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The Villiers Engineering Co. Ltd.

A short history of the company

Background and beginnings

In the 1890s John Marston's Sunbeam bicycles became extremely successful.  From the start they had relied on high quality of production and finish.  But John Marston was dissatisfied with the pedals on his machines, which he bought in.  In 1890 he dispatched his son Charles to the USA on a selling trip but included in his instructions that Charles must discuss pedal engineering with Pratt and Whitney in Hartford, Connecticut and come back with a high class pedal and the machinery for making it. Whether or not he visited Pratt and Whitney and got machinery there is not clear but Charles himself said that the Villiers Engineering Co. was "the ultimate fruit" of his trip to the US. 

Sir Charles Marston.

What seems to have impressed him there was the production system and the labour saving devices.  He pointed out that "it was not possible to develop these at Sunbeamland, which had long been working on another plan, but it was possible to start them in a new factory".  Presumably this refers to the fact that Sunbeamland had developed, and continued to be developed, on the old courtyard factory plan which was not amenable to flow, or assembly line, production.

In 1898 they acquired "a small japanning shop and three cottages" in Villiers Street.  How small the shop was is not clear as they had belonged to Edward Bullivant, a producer of japanned ware on quite a large scale.

In any event they were big enough to convert into offices and factory and for eight men to be employed there.  Charles Marston was put in charge of this factory, though most of his time was still to be spent at Sunbeamland.  The company was registered as the Villiers Cycle Component Company with Charles Marston as the Managing Director.  

The new machinery and production methods proved to be a success - such a success that they produced more pedals than Sunbeam needed.  It was decided to sell the surplus to other bicycle makers.  This decision was to turn Villiers from an in-house component shop into a major manufacturer in its own right. 

Charles appointed Frank Farrer, who was then the manager of the Palmer Tyre Company's Coventry depot, as sole agent for the sale of the surplus pedals.  Farrer had many connections with the cycle trade, was a good engineer and a great salesman and was to become the driving force in Villiers. 

So quickly successful was this move that Frank Farrer joined Villiers full time in 1902 and the factory was employing 36 men. 

At some later point John Marston sold the Villiers side of his company to his son Charles, for £6,000, to be paid for out of future profits. 

Frank Farrer.

Sometime in 1902 Villiers patented a free wheel for bicycles.  Today we take these for granted but then it was a new development.  They went into production with such remarkable success that they gave up making pedals in 1904.  Every bicycle maker had to have free wheels and Villiers had the patent on them. Villiers this became the world's biggest manufacturer of free wheels, reaching the height of their production just after the Second World War when they were making 80,000 per week or more than 4 million per year.  They exported them all over the world.

The story continues in the following parts: 



Villiers Engineering Co. Ltd., in Wolverhampton Official Yearbook, various editions but especially 1953, which contains a lengthy history of the company, presumably written by the company itself.

Jim Boulton with Harold Parsons, Powered Vehicles Made in the Black Country, The Black Country Society, 1976

Roy Bacon, Villiers Singles and Twins, Osprey Publishing, 1983

Robert Gordon Champ, The Sunbeam Motor Cycle, Haynes Publishing, 1980

Marjorie van Harten and Melissa Marston, Man of Wolverhampton: the life and times of Sir Charles Marston, Coombe Springs Press, nd

Sixty Progressive Years, Villiers Engineering, 1959.  (We are indebted to John Favill for providing a transcript of this publication, seen on the left).

Note that a number of technical books on Villiers engines have been published from time to time, usually providing instructions on repair and maintenance and including many photos and diagrams of the engines and their parts.  Most general works on British motorcycles also include references to Villiers.

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