The History of the Blackburn Company

C. S. Burney recalls in an interview with Ralph Venables;—Throughout the whole history of motor-cycling, the Blackburn has had a reputation among proprietary engines second only to that enjoyed by the J.A. Prestwich products, and now, with the Blackburn engine long demised, an investigation into its early history inevitably reveals data of quite absorbing interest. Today there exists no man more qualified to reveal this history than C. S. Burney, the pioneer motor-cyclist (this year's President of the A.P.M.C.), who played a leading role in the development of this classic engine during the first eleven years of its existence. Burney, together with F.A. McNab, R. Moore, F.W . Barnes and others of that ilk, was a member of that select group of enthusiasts who, prior to World War 1, rode their own products in competitions—their impressive list of successes in the annals of motorcycle sport still bearing ample witness to the ingenious ability and determination of these pioneers.

The story of the Blackburn engine really dates back to 1902, when the now world-famous aeroplane designer, Geoffrey de Havilland, constructed his own motor-cycle. The engine was of 499 c.c., with a phosphor-bronze east con.-rod, coiled copper wire running around the cylinder barrel in lieu of normal fins, a detachable vertical-finned cylinder-head and side-by-side valves—both valves being mechanically operated (this is said to be the first instance of a mechanically-operated inlet valve on a motorcycle engine). The valve caps were held down externally by a common bridge-piece and the cylinder and head were secured to the crankcase by two long bolts. A single-jet spray carburetter was used (with top-feed needle valve and butterfly throttle) and ignition was by wipe contact and trembler coil. Compression ratio was about 4 to 1, and a feature of the engine was an external 12-in. flywheel.

Cecil Burney. with his brother Alick, were pupils at Willans & Robinson, Ltd., the well-known steam-engine manufacturers, of Rugby and it was here, in 1903, that they first encountered Geoffrey de Havilland and his rather remarkable motor-cycle. The brothers were immediately impressed by this machine, and Cecil Burney still clearly recalls his first ride on it, forty-five years ago. "We were very eager to build similar machines for ourselves," he says, "so you can imagine our feelings of tremendous elation when we prevailed upon de Havilland not only to supply us with a set of castings but to accept £5 for an outright sale of the patterns. With the willing consent of our employers we at once set about the building of a de Havilland engine in works time, and this was installed in a locally made frame. By the beginning of 1904 it was ready for the road and was duly registered FF 41—this being the first year of road vehicle registration. My brother and I shared this machine throughout 1904, the only real trouble encountered being the rapid wear in the main bearings and big end—due to the unhardened crankshaft. This was overcome by having the crankshaft casehardened and re-ground."

Nineteen hundred and five saw the construction of a sister machine, and the following year the Burney brothers completed their apprenticeship at Rugby and joined the staff of Daimlers at Coventry. In 1907 they decided that their engines would be improved by ordinary cast-iron finning (in place of the coiled copper wire), so new barrels were made. At the same time, re-designed heads were made—with sloping inlet and exhaust ports, and the performance of the new engines was so encouraging that Cecil decided to enter the open Coventry M.C. 100 Mile Trial on August 31st, 1907. This was his first venture into competition riding, so his jubilation can well be pictured when he was announced as the winner of the Schulte Cup for best performance in the open class.

The next year saw more competition successes and more experimental work on the engines, Cecil converting his cylinder head to overhead inlet. This, in turn, persuaded Mick to modify his engine, and 1909 found him with both valves overhead (and with the trembler coil replaced by a magneto), his machine proving itself invincible at Aston Clinton and other hill-climbs. In 1910 Cecil went to Rudge-Whitworths as head of the experimental department—a move which necessitated a switch to Rudge machines in competition riding, and throughout the next two years he enjoyed an impressive string of wins in trials and hill-climbs all over the country. Then, in 1912, came the great decision. Both Burneys felt that the time was ripe for the manufacture of their machines for public sale, and a chat with Harold Blackburn—the famous pioneer aviator— resulted in a most happy collaboration between the three men. Blackburn willingly put up £200 to launch the business, and three machines were constructed in a small workshop in Berkhamsted. The engines were made to specification at the old A.C. works in Thames Ditton, and all three machines were single-geared jobs (one of them fitted with a special rear-wheel clutch assembly).

