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Bown Matters - April 1998

By David Stevenson

Bown Moped forks

A word of warning about the mopeds: Ian McGregor wrote to me last September of a bike he had bought:

"Both the front fork legs had cracks across the bottom of them. On one the metal had split apart, and was joined by just a small part of the crack.  The wheel was flapping around like a sail...  The design of the forks, to me, appears dreadfully weak at the bottom and simply not 'man' enough for the job."

Ian's was quite an early model and the fault may have been rectified on later machines but circumstantial evidence appears to bear out what Ian says.  Take a careful look at the photo of Dave Hutton's machine recently sent in.  You'll see that the forks are from a different bike.

Dave Hutton's Bown moped

I have seen at least one other model which has had the forks replaced with 'rubber-band' suspension forks off another moped.  Keith Walker also sold me, a couple of years ago, a complete set of unused but ready built up forks, which suggests dealers actually carried them as stock items to replace failed originals.

If you have one of these bikes, please examine it carefully.  Remember what happened to the Titanic with its weak rivets, because Frank Brzeski's next Granadaland Hangover Run will almost certainly include at least one iceburg.

Bown Matters - February 2003

By David Stevenson

A year ago I was contacted by Mrs Barbara Bown who had found my Buzzing article Grandpa's Bown [Buzzing December 1997] on the internet.  She believed that her husband was related to William Bown, founder of the Bown Company, and wanted to be put in contact with Jean and John Hesp.  Jean, as you may remember, is the grand-daughter of W A R Bown, the designer of the Autocycle and Lightweight Motor Cycle beloved of NACC members.  Obviously, Barbara Bown wanted to know what I knew of the family's exploits so I sent her my short summary of the history of the Bown Company and of William Bown's patents.  In exchange for this and contact with Jean and John she offered me a CD-ROM with all her findings about William Bown.  Barbara Bown is no ordinary family historian and the many documents she forwarded cast the early history of the Bown Company in a completely new light for me.  This is my summary of her findings:

  1. The Aeolus ball bearing race: William Bown did not invent the adjustable ball bearing race which he patented and sold under the Aeolus trade mark from 1879 onwards.  In 1876 William Bown patented a design for the wheels of roller skates which embodied his effort to keep the two bearing surfaces of an axle, fixed and moving, apart.  He suggested doing this by means of a felt ring placed inside a circular box around the axle whose lubricating oil would slowly run under the two bearing surfaces at each side.  A hole or lid would be provided so that the felt could be regularly re-moistened.  While this clearly shows that Bown understood the need to keep the two surfaces apart by some medium that would reduce friction it crucially does not introduce the idea of the third rolling surface that is the genius of the ball or roller bearing.  The bearer of that genius was Joseph Henry Hughes who, in September 1877, drew up the patent for a ball bearing race for bicycle and carriage wheels which includes all the elements of an adjustable system.  His drawings look much like the design of the Aeolus fittings for ordinaries or high bicycles.  Hughes, a toolmaker in Birmingham, was only 27 at the time of his invention.  William Bown's skill lay in recognising the quality of Hughes's solution.  He persuaded him to both sell the rights to the patent to him and to come and work for him.  Hughes co-operated with Bown on further bearing patents for the next decade.  Bown's own 1879 patent acknowledges that it embodies merely "improvements or extensions upon Joseph Henry Hughes's Patent ... of which I am the registered proprietor."
  2. Did William Bown or Dan Rudge invent the ball-bearing race?  Neither.  A formal agreement in July 1878 acknowledged Hughes as the originator of the race: "...the said Daniel Rudge has recently invented certain improvements in bicycles and velocipedes which, although they are in the opinion of the said Daniel Rudge improvements upon the said invention of the said Joseph Henry Hughes, yet being in part and some degree similar thereto, as the said Daniel Rudge doth hereby acknowledge, he is unable to avail himself of and use the whole of his said improvements without infringing the said letters patent."  Rudge agreed to pay two shillings and sixpence royalties for every pair of bearings sold whether under Hughes's or his own patents.  That was a lot of money when a working man's weekly wage was between one and two pounds a week.  Other documents show that Humber too later became licensees of Bown's proprietorship of Hughes's patent.  Bown's considerable skill came therefore not only in recognising the genius of Hughes's patent and putting it into manufacture but also of defending it vigorously through agreements and litigation.  The Aeolus bearing was helping to win races as early as April 1879 and in 1880 H Higham rode 100 miles in under six and a half hours on a bike equipped with the bearings.
  3. William Bown's death: William Bown died on 28th July 1900 at the age of 66.  His obituary in The Birmingham Post of 4th August 1900 reveals how extensive his commercial enterprise had become.  By 1892 his Summer Lane works were a limited company with a capital of £100,000 employing one thousand men.  He also was proprietor for a while of a stamping and engineering works in Bracebridge Street which employed a further 250 men.  The article conceals, however, a sadder truth.  Acknowledging that "the state of his health compelled him to retire about five years ago" the newspaper states that he had died at home.  This was untrue.  Poor old William died in the Warwick County Lunatic Asylum from "general paralysis of the insane" which Barbara Bown has been told was a common euphemism for the final stage of syphilis.  Whether that was true or not it was a sad end to a vigorous life.  In April 1896 Bown had left his estate to his wife Clara.  Four years later this still amounted to the respectable sum of £4,075 5s.  William does not appear to have left any children so the Bowns who carried on the family firm, including W A R Bown, must have been nephews, great-nephews or descendants of other branches of the family.

