Pioneering manufacturers from around the Globe who endeavoured to top the two wheel sales charts but lapsed into distant motorcycle memories…….
Italy – Maserati Motorcycles 1953-1960
The Maserati brand is obviously most appreciated for its sports cars but like so many manufacturers Carlo the eldest of the Maserati brothers began by attaching small engines to bicycles at the dawn of the 20th century. Post WW1, the brothers began large scale spark plug production from their premises in Milan. In 1937 the Orsi family purchased the troubled Maserati concern and with it the spark plug factory which he moved to Modena the home of car production for the marque. Post WW2, things took years to return to normality in Italy and in 1953 the fashion for cheap, small motorbikes was flourishing and seeing a new market Orsi’s daughter arranged the takeover of existing bike producer Italmoto. Initially, a 125cc machine was produced, this leaned heavy on the DKW design of the time but soon various models appeared from 50cc – 250cc. The Tipo-50/T2-SS was certainly one of their best looking designs and proved very successful with the more ‘racy’ enthusiast as they came supplied ready to compete with race number carriers fitted. By 1957 the brand was flying high with sales as far as South America and had gained an image of quality and style. In 1958 Maserati cars failed to appear at Grand Prix events and rumours of financial difficulties appeared causing a fall in orders. Fiat had launched their bargain priced 500 car and sales were being lost to other Italian motorcycles marques. With funds required and the banks unwilling to commit Maserati closed it motorcycle production in 1960.
New Zealand – The Maori Motorcycle 1913-1914
Two young Kiwi’s came to the UK in the early 1900s to design and build a motorcycle that should have proved a success in the home country, fate would ensure their creation would still provide much discussion over a century later. The legend of the Maori is one case where fact maybe stranger than fiction. A Bannister and G Johns produced a JAP powered 250cc machine with a unique belt driven variable speed transmission. The UK built machines, around twenty, were loaded onto a cargo ship bound for New Zealand but was intercepted by a German U boat and sunk. Just one of the Maori machines was dragged into a lifeboat before the vessel slipped beneath the waves taking the rest to a watery grave on the sea bed. The tale continues with this single machine often being seen around the town of Gisborne for many years but when chain driven machines began to control the market he was unable to sell and buried the Maori in an orchard. The rough location is known and many enthusiasts and experts have tried to locate the missing bike but without success. The National Archives in Wellington has a single faded photograph of this Maori and utilising a copy of that plus the original drawings an engineer called Dave Ransom is trying to re-create the marques only machine. This replica will be very true to the original version and with the correct engine, front end and wheels already collected, the biggest challenge according to the builder is the variable transmission/belt drive; the reason it disappeared in the first place, according to the legend.
UK – Douglas 1907-1957
Half a century of motorcycle production with the Douglas name having to be revived five times over the period, company collapses, competition victories and diversity of engineering made this company from Bristol stand out. At the very dawn of the twentieth century a Mr J F Barter designed and built a single cylinder motorcycle featuring a totally unique final drive system via the camshaft. It ‘went down like a lead balloon’ and his next flat twin design although a vast improvement also failed to inspire many purchases. Barter utilised a local Bristol engineers and foundry for his designs run by two brothers William and Edwin Douglas; the three set out to design and build a Douglas motorcycle. Arriving in 1907, a familiar flat twin 350cc machine, sales rose slowly until winning the TT plus success in the Six Days Trail. WW1 intervened but a large military order for 25,000 dispatch rider machines kept the factory at full pace. During 1920 William Douglas died at just 43, his son took over and by the end of the decade the company had enjoyed more TT victories, sales of the dirt track (speedway) machines were booming and they had designed the first motorcycle disc brake. The advancements also caused over extension and Douglas began a series of financial collapses and rescues through to WW2. Supplying aero engines to the military ensured that when hostilities ceased the Bristol factory immediately began producing the T35 version which ‘was state of the art’ in post war Britain. The flat twin was turned front-to-back and was the fastest 350cc of the era, coupled with torsion bar suspension front and rear, success was a given. This failed to stop them going bust again and Douglas Sales and Service became another temporary title before Westinghouse took control. Some fine machines left Bristol during the 50s and the company began to assemble Vespa scooters under licence during the decade. Although this scooter licence would continue on for a short while motorcycle construction came to an end in 1957.
Bulgaria – Bulkan Motorcycles 1957-1975
Whilst the production of two wheeled transport began in the mid-50s the story behind it takes us to WW1 when Bulgaria entered alongside Germany and invaded its neighbours. Post war reparations included disbanding and destroying the remains of its air force and the main factory at Lovech remained dormant until 1939. Building trainer aircraft, the plant known as ‘Factory 14’ continued until 1954 when the communist government stopped all production. The plants chief engineer Dimitar Damyanov saw the impending closure with loss of engineering talent and proposed Lovech began producing vehicles for the population. 1950s Bulgaria enjoyed a complete ban on imports and private ownership of cars and motorcycles, so with the backing required Balkan began by initially copying the DKW and Jawa designs. The M1 model for 1958 enjoyed a distinct similarity to DKWs RT250 and copy right infringements were lobbied against the Bulgarian producers. This forced Bulkan to dispatch three engineers to visit the Jawa and CZ factories and copy their machines and by making enough changes satisfy DKW with the M2 version. The C2 Sport arrived in 1958, also 250cc and then 75cc and 50c machines with export success in the early 1960s, finding their way into Africa and Central Southern America. Rumours of one entrepreneur in the USA importing and selling Balkans via his Detroit base meant the Federal Government ordering a ban on further machines entering the US. Those already in stock were considered ‘black market’ machines and supposedly destroyed. In 1967 Factory 14 became Balkan Motors, by this time four-wheel production had arrived with Fiat 124 licenced copies being assemble alongside Moskvich models. The technology and engineering within Balkan Motors was completely outdated by the early 70s but the marque did produce an impressive 270k machines before it ceased in 1975.