THE BEASTS IN THE CELLAR
With Halloween behind us and the spectre of Christmas ahead, the darkness draws us around the evening fires to swap stories of mystery and suspense. We allow our imagination to populate the darkness with imaginary of abominations, hideously disfigured monsters and hopeless terrors. The Beast in the Cellar is a horror film from 1970 where two ageing sisters keep their deformed and homicidal brother in the basement. He escapes from this incarceration and goes on a murderous rampage in the bleak rural landscape that surrounds the sister’s farm. Trying to hide that which is not right is a popular theme in horror and as the film unfolds you begin to understand why the sisters took the course of action they did. I would like to recount a similarly tale of terror, one that deals with monsters, creatures which had no right to exist on this earth, constructions of terror that have largely been forgotten. Things that when remembered will serve as a warning that certain paths should never be trodden again. So please, sit down and brace yourself for a very frightening thought that may well haunt a Mod for the rest of their life. That thought is, that in the past, both the British and German Motorcycle industries have produced scooters. The true horror of this statement can only be appreciated when you see the hideous apparitions that stumbled from the mist of post war Britain and the shattered ruins of the Reich. We can only be thankful that the Italians laid down a beautiful genotype that has blossomed and become the pattern for the rest of the world to copy.
For most of us the tale starts in Italy in 1922, when Ferdinando Innocenti built a factory in Rome. In 1931, he moved to Milan where his factory produced seamless steel tubing. During WW2, the factory was bombed and whilst surveying the ruins, Innocenti saw his future in the production of cheap, private motor transport. He decided to design and manufacture a motor scooter. Now if Hollywood were to have been in charge of this moment, Innocenti in his linen suit and clean, white, open necked shirt would climb to the pinnacle of the smoking rubble. Framed by a Technicolor blue sky above the ruins he would be struck by an epiphany, where the Lambretta scooter would come to him as a fully formed vision. This simply isn’t true, and though its hard to swallow his idea was kind of borrowed.
The incubus of the design for the Lambretta and the Vespa originates in pre-WW2 America. Cushman scooters made in Nebraska were often used as delivery vehicles in small town USA and during the war this company made a military version. Painted drab olive green and stripped of all panelling these scooters, along with other types of two wheelers were in Italy in large numbers due to the allied occupation. As well as the Cushman there was the British made Welbike. Both were small, low, balloon tyred vehicles which look to most untrained eyes like an early Lambretta. The Welbike was also interesting because it’s seat and handle bars folded away, making it possible to drop it in cylinder from an aircraft with a bunch of paratroopers. From my experiences restoring classic two wheelers of all types, I have gleaned that these machines though useful, were never reliable, which is why perhaps the British attempt at scooter production should have stopped there. Most vehicles made at this time were unreliable by modern standards, but the Welbike more so. Dropping it out of an aeroplane in to a war zone did it no favours I expect.
Inocenti employed the aeronautical engineer Corradino D'Ascanio to design his vehicle. This man is responsible for the design and construction of the first modern helicopter by the Augusta Company, so its hardly surprising that the Lambretta eventually inherited a slightly art-deco design, with cues taken from the fast streamlined aircraft of the 1930s. As a competitor to the motorcycle it needed to be cheap in comparison and afford the rider weather protection. D’Ascanio’s brief was to design a simple, robust and affordable vehicle. It had to be easy to drive for both men and women, carry a passenger and not get its driver's clothes soiled.
Now use your imagination here, envisage a bright day in Milan at Innocenti’s design office. The bright sunlight is pouring through open windows, the sound of jazz music and the clink of espresso cups can be heard from the street below. The chatter of beautiful Italian women fills the air as they shop at the local market. D’Ascanio is sitting in his comfortable swivel chair smoking as he languidly surveys his drawing board. The aroma of decent coffee wafts his way from a small cup on his plan chest. Innocenti walks in and peers over his shoulder, he claps a firm hand on his back. He nods happily. “Bella, Bella!”
