The Famous James Motorcycle

Me and the Famous James at Walter Jones’ shop in Marion, Texas.

Forty years ago I attended an antique motorcycle show here in Austin, and came across two Famous James motorcycles.  I’m a Harley guy, and I knew something about Harleys, but aside from that?  Not so much.  I kinda sorta knew of Indian and some of the better known metric brands – the Triumphs, Nortons and B.S.A.s friends rode when I was a teen, and the Italians and Japanese makes I’d see in motorcycling magazines – but I knew nothing about the hundreds of marques that rose and fell before and during Harley-Davidson’s tenure, and had never heard of my namesake motorcycle company.

The 1949 Comet arrives to great fanfare.

The James Cycle Company Ltd. began manufacturing bicycles in 1897, and produced their first engine-powered cycle in 1902. After a short residence in Sampson Road, Birmingham, the works were moved to Greet, Birmingham, and from that locale the company produced a number of popular motorcycles, all the way up to 750cc, in solo and sidecar configurations. They put out some good-looking machines with a reputation for reliability.

This is a 250cc Villiers-powered model owned by an Australian. Although the model is unknown, the engine was manufactured between 1934 and 1940. The paint appears to be custom. All in all, that is a good-looking motorcycle; one I wouldn’t mind owning for myself!

They also produced some innovations that didn’t quite fly – a hub-centered steering system is one such – and even teamed up with an outfit called Samson to create a three-wheeled ‘Handyvan’, complete with enclosed cab.

The James-Samson Handyvan, just the thing for the British entrepreneur!

James earned a name for itself in TT races, which helped sales, and its economy models like the Comet proved popular in a Britain still reeling from the aftereffects of World War Two. However, as automobiles became more affordable in post-war Britain, and Japanese motorcycles later began eating up remaining market shares, sales of British motorcycles fell. A number of marques were either discontinued or swallowed up by the conglomerate Associated Motor Cycles (AMC), including Francis-Barnett in 1947, and James in 1951.

A 1951 advert for the Commodore: little more than a Comet gussied up with leg shields, an enclosed engine and a deeper-valanced rear fender.. Now the British commuter could zoom to work in his street clothes, rather than dealing with overalls or other riding apparel.
The Comet’s reliability is touted in this 1952 advert.

Production continued, but little innovation was ventured – on occasion the only difference between a James and a Frances-Barnett was the tank badge and paint scheme! – and sales continued to plummet. A scooter, released in 1960, might have helped save the marque had it been released earlier. However, it was a case of too little too late, and AMC (and James) died in 1966.

The scooter enthusiasts claim might have saved James Cycle Company from extinction.

Standing there in that exhibition hall, I had no way of knowing all that. I just saw my family name on a pretty sweet-looking motorcycle and thought I ought to have me one of those!  However, I had not a clue where to begin looking for one. 

In amongst all the adverts for Hondas and Harleys, an ad for a 193? James 125cc. Well, he got the brand name right, anyway! However, ‘complete’ was a bit of a stretch.

Then, just a few months later, a co-worker who was desperate to get himself a Harley picked up one of the freebie advertising magazines that were popular in the days before craig’s list – this one geared to motor vehicles – and sure enough, there was an advert for a James!

I didn’t have a truck (or even a car) at the time, so I ‘borrowed’ my work truck to go fetch the thing!

I made arrangements to meet the seller at his shop in a small town north of San Antonio, where he had the bike suspended from the ceiling by a come-along. I bought the thing, hauled it home in the back of my work van, and started researching.

This was the tri-fold handout for the Famous James Comet, given out at dealerships and motorcycle shows like Earl’s Court.
Quite a sales pitch, that!

This was pre-internet days (for me, anyway) and ‘researching’ involved chatting up anyone who might know anything about vintage machines, scouring magazines for any mention of the James, writing letters that were often ignored, calling long-distance (remember those days?) and running up my telephone bill, et cetera.  I even got up early one Sunday morning and rode my motorcycle halfway across Texas to attend an antique motorcycle show, on the off chance someone there might know something.

Your humble narrator on his 1949 Famous James 98cc Comet.

Someone steered me to a company called Meeten & Ward, Ltd. of Surrey, England, and they identified the bike as a Comet, powered by a Villiers 98cc 1F engine.  They thought it was made somewhere between 1949 and 1953, and assured me they could provide engine spares as needed.

The venerable Villiers engine. Villiers produced powerplants for a number of different British marques, from AJS, Francis-Barnett and Greeves to the New Hudson, Panther and Sun.

I later discovered an Ohio-based company called Accessory Mart (aka DomiRacer), and from them I purchased a copy of Roy Bacon’s Villiers Singles & Twins.  It was from Mr. Bacon that I learned mine was a 1949 model.

With the help of Mr. Bacon, I was able to discern that my bike was in fact a 1949, the first year-model for the James Comet.

Sadly, both Meeten & Ward and Accessory Mart have since gone out of business, but my quest went on.

If nothing else, the James Cycle Company had some of the prettiest decals. This is on the steering head.

Over the years I acquired a branded James shock absorber spanner and footpeg rubber, a large advertising poster and a 1956 parts manual, but never got anywhere on the actual restoration. 

I considered this a real find, not only for its connection to the James Cycle Company history, but the fact that I am a 1956 James model!

The James made a lovely telephone stand in my bachelor pad, and I lugged it with me wherever I went, until I married and settled back in Austin.  There it was consigned to a backyard shed, dry and safe but utterly neglected for the next eight years.

The James in my garage at Whitehall, Texas, circa 1986 or ’87.

I had a fun experience one evening, while on a ride with some friends. We had stopped for supper, and when we came out an older gentleman was looking at our bikes. Now, anyone who has ridden for any length of time has encountered the fellow who comes up and says, wistfully, ‘I used to have one of those, but…,’ followed by the explanation that it was sold to pay for school, or because the kids needed new shoes, or some such thing. However, this old boy shocked the hell out of me when he said ‘Have you ever heard of a James motorcycle?’ I shocked him right back when I told him ‘I have one in my living room!’

What are the odds of us running into each other like that? Two strangers, bonding over an obscure motorcycle brand very few Americans have ever heard of! Like I said, fun!

My disabling work injuries made the dreamt-of restoration even less likely, and finally led me to sell the James in early 2008 – a decision I have questioned ever since – but I’ve not lost my fascination with the history.  In fact, I was doodling around on the ‘net when I discovered Sheldon’s EMU. If you’re into motorcycling history, that site will keep you busy for a good long while!

Finally, courtesy of British artist Garry Hurt: what my Comet could have looked like, had I ever gotten ’round to restoring it.

So, that’s my history lesson for the day.

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