- Engine: 249cc Villiers 2T 3-stroke twin, piston port, 50mm x 63.5mm bore and stroke, 8.2:1 compression, 15hp @ 5,500rpm
- Carburetion: 22mm Villiers S22/2
- Transmission: 4-speed, right foot shift, chain final drive
- Electrics: 6v, 120 watt generator
What gives a motorcycle its character? What feature most identifies and defines it? I think most riders would agree … it’s the engine.
In fact, in recent times, bike manufacturers have stuck to their chosen engine configurations to differentiate their brand, regardless of whether that layout is optimal for the purpose. Ducatis are always 90-degree V-twins (though sometimes hidden inside V-fours); Triumphs are parallel twins or inline triples; Guzzis are across-the-frame Vs; Harleys are … well, probably the most format-driven brand of all.
So why, then, did Bert Greeves choose the same off-the-shelf parallel-twin 2-stroke engine for his premium street bike as a half dozen other British bike makers? The 1960 Greeves 25DB Sports Twin was competing against the Ambassador Supreme, Cotton Continental, DMW Dolomite, Francis-Barnett Cruiser 89, James Superswift, Norman B3 Sports, Panther Model 35, Royal Enfield Turbo Twin, and Sun Wasp Twin — all using the same 250cc Villiers 2-stroke twin.
The very nature of the British motorcycle industry gives a clue. By the mid-1950s, the U.S. was down to one major motorcycle maker, Germany to a handful and Italy to maybe a dozen. But the U.K. had what was essentially a craft industry: scores of small-volume garage builders — the only true mass-production maker being BSA-Triumph. No surprise then, that given the cost of developing and building a new engine with its complex castings and specialized machining, these small companies bought ready-made drivetrains “off the shelf.” More often than not, they were the product of the Villiers Engineering Company.
But using a proprietary engine was a Faustian bargain. It reduced the price of market entry by eliminating development and tooling costs. But your engine then looked, worked and sounded like everyone else’s, and inevitably cost more on a “per unit” basis. That meant your finished motorcycle had to either be better and more distinctive than its competitors — or cheaper.
Bert Greeves obviously thought his product was better, with some justification, and it was certainly distinctive. Greeves’ reputation was built on success in offroad competition, and the factory ran its own team of motocross and trials riders. This focus was rewarded with 250cc world motocross championship titles in 1960-1961, and victory in the world trials Championship in 1964 and 1967. Greeves-mounted riders won 40 gold, 22 silver and 28 bronze medals in the International Six Days Trials between 1954 and 1975. Greeves also built “clubman” road race bikes with privateer entrants winning the 1964 and 1965 Lightweight (250cc) Manx Grand Prix.
But as well as boosting sales, competition success had a downside. Demand for Greeves’ offroad machines grew to the point where the factory was operating at capacity. Something had to give, and it was the street bikes. So after 12 years in production, the last Greeves twin, a 25DC MkII East Coaster left the Thundersley, Essex factory in 1966.
The Greeves Story
Oscar Bertram Greeves was born in 1906 in Lyon, France to English parents. By age 13 he already had a motorcycle license and was riding his father’s 225cc James 2-stroke. A succession of bikes followed, including an OHC Norton CS1 that he rode in trials. Bert was too young to serve in World War I, and by 1939 he was working on defense contracts in the small workshop he and his brother had established in the 1930s in South London.
Greeves’ first major venture was in response to Britain’s newly-created welfare state in the immediate postwar period. The Invacar Company manufactured small, gas-powered vehicles providing mobility to the disabled, many being World War II veterans. Greeves had experience in this area: he’d designed and built a powered wheelchair for his cousin Derek Preston Cobb, who had been disabled from birth.
The first Invacar was a 3-wheeler powered by a 147cc Villiers 2-stroke engine, and it used a unique suspension system with rubber bushings “twisted” in torsion to provide the springing. To test this idea, Greeves built an offroad motorcycle with torsion-rubber suspension front and rear. It worked well, both on the motorcycle, and then on the first Invacar.
