Century Old Singles

Story by Graham Clayton// Photos by Graham Clayton
September 1 2008

Peter Emman’s Century Old Singles

Ontario CVMG (Canadian Vintage Motorcycle Group) member, Peter Emmans, owns two of the oldest running motorcycles in Canada, a 1903 235 cc Kerry and a 1905 375 cc Riley with sidecar. These two rare pieces of motorcycle history, both restored by Peter’s father in England, were on exhibit at this year’s CVMG Paris National Rally in Paris, Ontario. The Kerry is one of only four such models known to exist, while the Riley is thought to be the last of its kind. Peter’s family immigrated to Canada in 1954, and his father returned to England in 1956 and brought the two bikes to Canada.

1903 Kerry

Peter’s father found the 1903 Kerry in 1933, abandoned in the bottom of a hedgerow. The senior Mr. Emmans restored the bike to running condition and the following year entered it in the inaugural London to Brighton Emancipation Run. This 1934 event marked the 30th anniversary of the abolition of a British law that required that all motorized vehicles be preceded by a man running with a red flag to warn the unwary that a motorized vehicle was approaching. Egads, a horseless carriage!

Kerry motorcycles were built in England from 1902 to 1914. Like many machines built in the first five years of the twentieth century, they tended to incorporate off-the-shelf or specialty components outsourced from numerous other manufacturers.

The Kerry motorcycle was the result of a move into the fledgling motorcycle industry by the East London Rubber Company, a firm that imported raw rubber from plantations in Southeast Asia and supplied it to tire companies such as Dunlop. Getting into motorcycle production must have seemed like a logical next step for the firm.

Heavy-duty frames were commissioned from a bicycle frame manufacturer with reinforcing to handle the power output of early gasoline engines. One noteworthy aspect of the Kerry frame was its full-loop design. In 1903, a German engineer by the name of Werner held a world patent for motorcycle frames that incorporated the engine as a stressed component. To avoid having to pay a patent royalty, the Kerry frame had the engine bolted into the frame as a non-load-bearing component.

Strengthened bicycle-type wheels, saddles, rigid front-ends and other rudimentary components were also outsourced.

Belgian engines manufactured by companies such as Fabrique Nationale (FN) and Kelecom powered many of the early Kerrys, but the 1903 235 cc Kerry was powered by a motor manufactured by Serolea, although it was stamped as a Kerry. This motor was a 4-stroke single that had an automatic inlet valve, atmospheric carburetor, straight-drive with belt final drive, and was rated at 2 1/3 bhp. Later models built from 1910 on by Abingdon were fitted with either a side-valve 499 cc single or a 670 cc side-valve V-twin engine.

The 1903 Kerry employed a moped-type of pedal starting system that disengaged once the motor started running. Braking was achieved by setting the pedal shafts parallel to the ground and then pressing down on the rearmost peddle like on a fixed-wheel bicycle. Do they still make fixed wheel bicycles?

The running gear on the 1903 Kerry 235 cc motorcycle was very basic and included 6-volt electrics and a dead-loss dry cell battery to spark the engine and power the bike’s tiny headlamp. Even so, the Kerry was a quality finished product for its day and, sold through select dealers in London, Bristol and Sheffield, commanded a price of 28 guineas (equal to 29 pounds and 8 shillings).

Peter’s father rode the green 180 lb. Kerry in the annual London to Brighton vintage event up until the outbreak of WWII. Later, from 1950 onwards, young Peter took over the London-Brighton riding duties, the bike then being fitted with a Learner Plate. Peter still occasionally rides the Kerry, which is licensed for road use, but only on smooth pavement that minimizes the impact of having virtually no suspension.

1905 Riley

Peter Emmans’ 1905 375 cc Riley motorcycle was also originally a straight-drive motorcycle, but was retrofitted with a Sturmey-Archer 3-speed in 1911. Peter’s father acquired the vehicle complete with wicker-weave basket sidecar in 1949. It was in a dilapidated state, but once again the senior Mr. Emmans performed his restoration magic and rode the finished machine in the 1950 London-to-Brighton vintage run in the company of Peter on the Kerry.

The Riley manufacturing concern is best known as a car manufacturer that built some real performance models to compete at Brooklands and the like in the 1920s and 30s. Originally a bicycle manufacturer, Riley only built motorcycles for about seven or eight years (1899-1907). Peter Emmans’ 375 cc sidecar outfit (engine #948 of 1,200) is one of only a small number built by Percy Riley, the genius son of Riley Cycle Company owner, William Riley.

In 1898, sixteen-year-old Percy, unknown to his father and against his wishes, built his own single-cylinder engine powered car. In the process he also invented the very first mechanical inlet valve. This vehicle was also equipped with a proper steering wheel, unlike Henry Ford’s early tiller-type steering mechanism, further demonstrating Riley’s capacity for invention and innovation.

Riley continued to build motorcycles while first experimenting with a 3-wheeled motor vehicle, and then increasingly focusing on cars. In 1903 Percy formed the Riley Engine Company and went on to do pioneering work in the development of side-valve engines.

Peter Emmans’ Riley 375 cc sidecar outfit has had two restorations and was fitted with a new replica wicker-weave sidecar and carrier basket in 1995. The bike is capable of 65 km/h (40 mph) with the sidecar fitted, and 88-93 km/h (55-58 mph) solo. The bike has no speedometer, but has been clocked by other more modern bikes riding alongside.

The Riley engine, like that of the Kerry, has a set starting procedure which if followed results in fairly easy starting. The bike is equipped with a stubby exhaust system that side vents the exhaust ahead of the rider. The engine is not overly loud, but vibrates considerably.

Suspension on the Riley rig is pretty rudimentary and consists of dual springs on the girder-type front end, plus a leaf spring in the sidecar and a twin spring saddle. While not exactly a comfy ride, it is quite tolerable on good surfaces at modest speeds.

Having said this, it is worth noting that one of the early original owners of the Riley did a grand tour around Ireland with it in 1910, dog rough dirt and stone country roads notwithstanding. Today, one of that owner’s ancestors is planning to replicate the tour in 2010 and so far has 160 riders signed up to participate in the centenary event.

Current owner Peter confides that he got his wife to ride in the chair once, but only once. These days he exhibits the Riley at vintage events like Paris, and rides the outfit occasionally in special vintage vehicle parades. MMM

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