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Cotton Motorcycle History

Cotton motorcycles | Tales from the TT Days

The Cotton Motorcycle Company, was a British motorcycle manufacturer of 11a Bristol Road, Gloucester, and was founded by Frank Willoughby Cotton in 1918. F.W. presided over the company until his retirement in 1953. The company was reconstituted as E. Cotton (Motorcycles) Ltd, and traded till 1980.

The Triangulated Frame

By 1913, F.W. Cotton had engaged in hill climbs and trials, and recognised the limitations of the "diamond frame" design, little different from a bicycle. He designed his own, and had examples made by Levis. Being a lawyer, in 1914 he patented the "triangulated frame" to protect his design that was a Cotton feature right up till World War II. World War I intervened and it was not until 1918 that the Cotton Motorcycle Company was founded with the first Cotton motorcycle appearing in 1920.

Stanley Woods and the TT

In 1922 Stanley Woods rode a Blackburne-engined Cotton to fifth in the 350 cc Junior TT, and the following year, won the 1923 Isle of Man TT, averaging 55.73 mph, bettering Douglas rider, Manxman Tom Sheard's winning 500 cc Senior TT time, an average of 53.15 mph. Cotton motorcycles took a second and third in the Ultra Lightweight TT, and a second in the Lightweight TT. They only managed a second place in the 1925 Junior TT, but in the 1926 races, swept the field taking the first three places in the Lightweight TT. These victories helped establish Cotton as a race-winning machine, with exceptional handling for its time.

The 1923 win, and consequent full order book, enabled a move to new premises, the Vulcan Works in Quay Street. In 1927 the frame dimensions were altered.

When the Great Depression came, Cotton responded by offering a wider range of engines in its patented frame, usually with Burman gearboxes.

When the triangulated rigid frame was introduced in 1920, it was ahead of its time. By 1939, when the sprung heel and rear swingarm frames had begun to appear so rigid frames had seen their day. Vincent had patented a cantilever frame in 1928.

After World War II

Continuing with engineering work that sustained the factory during World War II, Cotton did not re-enter the motorcycle market at the War's end, but struggled on into the 1950s, when F.W. Cotton decided to retire. The company was re-constituted under Elizabeth Cotton in 1953 as E. Cotton (Motorcycles) Ltd., and was managed by Pat Onions and Monty Denley.

E. Cotton (Motorcycles) Ltd

As before, Cotton made their own frames, and bought in the rest of the components for assembly. The first machine, produced till 1957, was the Cotton Vulcan, with a Villiers motor.

In 1955 the Cotton Cotanza was released using a 242 cc Anzani engine, and a new frame with "pivoted-fork" rear suspension. The frame was also used in a new 1955 Vulcan model, fitted with a Villiers 9E engine and three speed gearbox.

In 1956 that changed to a four speed gearbox, and the Cotanza became available with a 322 cc Anzani twin. A Cotton Trials, a stripped down version of the Vulcan with competition tyres and no lights was released. The original Vulcan was dropped. The only change for 1957 was a Villiers 2T twin added to the Cotanza range.

There were no further changes until 1959, when all models were fitted with Armstrong leading link forks, and the Villiers 2T twin was dropped.

Other Cotton models included the Herald, Messenger, Double Gloucester, Continental, Corsair and Conquest. Cotton became involved in competitive motorcycling, and a range of road, trials and scrambler models were available by the end of 1960.

Racing in the Sixties

In 1961 the Cougar scrambler was released and a works racing team formed, including such riders as Bryan "Badger" Goss and John Draper. The Villiers Starmaker racing engine was introduced in 1962, so Cotton went road racing. The 247 cc Telstar road racer and Conquest were introduced in 1962 and 1964 respectively. Over the next two years, Cottons were winning races again.

The Loss of Villiers

Then Villiers withdrew from engine supply, and Cotton was forced to source engines from elsewhere. The Cotton Cavalier trials bike used a Minarelli engine, but production was slow. Cotton had been profitably selling bikes in kit form, but changes to legislation proved damaging.

They moved their factory to Stratton Road in 1970, where they diversified into production of the Cotton Sturdy, a three wheel factory truck. Over the next decade production was moved a number of times, and they managed to produce a good 250 cc racing machine with a Rotax engine. The difficulty of finding a supply of engines after the loss of Villiers was compounded by the appearance of mass produced Japanese motorcycles in the 1970s.


The factory closed in 1980. Following a series of successful 1990s Cotton exhibitions at the Gloucester Folk Museum, the Cotton Owners Club (an international organisation) was formed, where a rally is held each summer.