 1939 James ML #3689214 (above) was at the D-Day invasion of Normandy, and was given to Winston Churchill by the Imperial Register Motorcycle Squadron after the war. Churchill rode the ML until late in his life, stating that it was "a truly historic example of England's finest motorcycles."

Once the war had concluded the factory was rebuilt, and production of the Autocycle was resumed in 1948, under the new moniker of "Standard" and "Superlux," with Villiers 2F engines. The Superlux was discontinued in 1953.

James & Associated Motorcycles Ltd. (AMC)

In 1951, the James Cycle Company was acquired by Associated Motorcycles Ltd. (AMC) due to financial difficulties. Under AMC, James manufactured the James 122cc Cadet, 98cc Comet and 197cc Captain which used still used the Villiers 2-stroke engine, and were advertised as providing "More Miles for your Money." The Cadet 150 was advertised as having "a petrol consumption of 120 mpg," and a "cruising speed of 45 mph" making it an economical mode of "daily transport."

James Ads

In 1956, AMC decided to discontinue the use of the Villiers engine, electing to manufacture their own motors instead. The new engines were to be designed by Vincent Piatti, an Italian designer who had previously penned the Piatti scooter which was made by D'Ieteren SA in Belgium. After two unsuccessful years in the development stage, AMC returned to the tried-and-true Villiers engine.

1960 James SC1 Scooter Ad
Ad for the 1960 James SC1 Scooter

By 1957, the James motorcycle line was merged with the F-B, or "Fanny B" line of motorcycles that had been produced by Coventry manufacturer Francis & Barnett Ltd., which had been acquired by AMC in 1947.

In May 1960 James introduced the James SC1 Scooter, which used a 149cc 2-stroke AMC 15H engine with three-speed gearbox, and later SC4 with three-speed transmission.

In 1966, Associated Motorcycles Ltd. discontinued the James and Francis-Barnett motorcycle line, closing the factory at Greet, and liquidating its assets.

The James Cycle Company Links

The James Cycle Co.'s Works

Minerva Motorcyclettes

The Villiers Engineering Co. Ltd.

A Brief History of Francis-Barnett

James Motorcycles Group Forum

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