These machines proved themselves to be so efficient that the Burneys decided to form a limited company. known as Burney and Blackburn, with the help of two other well-known Competition riders Cecil Roberts and his brother Arthur. But Harold Blackburn, although the bicycles bore his name, was essentially interested in flying, and willingly agreed to be bought out. One of the original batch of three machines had been a sidecar outfit, and particularly well it handled, too. "We gave this to Harold as a sort of dividend when he left," recalls Burney with a smile, "and straightway set about building three new machines. The company, still known as Burney and Blackburn, moved to bigger premises at Tongham, near Aldershot, and our three latest models were exhibited at the 1913 Motor-Cycle Show in London. That was a proud day for us, and I am gratified to say that the Blackburn met with a great reception. The engines were the well-tried side-valve jobs, with large outside flywheels (quite a controversy was raging then as to the respective merits of internal and external flywheels —the latter being regarded as the inevitable design for all future engines !). These .machines sold at fifty guineas, a 3-speed Armstrong hub (interchangeable in the same frame as the fixed wheel) being available to order at an additional ten guineas. There were no extras to buy, the standard tool-kit even including spare valve assembly and sparking plug. The engines were 85 by 88 mm., and, due to the large flywheel, were famous for their remarkable flexibility."

The Blackburne (now spelt with the final "e") was soon well established and 1914 saw the introduction of a Sturmey-Archer 3-speed gearbox and a redesigned frame. A hand-adjustable pulley was incorporated, but the engine had already proved itself so successful that its main features were left unchanged. A special Brooklands model was planned (christened the "Scarlet Runner ") and production showed a steady increase until, on August 2nd, 1914, Germany inaugurated a spot of bother in Europe which forced the Blackburne motor-bicycle to take second place in the considerations of those responsible for its manufacture (incidentally, all machines at the works were commandeered by the Army—and wonderfully reliable they proved, too). The Burney brothers and the Roberts brothers lost no time in enlisting as D.R s, and for the next four years they were fully, occupied on active service. The Roberts' father, G.Q. Roberts, took over full responsibility at Tongham and managed to keep the Blackburne flag flying despite adverse circumstances. But much happened during those war years. One of the Roberts was killed, and the Burneys never rejoined the company. Cecil, now a captain, continued riding a Blackburne with considerable success until 1922, when he accepted a position as competition manager with F.E. Baker, Ltd. (makers of the Beardmore-Precision), and in 1924 he left Bakers' and rode one of his brother's 500-c.c. Burney machines, three dozen of which were made at a small factory in Reading. He still rides a Burney today (with 680-c.c. s.v. twin J.A.P. engine), but from time to time he has concentrated on cyclecars as a particularly diverting mode of transport. As far back as 1910, Burney acquired a cyclecar powered with an air-cooled V-twin Peugeot engine. This machine boasted a clutch but no gearbox, and possessed an extraordinarily narrow track. In actual fact, it was the original G.N. prototype. Indeed, Burney worked at the G.N. factory in 1920, his interest in cyclecars having been reawakened by a remarkable example which he had obtained a year previously. This had a 500-c.c. Blackburne engine at the rear, a rubber belt transmitting the power (such as it was!) to a solid axle. A 3-speed Sturmey-Archer gearbox was fitted, and the whole contraption was surmounted by a single basket-seat taken from an aeroplane. In a somewhat fruitless endeavour to make this vehicle more normal in appearance, Burney shifted the engine and gearbox to the front, but the power was always inadequate, so in 1920 he constructed a cyclecar with a tubular frame, an 8-h.p. air-cooled Blackburne engine and Jukes 4-speed gearbox. Drive was via twin belts at the side of the scant bodywork, and in discussing the design of this machine Burney admits to having "made it up as he went along." It was a day of rejoicing when the job was finally completed, and it was well in keeping with the whole enterprise to discover that the workshop had to be dismantled before the car could be got out !

During this time, Blackburne's had been flourishing with impressive rapidity. Works foreman was the veteran T.T. rider, Jack Holroyd, and he went all out to convince G. Q. Roberts that the best policy was to concentrate on racing. In 1917 Len Heath had joined the firm, and a year later H.J. Hatch was brought in as designer—and subsequent events suggested that no finer choice could have been made. Nineteen hundred and twenty saw the resumption of racing, and in the Junior T.T. of that year Jack Watson-Bourne brought a Blackburne into second place behind Cyril Williams' A.J.S. Jack Holroyd came home third, just half a minute slower.

When H.J. Hatch joined the firm in 1918 only two engines were being produced—the well-tried 500-c.c. "single" and a 1,000-c.c. "twin." Both were side-valve jobs, and in no way lent themselves to development for high performance. Under Hatch's jurisdiction the range was enlarged to the extent of a 350-c.c. side-valve "single" and a water-cooled "twin," but little serious development work was attempted until, in 1921, Gillett Stephens obtained a controlling interest in the Burney & Blackburne. Soon a move was made from the old workshops at Tongham to new premises at Great Bookham, where Hatch controlled both design and experimental departments and commenced work on the first o.h.v. 350-c.c. engine. Almost at once the new o.h.v. engines established themselves as a serious challenge to the hitherto invincible J.A.P.s, and Hatch eventually widened the range to include all capacity classes from 175 c.c. to 1,100 c.c. (an o.h.v. water-cooled "twin" of 1,100 c.c. was very popular in the Morgan 3-wheeler.) Records were established at over 100 m.p.h. and a great many successes were obtained in speed trials, etc. Blackburne engines also figured in racing versions of the A.V., Bleriot-Whippet and K.R.G.

