1912 Abingdon King Dick

The King of Birmingham

kingdick1

Forgotten as the marque is now, King Dick was once well known for its simple but elegant single-cylinder and V-twin motorcycles.

Photo by Neale Bayly

Content Tools

Abingdon King Dick
Claimed power:
3.5hp
Top speed: 35mph
Engine: 477cc side valve
Fuel capacity: 3gal
MPG: 50

Unless you’re a student of early motorcycle technology, it’s doubtful you’ve ever seen anything quite like the sliding spring fork on the Abingdon King Dick. A uniquely odd classic British motorcycle, it might just be the motorcycling world’s first telescoping shock absorber.

Chances are good you’ve never heard of Abingdon King Dick motorcycles, either. Founded in Birmingham, England, in 1856, the company got its start making tools, but branched out into motorcycles in 1903, when the industry was still in its infancy.

At the time, the move to motorcycles was logical. The nascent motorcycle industry was booming, and Birmingham, with its strong industrial base and equally strong work force, was on its way to becoming the epicenter of the British motorcycle industry. From 1894 to 1975, some 100 motorcycle manufacturers came and went in Birmingham, including the mostly-forgotten Abingdon King Dick.

Forgotten as the company is now, AKD (as it was later called) was once known for its simple but elegant single-cylinder and V-twin motorcycles. Production ended in 1933, when a weak economy convinced the company it was time to pull out of the motorcycle market and concentrate on its successful line of tools.

One of the bikes produced by AKD was this example, a 500cc, 3-1/2hp single referred to simply as the "3-1/2hp." Manufactured in 1912, it’s now owned by Florida-based classic bike enthusiast Jack Wells, who took his first motorcycle ride at the tender age of 12 on a Cushman trike. "It had been an ice cream scooter," Jack remembers, "probably a 1947 or 1948 machine, and it was missing the lid for the ice cream box. I’d ride it around Savannah Beach, [Ga.] and that’s where it all started."

"It" being a life-long love affair with motorcycles that finds Jack courting dozens of mistresses these days — mostly BMWs, and particularly single-cylinder examples of the Bavarian marque. But a few years back, Jack started looking for something different. "I felt I was missing something for myself, and that was a pioneer motorcycle, something from the teens or before," Jack says.

Something different

Jack came across his first AKD at a swap meet in 2002. That bike was little more than a rusty frame, and while he didn’t buy it, it got his attention. "I wanted something very unusual, something you wouldn’t see every day. From the moment I saw that one and heard the name, I said ‘this is where I’m gonna go,’" Jack recalls, admitting the bike’s unique name was a big factor in his decision. "An Abingdon King Dick? What the heck is that? It struck me as something great to ride, show and talk about: ‘Say honey, wanna go for a ride on my King Dick?’ That kind of thing will either get you slapped or ..."

Two years later, Jack spied the bike featured here, for sale in the The Antique Motorcycle. The bike had belonged to well-known New Zealand collector and rider Pat Wood, who acquired it during the 1940s. Wood was an avid rider, and exercised the bike regularly in various events including the famed New Zealand Post Run; his last ride on the AKD was in the 1998 Post Run, when he was 85 years old.

At first glance, Jack’s AKD looks to be standard fare for 1912: Big, 26in wheels, belt drive, a bicycle-style frame and an acetylene lamp for those late night rides home from the pub. But a closer look reveals a pushrod-operated side valve engine (most bikes of the day used an atmospheric intake valve, relying on the vacuum created by the piston’s down stroke to open the valve) and a unique Abingdon-built carburetor with adjustable main jets — and then there’s that front suspension.

How it works

If they had any front suspension at all, bikes of the day used semi-elliptical springs. But the AKD folks decided to create their own front suspension, calling it the "Abingdon Spring Fork." Simply put, it’s a coil sprung, telescoping shock absorber, perhaps the first motorcycle application of its kind.

In the Abingdon system, the fork girders attach at two points: at the lamp bracket and at the lower steering yoke. The lamp bracket is fixed to the steering stem, and bolted to the bracket is the upper part of the shock absorber body. Inside the body is a coil spring. The girders attach to the body’s lower portion, which slides on a phosphor bronze guide and pushes against the coil spring. A hardened steel bolt extending from the lower yoke locates and guides the shock’s motion, and the rear fork girders pass through bushings in the lower steering yoke. In motion, force transmitted to the front wheel pushes the girders up, which slide in the lower yoke while pushing up against the coil spring in the shock absorber, and voilá, shock absorption.

Suspension travel is a minimal 1/2in to 3/4in, but Jack says the system works well. "It runs strong and it handles very well," Jack says, adding, "It’s quite comfortable to ride." Although he doesn’t ride the Abingdon very often, that’s not because he’s scared of using it. "I don’t think it’s a frail little example of something that’s going to get hurt riding it, especially watching the video of Pat riding it; he didn’t spare it."

Jack’s Abingdon is one of only a dozen or so known survivors of the 3-1/2hp models, and is an interesting reminder of a small, innovative company’s bid to grab a slice of the burgeoning market for motorcycles in the teens.

Although forgotten today, it’s ironic that Abingdon, of the 100 or so motorcycle companies that once called Birmingham home, is the only one that still exists in some form: In 1975, when BSA closed its Small Heath factory doors, the once dominant Birmingham motorcycle industry disappeared for good. But the Abingdon concern continues to this day as King Dick Tools. MC