The Invacar was a big seller, and with the business rolling along, Greeves had the resources to invest in his motorcycle project. A prototype first ran in 1951 and went through two years of development before Greeves was ready for showtime. The production Greeves range shown at the Earls Court, London show in 1953 consisted of two roadsters (the 3-speed 20R and 4-speed 20D Deluxe) and a motocross machine (the 20S), all using the 197cc Villiers 8E single-cylinder 2-stroke engine. Top of the range, though, was the 25D Fleetwing street bike, a 242cc twin using a British-Anzani rotary-valve 2-stroke engine.
These machines shared what was to become a Greeves trademark: a composite light alloy and steel tube frame. The front down member was made of aluminum alloy with the steel steering head and top tube cast-in. The front fork terminated in a pair of leading links sprung by two Metalastik rubber bushings in torsion. At the rear was a conventional swingarm, but with two links attached to frame mounted rubber torsion bushings under the seat. Both the front and rear torsion bushes were fitted with friction dampers. Though Greeves did offer a conventional steel tube frame on some early budget road models, the alloy beam frame and leading link fork were Greeves trademarks until conventional Ceriani forks were fitted to the motocrossers in 1967 and conventional steel tubes replaced the alloy beam on the 1968 Griffon motocrosser. By that time, the roadsters were gone.
To develop the competition machines, Greeves lured Brian Stonebridge from BSA. Stonebridge and mechanic Bob Mills managed to double the power output of the lowly 200cc Villiers stroker to all of 18 horsepower. Though the bike was still down on power against the 4-strokes, Stonebridge dominated 250cc scrambles in the U.K. in 1957, often beating 350 and 500cc machines.
Stonebridge was killed in a car crash in 1959: but the arrival of Dave Bickers on the team cemented Greeves’ competition success. Riding the works motocrosser fitted with an increasingly powerful Villiers-based (but heavily Greeves modified) engine, Bickers took the European 250cc championship in 1960 and 1961.
Though Greeves was better known in the U.S. for its offroad singles, the roadster models were crucially important in the U.K. market. A 16-year-old could legally ride a motorcycle but had to turn 17 to drive a car, so most red-blooded teenagers were motorcycle mounted before learning to drive. A newbie could ride, unsupervised, any motorcycle up to 250cc before taking a road skills test — provided they displayed a red “L” for learner.
So the quarter-liter class became a crowded niche, dominated by BSA, Triumph, Ariel and Royal Enfield, all using their own engines. Smaller British manufacturers — including Greeves — went the simpler route of buying in a proprietary 250cc engine. Twin-cylinder 2-strokes typically provided smooth power and good torque, but at first, the only proprietary 250 twin was the 242cc British-Anzani, so Greeves used this in his premium roadster, the 25D Fleetwing. (Anzani also made a 322cc twin, which Greeves used in the 32D Fleetmaster).
But there were issues with the Anzani engine (see Battle of the Twins), and by 1957, Villiers had started production of its own 250cc 2-stroke twin, the 249cc model 2T. This came from the Wolverhampton factory complete with integral transmission, carburetor and ignition system.
Even though Greeves bought in the same drivetrain package as other makers, it was wrapped in the distinctive, race-proven composite chassis and leading link fork. The Greeves was also the lightest, fastest and, most agreed, best handling of the bunch. By this time, the friction dampers had been abandoned in favor of conventional Armstrong spring/damper units at the rear, and slender hydraulic dampers hidden inside the fork legs at the front — though the leading link fork and rubber torsion spring remained.
Replacing the somewhat dowdy looking Fleetwing and Fleetmaster in 1959 were the 25DB and 324cc 32DB Sports Twins with Villers 2T and 3T engines. Gone were the deeply valanced steel fenders, replaced by light alloy blades. A more compact seat was fitted, and the speedometer housed in a new headlight nacelle. Alloy “cooling” fins adorned the front and rear brake drums.
The Motor Cycle tested a 25DB sports twin in 1960 and was impressed by its road manners “So delightful was the handling that, whenever a choice of route offered, secondary roads were invariably chosen. Bendswinging at all speeds was sheer joy.” They concluded: “The Greeves Sports Twin proved itself one of the liveliest and most diverting lightweights on the road. It is a machine to give endless fun without ostentation and is assured of a niche in the hearts of many sporting riders.”
