Villiers Motorcycles

A Villiers engine in a Cotton trails bike. John H Glimmerveen Licensed to About.com

Thanks to the recommendations of Frank Farrer, Villiers 2-stroke engines have powered many different classic motorcycle manufacturers’ products. In addition, their engines have powered cultivators, motorized lawn mowers, pumping equipment, cars, and cattle milking machines.

In the early years of Villiers, Charles Marston was the managing director of the company. But when his father, John Marston, died in 1918 he was faced with running his father’s business (Sunbeam cycles) and also paying a tax on the estate (death duties).

Charles decided to sell Sunbeam and keep Villiers. However, by 1919, his interests outside of the company made him relinquish the day to day running of the company as managing director to Frank Farrer, while he kept chairmanship.

These interests included acting as an eminence gris (French for a behind the scenes advisor) for the British Conservative party, and financing archaeological expeditions to the Holy Land with a view to proving the truth in the bible. These activities eventually gained him a knighthood for "public services" in 1926. He remained Chairman of Villiers until his death in 1946.

The Car Market

The company looked at getting into the car market (under the eye of Frank Farrer’s nephew who had worked for Austin). Three prototypes were produced but the company decided to concentrate on their motorcycle engines, the car market being deemed too competitive.

After the First World War, Villiers expanded their factory space in Marston Road, Wolverhampton, England.

The management was a firm believer in manufacturing as many items in-house as possible in an attempt to better control quality and maximize their profitability. The extent of this in-house production included a casting foundry to produce castings in aluminum, bronze and gunmetal—this made the factory capable of bringing raw metal in at one end, and turning out complete engines at the other!

Manufacturers Using Villiers Engines

The growth of Villiers was directly related to their ability to produce considerable amounts of engines, not just for their own machines but also for other manufacturers. The list of other manufacturers using their engines at one time or another is impressive, and includes Aberdale, ABJ, AJS, AJW, Ambassador, BAC, Bond, Bown, Butler, Commander, Corgi, Cotton, Cyc-Auto, DMW, Dot, Excelsior, Francis-Burnett, Greeves, HJH, James, Mercury, New Hudson, Norman, OEC, Panther, Radco, Rainbow, Scorpion, Sprite, Sun, and Tandon.

Although motorcycle engine production played a large part in the success of Villiers, their engines, as previously mentioned, were also used in many different applications. In addition to the land-based applications, Villiers also supplied engines to Seagull for their outboard motors.

Villiers claimed to produce engines for the working class, giving them an affordable method of transportation. And by 1948, the machine making use of the Villiers engine for this market – the auto-cycle – had sold some 100,000 units.

During the Second World War, Villiers were contracted to manufacture engines (4-stroke) for a variety of uses. The British government had originally bought engines from America; however this supply was hampered by German U-boat activity.

In addition to stationary engines, Villiers also made many of the small engines (98-cc) for use in motorcycles used by paratroopers.

Two Millionth Engine

After WWII, demand for cheap transport grew and Villiers continued to expand to meet market demand. A milestone was reached in 1956 when the two millionth engine was produced; this unit was presented to the British Science Museum.

In 1957 Villiers “absorbed” J. A. Prestwich Industries Ltd. This company was famous for producing the J.A.P. range of engines and motorcycles.

With demand high for their engines and motorcycles, Villiers had opened subsidiaries in Australia (Ballarat), New Zealand, Germany, and associate companies in India and Spain.

Taken Over by Manganese Bronze Holdings

A major turning point in the company’s fortunes came in the 1960s when the company was taken over by Manganese Bronze Holdings; they also purchased Associated Motor Cycles (A.M.C.) in 1966 who were the owners of Matchless, A.J.S.

and Norton. After this take over, a new company was formed: Norton Villiers.

In 1966 a new flagship machine, the Norton Commando, was produced and presented at the Earls Court Show. Early production units of the Commando suffered from frame bending problems, so a new design was introduced in 1969.

With the new company, the manufacturing base was spread over a number of different factories in the UK. These included engine manufacturing in Wolverhampton, frames in Manchester, with the machines being assembled at Burrage Grove, in Plumstead. However, the latter location was purchased (under a compulsory purchase order by the Greater London Council) and a new assembly line set up at Andover near to Thruxton Airfield.

In addition to the Thruxton assembly site, new machines (approximately 80 per week) were also produced at the Wolverhampton factory. This factory also produced engines and gearboxes which were delivered overnight to the Andover factory.

A significant hire was made when Neale Shilton was recruited from Triumph to oversee design and production of a Commando for police use. The machine, the Interpol, sold well to both foreign and domestic police forces.

BSA-Triumph Joins the Group

In the middle 70s, the BSA-Triumph group was in serious financial difficulties, due to poor management and increased competition from the Japanese. A deal was agreed with the British government for funding on condition that they join with Norton Villiers. Yet another company was therefore formed, to be known as Norton Villiers Triumph.

The new company was suffering from funding issues that came to a head in 1974 when the government withdrew its subsidy. This resulted in a workers’ sit-in at the Andover factory. After a general election, the new government (headed by the Labour party) restored the subsidy. The management decided to consolidate its manufacturing base at Wolverhampton and Small Heath in Birmingham. Unfortunately, this resulted in another workers’ sit-in and stopped production at the Small Heath site, and by year’s end the company had lost some three million pounds ($4.5 million).

Although the company was in its last stages, they still managed to produce some new machines including an 828 Roadster, Mk2 Hi Rider, JPN Replica and an MK2a Interstate. However, by 1975 the line-up was reduced to just two machines: the Roadster and the MK3 Interstate. By July the final chapter in the company’s history was set in motion when the government refused to renew the company’s export license and recalled a loan of four million pounds. As a result, the company went into receivership.