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Cotton History - Tales of the TT

Putting petrol engines on bicycle frames was the usual way of making motorcycles in the early
1900s. As engines became more powerful and more stress was exerted on crude and flexible diamond frames, the instability and fragility of motorcycles threatened to scare off all but the toughest pioneers, and make the new form of transport extinct.

One competition rider who decided to rectify this problem was Francis Willoughby Cotton. In 1913 he began designing a strong and rigid frame specifically for sporting motorcycles, made up entirely of straight tube. Its triangulated structure was intended to obviate bending stresses and keep wheel alignment constant; the steering head was joined directly to the rear wheel mountings, with cross-braces carrying the seat tube, to the bottom of which were attached additional chainstays.

The triangulated Cotton frame was patented in 1914, and was first put to the test by the Levis company, who used it to tame a two-stroke twin with chronic balance problems. The onset of war postponed further trials, but Bill Cotton made plans to become a motorcycle manufacturer in his own right. Stanley Woods with the Blackburneengined Cotton after winning the 1923 Senior TT.

Stanley Woods remembered Cotton's Gloucester works as 'a couple of exarmy huts, and a dog kennel foran office'.

The first complete Cotton machine was announced in 1920, its frame produced on an expensive jig installed in primitive premises on Bristol Road in Gloucester. Powered by a 269cc Villiers engine, it used an Albion gearbox, Saxon forks, and sported disc-enclosed 26in wheels.

A more sporting version appeared in 1922, using a 350cc four-stroke engine from the Blackburne company, who had been successful at the TT with their side-valve single, beaten only by the AJS ohv design. Naturally Blackburne soon produced their own ohv 350 motor, which Bill Cotton fitted to his frame for a serious foray into racing. The increased height of the new engine meant that it had to be canted forwards, but this was a simple matter with the triangulated layout.

Cotton's first TT venture in 1922 showed great promise; their three-bike team took fifth, eleventh and 17th in the Junior race after an extraordinary sequence of events centering around a young Irish lad called Stanley Woods. Woods, whose given age was eighteen, had been a spectator at the 1921 TT. He decided to have a crack at it himself, and spent the following winter writing to manufacturers for a ride in the 1922 event. Companies only likely to field 500cc Senior bikes were assured that he had sewn up a Junior ride, and was looking for a second machine, the same tactic being used in reverse with the
makers of 350cc machines. One of the latter was Bill Cotton, who expressed interest in Stanley, but naturally wanted to know more about him.

Glowing credentials were provided by C.W. 'Paddy' Johnston, the Dublin Cotton agent, who happened to be an associate of the teenage hopeful. Mr Cotton was persuaded to lend Stanley a TT bike, and agreed to pay half the entry fee. Woods had somehow cultivated a superstar image to help his cause, and Bill Cotton pinned his hopes for the financially precarious company on the 'Irish wonder'.

Arriving on the Island, Stanley met his team-mates; Freddie Morgan, the factory foreman, and Harry Brockbank. They had ridden their race bikes up from Gloucester, and the third had been brought by a camp follower. This gentleman was shocked when he met the lad from Dublin, and telegraphed
Bristol Road to say that some schoolboy was masquerading as Stanley Woods! Mr Cotton packed his bags and set off for Douglas.

Stanley says he will never forget his first meeting with Bill Cotton, who said 'Oh! My God!' and left the room immediately. Nevertheless, the young rider was going so well in practice — 45 minute laps against Morgan's 50 minutes — that the ride was still on.

What a ride it turned out to be! He dropped his spare plugs on the start line, and lost valuable time picking them up. At Governor's Bridge on the second lap he ran wide, breaking an exhaust pipe at the port. Seconds later, the bike and Woods caught fire in the pits; killing the engine was not compulsory in
those days, and when fuel splashed onto the fire-breathing exhaust port the result can be imagined.

When the flames had been extinguished, Stanley set off again, but on his third lap a pushrod broke, releasing a tappet into the road. Luckily this was found, and a spare rod fitted using a large adjustable spanner as a valve spring compressor. The motor re-started, but then the rear brake failed completely,
leaving just the puny front anchor, and the rest of the five lap race had to be ridden using engine braking and bootsoles. This technique failed at Ramsey Hairpin, where Stanley fell off, but he was soon back in action and still finished ahead of his team-mates.

Needless to say, Mr Cotton's doubts about the young rider's ability evaporated, and a place in the team was assured for the following season when Woods took the first of his ten TT trophies with a Junior win. Fellow Dubliner Paddy Johnston helped make Cotton's year by winning the 200-mile race at Brooklands on another Blackburne-engined machine.

Racing successes helped sales, and the tiny factory stepped up its output considerably, to about twenty machines a year. Ten different models were made in 1924, including an ohv super sports and a 500cc side-valve sidecar bike, but the racing programme was dogged by mechanical troubles, and Stanley Woods left Cotton after the TT, feeling the need to find a less casual and informal set-up.

