Memorable Moto Francis Barnett Cruiser

October 3, 2008
Frank Melling
Frank Melling
Contributing Editor| Articles|RSS

Our Memorable Motorcycles expert, Frank Melling also is the organizer of the British vintage motorcycle extravaganza known as Thundersprint. Melling began riding five decades ago and remains as much in love with motorcycles as when he drove his first bike into a cow shed wall aged ten. In the last 50 years, Melling has competed in every form of motorcycle sport and now declares himself to be too old to grow up and be sensible.

The 1957 Francis Barnett Cruiser
The Francis Barnett factory was successful and profitable until being razed by German bombing in WWII, and post-war motorcycles like its 1957 Cruiser did little to help find its way back to posterity.

Francis Barnett Cruiser

At the end of the Second World War, the British were emotionally and physically exhausted. They had won the war but the population felt that it was a hollow victory. Basic foodstuffs were still strictly rationed and kids were routinely given concentrated orange juice and cod liver oil tablets to fend off malnutrition-induced diseases. In 1946, Britain was not, as the politicians claimed, a land fit for heroes to live in.

British industry suffered tremendously as a result of the conflict and in the immediate post war years there was a huge shortage of raw materials. No area of industry did worse than motorcycle manufacturing which was decimated by six years of conflict.

The successful, and profitable, Francis Barnett factory in Coventry was razed to the ground during German saturation bombing and this had two effects. First, the company’s base and infrastructure was destroyed but this loss also led to the cancellation of what would have been an invaluable military order.

Immediately pre-war, the factory had a neat, efficient and modern 125cc bike in the form of the Snipe. A militarised version of this bike was accepted by the British Army but all the production capacity, along with the tooling, was destroyed before a single motorcycle could be delivered.

Post-war, Francis Barnett could not survive as an independent manufacturer and so was absorbed by the ever growing empire of London-based Associated Motorcycles who already controlled the major AJS and Matchless brands. The idea was that AJS and Matchless would provide the premium end models, sold to bike enthusiasts, whilst Francis Barnett and James – another marque absorbed by AMC – would furnish the lightweight, utilitarian motorcycles. In this way, the budget models sold to workers as their sole means of transport, would not taint the high dollar, sporting motorcycles which theoretically generated AMC their profit.

The 1957 Francis Barnett Cruiser came off the line outdated and lacked automatic lubrication.
The 1957 Francis Barnett Cruiser came off the line outdated and lacked automatic lubrication.

The core concept was dreadfully flawed and the actual execution was appalling. Pre-war, Francis Barnett had kept costs down by using engines supplied by the mighty Villiers factory in Wolverhampton. Villiers very rarely made their own bikes but they were, by far, the biggest manufacturer of small engines in the world.

Their main business was producing stationary engines but, as a by-product, the factory also made solid, reliable – if dull – motorcycle powerplants. The problem was that Villiers’ relationship with their customers was often dictatorial and this annoyed even the smaller companies. With AMC, things were often considerably more than tense.

AMC’s primary difficulty was a weak management which always lacked a vision for the future of the company. Post War, it was a tired company with introspective and closed-minded management. With a Sochiro Honda at the helm, AMC could still be one of the biggest manufacturers in the world. They didn’t have a Honda – so now they’re history!

In an attempt to break away from Villiers’ monopoly supply of engines, AMC commissioned Italian designer Vincenzo Piatti to design all-new two-stroke engines. Piatti was already known to AMC management through his novel, but breathtakingly ugly, Piatti scooters, but the project was a total mess from start to finish. First of all, Piatti’s design – constrained by AMC’s demands for cost cutting rather than quality – was very conservative. Second, it was poorly made by AMC and soon gained a strong reputation for unreliability. Added to this was an all-enveloping dullness which reflected a tired management, distant from its customer base.

There were some attractive lightweights being made at the time. Triumph had the perky little “Cub,” Ducati were offering the utterly gorgeous “Silverstone” and Adler made the M250 – which was to be the basis for Yamaha’s range of twins. By contrast, the Cruiser was stultifying mundane in every respect. It had poor performance, dreadful handling and brakes whose only virtue was that they had only to deal with the bike’s snail-like progress. Add to this depressing colour schemes, graceless styling and a lacklustre performance and it is easy to see why, even with the huge advantage of AMC’s well-established dealer network behind it, the bike was a sales flop.

The 250cc single-cylinder engine vibrated harshly and lacked power.
Melling said the 250cc single-cylinder engine vibrated harshly and its power curve was ‘flat and unexciting.’

The bike was also out of date in every respect at the time of its launch in 1957. Critically, it lacked automatic lubrication which Scott motorcycles had in full series production 32 years earlier! Instead, riders carried a bottle of oil with them and poured the correct, more or less, amount of lubricant into the gas tank before adding neat fuel and then shaking the bike like a Samba dancer.

The 250cc single cylinder motor vibrates badly and has a harsh, truculent feel to it which just makes the rider want to stop the thing and walk away. The power curve is flat and unexciting and gives the feeling of meanness. Matters are no better with the four-speed gearbox which is heavy and gives inaccurate selection. The Cruiser is better than walking to work – but not much better!

The handling is just as conservative. Even at launch, the Cruiser plodded on like some geriatric donkey: utilitarian motorcycling at its worst – a feeling compounded by truly appalling brakes.

Riding a Cruiser today is a depressing experience. Some vintage bikes can provide a wonderfully involving and anthropomorphic experience which very few modern motorcycles can achieve. By contrast, after 15 minutes on a “Cruiser”, a soulless, computer-designed 2008 bike starts to look like a good idea. The Francis Barnett is that bad!

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