In 1961, the 25DC Sports Twin gained a marginally more powerful Villiers 2T engine, with raised compression and a larger carburetor, meaning the neat intake housing was nixed in favor of a pancake filter. Over the next three years, Greeves introduced a bewildering array of twin-cylinder models, including the rather garish Sportsman, with a handlebar fairing, “spats” for the front suspension links, and the whole finished in light blue and yellow with a red seat.
The Essex Twin of 1963 reintroduced the more practical valanced fenders, while the 1964 East Coaster continued the sporting look. Both now had full-width wheel hubs. During these years, the Villiers 2T was replaced by the 4T, an almost identical powerplant, but tuned for more power at higher revs. Whether it was an improvement over the smooth and flexible 2T is moot. The last Greeves roadster twins were produced in 1966.
John Farguson’s 25DB
John Farguson bought his first Greeves twin, a 1961 25DC, as a teenager in Britain.
“I had this awful BSA D1 Bantam,” he says. “I took it in to (London motorcycle dealer) Comerfords, and just looked around.” That was where he spotted the Greeves.
“It just spoke to me. It was so different,” he says. Farguson had considered other lightweights, like the Panther 250 and 200cc Ariel Colt, but they were “rubbish,” he says. The Greeves was the only “exciting 250 that I could afford. I loved the sound, too.”
Farguson rode the Greeves everywhere, until his girlfriend’s brother “borrowed” it and crashed it. Though it was repaired, Farguson had by this time passed his road test, meaning he could legally ride bikes over 250cc, and a 650cc BSA Road Rocket beckoned.
Like many of us in our later years, though, Farguson felt a yearn to own one of his teenage bikes again. He found a complete but tired 1960 Greeves 25DB in the U.K. and had it shipped to Vancouver, Canada. Local mechanical whiz Len Georgeson fettled the engine, while painter Steve Sharpe restored the bike to its original color scheme of Moorland Blue and the curiously named Essex Grey (which was really just a lighter shade of blue).
Riding the restored Greeves is a delight, reports Farguson. “The steering geometry makes it very flickable. It goes where you put it,” he says, noting that the lack of dive from the leading-link fork also aids handling. “I’ve squealed the tire with the front brake too,” he adds.
So the Greeves 25DB is one reason for the success — and ultimate failure — of British made 250cc bikes of that era. They were pretty good — the Greeves especially — until something better came along. Then it was game over. After all, why would a motorcycle-mad teenager spend hard earned cash on a 15 horsepower British 2-stroke, when for about the same money they could buy a 24 horsepower Yamaha YDS3? MC
Battle of the Twins
The first twin-cylinder engines used in Greeves motorcycles were 242cc and 322cc 2-strokes from British-Anzani. Founded in 1907 by Alessandro Anzani, the company expanded from its native Italy with Anzani setting up factories in France and Britain to produce engines for automobiles, farming equipment, outboard motors and even aircraft. In fact, an Anzani engine powered Louis Bleriot’s 1909 monoplane, the first aircraft to cross the English Channel.
The air-cooled, rotary-valve engines supplied to Greeves were developed from outboard motors, which were, of course, water-cooled; but for motorcycle applications the engines were air cooled. That meant piston clearances had to be greater because of uneven cylinder expansion, compromising power output. Anzani did eventually increase the cooling fin area on the cylinders and heads, allowing tighter tolerances, but then piston seizures became an issue, and the Anzani engines gained a reputation for being unreliable. The Anzani twins also came without a transmission (because of their origins), so they were paired with an Albion ‘box in the Greeves 250 Fleetwing and 325 Fleetmaster. The 249cc Villiers 2T and 324cc 3T, both with integral transmission, replaced the Anzani from 1957-on.
The Villiers Engineering Company was an 1898 offshoot of John Marston’s Sunbeam works in Wolverhampton, England. Established to make bicycle pedals, Villiers also invented and patented the freewheel gear (all bicycles to this point had been fixed wheel), generating enormous financial success.
Villiers’ Frank Farrer is credited with the move into engines: he predicted that powered two-wheelers would be in heavy demand, and that most motorcycles would be utility machines. Therefore a simple, inexpensive engine would sell “thousands.” In 1912, when Farrer made this prediction, many British motorcycle makers were using bought-in engines from abroad, like the Swiss Motosacoche or French Peugeot.
In the end, Villiers sold more than 2.5 million engines, including those used in lawn mowers, motorcycles, outboards — and many thousands of Invacars!
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