The Wild Half
Lester Morris looks back at early Villiers-engined contraptions for the disabled.
There was once a charitable organisation grimly referred to as the “Civilian Maimed and Limbless Association”.
That title has long since been abandoned but associations set up to assist those of us in one or both of those grim situations are still around.
The organisation had several vehicles that were either on loan, or owned by, suffers. These odd contrivances all seemed to be powered by the 197cc Villiers model engine that featured in almost every small commuter motorcycle of the time.
Apart from those “invalid carriages”, the Villiers engine was used with great success in this country by James, Francis-Barnett, Norman, DOT, Tandon, Ambassador, Cotton, Excelsior, Sun, the later Swallow Gadabout scooters and several other one-offs that appeared from time to time and which disappeared just as quickly. That little Villiers engine could drive one of those lightweight bikes at about 90km/h or more flat-out, which meant they were more than capable of keeping up with traffic in those days.
There were many more marques in England that used these engines but few of them made their way to Australia and it is sad to note that those other brand names just referred to have also disappeared, even though they were plentiful enough back in the fifties. Probably none of them are known to the new breed of motorcyclist and may well be just hazy memories to Ulysses members and other grizzled veterans.
The shop at Ryde in which I worked used to service the odd little vehicles for the disabled, which, far from being just the footpath-bound machines we see today, were actually registered as road-going vehicles, albeit with special dispensation for their odd controls and their sometimes even odder designs.
They were all custom built and sometimes this would appear to have been done in someone’s garage with many unusual design features to cater for individual disabilities. Again, they could tootle along at around 85-90km/h if pressed hard enough, although handling may have been a bit of a problem. And as for stopping them in a hurry, well, that may be why you don’t see them on the roads any more.
One fellow we saw on an irregular basis had no arms, so he would lie on his belly on his little machine, a long handle under his chin, which he would push to either side to steer the device, push up to accelerate and lean on to apply the brakes. He could kick the little engine over easily enough and then swing aboard the device to lie down.
He used his right foot to change gear, his left foot to augment the braking power from that long, oddly shaped “handlebar”, while his “hand” signals were actually “foot” signals, displayed by the simple ploy of hanging one foot or the other out in the breeze. I cannot recall how he operated the clutch.
I never could work out how he managed to stay on the thing without rolling off it as the “bed” on which he was so precariously perched seemed quite flat. He was a bit reckless – or perhaps often out of control? – because he seemed to ride/drive the device pretty well flat-out everywhere he went and he could be seen weaving in and out of the traffic stream any time he went past the store. The store’s mechanic, Ernie dal Santo – who, unhappily, recently passed away – suggested there had been “some work done” on the machine’s engine, much of which he did himself.
A fellow from the organisation with only one arm and a strong limp often called into the store. He described himself – with great seriousness and an entirely straight face – as a “ballpoint pen and cigarette lighter mechanic”, a trade of which I can find no reference anywhere.
It may have been listed on the back page of the first year apprentice’s handout The Journeyman’s Gazette, assuming there was such a publication, but I never saw a reference to the job anywhere, nor did I ever see an advertisement for a position of that type. Perhaps I never looked in the right places.
He also flogged what he happily referred to as “girlie calendars” and would pop in to see us around September to show us the layout for next year’s epic, hoping we would decide to buy a bundle of them with our name emblazoned upon the various pages. They were all pretty harmless paintings of the so-called Gibson Girls, all of whom were very scantily clad but showing no more than some impressive cleavage and several acres of thigh.
On one occasion Norma, our new girl, was in the office, and he flashed his wares at her. “What do you think of that little lot?” he asked lecherously, “Trim, aren’t they?”
“Don’t show those things to me,” she retorted, “Are you going to tell me that those girls pose for that man while wearing next to nothing?”
“Oh, no,” he replied, “I have been advised that he is nearly always fully clothed.”
“Not him, you fool,” she snorted “The girls. Are you telling me that those floozies pose for that man Gibson with most of their clothing gone?”
“Not at all,” he replied, with a wink, “I hear he paints them entirely from memory.”
She was not remotely amused and told him so, while we lot sat there giggling into our hands like so many village idiots.
We serviced a number of three-wheeled devices, some with one front wheel, while others (which, I suggest, were a far better design) with both wheels in front while the single rear wheel was driven through a three-speed gearbox by that ubiquitous Villiers engine.
That little two-stroke engine delivered a reasonable amount of power in those days, which usually allowed those so-called “invalid carriages” to at least keep out of the way of other road-users and they could manage to keep up with much of the traffic if the going was heavy enough.
As I recall, it was only on a couple of occasions that one of the organiser’s members came in to buy spare parts for his machine but his conveyance was quite different from the others because it was a genuine, full-size 500cc single-cylinder Matchless motorcycle with a sidecar.
This fellow told me he had suffered some brain damage as a result of an industrial accident and had difficulty walking but he had a set of shoulders shaped like an Arnott’s Milk Arrowroot biscuit and was thus as strong as a bull.
