DEVELOPING THE MARQUES AND CONVERSIONS

There were two problems. One was the original workshop being too small for more than servicing and repairs.  This was resolved by moving the workshop into an industrial unit in New Road, conveniently opposite Watford High Street station. This would let the ‘S’ type go into production, but the Lambretta concessionaires did not like it. There was a thinly veiled threat of terminating my dealership, eventually reduced to withdrawing the factory warranty from machines that had been tuned. No problem - I gave my own warranty and the ‘S’ type was born.

Two-tone paintwork was featured with accessories exactly as my original drawings. The first Sebring carriers were made from rod, as I could not form tube in house. I had designed an inside leg shield mounting for the spare wheel which was stronger and neater than the hook on and tensioner version available, but I only made two before a near identical mounting came from Italy, which I was happy to use.

Engine alterations were modest. Ports reworked and polished, compression raised. Silencers given keyhole surgery to the first baffle, the air filter resistance reduced and the carburetor jetting changed. Finally, the side panels were sign written. It looked the business, sounded the business and saw off standard models for £225.00, which was only £10.00 more than the list price of the basic model.

Which introduces problem two: The cost of conversions. Talking to a cross section of scooter riders from all over the country (excepting a handful from wealthy families who could have been smoking around in a new sports car, but chose a scooter or perhaps both?), the acceptable price ceiling was a low one.

To put it in perspective, a potential buyer of a new Vespa 150 Clubman at £160.60p might have to down size to a 125, because the deposit was £2.00 less and the 36 months repayments were £5.15p compared to £6.38p for the Clubman. Today, when a scooter sports silencer can command £250.00, it is difficult to appreciate what £1.23p a month meant in 1960?

Commercially it was better to sell a new standard scooter, as the profit was eroded to supplement the cost of the conversion labour and parts. This also explains why almost every subsequent development was either modifying standard parts or adopting something existing. Producing new major parts was never an option, as the cost of development and tooling translated into an unacceptable unit price even amortized with producing the most optimistic quantity that could ever be sold.

The Lambretta was the least effected as many parts were interchangeable, including almost every gear cluster from the early Li 125 to the last GP200 - a wide choice of ratios. Vespa models did not have this versatility and tuning was also more difficult as, in comparison, the standard porting was pretty good, but - with my two-tone paint and accessories - it was well received.

Development was on-going and included introducing Amal carburetion, double engine mounts and a large bore exhaust. Still prepared for street use, as the ‘on tarmac’ events were decided by target times that were easily attained.

It was a stable, almost cozy period and could have remained so without one man, Bob Wilkinson. Appointed full time secretary of the Lambretta Club in the early 1960’s, he had made most of the existing events bigger and better and then introduced us to rallies and serious competitions on the continent.  Finally, and most significantly, Bob promoted full-blown track racing. Now performance and handling was everything. It was what we had been working towards for a long time, though never expecting the opportunity to unleash it.

Basic and more advanced tuning has been well documented and even the Lambretta Concessionaires accepted the inevitable and published ‘The Lambretta Manual of Tuning and Performance Conversions’, written by their Guarantee and Technical Manager, Ken Herlingshaw, but track racing required thinking out of the street user box.

Previously shelved performance alterations were incorporated, as long term reliability and fuel consumption were now not an issue. Nothing was discounted and I recall replacing the flywheel with a slightly lighter weight disc, fabricating an air scoop under the cylinder cowling for cooling and ignition by battery for my own 225, just to lose the drag of the flywheel magnets and cooling fins.

The net result was that the track ‘S’ types were successful across the board - 125, 150, 200 and unlimited - but the development input and riding skill of my staff was vital.  Exciting times, but at a cost. Scooter club members were no longer able to compete on equal terms.

MY RECORDS AND RACING PEOPLE

Parts manager, Ken Peters, was an enigma and incredibly efficient, as his knowledge of parts and part numbers was encyclopaedic.  After a white-collar working day he would drive home in his sports car. He was a different person when involved in a promotion or long distance event. Bubbling with enthusiasm during preparation then revelling in the mental and physical stamina to successfully achieve each target that had been set.

There was on-going development work for me for top riders John and Norman Ronald, who lived in Nottingham where their Father had substantial engineering facilities. They were my only ‘S’ type riders who were not employees. We met as competitors in the early days and became good friends before working together.  Continuity required meeting regularly at a mid way point off the Ml to analyse results and to plan what was to be done before the next time we were to meet. It may sound over the top but their contribution was significant and it included all of the development of the Vega into 125cc, which proved almost unbeatable in its class.