Now the horror starts, let your minds eye fly north, back in time, as we glide over the Alps to central Europe and beyond to Germany. Not a defeated and ruined country but an Imperial power busy re-modelling the Low-Countries with the use of a howitzer. The German scooter story begins with Zündapp in 1917, a company founded by Dr. Fritz Neumeyer and Friedruch Krupp. The company shortened their original name, Zünder-und-Apparatebau, to Zündapp in 1921. Its interesting to note that an advertisement of the day proclaimed that their motorcycles were "Motorrades für jedermann,". This translates as ‘Motorcycles for everyone, a bit like the peoples car concept that appeared a few years later. During WW2 they produced a range of superbly engineered motorcycles for the military.
Afterwards they rebuilt their factory to produce sewing machines and light engineering. Vehicles and weapons were clearly off the menu as the victorious allies once again restricted what could be produced. Bear in mind that the little Villiers engines you often find in lawn mowers and smaller British bikes, as well as the big Sunbeam twins of the fifties were German designs taken as war reparations. These Germans were no strangers to decent power plants so in 1951 they constructed a Moped factory.
Now don’t get me wrong, having ridden oil gushing British bikes and smoky, rusting, Italian scooters I can’t fault German engineering. The BMW flat twin has been in production since the 1930s in various guises and it still works a treat. You don’t need an oil tray under a German machine. What I can argue with is their ‘Teutonic’ styling. In 1951 Zündapp latched on to the scooter craze sweeping Italy and set about designing a few prototypes based on Italian designs. Zündapp decided that Germany was ready for a nationally produced scooter. But there is no bright sunlight gushing through the windows of the Zundapp offices, no market chatter and the coffee was nowhere near as nice. With a dark Wagnerian sky above, the country split in two and sturdy alpine maidens slapping down a frankfurter for your dinner on a paper plate, it’s hardly surprising that the German scooter lacks a certain style.
They were off to a good start though with a machine called the Bella. See the Italian reference in the name, so in their defence that’s one step ahead of us Brits a few years later. It is not as curvy as the Italian machines of the time, but the smart design did catch the eye of the press. It was given a reasonable welcome at the 1953 Frankfurt show. It was characterized by a very large front mudguard with a slim rear. It had a tubular frame similar to a motorcycle. The Bella had a strong resemblance to the Moto Parilla Levrier scooter. It had large wheels and at first it was produced in a 150cc model, but later this was bored out to a 200cc capacity. This generated a mighty 10hp which wasn’t bad for its day and it could out run motorcycles of a similar capacity. The fact was though it didn’t have any of the engineering innovation of its Mediterranean fore-bears and none of the unique quirkiness. When you look at a Vespa, or a Lambretta you will notice that the styling seems to flow in a horizontal sweep towards the rear. It tapers like a wasp (Vespa) and all the upright lines slope backward. Even when parked the feeling of rapid forward movement still remains. It uses our natural instincts to create the illusion of forward motion in a gentle elegant way. The general format of an early German or even an American scooter fails to do this. All the panels and structures produce a bell like pattern towards the ground. It imbues the designs with a clumsy look but does encourage thoughts of stability but at the same time a hovering inactivity.
