The Famous James motorcycle 1897-1966

Keeping the old British Motorcycle manufacturer alive.

James motorcycle history

The James Cycle Company Ltd was formed in Birmingham on the 22nd May 1897 by one Harry (Henry William) James, who’s tenure as Managing Director was short lived as he retired from the company the following year. Harry had been manufacturing bicycles since the late 1880s but the company’s first motorcycle did not appear from the Sampson Road factory until around 1902. By then the Managing Director was Fred Kimberley, who remained with the company for more than 50 years! The model A was basically a bicycle with a Minerva engine slung under the frame. Later that year the model B appeared with a Derby engine but for 1903 they switched back to Minerva power. 1904 saw the arrival of what was claimed to be the first ever loop frame that provided a sturdier mounting for what was now an F.N. engine.

 Production was discontinued in 1904 but recommenced in 1908 at the new factory that had been built at Gough Road, Greet (the place-name was derived from an old English word for ‘gravel’ or ‘grit’ – some would say very appropriate), Birmingham 11.


A remarkable ‘Safety’ model was launched that year in collaboration with an engineer called Renouf (more details of this model, and more information on all James motorcycles can be found on the www.simplywizard,co,uk website, run by Alan Abrahams, who has kindly allowed us to use some of his data in this brief history).


The model was updated for 1910/11 and then sported what was claimed to be the first ever saddle tank. James continued to make high-end four-stroke machines and did a lot to advance the development of motorcycling, whilst building a reputation for sturdy machines for both solo and sidecar use.


The first two-stroke machines arrived in 1913 but ran alongside side valve and overhead valve models. Some machines were supplied for military use during the First World War


During the late 20s and early thirties James had genuine sporting aspirations most notably with the speedway model which featured a 500cc V-twin James-built engine, stripped-down strengthened frame and all-metal clutch. The 500cc model ran from 1929 until 1931, but the speedway version was only produced for 1929 and 1930.  A road going version of the V-twin was enlarged to 749cc to become the largest capacity machine ever built by James (does anyone out there own one?)


However from 1934 James produced just lightweight two-stroke machine and this helped them survive the very harsh financial climate of the 1930s.


During and immediately after the Second World War James produced just two machines – the 98 cc ‘Autocycle’ (a sort of early moped, though that term had not yet been adopted from the German) much favoured by civilians aiding the war effort such as nurses or bomb wardens and for the Government the military 122cc ‘ML’(nicknamed the ‘clockwork mouse, many were dropped from planes following the D Day landing to aid troop mobility’). The factory was bombed and badly damaged in 1940 but, incredibly, was rebuilt within three months and more than 6000 machines were eventually supplied for military use by the end of the war. True grit?


From 1945 James continued with its production of only small capacity (98cc to 250cc) two stroke machines but it was 1949 before new models became available – largely economic commuters and, later, a scooter, but they did also have a very successful competitions division producing bikes for the off-road trials and scrambler fraternities.


James was taken over by Associated Motor Cycles (AMC) in 1951. AMC had also owned Francis Barnett since 1947 and they merged the production of both companies in 1957, after which quite a lot of ‘badge engineering’ went on (similar to the path AMC chose for AJS and Matchless during the same period). However some separate models were produced under both the James and FB banners until the end of production, usually dressed out in the ‘standard’ company colours – maroon for James and dark green for FB.


James had a long association with Villiers, using their two-stroke engines for many of their machines until the late 50s, when AMC rather inexplicably decided to design and build their own range of engines. These new units experienced some problems and developed something of a poor reputation before Villiers was called back in to help sort out the production process.


However many of the AMC engined machines still offered good reliable transport at a reasonable price – for example, the 149cc James L15A Flying Cadet launched in 1959 with the new AMC engine retailed at just 107 guineas (£112.35p including purchase tax) in that year.


By the early sixties James were competing with more exotic producers from Italy and Japan and this prompted more colourful paint schemes – metallic blue for some of the Captain, Commodore and Superswift models, and metallic green for the Cadets – and more adventurous styling culminating in the (some now think highly desirable) Captain L20S Sport and Superswift L25S Sport of 1962-64 with their ‘jellymould’ tanks, flyscreens and lightweight aluminum blade mudguards.


Another innovation, but one that came too late, was the launch of the James scooter that was in production from 1960 to 1964. Although now highly regarded, it was late into the marketplace and failed to save the day.


But by then British motorcycles were becoming hard to shift and in order to find buyers they even had to resort to ‘mail order’ never-never (HP) offers such as those offered by Pride and Clarke of London and other well known dealers. Many a young rider had their delight rapidly turn to despair after failing to add the correct amount of oil (if any!) to their ‘delivered dry’ shiny new machine!


In 1966 AMC suffered the same fate as many other British manufacturers when, faced with the ever-increasing invasion of Japanese motorcycles, they were unable to compete due to years of chronic investment and lack of developments. They temporarily reformed and soldiered on as part of the ill-fated Norton Villiers group, but production of both James and Francis Barnett machines ceased abruptly at that point.


James were gone… but not forgotten!



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