With one exception the other riders were employees who developed into the ‘who’s who’ of top competitors while working for me. One of the first was Roy Wilson who has the distinction of being the only rider to seriously frighten me when I was riding pillion. An aggressive rider who soon gained the reputation of falling off or winning, he managed to stay on often enough to be a Lambretta Champion of the year.  Eventually Roy moved on to become a professional stunt man under the name Roy Alon and later a stunt director.

Roy and Nick Barnes were like chalk and cheese. A fastidious worker and uncomplaining team player, Nick readily agreed to ride a 150cc ‘S’ as I correctly thought it would suit his light weight, although during his years with me he also had a raft of victories in the 125 and 200cc classes. He eventually joined Suzuki GB where he became Sales Manager.

The exception was Nev Frost who was already a top rider. During most of the relatively short time with me he was preparing a 125 to add his stable, changing something during his lunch break and checking the effect whilst commuting to Bromley. Already established on a kneeler combination and 200 solo, he was undoubtedly the most successful ever competitor.

Bending the rules, I will also include another good friend, Ken Herlingshaw, of the Lambretta Concessionaires, as he ‘moonlighted’ with me most Saturdays!

Ray Kemp was one of my last recruits. At the interview he came across as a polite and well-spoken moralist who looked as if he would be more suited to designing computers than tuning scooters. He was so keen I took him on board, though expecting no more than him becoming a decent mechanic. I could not have been more wrong! Ray became an invaluable all rounder and brilliant circuit racer in what was, arguably, the most competitive 200cc class.

Arthur Francis

Courtesy of David Dry


FROM A BIKER TO SCOOTER

I became a biker on my sixteenth birthday, riding a 150cc Francis Barnett restored during the previous five months. A few days later knocking on doors in the Strand and Fleet Street armed with a portfolio prepared at school, I was taken on as a commercial artist by the publishers Newnes and Pearson. The salary was mouth watering, so bigger and better bikes followed until I purchased a Vincent 1000cc Black Shadow V twin. It was the ultimate on the open road but proved hard work in traffic, so I decided a more user friendly stable mate was needed for the daily run into central London.

Result? In the overall placing’s the British lads finished second to Lambretta Club Cagliari of Sardinia. A poor second? Not a bit of it! At the end of the four days, only 15 sec. separated the runners-up from the winners. No wonder that British team­ manager Bob Wilkinson says that next year they are out to win. In third place was Lambretta Club Castellmare di Stabia (Naples).
 

TO MY OWN BUSINESS AND THE START OF TUNING

Scooter clubs were in the ascendant when I was promoted to Sales Manager. There was already a strong bond with Vespa Club number 104 as two of our staff were members, but there was nothing for Lambretta until I formed Ace of Herts. Initially a bi-weekly get together in the showroom and runs to a scooter friendly cafe, it evolved into enjoying events all over the country which were mainly for any make of scooter, many long forgotten, Piatti, NSU, Peugeot, Maicoletta, Diana, BSA, Dayton, ISO and DKR come to mind. Add Vespa and Lambretta owners and the numbers were huge, in 1959 ten thousand was the official attendance at a rally close to us in St Albans.

Spurling Motors was a mainly Vauxhall car dealership with outlets throughout London that had broken into two wheels in the late 1940’s, bulk buying, restoring and selling ex-war department motorcycles. In the big picture our Watford scooter outlet was small beer, but sales targets were constantly exceeded so everyone was stunned to be told the property was sold and the new owner wanted vacant possession.I was offered alternative employ, but I saw the scooter franchise opportunity. Armed with the guarantee of a suitable premises to lease and supported by my service manager Keith Woodhead I obtained the area main dealership for Lambretta and Vespa.

Trading as Francis and Woodhead, it was just the two of us as we could not afford staff, but we were busy from day one and invariably doing servicing and repairs for hours after the shop had closed. Staff had been taken on, but evening work was still the norm when Keith resigned. Being single, working sixty plus hours a week was no problem to me. Only, with hindsight, did I appreciate that Keith’s wife had not condoned long workdays and they had two small children, so Keith had accepted a job with conventional hours. Keith had the workshop so well set up nothing changed except the company name. Scooter clubs started to polarize into action and social groups.  I remained active with the Ace of Herts competing somewhere most weekends.

