This picture of a very early British motor bicycle originally came from pioneer motorist Montague Graham White’s collection with the note that it was a Lawson 1898-1899 motor bicycle. It is of the first British made motor bicycle that went into production. The first catalogued motor bicycle was the Pennington designed New Beeston Family Motor Cycle, it was featured in their 1898 sales folder but it is doubtful that, apart from the prototypes, any were made.
This picture probably dates to late 1897 as it has a 1¼hp de Dion Bouton engine with the inlet and exhaust valves side by side. The quality of the photograph allows the valve caps to be seen on the far side of the cylinder head. One of the exhibits at the Stanley Show in November 1897 was a lady’s motor bicycle on the Humber stand. The picture also shows the black enamel crankcase and the unpainted mating surface with the cylinder which is darker than the aluminium used on the earlier and later de Dion Bouton engines. The spoon front brake is typical of the period and may have been just adequate for the top speed of 12 mph allowed on the roads in Britain. The chain drive would have provided a fierce drive to the rear wheel although there may be a small shock absorber on the engine sprocket.
In 1898 an identical machine, but now a Beeston, fitted with a 1¾hp de Dion Bouton engine achieved a speed of 27mph at the Coventry cycle track; it was regularly used for testing motorcycles by local manufacturers. Apart from the engine, which had an aluminium crankcase, the main difference was a reinforcing tube from the seat tube to the steering head to form a cross bar. The pedal gearing was also increased to get the machine up to speed; this would have required a professional male cyclist and hence the need for the crossbar.
So was it a Lawson, a Humber, a Beeston or something else? The answer is probably all four and the design probably has more to do with our Victorian attitudes than anything else! The British bicycle industry dominated the world and especially the French market. In France ladies were able to ride a standard gents cycle with a crossbar wearing a divided ankle length skirt but this was regarded as scandalous in Britain. The British cycle manufacturers came up with the ladies bicycle which, although structurally weaker, allowed full skirts to retain the rider’s decorum. Charles Turrell was an engineer (Associate Member IMechE) and Lawson’s right hand man who ran the Coventry Motor Company in 1897. The main output of the Coventry works was the Bollée tricar which was marketed as the Coventry Motette using the slogan “Any fool could drive a Coventry Motette”. To illustrate the ease of driving Mrs FH de Veulle drove one from Coventry to London and was reputedly presented with a diamond ring by Lawson for her efforts. A Coventry Motette lady’s motor bicycle was also catalogued which bore a close resemblance to the one in this picture except that it used friction rather than chain drive to the rear wheel. By coincidence the de Dion-Bouton catalogue for 1898 offered a gent’s version so it appears that any of these names were applied to the machine although it was probably made by the Beeston Motor Company with help from Humber using de Dion-Bouton engines.
In 1898 Charles Turrell worked with JG Accles and FH de Veulle to produce a motor car not unlike the de Dion-Bouton vehicle of that year. Charles had a younger sister, Marion, who married Frederick de Veulle in 1904 who could well have been the “Mrs de Veulle” who was rewarded with the diamond ring by Lawson and is the woman in the picture.
Guest blog by Roger Bird. Roger is writing a book about the birth of the British motorcycle industry up to the end of 1903. Can you help Roger with any details of literature for the period? If so email firstname.lastname@example.org