The first time I spotted him was one day when he climbed off the outfit and shuffled painfully up the front steps, assisted by a pair of stout walking sticks and moved, stiff-legged, to the spares counter.
After I had attended to him, he shuffled outside again and threw his purchases, and his sticks, into the sidecar and then proceeded – as everyone else did who ever owned a British single would proceed – to retard the ignition timing by using the little lever on the left side of the handlebar.
Then he leaned down and “tickled” the Amal carburettor several times to raise the fuel level, eased the piston to just over the compression stroke with the aid of the exhaust valve-lifter and swung onto the kick-starter.
Ho-hum, there’s nothing new about this, you might say? Perhaps not, except for the fact that he actually kicked the engine into life in just one hit by pushing that kick-starter pedal down by hand! If I hadn’t seen this myself, I never would have thought it possible because I had by then kick-started many a lumpy British single and I knew full well that it took a fair bit of effort, a degree of skill and/or practice, allied to all the weight one could summon if you could manage to fire up an engine of that size in just one kick.
Or, as in his case, just one push!
And then, as if it was the most natural thing in the world to do, he hand-lifted first his left leg, then the other, into position, made the usual very personal adjustment as he settled into the single saddle, snicked into first gear and roared away. But instead of moving up to the corner where there was a break in the median strip, which everybody else did, he executed a swift U-turn, savagely bounced the outfit over the wide concrete strip outside the store and accelerated briskly down the steep Victoria Road hill! That exhibition was almost as hard to believe as his single-handed demo on the kick-starter had been. I wondered aloud if he did that sort of thing everywhere he went.
One of the invalid carriages Ernie serviced was owned by a man who had tiny arms like little flippers that sprang almost directly from his shoulders. No, he was not a Thalidomide victim, for this was several years before that disaster occurred; his was just one of those grim abnormalities that occur from time to time.
His carriage was different because it had a near-normal seating position but a platform was mounted at about 45 degrees when measured from the front axle that allowed him to lean back fairly comfortably as the steering handles were then placed at what would be almost at neck height to most people. The device had been brought into the workshop because it had been mysteriously conking out but would start up again and move away with no problems at all once it had stood idle for a few minutes.
It was later discovered that a little piece of fluff had blocked the air-bleed hole in the petrol tank, which resulted in an air-lock that would dramatically slow the rate at which fuel would flow into the carburettor, but of course no-one knew this at the time and it was not an easy problem to detect.
Ernie carried out the normal tests, cleaning the spark plug, points and carburettor, then checked that there was a good, fat spark from the flywheel magneto (Villiers had far and away the best of all flywheel magneto/generator systems) and all seemed well.
He ran the engine for a time in the workshop and revved it up one or twice, and again everything seemed to work well, so it was time to take the odd device for a road test. It was obviously difficult to climb into the thing and even more difficult – not to mention uncomfortable – for Ernie to control the machine at that odd angle but he lurched down the side lane and out into the traffic stream, steering the thing, as best he could, with his fists just under his chin.
A bus driver stopped and motioned him to move across in front of him (should I mention here that it was more relaxed and much more courteous time back in those days of the mid-fifties?) and Ernie opened the throttle to the stop to check that everything was OK, only to discover that the thing conked out again, the engine spluttering and backfiring like a series of loud pistol shots, while two-stroke smoke and chunks of heavily-oiled black material was flung out of the muffler, to add to the smoke.
Immediately the bus driver leapt from his vehicle and ran to the rescue of the apparent invalid, aided in this pursuit by a nearby pedestrian and they shoved that carriage down the incline as hard as they could, Ernie shouting encouragement as the little engine tried manfully to keep running. And then there seemed to be just enough fuel in the carburettor to the engine to kick over smoothly but then it misfired again.
Suddenly, without a word, Ernie threw off the tartan blanket that covered his legs, flung up that long steering handle and leapt athletically out of the carriage to run alongside it to assist the perspiring duo to shove the confounded thing down the hill.
The helpful pedestrian fell flat on his face as the device suddenly picked up speed, the bus driver shouted “You bastard!” as he waved his arms about and stamped his feet and glared at the big black spots on the front of his once-pristine white shirt, while the carriage, with Ernie back inside the thing and by now coasting in neutral, sped down the steep hill and disappeared from view!
It was some little time before the carriage reappeared, being driven quite strongly but at a much reduced pace. Apparently, if the carriage was being driven at very low revs, the carburettor could still keep enough fuel in it for the engine to run cleanly and smoothly but under higher engine speeds the fuel would cease to flow effectively and the engine would cut out or run erratically.
After that it took no time at all before Ernie could diagnose the problem and he was able to pluck out of that air-bleed hole a surprisingly long piece of string-like fluff, the engine from then on (and without the benefit of any kind of road-test) running as close to the smoothness of a well-oiled Swiss watch as any Villiers engine could ever be expected to run. Which, when I come to think of it, is not very close!