Lambretta had obtained clear market leadership by having stock to meet the demand during the Suez crisis, but the easy days were long gone and dealers were offering silly discounts to close a sale, often without any subsequent servicing. One of my better sales ideas for the Vespa Club 104 members and potential members was that of registration numbers. At that time they were issued by the County, I reserved every ‘104’ number with any three letters for the indefinite future.

There was more significance to just being ‘Vespa Club 104’. A contempory very popular American TV detective series, Highway Patrol, had storylines loaded with car radio conversations, which were always signed off as ‘ten - four’ and its star, Broderick Crawford, was the club president.

Lambretta purchasers were assured of the best after sales service! Inspired by the beautifully finished castings of Japanese engines, I started tuning my own scooter engines. Reworking and polishing the porting, alterations to the carburation and exhaust were fitted in when time was available.  Although the next step was already on the drawing board. Lambretta and Vespa models to be supplied as a tuned package with complementary accessories and colour schemes.

PROMOTIONS AND PUBLICITY

I had an Everest attitude (Q: Why do you want to climb it? A: Because it’s there) and so I took my scootering into the bastions of motorcycling.

These included from London to the West Country on a mix of road and special trials sections that were a challenge to even twenty inch wheels and another that finished in Manchester after visiting as many check points as possible in exactly 600 miles. There was a long off road section to the finish but it was more route pre planning and endurance than riding skill, as - adding the mileage getting to the start and back from Manchester - put 900 miles on the clock.  There was never any animosity from the bikers. At the checkpoints they were friendly, curious and even expressed grudging admiration, though behind the handshakes they probably doubted my sanity!

My parts manager, Ken Peters, created his own Everest and obtained a lot of publicity riding my Lambretta ‘A’ model to the Innocenti factory and back, which was widely reported.

Douglas asked me to promote the Vespa SS 90 and liked my idea of two young ladies sharing a run to the Piaggio factory in 24 hours.  In practice one would be riding while the other rested in my escort and refueling car. They made it to the factory, but just outside the target time, having lost power by crashing during an unseasonable snowstorm and damaging the silencer.  Unknown to me Douglas had built on my idea and arranged with another UK dealer to do the return run with the repaired SS 90 ridden this time by two males. Our previous failure was tempered when they took longer than my girls.

Shed loads of ideas came from impromptu brainstorming sessions with the staff, usually after work in our local pub and one idea resulted in the building of a scooter chopper. It was a one off, but it led to orders for essentially standard models with the controls altered.  One altered example was for a lad with his left arm so weak he could not operate the standard clutch or gear change.

Another idea was certainly alcohol fuelled: How quickly could we get a Lambretta to the Innocenti factory, without an escort vehicle and with only one rider. Somehow it still seemed a good idea?  The next morning and sober it still seemed like a good idea, Ken was ‘up for it’ and a couple of months later we had the answer: Under seventeen hours - by an ‘S’ type with an extra fuel tank and 12 volt lighting. The planning included being at the Dover ferry port within a five-minute window and first off at Calais.  It was still pretty impressive when the only way across the channel then was a ponderous ferry.

Year on year more sales were to people who had been referred, but - with hindsight - I should have asked these others, ‘How did you hear about us?’ as most were unknown to me before they walked into the showroom.  Some just collected their new scooter after ordering by telephone or post. I still believe that advertising and editorial articles were the most effective part of generating sales, though success at competitive events cannot be discounted, especially the annual Isle of Man events which always had a huge following of spectators.

DEVELOPMENT TO THE 250 AND ITS ACHILLES HEEL

The Lambretta scooter was created as basic city transport in Italy, after their world war two defeat. The first model was a 125 on seven-inch wheels without even rear suspension. Developed commercially to the D and Ld 150 models (the E and F were aberrations), the manufacturers Innocenti still considered 150 cc would be the maximum capacity required when designing the Li series. Later, their first TV (Series 1) was almost all new and both over engineered and expensive. It was another aberration, but it identified a market for a 175that Lambretta then served by enlarging the capacity of the Li engine. This was easy to do as they used the same crankcase.

Later still, and adamant there would never be a 200 (Innocenti cited excessive vibration), a reliable source told me Peter Agg (Lambretta Concessionaires) had to assure the importing of a quantity into the UK that would cover all the tooling costs before Innocenti would reconsider their position. Then there would be no design compromise. The factory 200 was based on a new crankcase with a wider neck with stud spacing to accommodate the larger cylinder skirt. This was just one of a raft of new parts.