Someone now needs to research the life of J H Hughes, if it hasn't already been done.  If anyone has any further information on this little corner of transport history I should be very grateful to hear from them.  My thanks again to Barbara Bown.

Bown Matters - April 2004

By David Stevenson

Bown Postscript

Just a couple of footnotes to Mark Daniels's articles on the Bown autocycle and moped - as Mark said, the autocycle frame was unusual in having twin tube lower rails.  This was a feature of all the Welsh produced Bowns, the autocycle, lightweight motor cycle (also 98cc) and the Tourist Trophy (122cc!) model.  W A R Bown had competed on one of the firm's 269cc Villiers-engined models in road trials in the early 1920s.  He made a climb of Alt-y-bady which was described in one of the weeklies as: "Weird and wonderful to watch".  This feat was later used to advertise the machine.  Bown was a great enthusiast of two-wheeled machines - both powered and unpowered.  Motor Cycling's 1951 road test of the Lightweight Motor Cycle pictured him riding the bike and described the machine as "in daily use by a member of the Bown factory personnel".  The machines of the 1920s were single tubed at the bottom but the later frame was undoubtedly designed by WAR in the light of his own riding experience.  This was remarked upon by Motor Cycling in April 1953.

Bikes of the early twenties and the fifties were (apart from the autocycles and cyclemotors!) so very different that it's difficult to understand how the re-use of the tank transfer off the Bown, or a reference to WAR's long forgotten hill climb could influence potential customers.  If you put that into a contemporary context, however, you can see that for older motor cyclists such considerations could play a part in forming opinions.  How many of us are still influenced by machines we rode in the 1970s (or earlier)?  With flat tanks, girder forks, inverted levers and those horrible slab sided tin enclosures, autocycles in general not only looked clumsy, they looked like something out of the 1920s.  I parked mine once next to a Canberra jet bomber and it was very difficult to believe they had been manufactured in the same year.  That was why at that time they were ridden by people with little pretension to style and why today they have a certain quaint kudos.  It was also why, as younger people began to afford their own transport in the later fifties, scooters, with their deliberate emphasis on modernity and fashion, swept the board.

This brings us to the question of survival rates.  I am not aware of any factory production records and so have created my own Bown Register of survivors.  Members have a fear, I know, of any documentation which might aid criminal activity and the listings only include: frame number, engine number, original registration number (and any subsequent changes) and year of manufacture.  I do not make the register available to anyone else.  I offer these reassurances because I would like details of the following machines.  I know these have survived, but I do not know their frame or engine numbers: Aberdale autocycles CHJ 45K and MPE 610, Bown autocycles, GMR 94, OKP 550, TPG 190, LCE 155, MDG 86, LFO 131 and VSK 796, and Bown mopeds EPV 970 and USV 902.  Details of any other Bown machines of whatever type would also be gratefully received.  Of perhaps 1,800 Aberdales made, I have details of 15 survivors.  Of possibly 3,000 Bown Autocycles made I have details of 32 which are still extant.  From the 2,000 Lightweight Motor Cycles some 29 are on my register and of what appear to be about 4,000 mopeds made only some 12 have been notified to me.

As I said, I don't have any proof of production apart from frame numbers.  I am surprised that so many mopeds appear to have been produced but numbers run from M60 to M(00)4100.  Survival rates are highest for the Lightweight Motor Cycles at around 1.35% and lowest for the Mopeds at something like 0.3%.  Survival is a chance thing and the register reveals this quite clearly.  None of the motorcycles between BLM 1275 and 1675 appear to have survived but BLM 1272 and BLM 1691 are both "alive and well".  The British economy was urged to "export or die" in the late forties and it may well be that large numbers of the Aberdales and batches of the later Bowns were sent abroad.  Individual Aberdales certainly survive in Australia and the USA.  The difference in the rate of moped survival is so great as to suggest some anomaly of which I am unaware (Could it be, for instance, that the European manufacturer numbered the frames before despatch to the various factories using it?  Thus only a fraction of those 4,000 frames were actually destined for the Aberdale works.)  It may,on the other hand, simply reflect the moped's greater fragility and lower collectability.  Modish as the styling of the smallest Bown was in the mid-fifties, the collector's movement for British motor cycles which started in the late seventies and early eighties valued the unadorned traditional appearance typified, particularly in the small engine market, by the 1F-engined lightweights of the fifties.

Finally, I doubt very much whether Aberdale would have bothered to re-engineer the Bown to take a Villiers engine.  As Mark says, the Bown moped was something like 80% continental with much of that being Sachs.  A TWN using the same frame and much of the same running gear was exhibited at Stafford a few years ago.  To discard the Sachs engine it would have been necessary to change the wheels, the brakes and the suspension.  Aberdale were in retrenchment from manufacturing their own motor cycles and would have been unlikely to complicate their procurement problems and risk increasing costs.  Notwithstanding that, it makes an interesting and neatly executed special.

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