From 1921 manufacture of the complete Blackburne motorcycle had been dropped, all resources and energies being concentrated on marketing various Blackburne engines as proprietary units. Their popularity was immense, and throughout the 'twenties they were used in many different makes of machine, such as Rex-Acme, Cotton, O.K.-Supreme, Sheffield-Henderson, Massey-Arran, Henley, Ner-a-car, New Gerrard, Zenith, O.E.C., Beaumont and Chater-Lea (Dugal Merchant's Chater-Lea Blackburne was the first "three-fifty" to achieve 100 m.p.h.). Between 1923 and 1930 Blackburne-engined machines won no less than six T.T.s and created seven record laps—to say nothing of seven "seconds" and six "thirds" during the same period. Such achievements completely shattered the J.A.P. monopoly, and one of the most convincing demonstrations of Blackburne efficiency occurred when the late Wal Handley (who won two T.T. races in 1925 on Rex-Acme Blackburnes) set out to beat the 350-c.c. hour record. Not only did he succeed in his purpose, he broke the 500-c.c. record as well—the only time this has been done.

Nineteen hundred and twenty-five was an altogether outstanding year for Blackburne engines in road racing. For example, in the Ultra-Lightweight, Lightweight and Junior T.T. races of that year they scored five places out of the nine, and were also responsible for the record laps in all three events. Again in 1926 they accounted for five out of the nine places, and perhaps the greatest testimony of all lies in the fact that engines of around that vintage are still performing most creditably in hill-climbs, scrambles, sprint meetings and grasstrack races all over the country—most of these units having by now seen many seasons of strenuous competition work.

In the early 'thirties Blackburne engines were still givirg a good account themselves. The record lap in the 1930 Lightweight T.T. went to Handley on his 247-c.c. Rex-Acme at close on 67 m.p.h. and it was shortly after this that J.S. Worters put his faith in Blackburnes for attempts on various World's records, with conspicuous success. Early in 1938 Hatch produced an engine, christened the "Mechanical Marvel," which many enthusiasts still regard as the finest "twofifty" ever constructed.

The "Mechanical Marvel" was never marketed. It was designed and manufactured entirely by Blackburnes for the Excelsior Co. The first engine was built four to five weeks before T.T. practice commenced, and on the bench gave just over 20 h.p., but in 14 working days this was increased to 25 h.p. The unit was arranged to permit quick adjustments, and changing a cam merely entailed stopping the engine for less than 5 minutes. A machine with one of these engines, simulating T.T. conditions, with Brooklands silencers, lapped the track at the equivalent of 90 m.p.h. Blackburnes serviced these engines during the 1933 T.T. only. Small wonder that the Lightweight T T. of that year was won by Sid Gleave on an Excelsior fitted with the "Mechanical Marvel" engine, his speed over the 26 1/2 miles being 71.59 m.p h.

A considerable amount of work was done with the design and development of light aero-engines and important successes were gained in official light 'plane trials. The "Tomtit" engine was standardised for the De Havilland D.H. 53 light 'plane. Several aero-engines satisfactorily completed official Air Ministry Type Tests, the largest engine being 450 h.p.

Gillett Stephens were the parent firm for the American "Liberty" aero-engines which were completely overhauled and tested at their works. Major components such as crankcases, etc., for these units were produced and very large orders for aero-engine spares were dealt with. With the volume of work connected with aero-engines and the big spares programme, it was impossible to give proper support to the motor-cycle engine business and this was largely responsible for the decline of the latter.

Hatch was responsible for the design of all these different engines, but production was suspended in 1937 when Maxwell-Muller gave up the management of Vickers at Weybridge and joined Gillett Stephen's to take charge of the big rearmament programme which was launched at about that time. Hatch himself severed connections with Stephens at the outbreak of war and accepted a post with the Air Ministry in connection with research and development —a position for which his long experience had made him ideally suited.

And so it was that the famous firm ceased to exist. Surviving one war, its demise was brought about by the preparations for another, and there were thousands of Blackburne devotees who mourned the passing of a great name. From De Havilland's crude brain-child of 1902 to Hatch's "Mechanical Marvel" of more than thirty years later is contained the praiseworthy story of outstanding enterprise and design—a cross-section in the fascinating history of engine development which will be remembered for as long as motor-cycles are ridden.

[Gillett Stephens, of course, produced a 1 1/2-litre, six-cylinder, single o.h.c. car engine which was used in the small Invicta, a twin o.h.c. supercharged version being developed subsequently. This latter engine was used in unblown form in the new Frazer-Nash introduced in mid-1933. Mr. Hatch, who has kindly assisted with the above article, has offered us data on these car engines, which we hope to publish in an early issue of Motor Sport.--Ed.]