Greeves survived until 1978, largely through making competition machines which initially didn’t interest the Japanese.
Even a passing glance at the Greeves “Sportsman” is a depressing experience. Everything about the bike is crude and amateurish based on the bare minimum to scrape by rather than a credible attempt at producing a motorcycle of quality. Viewed against contemporary opposition from Japan, the Greeves is of an appalling standard. Yet, this need not have been the case.
The Greeves factory, although small, was profitable and well equipped. It had its own foundry, fiberglass-molding facility and an efficient design department. With the benefit a government funded, invalid car business, it also had a steady and virtually guaranteed income stream. In short, Greeves had the basis to produce clever, high quality motorcycles.
Instead, its claim to innovation came about through rubber sprung leading forks and a cast aluminum “I” beam for the frame’s down tube. Both were quirky and worked after a fashion, but they were engineering cul-de-sacs adding nothing to the advancement of motorcycle design.
Like the rest of the tiny British motorcycle manufacturers, Greeves sourced most of its components from indigenous local suppliers and so there was a substantial market for parts if British suppliers had sought to exploit it. On the Sportsman, the 325cc two-stroke engine came from Villiers, the brakes from British Hub and the rear dampers were supplied by Girling. Even then, the minor components from mudguards to petrol taps were bought in.
In some ways the most frustrating aspect of this story is the Villiers engine. At the time, Villiers was a huge company largely manufacturing stationary engines for a vast range of applications. Villiers’ products were well made and were capable of being produced with the economy of scale which only a major industrial company can achieve. In truth, the two-stroke engine supplied by Villiers for the Greeves Sportsman was not a bad power-plant – for the mid-1950s.
Greeves were actually rather successful in competition back in the company’s prime, winning the European Motocross Championship and classes in the Manx Grand Prix among many others.
The problem came when the Villiers engine was put up against the Japanese motor technologies. Everything about the motor – from the cosmetically poor castings to the lack of automatic lubrication and insistence on a four-speed gearbox, screamed out that the engine was 10 years – put at its kindest – out of date. Even with the evidence before them, Villiers’ management seemed to believe that if they shut their collective eyes, crossed their fingers and hoped for the best, the Japanese would go away and the bad dream would be over. In reality though, it wasn’t going to happen.
Riding the Greeves is just as dispiriting as looking at it. The Villiers motor is sweet enough if kept below 60mph and the handling and brakes suffice at this modest speed. What can’t be hidden at any speed however, is the sheer crudeness of the bike. This is not a motorcycle which could have inculcated pride in even the most ardent Greeves fan.
And whilst Greeves and Villiers proudly launched the all new Sportsman for the 1963 model season, on the other side of the world Suzuki were putting the finishing touches to the T20 – a six-speed, automatic lubrication masterpiece which was 20mph faster than the Greeves and handled like a GP road racer.
Greeves survived until 1978, largely through making competition machines which initially didn’t interest the Japanese. Even so, the writing was on the wall 15 years earlier – and the message unmistakable.
For further information contact Greeves-Riders.org.
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