In the movie invasion of the body snatchers, people are taken over by aliens from pods. They look exactly the same, but real people know that things ain’t right. This is the feeling you get with the Bella. In 1955 an electric start version of the 200cc model was released as well as a special American model called the Suburbanette. Sadly for Zundapp this just didn’t sell. Perhaps they looked too much like the old Cushman scooters to provide any market advantage, perhaps they were just too heavy and looked like a suit of armour instead of a fighter plane. Despite the fact that, on the whole, these vehicles have been consigned to the dungeons of the popular consciousness they did try hard. An electric start in 1955 was a pretty promising thing, when across the channel in Blighty just getting a two wheeler to start was the pressing thing. It’s Roller 50 and RS50 scooters were very slimmed down. These scooters, which were very similar to the Lambrettas of the day, were made until 1984. The smaller, 50cc engine was in line with the engineering trends but sales were disappointing. For the next 20 years, they produced these two scooters in ever decreasing numbers. I suppose the lure of an Italian scooter was just too much. Why have a lumpen German copy when you can have an original. In the mid 1980s, Zündapp began to experience severe financial troubles and as a result, the entire stock and factory was sold to China. Zundapp weren’t the only German scooter manufacturers by any means. Plenty of famous names went in to production. NSU were a motorcycle company, Heinkel and even Messerschmitt the plane makers also made scooters. Some were original designs and others were made under licence. Like Zundapp they too went to the wall, their identities swallowed by big European conglomerates. It was always going to be difficult selling a scooter with a Messerschmitt pedigree outside the former Reich.
The Germans can be forgiven for their two wheeled transgressions; their Vespa-esque doppelgänger were well meaning and serious. The people I can’t forgive for their laziness, cynicism and arrogant stupidity are the British. What dogged the British scooter is what brought about the demise of the British car and motorcycle industry as a whole. Just sheer bloody complacency, profiteering and management stupidity. So let’s go back to the drawing office. This time we are below a friendly but cloudy Birmingham sky. The designers work diligently, drinking lukewarm tea from chipped mugs and eating cheese sandwiches delivered by Edna with a Woodbine hanging from her bottom lip. The crusts have curled up a bit, but the cheese is decent. The office is lit by a skylight which looks out over a city which was once the workshop of the whole world, exporting quality engineered goods across the biggest empire humanity had ever seen.
It could have been the Gattino (kitten), the Veloce (fast), The Piccolo (small) the Dynamico (Dynamic) and they are just a few ideas using the Google translator. But no we came up with the Triumph Tigress, and the BSA Sunbeam. It’s a warning isn’t it? Pannini or two slices of Warburton’s. Let’s go for the Warburton’s, you know where you are with that don’t you? At least the Germans had made an effort with Bella. It’s at this point where I confess to discovering the existence of the British scooter industry when answering the add for what I thought was a Triumph Tiger. It was only a couple of hundred quid and was complete. It was in a few tea chests and it needed rebuilding. So off I went expecting to find a bargain example of Edward Turner’s twin cylinder, single carburettor classic road bike. No wonder it was cheap there had been a printing error, some Charlie had left off ‘ess’. I already had Vespa PX125 why would I want a box of scrap purporting to be a scooter? I even asked the vendor was he certain this was a Triumph? Later on my dad, a native of the Midlands told me both the BSA and Triumph factories made scooters. Of course they were designed for girls and like him, real men, bought a BSA A10 or a Bonnie.
I love all two wheeled transport, but as a Mod the scooter is the one you can have the most fun with, but I’m not averse to motorcycles and in the past I have rebuilt several classics and owned some really fast and very efficient Japanese marques too. At the end of the day though tootling along on my almost reliable, humble PX will always fill the halcyon day’s category in my head. But if one oily monster does stand out of the crowd then it was my Pre-unit 650 Triumph Bonneville. It’s not your standard Mod machine I’ll grant you that, but if the British motorcycle industry ever hit a peak it was with this animal. It simply wiped out everything else on the planet in its day, not just in speed, but in looks and engineering genius. At a time when a great big thumping 500 cc single cylinder was standard, Edward Turners economically priced parallel twin was something new. Without this to rip off there would be no Jap bikes and it is arguably the worlds most imitated motorcycle design. The irony is that the entry of the BSA group into the scooter field was announced by Edward Turner himself and he was in charge of the design. So technically his Tigress would be a winner, wouldn't it?