This 200 development would be the essential format for a 250 - accommodating an even larger cylinder, modifying the standard crankcase and using off the shelf parts to minimise the cost. From the inception I treated the 250 as a personal project. Any subsequent production and sales would be a bonus.

I chose a Bultaco as the donor and made a platform for the cylinder, studs and transfer ports from 12mm alloy, which was welded onto a cut down Lambretta crankcase. The cylinder fins and head were machined to fit in the standard cowling and so retain fan cooling; everything else was pretty straightforward except the crankshaft, which required a crankpin that was not concentric

Installed in my 250 ‘S’ type, it fired up second kick. Vibration was negligible, the tick over was perfect and, even when treated with respect while running it in, the acceleration was outstanding. I could not fault it during the first six hundred miles.  Then, changing gear at high revs, a crankshaft web twisted on the crankpin. A new crankshaft with a tighter fit at the webs to the crankpin seemed to resolve the problem and I decided to gauge reaction by entering it in the unlimited class at a circuit race. After half a lap it was so far ahead of the field I could have coasted but it was such fun I continued using all the power. Then that crankshaft also failed!

Advice was taken, the conclusion that a completely new crankshaft would be required, an additional cost that finished any chance that the 250 could be a commercial proposition. I even baulked at the price for my own engine and compromised by limiting the engine revs.  With my fingers crossed, it survived road testing and received impressive reviews!

By the mid 1960’s scooter top speed attempts included a Lambretta kneeler called Atlanta V, which obtained considerable media coverage - though more from rider Marlene Parker in all white leathers – than for breaking any records. Later it was offered to me, less the engine.  I bought it for very little money, though - at the time - I had no plans for using it.

I was dabbling in sprinting driving a Ford 1600 powered Fiat 600 when I saw a scooter running at Santa Pod. I was intrigued. My 250 engine and the Atlanta frame were gathering dust, so I put the two together, choosing a meeting at Duxford for a trial run. The engine was still restricted and the handling poor, but I managed mid 15 seconds for the standing quarter mile. I modified the frame for better straight line handling and tidied up the crude foot gear change for sprinting at Santa Pod. I also removed the rev limiter, relying on smooth gear changing for reliability.

My most memorable moment was the only occasion I raced Fred Willingham - the Lambretta king of speed. Both of us went to a Santa Pod meeting without knowing the other would be there and the organisers introduced a best of three runs for us as an addition to the programme. I won two of the three, but it was the last time I used the 250 engine. A few months later, I was really pleased for Fred, when he was the first to break the ton at - 104mph.

MORE HIGH POINTS THEN (APPARANTLY) THE END

There had been a working association between Innocenti and our BMC - British Motor Corporation - from the mid 1950’s. The Austin A40 design had unmistakably Italian flair and Innocenti actually both designed and built some of the sports cars that succeeded the British Austin Healey ‘Frogeye’ Sprite.

During the SX era there were rumblings that Innocenti was cutting back its Lambretta activities, so I was relieved as well as delighted when the Grand Prix model was unveiled. It heralded heady times. My riders chalking up win after win. Then, in 1970, the clean sweep of first, second and third overall at the Isle of Man.

There were other signs all was not well. Bob Wilkinson had been succeeded by Peter Davis who in turn had left the Concessionaires, funding of the Lambretta Club was drying up and Peter Agg took on the UK Suzuki concession. Eventually we were told Lambretta production was finishing, as BMC had bought Innocenti as a plant to produce cars only. I was devastated. Over the years a great deal had been done with the Vespa and it had been a significant percentage of my business, but Lambretta had been special. The first scooter I owned, the club I formed, then the on-going social and sporting activity. Little changed while Lambretta scooters were still available, I was offered a Suzuki agency, but I had lost interest and decided to sever all two wheel ties.

Ray Kemp was made of sterner stuff and I was pleased that he incorporated my trading name when first setting up on his own. His has been a success story and certain to continue as now his son Ben is in the business.

I was already living in Surrey and joined the team at Caterham Cars, best known as manufacturers of sports cars developed from the Lotus 7 series.

LAMBRETTA ALMOST A PHOENIX RISING FROM DEAD

Suzuki Japan was producing an attractive range of models and Suzuki UK went from strength to strength. Most of the key Lambretta people had stayed on with Peter Agg including parts Director Eric Allvey and in the mid 1970’s he asked to meet me to talk through a problem. For decades there had been national and regional distributors of accessories and spare parts, mainly for scooters and sourced from Italy. Now they were selling substantial quantities of motorcycle spares imported from the Far East, at well below the manufacturer’s price. The thinking was: if you can’t beat them, then join them to beat them by setting up a similar company autonomous from Suzuki UK. As well as spare parts a new range of accessories was to be designed for motorcycles and off road cars, scooters would also be well represented. It was to be called Two Four accessories.

