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Buried Treasure

by Denis Chorlton

I think the fact that it was almost exactly 60 years old to the day that finally made me buy it, or perhaps the rather unusual registration number?  Or then again, perhaps it is worth mentioning that after slumbering forgotten in a damp dusty shed for over 34 years, with no more attention than the cup full of fresh petrol I put in the tank, it actually burst into life and the lights came on!  If a machine can ever be said to be “keen to go”, this was surely one!  When later on I removed a full iam jar of thick gritty sludge from the tank found the HT pick-up was hanging by a thread and the old plug had almost no electrode, it became all the more unlikely that I had taken it for a short test run!  This was also one of those happy occasions when a long neglected machine turns up, complete, if a little rusty, still with its side panels, tools in the toolbox and the tax disc holder when opened, revealing a perfect set of tax discs back to 1956, all hidden behind the last one, which was 1965.  Even a “Hints and Spares” book and the old buff continuation log book with just two local names, there was its last MOT in 1964 and Insurance certificate until November 1965.  Although I had known about this Francis Barnett Powerbike for several years, the more I looked it really became too good to miss.  Another plus in its favour was its local (to me) registration “COW 334” (OW is Southampton), which I managed to retain, such being the documentary evidence an inspection was deemed unneccessarv by Bournemouth DVLC who were very helpful.  Southampton City does have some “OW” records in its archives but had only the make and capacity listed (I was hoping for a dealers and first owners names).

On the mechanical side, I removed the dented petrol tank to clean it out properly, and apart from the sludge there was the 30 year old foul smelling petroil mixture, the smell of which still lingers on in the garage months later.  The rear stand was broken and needed welding in a couple of places.  Two new tyres and tubes came with the purchase price, though I left the lovely old orange (pure rubber) tubes in place, as they seemed perfect.  A new sparking plug and a front brake cable completed its pre MOT treatment.

Since buying my machine I have met the owner of a 1949 Powerbike, which is a much more substantial machine with bigger wheels, proper girder forks and the De Luxe engine in a heavier frame.  I think I prefer the more dainty lines of my earlier machine which really shows its bicycle origins.  Closer inspection has revealed quite a few small jobs that will have to be done during the Winter, though I do not plan to restore it, simply keep it in ‘oily rag’ condition.  This model is fitted with the back pedalling rear brake, though my machine has had this removed and another hand lever fitted for cable operation.  I haven’t yet investigated the big rubber blocks in the front forks which constitute the front suspension.  My front wheel has a speedometer disc drive on the offside, so I presume a Smiths 0-40 mph speedometer has been fitted at some time in the past, though with a top speed of less than 30 mph why would anyone need a speedometer?  At the Netley Marsh Autojumble I did pick up the correct pre-war speedometer for £10, and at Beaulieu Autojumble the next day I found a drive with a fibre cog for £2, though I am not sure it is correct, I would like to hear from anyone who has one, or knows how it all fits or who miight have a new fibre drive cog for sale.  I would also like some advice on a suitable modern sparking plug for the iron Junior engine, and whether to use modern 2 stroke oil and and at what ratio?

Curious to know more about my new machine, it occured to me to look up the main name in the logbook in the local telephone directory, I was lucky that it was an unusual name and only one was listed, obviously with different initials, so I tried it.  The man who answered the telephone turned out to be the grandson of the original owner and remembered the Francis Barnett.  Subsequently he put me in touch with his father who had ridden the machine many times and had several stories to tell about the Powerbike.  The most interesting of which was how during the very heavy German bombing of Southampton his late father who worked in the big Post Office in the Docks, had ridden the Powerbike to work, left it in the cycle sheds in an area which was later on bombed flat, and his Francis Barnett was buried under tons of rubble.  Apparently his father claimed on the insurance, never expecting to see the machine again, but several months later when the bomb-site was cleared properly, the Powerbike emerged with nothing more than a damaged front wheel and bent forks.  These defects were soon rectified and it went on to give many more years of service.  Of the second name in the logbook, apparently this was a cousin of his fathher who had bought the machine new, was then called up for army service in the war and posted away, his father bought or borrowed the machine to get to work on, keeping it until 1965!  Then the machine went back to its first owner, but once more for some reason he never used it, and passed away a few years ago.  So it was very much used by just one man.  The big dents in the petrol tank may well be Blitz war scars, and perhaps the speedometer was broken at the same time?

I haven’t had an autocycle since a Norman back in the early 60s, registration LCR 590, which was my first powered transport, bought for a ten shilling note!  I collected it in my father’s wooden wheelbarrow as it had been taken to pieces.  This was followed by a Quickly (£4), which I once rode with a shoulder to wrist plaster cast on my arm and a waist to toe leg plaster cast which I suspended by a piece of string from under the handlebars (my crutches hung from string under the other side).  I rode some 8 miles like that to the coast and back, unfortunately with several stops as the chain kept coming off, to put it back on meant lying flat on m back in the road because of the plaster.  I must have been a strange sight!  Luckily in those far off days the roads were very quiet and people drove with consideration.  More recently I was given a Wall Autowheel (1914) engine few years ago and began gathering parts, but decided it would be too big a job for me and so passed it on.  The Powerbike though is really just the ticket, it’s good to be back.


First published - December 1999


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