No because it was ‘a scooter designed to have good performance and handling for the motorcycle enthusiast’. Turner in his wisdom, or lack of it had failed to understand that Motorcycle enthusiasts don’t ride scooters. They ride motorcycles. Back then they liked scratching along B roads at high speed, their knees scraping the tarmac or their shoulder clipping the hedges, their goggled heads low over their tank and their silk scarf flapping in the wind like a flag. A bit like now really except on a motorway. Scooters are urban machines and let’s face it they are quick to accelerate, negotiate traffic and turn on a sixpence leaving a motorcycle standing, but flat out, head to head with a bike on a main road the difference between the two becomes glaring. I can’t help thinking that Turner despite his genius didn't really understand that scooters were as much about style as engineering and it was already 1958. Even the Germans had the drop on us. He should have built a machine for stylish people in a hurry who didn't have time to get their hands dirty.
In October of that year he announced there would be a 250 cc Scooter model which would have a cruising speed of 55 to 60 mph (89 to 97 km/h) and petrol consumption of 120 miles per gallon. A prototype 250 cc BSA Sunbeam was displayed at the 1958 Earl’s Court Cycle and Motor Cycle Show and it wasn't bad looking for a non-Italian example. This bright new machine was supposed to start manufacture in late 1959, but delivery difficulties were to follow due to problems with recruiting labour. Unlike now, back then as I am reliably informed, you could walk out of job one morning and walk in to a new one in the afternoon. Anyone who wanted work could find it and there simply weren't enough skilled people to go around. It was claimed that the group had a manufacturing capacity of 50,000 machines a year but this was an optimistic assessment and the lads at the factories were suffering from lack of investment in machinery and tooling. Much of it had been there prior to the war and nobody was in a hurry to replace it. Already Turner and his ilk were showing a complacency that would be their down fall and they were failing to see that the rest of the worlds were not only catching up, but especially in the case of the Japanese, over taking them with efficiency but even more importantly innovation..
The design by Turner’s group drew upon Triumph's long experience of building fast motorcycles, and just like British Leyland, years later, the machines were sold under two brand names to take advantage of established and complex distribution networks. This badge engineering was one of the last uses of the Sunbeam name. The differences between the BSA Sunbeam and Triumph Tigress were entirely cosmetic. The former was in polychromatic green paint or two-tone red and cream, with a BSA badge; the latter in a shell like blue with the important and still prestigious Triumph badge. So it was clear somebody had thought about marketing somewhere, though two tone tanks on bikes were pretty standard.
The machine was available with a bulky 250 cc four-stroke twin power plant or 175 cc two-stroke single-cylinder engines. This stroker used the BSA Bantam engine, one of BSA’s world wide successes, a small, cheap and relatively fast starter or commuter bike. In my opinion this machine already fulfilled the niche in Turner’s head that he was aiming the scooter at. If he could have spotted this there might have been a different outcome to this story. The Bantam for all its faults was a proper, rugged little motorcycle which was easily maintained at home with a spanner and a can of two stroke oil. The four-stroke motor intended for the bigger scooter was a completely new parallel-twin with gear rather than chain drive to the gearbox and not as easy to deal with as the other unit. Further specification information tells us more about its complexity as the contact-breaker fed two ignition coils, each of which had a lead to its spark plug without a distributor. Drive to the rear wheel was by a fully enclosed chain in an oil bath. Oil bath of course is the phrase with any British machine of this time, as it was what every owner took when they removed any part off their machine.
Both versions had four gears which were foot operated not mounted on the bars and actuated by cable. Some of the 250 twins were fitted with an electric starter and a 12 volt electrical system which showed some thought along the lines of Zundapp. The 250 twin sold very well at first and could easily reach 70 mph with its efficient suspension engendering good road holding. Ten inch wheels were small compared to the huge rims Turner and his men were used to dealing with so they had put plenty of brain time in to keeping the vehicle going in its intended direction. This would indicate that by both luck and design Turner had himself a potentially world beating machine on his hands that could rival the Italians. Truth is you cold see a Sunbeam from a distance and not become unduly worried by its British providence and though Turner had missed the point a bit, it wasn't enough to consign this two-wheeler to the dungeon straight away. Let’s say it was more an evil twin than a cellar dwelling mutant.
