Making something special

Many enthusiasts have built attractive ‘specials’ using motorcycle components from various sources, while a similar number have failed, making dangerous, ugly monsters instead. If you want to make the job even harder, try installing a car engine into a motorcycle chassis…

Words: Richard Rosenthal Photographs: Mortons Archive

What is a special? Many of the first pioneer motorcycles comprised an engine and sundries attached to an existing cycle.

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In 1900, Belgian Sylvain de Jong made the job easier by offering his Minerva kit (comprising of 211cc four-stroke engine, tank housing fuel compartment, surface carburettor and full ignition kit, which was timed by its engine mounted make and break, and sundry levers and belt rims) for fitting to a sturdy bicycle.

If these pioneering concepts don’t count as specials, then perhaps the JAP-powered Johnson, campaigned for many years by the late Stan Greenway, hits the spot. In 1901, The Beeston Cycle and Motor Works of Scunthorpe built six motorcycles using Minerva kits.

Young Frenchman Jean-Paul Botazzi (who looks like he’s fresh off the set of a Godard or Truffaut film) with his modernist, stylish special.

A year later, JAP introduced a 293cc AIV single cylinder engine.

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Soon afterwards, the Scunthorpe works replaced the Minerva engine with the new JAP unit in the Johnson Mr Greenway later restored.

Was this a development machine or a special? Either way, others replaced components from this time onwards, often on a make do and mend ethos, to keep their motorcycles on the road.

Arguably none of these are specials, as special builders as a breed are endeavouring to make a better machine.

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Anglo-German discussion of the special maker’s art. On the left, Charlie Cope with his BSA/Ariel four and, right, Horst Kreutzer, with his Bogward four-cylinder, car-engined Zundapp.

The motivation may be improved performance, comfort, appearance – or just to build a motorcycle from parts lurking in the shed.

Eventually, a cottage industry built up servicing the requirements of special builders and continues to thrive today.

Read more and view more images in the August 2019 issue of TCM – on sale now!

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