I was being head hunted from Caterham Cars to be sales manager and I accepted. Installed in suitable warehousing I recruited a seven strong sales team which exceeded expectations.

Behind the scene there were significant changes. Peter Agg sold the Suzuki operation to the Heron Corporation; eighteen months later Two Four Accessories was also taken over. Heron man Eddie Leigh was appointed MD, I became his General Manager and we proved to be an excellent team.

BMC had sold the Innocenti scooter plant to India where it was be set up producing the Lambretta Grand Prix and when they had the production capacity to export the GP150, they offered it to Suzuki. The price was right and the decision made to market it through their Two Four Accessories vehicle. An initial 100 were ordered. With hindsight I should first have insisted on going to the factory.

The Lambretta’s were delivered from India to the Suzuki distribution unit at Westbury where I was able to check the first consignment. Each scooter was wrapped in poly sheeting then, individually, in a crate made of rough hardwood, as we were assured it would be by Scooters India, but - without any restraint inside the crate - 98 were damaged, most with broken handlebars. I sent drawings of how they should be secured which almost resolved that problem. Some still arrived in crates that were themselves so badly smashed that it was hard to believe that the damage was accidental?

Another problem was poor quality. This seemed to be mainly parts that were sub contracted. As an example: wiring looms with dry joints. It was becoming depressingly obvious Scooters India did not have a clue.

The shipping schedule was just as bad and our consignments could be on a dock for weeks before loading, resulting in ‘free gifts’, which at least let the receiving dealers, and us lighten up. A Lambretta delivery would be followed by phone calls to tell us how many cockroaches (Indian, thus huge), scorpions (fortunately always small) and once a dead snake were found in the poly wrapping.

There was the impression that Scooters India were either owned or sponsored by their government mainly to employ as many people as possible? They readily agreed to everything we asked but seldom produced, so exporting must have become increasingly costly and less attractive, as they failed to meet the service and quality required. They were given one last chance.

I ordered three GP200’s to exhibit at the NEC motorcycle show; my specification included vibrant new colours. They arrived in perfect condition and exactly as ordered. Reaction at the show was brilliant and I ordered loads, but my euphoria did not last. Scooters India then said that their production line would only be able to supply the GP150 and its paint shop only the same drab colour. The last straw was the little interest shown in improving quality control, so it was the end of the second and last time I worked with Lambretta.

Two Four accessories continued in its pre Lambretta format until Eddy became M D of another Heron operation and I went full circle back to publishing.

In June 1992 1 went to one more Lambretta event, the third Euro Lambretta Jamboree held in the grounds of the Mike Karslake Lambretta museum. The Karslake family were known to me from when they lived at Benfleet when my boys were toddlers. Mike had died eighteen months earlier and it was quite emotional when his widow, Rachel, phoned to invite me and my youngest son Sean to stay with her for the jamboree weekend and escort her to the dinner. It turned the clock back to the best of the early rallies, years before most there would have had a driving licence, though I was surprised to see so many from my Watford days. The jamboree consisted of mainly field and off road events, dancing and a sit down dinner, which, I believe, catered for 300 people. It was a credit to the organisers, and a tribute to Mike. It could not have been a better final curtain for me.

HIGH AND LOW POINTS - ONLY ONE NOT ALREADY COVERED

1.  The highest was the response to the three Grand Pnx 200’s shown at the NEC. Scooters India had shown they could supply the quality required and the UK market was ready. I was in no doubt Lambretta was coming back big time.

2.  My rider’s success at competitive events, especially sweeping the board at the Isle of Man in 1970.

3.  Creating and riding the 250. For years it had been an itch that would not go away.

1.  The worst was being told one of my closest members of the Lambretta club had been killed riding the first 200 I sold. It was standard ex factory, but it took a long time to shake off feeling guilty for selling it to him.

2.  The end of Lambretta in the UK. The loss of Innocenti was the worst, as it had been my working and most of my social life for over twenty years. Then Scooters India, by being in touching distance of an exciting new era, before they pulled the rug.

3. The 250. In my mind I always knew it was likely to be too expensive and I was probably justifying the development cost when considering the engine as the heart of a Super ‘S’ type, but the crankshaft weakness was still a bitter disappointment.