The only problem was build quality. Not that we haven’t heard this before in the context of British auto-manufacturing. I quote one vintage owner from a rally. “The Tigress is a joy to own so long as someone else is paying the maintenance bills. But it was always like that.”
As a result, the 250 cc four-stroke model was discontinued in 1964 and the smaller 175 cc two-stroke model a year later at the height of the Mod movement. The two strokes probably survived a bit longer to use up stock piled parts that were also common to the long lived Bantam. The truth is there was always internal opposition in the company from those who felt that scooters would dilute the macho image of the British motorcycle brands. Despite this they did produce other scooters and a sad leaning motor tricycle for "shoppers". The Triumph Tina and the Ariel 3 tricycle were intended to tap into the market segment for a convenient 'shopping basket' and because they were aimed at women the machismo of the management was in no way offended. Considering the machines that Ariel had given birth to, including the remarkable and mighty Square Four, the tricycle was an insult and the Tina. Well that was as inglorious as its name sounds.
The Triumph Tina was with a 100 cc two stroke machine with an automatic transmission, and so I am informed, a shopping basket. It was not unlike the successful Honda 50 in its original brief. Its lack of gears meant it was ‘ideal for a woman’, Clearly the British motorcycle industry thought gears too complicated to be operated by a girl despite the fact that most domestic transport between 1939 and 1945 was operated by females including our very own Queen. Sexism was ingrained back then and there was a hint of disapproval at any woman who had the temerity to be motorised, but the Mini was to change all that. Cars and other machinery could be designed with women in mind without patronising them.
The real problem with the Tina was that it used a continuously variable transmission (CVT) system with a centrifugal clutch; the system had been patented by Turner and Triumph in May 1959. The engine itself was mounted on the rear swinging arm rather than in the main frame, which unlike on a motorcycle, could not form a sturdy cradle. An extensive marketing campaign was carried out, fronted by the English Elvis, Cliff Richard. Clearly a case of minimal ‘Power to all our friends’!
You guessed it though. The Tina's patented drive train had problems. The CVT drive belt derailed easily, causing the transmission to seize. Not only did this disable the scooter but also prevented the damn thing from being pushed home through the mucky streets in the rain. Also, the starting procedure for the Tina required moving a switch on the handlebar to "start" before kick starting the scooter. This activated a safety governor to keep the engine speed too low to activate the transmission. If the switch were to be left in "drive" while the scooter was being started, the motorcycle would accelerate immediately. This happened to Turner who really saw his own arse when he crashed into a kerb and a broke his ankle. Maybe this was the gods of Mod punishing him for propelling leather clad rockers about with smiles on their faces.
The Tina was replaced by the Triumph T10 in 1965. This included an improved CVT and the "start/drive" control moved to inside the seat. Here the "drive" setting would be activated by the rider's weight. This weight-activated switch ensured that the rider was seated before the drive was engaged and was quite an innovative thing to do. But as usual a casual, arrogant attitude of leaving things to chance led to an embarrassing incident at its press launch. The switch had been set at 10 stone. The dolly bird who was to ride the scooter away weighed only 8 stone. As a result the switch would not activate and the scooter remained motionless, as did sales until its inevitable demise five years later.
Not for one minute do I believe that Italian scooters are heaven sent and faultless, but their strength lies in the fact they were born from necessity and designed for a real purpose. They weren’t bandwagon jumpers like the Germans or a styling exercises like that of a massive British conglomerate. They were a product of the Italian post-war urban landscape with its tiny alleys, crowded city roundabouts and a complete dearth of parking. Most of the country was still dusty rural tracks and sleepy piazzas. They made the best of the economic circumstances and materials of the time. Britain with its miles of wet and leafy B roads, rebuilt modern town centres (courtesy of the Luftwaffe) and emerging Motorway systems was a wildly different place.
