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How an ex-RAF Technician Learned Front Wheel Drive

Fred Birden

Doris & Fred with their Cymota cycles
Doris & Fred Birden with Martin & Judith
outside Hinckley Grammar School in 1950

After leaving the RAF, I worked part-time in the late 1940s at a local Grammar School.  There, a lady teacher of mature years and polished diction rode an early model VéloSoleX she had acquired, new, from André Baldet in Northampton. When, as sometimes happened, her cry of "Push me, girls!" failed to coax the engine into life, it was the writer's mechanical expertise (some real, but more likely stemming from the excessive confidence developed under Lord Trenchard's wonderful Halton Apprentice Scheme!) which was called to provide the magic touch.  We were later to acquire this wonderful machine for Doris to ride.

Doris and VéloSoleX
Doris astride the first VéloSoleX

With this limited experience of FWD, I took a detailed look at a Cymota stocked by a Leicester hardware shop, recognising the engine as a partial crib off the Vélo with the addition of a carburettor and a neat cowl.  "Know anything about these?" asked the store manager.  "Oh yes, a little" I replied, for once fairly truthfully.  I was then asked to come to the shop as required to fit Cymotas to customers' cycles.  The deal was that, when ten units had been fitted, I got one free.  I think the price at the time was 19 guineas (£19.95) and in due course earned one unit.  On reflection, I'd worked fairly hard for it; I should have negotiated an hourly rate!

Cymotas were supplied to the shop by Clifford Motor Components, somewhere in Birmingham.  Early models suffered a critical failure of the crankcase extension which supported the outer bearing of the drive roller.  Clifford replaced the faulty component, under warranty, with a modified, strengthened, replacement, but to fit this was expensively labour intensive.  A second Cymota was soon bought, at a much reduced price, for Doris's cycle.  With kid's seats on the back, we were fully mobile!

When the market for Cymotas collapsed, a nmnber of engine units, less cowl and lights, were sold off for a fiver.  I bought at least a couple, fitting them to cycles by bronze-welding the mounting quadrants to the front forks.  No queries were raised when these contraptions were registered as Cymotas - there was no MoT test then - and they sold privately, very quickly.  The market for motor attachments slowly declined over the next couple of years, as 50cc mopeds, mostly imported (or powered by imported engines) began to take over.

There were many stylish models like the Leopard, the HMW, the Garelli, but probably the Mobylettes and the Quicklys lasted the longest in terms of sales.  Next came the 98cc Villiers-powered small "real" motorbikes, the two-speed gearboxes having demonstrated their superiority over the rather dated single-speed Villiers-powered autocycles.  Sun, Norman, Bown, BAC and James come to mind.

I did some work for a Leicester "Sun" dealer, mainly on the 1F models, two of which I eventually earned for Doris and me.  Now we were really mobile!

On Thursday evenings, sale time for motorbikes at the local motor auction, I clambered up a steep learning curve following the boss's instruction "I don't care what you do to them, Fred, as long as you can ride them twice round the ring, then they're sold as runners, as seen!"  I learned a lot.  So I suspect, did some of the new owners - later!  On the market for new two-wheel machines, mopeds became ever more sophisticated, with three-speed gears and even Variomatic drive.  Being "in the trade" as it were, I was in a fine position to discover a good deal.  Along with our motor cycles - and, later - a Bond Minicar, we had, either Doris or myself, a variety of two-wheelers, not all of course at the same time!  There was a second VéloSoleX, three Mobylettes (the last one a Supermatic with a dual seat which we took on holiday to Holland), two Quicklys, a Kreidler J50, a DKW scooter, a Leopard and an AutoVAP.  It was easy to pick up, very cheaply, a non-runner part-exchange with not a lot needed to rejuvenate it!  Our pride and joy, however, was imported new from Germany at vast expense.  It was an Adler MB250 two-stroke twin, which we fitted with a new, sprayed to match, Blacknell sidecar for the two children; a real head-turner in 1956!  That year was also important for a second reason.  I completed my qualification as a teacher, gratefully accepted a post at the school where I first met a VéloSoleX, and had a proper job!

However, the interest is still there, and a little bit of the knowledge gained from experience is sometimes put to use.  A good friend, Nigel Ponsford, has been a subscriber to "Buzzing" for quite a long time, and it is he and his interesting collection of machines which rewakened my interest.  I've brought his Power Pak and his VéloSoleX back to life, made a clutch cable for his Garelli, and my son has found me a very nice Mobylette V50 to join Nigel's collection.  Although we both, as well as Doris, still hold current motor cycle licences, we don't ride on our over-trafficked, moped unfriendly, public roads any longer, but we do sometimes have an occasional buzz round the private airfield of which we are active members

First published, June 2005

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