||Villiers, the famous Wolverhampton engine
manufacturer, was set up by Charles Marston in 1898. He
was the eldest son of John Marston, of Sunbeam fame.
Villiers was founded to produce pedals and cycle
components for Sunbeam cycles, and later manufactured
the hub gear, and patented free wheel.
Engine production began at the Marston Road factory
in 1911, but initial sales were low, and few were
produced. Their first two stroke engine, launched in
1913, was extremely successful.
Over the intervening years, sales of their numerous
engines remained extremely high. Their two millionth
engine was built in 1956.
Another important factor in their success was the
Villiers flywheel magneto, which was well known all over
In the early 1960's the company
was taken over by Manganese Bronze Holdings, who
also purchased Associated Motor Cycles (A.M.C.) in
1966. A.M.C. was formed in 1931 when A.J.S. was
purchased by Matchless. In 1952 A.M.C. acquired
Norton Motors Limited who produced Norton
motorbikes. After A.M.C.'s collapse and take-over in
1966, a new company called Norton Villiers was
formed, which would produce machines using the
A new flagship machine was
needed to replace the current ageing models, and so
in 1967 the Commando was developed, just in time for
the Earls Court Show. The first production machines
were completed in April 1968, but there were bending
problems with the frame and so a new frame was
developed, and introduced in January 1969. The
original model, now called the 'Fastback' was joined
by the 'S Type' which had a high level left-side
exhaust and a 2.5 gallon petrol tank.
Initially the engines were
produced in Wolverhampton, the frames in Manchester
and the components were assembled at Burrage Grove,
Plumstead. The Plumstead works were subject to a
Greater London Council compulsory purchase order,
late in 1968 and closed in the following July. After
a Government subsidy, an assembly line was set up in
a factory at North Way, Andover, with the Test
Department in an aircraft hanger on nearby Thruxton
Manufacturing also took place
in Wolverhampton, where about 80 complete machines
were produced each week. Components and complete
engines and gearboxes were also shipped overnight,
from Wolverhampton to the Andover assembly line.
The police were showing a lot
of interest in the Commando and so Neale Shilton was
recruited from Triumph to produce a Commando to
police specifications. The end result was the
'Interpol' machine, which sold in good numbers to
police forces, both at home and abroad. The machine
was powered by a 750 c.c. O.H.V. engine and included
panniers, top box, fairing, and had fittings for a
radio and auxiliary equipment.
|Right from the beginning the Commando took part in
racing events, and after its win in the 1969 Hutchinson
100 and a second place in the Production T.T., the
company decided to produce a racing model.
This led to the development of the successful 750
c.c. overhead valve 'Production Racer'. It featured a
tuned engine, front disk brake and was finished in
bright yellow, which led to the machine being known as
the 'Yellow Peril'.
The 750 Commando. Courtesy of the late Jim Boulton.
A new version of the 'S Type' was
introduced in March 1970, called the 'Roadster'. It had
a 750 c.c. O.H.V. engine and a low-level exhaust, with
upward angled silencers and reverse cones. The model 'S'
was discontinued in June.
September 1970 saw the introduction
of the 'Fastback MK. 2', which was soon replaced by the
Mk.3. It had alloy levers and modified stands and chain
The ‘Street Scrambler’ and the ‘Hi
Rider’ were launched in May 1971 and the ‘Fastback Long
Range’ with a larger petrol tank, was launched in July.
January 1972 saw the appearance of the ‘Mk.4 Fastback’,
an updated ‘Roadster’ and the ‘750 Interstate’, with its
high performance ‘Combat’ engine. The ‘Combat’ could
deliver 65 b.h.p. at 6500 r.p.m. with a 10 to 1
compression ratio. Unfortunately the engine proved to be
extremely unreliable, main bearing failures were common
and pistons tended to break off at a slot, under the oil
control ring. These problems gave the company a bad
reputation, which wasn’t helped by the fact that the
‘Commando’ suffered from quality control problems which
were well covered in the motorcycling press.
The Norton 'Interstate'. Courtesy of
the late Jim
By the middle of 1972 the BSA-Triumph
group was in serious financial trouble and the
Government decided to bail the company out with a
financial rescue package, providing it would agree to
merge with Norton Villiers.
This led to the formation of Norton
Villiers Triumph Manufacturing Limited, but the new
company got off to a shaky start.
In January 1973 the ‘Mk.5 Fastback’
was launched and the ‘Long Range’ discontinued. In April
the ‘Roadster’, ‘Hi Rider’ and the ‘Interstate’ all
began to use a new 828 c.c. engine. Development work
also began on a 500 c.c. twin, stepped piston engine,
with a monocoque pressed steel frame. The new engine,
called the ‘Wulf’, was dropped in favour of developing
the rotary Wankel type engine that had been inherited
Things went well that year for the
Norton racing team. Peter Williams won the 1973 Formula
750 T.T. and Mick Grant came in second. Unfortunately
the company itself was in deep financial trouble and
redundancy notices were issued at Andover, which was
followed by a sit-in at the works. The situation
continued to deteriorate in 1974 and came to a head in
June when the Government withdrew its subsidy. There was
a general election and luckily the incoming Labour
Government restored the subsidy.
The company decided to close two of
its sites and concentrate production at Wolverhampton
and Small Heath. This caused a lot of industrial unrest
at Meriden, and resulted in a workers’ sit in, which
stopped production at Small Heath. By the end of the
year the company had lost over 3 million pounds.
An advert from 1974.
Even during these hard times the
company still managed to produce new models. 1974 saw the
release of the ‘828 Roadster’, the ‘Mk.2 Hi Rider’, the ‘JPN
Replica’ and the ‘Mk.2a Interstate’. Only two of these were
to continue in production the following year. Early in 1975
the company reduced its range of models to just two
machines, the ‘Mk.3 Interstate’ and the ‘Roadster’. Both
machines were improved by the fitting of an electric
starter, a left side gear change, right foot brake and rear
Things went from bad to worse in July
when the Industry Minister recalled a loan for 4 million
pounds and refused to renew the company’s export credits.
The company then went into receivership and redundancies
were announced for all of the staff at the various sites. At
Wolverhampton an action committee was formed in an effort to
continue production and develop the ‘Wulf’ engine. The works
were picketed and a prototype machine called the ‘Norton 76’
was produced. This came to nothing as the Wolverhampton
works never reopened. It was a sad end to such an important
company, and a bitter one. Many of the local workers never
received the money that was owed to them.
Norton Villiers Triumph managed to
survive when the Government stepped in to save part of the
company, but unfortunately this did not include the
Wolverhampton factory. The British motor cycle industry was
in its death throes. The market for British machines
disappeared, there was not enough demand to maintain the
factory. With a strange burst of enthusiasm the company
bought the gates from the now demolished Tong Castle and
erected them at the works entrance in Marston Road. It was
a last gesture.
of the Villiers Engineering