Like Germany there were other British scooter builders, though many examples were half way houses between these and other machines. Feet first motorcycle is perhaps more apt; and for a while even the jewel in the crown of British biking, Vincent, dressed their machines up with ergonomic panelling. If the classic bike clubs ever read this article I’ll be lynched for saying it, but the Vincent Black Prince, a full blown 1000cc V-Twin, looks like it dressed up as a scooter for Halloween.
Now before I leave I must mention DKR, another forgotten Scooter Company. It was founded in 1957 by three industrialists; Barry Day, managing director of the Willenhall Motor Radiator Company, Noah Robinson, another director of the Company, and Cyril Kieft, who built racing cars. He also imported motor scooters and he had the expertise required to come up with a decent vehicle. The company was run from premises at Pendeford Airport. Cyril Kieft designed the machines, which were constructed at the Willenhall Motor Radiator Company's factory in Neachells Lane. Once more a Midlands exercise, it’s almost as if somebody woke up one morning and decided they might have a go at building a scooter and just got on with it. Expertise in frame making and design wasn’t hard to find in the area. After all people still wax lyrical about the Norton Featherbed, so welding two wheels and an engine together was probably something most engineers could do in Birmingham.
It’s not as if you couldn't go for a walk and pick up all the other bits you needed off a shelf. Wheels, motor, carb, lights and anything else required could be obtained locally from a range of willing suppliers. Their first machine, the 'Dove', appeared in July 1957. It was powered by a Villiers 150 cc fan-cooled engine. It was fitted with a three-speed gearbox, and a kick starter, and was painted in 2 tone blue. Sales were very good and more models soon followed. The 'Pegasus', 'Defiant' and 'Manx' were introduced in 1958. 'Defiant' had a bigger motor with a quite reliable 12 Volt 'Dynastart' electric starter. It was also fitted with a four-speed gearbox, a Villiers carburettor, and could achieve 60 mph . Compared with a Vespa these things still looked like monsters. Their fixed one piece front mudguard, leg shield and light assembly was wide enough for the wheel to turn inside it. Weirdly though, DKRs though not Italian, do have a strange originality about them. They don’t imitate like the Sunbeam they kind of re-assess.1960 saw the launch of the 'Capella' range powered by a choice of engine sizes, all single-cylinder, two-strokes. In 1966, due to falling sales and increased foreign competition DKR packed it in.
Innocenti’s crew had glimpsed the immediate future and in terms of styling they used the familiarity of the past, the streamlining of the 1930s, and a dash of foresight in the direct requirements of their contemporary clients and modern rationalised manufacture. Over the years this has lead Italian scooters along a gentle road, straddling what has been and looking carefully at what is to come. They have sought out style rather than embracing fashion. They have done it seemingly effortlessly so their machines never jar or look particularly antique. For some reason their American, German and British competitors felt that scooters needed to herald the future. This is why many of them now look like retro-futurism or steam punk fantasies. Contemporary views of the future quickly become anachronistic. Our lack of ability to predict the march of technology means our visions of tomorrow are really just optimistic or dystopian views of now. Gerry Anderson’s Space 1999 is a case in point. This brings me to Anderson’s Thunderbirds, in which to avoid having his puppets walk any distance he employed the hover-bike which is not unlike a DKR. If only DKR could have done away with the wheels they would still be around.
Now China, Japan, India and Korea build scooters. But even the licence built clones aren’t quite what we want. I think Vespa understand this and have recently re-introduced the PX and even though the other new models are radically different, they haven’t abandoned the essence of their original machines. In retrospect I should have bought those crates and rebuilt the Tigress. Perhaps I would have found something unique, perhaps an optimistic vision of a new age?
I have tried to keep this as accurate as possible, much of it is from memory or experience of restoration. Scooter historians, feel free to email me any mistakes and I will amend the article.