Lot 319: MMC Werner 198cc Motocyclette
In his book Early Days in the British Motor Cycle Industry, Eric W Walford recalled the harsh realities of 'motor bicycling' in the 19th Century's closing years. "When one considers that the motor cycle frame was little stronger than that of the ordinary 'push' cycle, that the forks were exactly like 'push' cycle forks, and not infrequently broke, that the tires were very poor, and that sideslip was quite common, it is not surprising that it was somewhat of a toy. Really one had to be pretty hardened, or very enthusiastic, to be convinced that the motor bicycle was going to survive." But survive it did, and that offered here is a rare example dating from motorcycling's formative years. The machine was purchased by the current vendor at the International Classic Bike Show auction at Bellevue, Manchester, England in October 1984 (Lot 67). The catalog description claimed that it had been accepted in lieu of a debt in 1920 and since then had lain at the rear of a cycle dealer's in Davenport, a suburb of Stockport, Cheshire. Unidentified at the time, the machine was later discovered to be a built-under-license copy of the French Werner Motocyclette. Paris-based Russian émigrés Michel and Eugene Werner had built their first motorcycle in 1896 by the simple expedient of mounting a single-cylinder petrol engine, designed by Hippolyte Labitte, in front of the steering head of a bicycle, directly above the front wheel, which it drove via a belt. One of the first practical motorcycles, the Werner Motocyclette proved an immediate success and the brothers abandoned their cinematograph business to set up a factory to build it. Notorious entrepreneur Harry J Lawson, owner of the Motor Manufacturing Company (MMC), acquired the British rights to the design, which was built at his Motor Mills plant in Coventry. In 1900 Werner sold a staggering 1,000 units but by this time Lawson had found it more expedient to have the French factory supply him with complete machines. Although advertised as 'The Only Practical Motor Bicycle', the Werner was not without its shortcomings. Not the least of these was the dreaded 'sideslip', a consequence of its high center of gravity, whereupon the hot tube would ignite fuel spilled from the wick-type vaporizing carburetor, causing the fallen machine to catch fire. A more efficient surface carburetor and battery/coil ignition were adopted on later versions. The MMC Werner restoration was entrusted to Ken Hallworth, respected motorcycling authority and founder of the publication Old Bike Mart, who recounted its story in an article in Classic Bike magazine (October 1985 edition, copy available). Ken's examination of the machine revealed that the 'hot tube' ignition apparatus was missing, and a replacement was fabricated using period illustrations for guidance. (For the magazine test, a temporary battery/coil ignition was used for safety's sake). Perhaps surprisingly, the engine turned out to be serviceable, merely requiring repairs to the bent mainshafts, and new bearings, piston rings and replacement stub exhaust. The original Dunlop-Welch wheel rims were rebuilt using nickel-plated spokes and nipples, and new wired-on tires of the correct size sourced from Lambrook's. At first it was thought that the rear mudguard was missing, but reference to period photographs confirmed that one was never fitted to this model. The fact that this is a British-made MMC Werner was confirmed by the fastenings' Imperial sizes and predominantly Whitworth thread forms, plus a hub stamped 'Cross-Coventry'. On modern pump fuel, the MMC Werner at first proved reluctant to start for the test. "Constant juggling with the extra air valve lever is required to retain the correct mixture balance, together with a fair bit of LPA (light pedal assistance) most of the time," Ken observed. "You don't let go of the bars with either hand while on the move all that weight up front has a disconcerting effect on stability." Since the Classic Bike test the Werner has been conserved as part of the vendor's extensive private collection. Possibly the earliest British-made motorcycle currently in private ownership, it is offered with the aforementioned copy of Classic Bike; Sunbeam MCC Pioneer Certificate; copy period literature and Werner patent application; various items of correspondence; and sundry photographs. Concluding his Classic Bike article, Ken Hallworth declared: "...the MMC/Werner represented a start, and a reasonably successful one, for from this primitive, great things eventually developed." Indeed, the historic significance of the Werner in the motorcycle's development should not be underestimated, and this machine represents a possibly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for collectors to acquire a rare 19th Century example.
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Bonhams & Butterfields, Los Angeles
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