Although Woods had a bad year, the 1924 TT saw other Cotton men do well; Harry Brockbank was second in the Lightweight, and Freddie Morgan was runner up in the new Ultra-Lightweight class.
Concentration on the smaller machines paid off with a 1-2-3 victory in the 1926 Lightweight TT. It was a controversial race; Italian Guzzi rider Pietro Ghersi left everyone except Paddy Johnston far behind, but was disqualified on a technicality. Paddy Johnston came first by 20 seconds, Ghersi was disqualified from second place. The Irishman's win was no less commendable, since he completed his last of seven gruelling laps stuck in top gear and with virtually no brakes.

Morgan took second place, followed by Irishman Billy Colgan. Success in the Isle of Man races was reflected by enlargement of the fortuitously placed double T in the company logo. For 1927, the racing models incorporated many changes. The ohc engine was becoming essential for speed events, and Blackburne units of this type were fitted. They were very tall engines, which forced Cotton to revise their triangulated chassis for upright mounting, by splaying the bottom tank rails to clear the cylinder head, although straight tubes were still used. The saddle tube was replaced by two large engine plates, and the
fashionable saddle tank was adopted. Improved Druid girder forks with an enclosed spring and patent shock absorber were fitted, but the legendary roadholding of the Woods-type machine was marred by these alterations, and Cotton had a mediocre season.

Blackburne were losing at the ohc game, and their old outside-fly wheel ohv engine was becoming dated for a buying public which now looked for refinements such as enclosed primary drive. New engines came from the Surrey company in 1928 which were externally much cleaner, and used internal flywheels which made enclosure of the front chain straightforward. Cotton used them on four models in 350cc and 500cc single and twin port form. Frames followed the 1927 TT design, but with inclined engines and a lowered
tank. Exhaust pipes, which were always vulnerable with the tilted engine (as Stanley Woods had discovered), were swept upwards on some models to give generous ground clearance. The racing team reverted to ohv, but kept the vertical engine mounting. Like other 'assemblers', Cotton offered bikes
with JAP engines, which sold for several pounds less than the Blackburne models.

Jubilation following the 1926 Lightweight TT, when Paddy Johnston beat Pietro Ghershi on a Moto Guzzi.

Chromium plate was catching on by 1930, and Cotton forsook their black and violet gold-lined tanks for an all-chrome finish with a black and white triangular motif. Otherwise, the range was little changed, although Blackburne joined JAP in enclosing their pushrods. With the exception of the side-valve models,
saddle tanks enveloping the top frame tubes were standard. Cotton continued to race using JAP motors as well as Blackburne, and a brand new 500cc Vtwin from Tottenham was tried at the TT, where Paddy Johnston claimed it handled better than the singles. It was also fast, but disastrously unreliable, and the Blackburne 500cc single fared better, particularly at Brooklands, where Cottons broke several records. The Depression of the early thirties ruined many of the small makers using proprietary engines, but somehow Cotton survived, perhaps because being close to the financial edge was something they had become accustomed to over the years. Sporting success in the twenties had kept them afloat, and in its first 11 years the company had turned out 6,600 machines.

To help weather the hard times, a small economy model was launched in 1930 with a JAP 150cc side-valve engine. JAP engines were becoming favoured over Blackburne, who were slow to adopt dry sump lubrication. The up-and-coming proprietary engine was the Rudge-Python, and Cotton used these four-valve units for racing in the bigger capacity classes.

A keen eye for cost-cutting helped Bill Cotton keep going, and another utility bike with a 147cc Villiers engine was introduced for 1933. Despite poor sales the company kept up their involvement in racing. In 1936 an attempt was made to revive golden days of the twenties by offering a modernised version
of the old 350cc Blackburne single. The engines were probably available at a good discount, and they were fast, but these rather noisy vintage-looking bikes were not a great success. A 500cc version with dry-sump lubrication and revised valve gear was more promising, but after many years of association
with Cotton, Blackburne quit making motorcycle engines in 1937.

JAP's new high-camshaft engine, with fully enclosed valve gear, was used in 250, 350 and 500 sizes in 1937. Eric Fernihough, of Brooklands and recordbreaking fame, was hired to help with the racing engines, but for the first time since 1922 Cotton missed the TT in 1938.

Distribution of road machines was being handled by the large London dealers Pride and Clarke, but even their sales staff could not counter the depressing effect of gathering war clouds. Even so, the Cotton company carried on offering JAP-engined bikes into the 1940s, including a 600cc ohv single. Their
smallest machine was a little bike with Villiers 125 or 250 unit-construction engines.

During the war, most of the factory space was requisitioned for munitions work, and wasn't handed back until a couple of years after hostilities ended. Bill Cotton carried on in a small way with his triangulated frame and whatever pre-war engines were available, but the outlook for Cotton as a manufacturer
looked bleak.

Two enthusiasts stepped in to resurrect the Cotton name. They were Monty Denley, who was able to raise some capital, and Pat Onions, a successful scrambler and grass-tracker. Bill Cotton stayed on, and re-organised operations were kept in Gloucester, at Vulcan Works in Quay Street. Kate Cotton,
Bill's second wife, took over official proprietorship and the new company was registered as E. Cotton (Motorcycles) Ltd.

The first of the re-incarnated Cottons had a small Villiers engine like its ancestor of 1920, and the distinctive triangulated frame had gone, but the new management had sporting aspirations, and they kept the Cotton thread unbroken.