It’s the big bikes that tend get remembered. Some have created legends and started myths while others are synonymous a times, places and of subcultures. Such machines provoke reverence but with the notable exception of certain Italian scooters, most smaller machines tend to be relegated to being seem something slightly absurd.
It’s true that there is something slightly comedic about then, they are, after all not exactly fast, they whine and spout clouds of blue smoke across the street. So while they may never truly be able to be classed as cool, (not in the traditional sense anyway) I have something of a soft spot for the venerable two-stroke. This is because they were the bikes of the everyman,, arguably more so than their bigger brothers.
After the second world war petrol was in short supply across Europe, this led to a demand for vehicles that could travel the maximum distance with the smallest cost. The Italian solution was scooters such as the Vespa, in France the Velosolex, while In the old motorcycle manufacturers turned their hand to producing cheap affordable motorbikes and a wide rage of small two-stroke bikes appeared. There had been such machines before the war but in the austerity years that followed with commuters no longer being able to afford to use a car everyday and with an ever growing youth culture desiring their own freedom, these inexpensive, easy to fix machines became immensely popular.
Unlike the mopeds and scooters these looked much like miniature versions of the bigger bikes of the time.The most famous of these was the BSA Bantam, but countless other marks such as James, Francis Barnett, Brown, Excelsior also offered alternatives, usually powered by Villiers engines varying from 98cc to 250cc.
Today they have lost none of their charm or practicality. My first independent transport was Excelsiors 98cc Consort. For over a year it took me two and from work daily. Yes there were breakdowns, but never anything that couldn’t be fixed by the side of the road. It was always a very willing companion, one that also gained many smiles from passers by.
They may never have gained value or respect of their bigger brothers but these truly utilitarian motorcycles helped get Britain get back on its feet. For many they were their first experience of the freedom offered by a motorcycle, and theres something nobel about that.