Mention the name Raleigh today and to most it will convey thoughts of a large company in Nottingham associated with the manufacture of good quality bicycles. Few will recall that at one time the company manufactured good quality motorcycles too and were one of the first to market a motorcycle under this name.
The first Raleigh saw the light of day in 1899 in the form of a bicycle with an engine mounted directly above the front wheel, which it drove by belt. It was far from an ideal position as lter experience showed. If the engine failed to start or was reluctant to turn over, the rider was likely to be thrown over the handlebars as it stopped dead. To all intents and purposes the Raleigh design was similar to the Werner of the same period, although it was powered by a single cylinder Schwann engine. As may be expected, the engine had an automatic inlet valve and a surface carburettor that formed part of the frame. The latter was a curious arrangement in which the incoming mixture was through the frame and up the handlebar stem, to mix with air drawn from the open left hand end of the handlebars.
By the time of the 1903 National Show, the machine had been completely redesigned along more conventional lines and was sufficiently advanced to have a twist grip throttle. But for all that, the Raleigh made little impact. Despite drastic 'special offer' cost cutting to clear existing stocks, offering the new 500cc model for only £25, sales remained disappointing. By the end of the year Raleigh withdrew from motorcycle manufacture to concentrate on pedal power.
It was not until the manufacture of motorcycles for the civilian market resumed after the 1914-18 war that Raleigh decided to re-enter the motorcycle market. In May 1918 they had available a 654cc side valve flat twin, with leaf spring rear suspension, the capacity of which was subsequently increased to 698cc by increasing the stroke by 5mm. By 1922, two more models were listed, both single cylinder side valves. The smaller of the two was the so-called lightweight model, with chain-cum-belt drive, a rigid frame and a two speed gear. The larger model had the somewhat unusual capacity of 399cc and was intended for sidecar use, with the option of a three-speed gearbox on payment of £5 extra. The gearboxes were of the company's own manufacture, bearing the Sturmey Archer name.
Although Raleigh supported racing to a limited extent, it was in trials events that they achieved greater fame. This will come as no surprise when it is realised that the legendary Marjorie Cottle rode for the company in these latter events, supported by Hugh Gibson, another trials rider of no mean ability. In a bid to achieve maximum publicity for the company, Gibson decided to undertake a most ambitious project that most of the experts claimed would prove impossible. He would attempt to ride a 798cc vee-twin model with sidecar attached round the coast of Britain whilst under ACU observation, whilst at the same time Marjorie Cottle would set out in the opposite direction, unobserved, on a 348cc solo to cover the same route. It amounted to both having to cover something like 3,400 miles in the shortest time possible and maintain an average of 300 miles a day.
The fears expressed by the experts proved unfounded when the run was successfully completed within 11¾ days, both riders meeting up in Liverpool within 15 minutes of each other. Yet it had been by no means an easy ride for either. Although both had set off from Liverpool on Monday, June 8, 1924 to take advantage of the maximum hours of daylight (and hopefully better weather), it had rained on eight days of the fortnight allocated for the run.
Fall and fracture
Hugh Gibson suffered the most setbacks. Bad roads caused the rear stand to fall and fracture, then the sidecar stand worked loose. The tappets and valve guides demanded another stop for lubrication, and after 1,700 miles the engine had to be decarbonised. The need to clean out the carburettor necessitated a further stop, as did the repair of three punctures in the sidecar wheel and two in the rear tyre. Between Ullapool and Kyle Sku, Hugh took a wrong turning and had to follow a rough track over a mountain that meant a climb of 2,700 feet and a 10 mile detour before he could pick up his intended route.
Marjorie Cottle fared better, suffering only two involuntary stops on her solo, once to mend a puncture and once to change a sparking plug. Near Oban, blinded by rain and the intensely cold wind, she came off her machine, but gamely remounted to continue in such conditions.
Both were rewarded with a Gold Medal when the company was awarded the Maudes Trophy for such a meritorious attempt to show a Raleigh's reliability under the most arduous of conditions. Two years later, Marjorie used one of the company's 174cc lightweight side valve models to ride the length and breadth of Britain, to average over 20mph over the 1,370 mile course. For good measure she also overlapped and crossed the course so that she could simulate the word Raleigh in script on the road map of her route.
In 1925 a 348cc ohv model made its debut, as well as the 174cc side valve lightweight as mentioned above. Later still, the company took a more active interest in road racing, which culminated in a 5th place in the 1930 Junior TT, and a 7th place in the following year's Senior Race, Raleigh's two highest positions. Somehow it was still insufficient to ensure sales targets were met and Raleigh continued in the role of an 'also ran'. By 1933, the manufacture of motorcycles again drew to a close.
It was not until 1958 that Raleigh made yet another return to motorcycle manufacture, this time with a 49cc moped powered by a Sturmey Archer engine made under contract by BSA at Small Heath. Unable to gain more than a foothold in the highly competitive market at that time it was soon replaced by a Mobylette moped built under licence as the Raleigh RM8. There was also a brief detour into the Raleigh RM7 Wisp, a moped with small diameter wheels. These, and several other mopeds spawned around the same period based on the Mobylette, as well as the Roma, a 78cc Bianchi scooter also built under licence, all failed to produce the desired results. Raleigh's bid to rejoin the market had finally come to an end.
See also When was it that? contentsEnjoy more Old Bike Mart reading in the monthly paper. Click here to subscribe.