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New Imperial Motorcycle History

The history of New Imperial goes back to the early days of the bicycle industry in Birmingham in 1887. Starting in a very small way, the Company made bicycle fittings and, later, complete bicycles.

The repeal of the “Red Flag” Act in 1896 led to the development of cars and motorcycles, and once again New Imperial were pioneers. Their first design, which appeared in 1901, is credited as being the first British 500cc single-cylinder machine. Like most of its competitors, it had the engine mounted in front of the handlebars above the front wheel, and the transmission consisted of a leather belt which drove the front wheel. Unfortunately, this machine was not a commercial success, and New Imperial went back to bicycle manufacture until 1912. The first range contained three models: a light-weight, a 500cc single, and a 600cc sidecar model.

Two years later, in 1914, New Imperial produced their famous Light Tourist model; this was only 300cc capacity, but its light weight, allied with strong construction, enabled it to out-perform many 500cc heavyweights of the day. The Light Tourist was an immediate success and set New Imperial on the road to fame and fortune. The Light Tourist was also very successful in competition, and quickly established the feeling that a New Imperial was the machine to have if you were a sporting rider.

These ideas were reinforced by New Imperial’s win in the 250cc class of the 1921 TT (rider Doug Prentice). This was the first of six TT wins by New Imperial, a record which has only been surpassed by one other motorcycle manufacturer. The wins were all in the Light-weight class, except for one Junior victory:

  • 1921 Doug Prentice
  • 1924 Ken Twemlow (Junior race)
  • 1924 Eddie Twemlow
  • 1925 Eddie Twemlow
  • 1932 Leo Davenport
  • 1936 Bob Foster

Success in the TT was certain to bring in big sales orders in pre-war days, and in their heyday of the mid-twenties, New Imperial were producing around 300 machines per month. The Company continued to prosper and grow until the depression years of the early 1930s. This left New Imperial financially weak, and, like many other smaller manufacturers, they were struggling to survive for most of the thirties.

New Imperial were always a very innovative company, and their unit-construction machines, sometimes with Bentley & Draper sprung frames, were about twenty years in front of their time. Even today, the common reaction is “Look at that - I didn’t know anyone had unit construction or spring frames before the War.” In the end, this willingness to produce advanced designs may have contributed to New Imperial’s eventual demise in 1939.

Money was scarce in the 1930s, and the public were reluctant to depart from tried and proven designs. Even Bob Foster’s magnificent win on a unit-construction model in the 1936 Lightweight TT could not bring in the sales that New Imperial desperately needed; this win was the last time that Great Britain ever won a Lightweight TT.