Best of British
In a time after the Second World War many innovative British engineers formed a cottage industry of motorcycle production putting their skills into where they felt they could be best applied. One man, Ted Wassell, was no different. He had served as a Fleet Air Arms pilot during the war and the story goes that he once managed to smuggle a motorcycle onto an aircraft carrier and ride it around the flight deck. This same spirit would see him display his new range of motorcycle components at the Motorcycle Show held in November 1956. He had a dream to one day manufacture a motorcycle that would proudly carry his name on the fuel tank.
Based at Spring Hill near Birmingham in the Midlands, his first lead into the motorcycle industry was when he started to manufacture his own Wassell branded accessories of which he put together a comprehensive range of parts in a catalogue.
At first, he had the many components and accessories made by outside contractors before bringing them in-house to improve stock and quality control. With the interest in the new parts they were forced to move to bigger premises on the Burntwood Industrial Estate at Walsall to increase production and meet the demands of the customers.
With so many components now at hand his focus turned to following his ambition of producing his own machine.
The original idea was to do as the famous Rickman brothers had done before and attack the new market for small-engined machines in the expanding American market place with the idea of eventually becoming a motorcycle manufacturer.
Many trials riders will remember the heroics by the late Dave Rowland on the works BSA Bantam 175cc trials machine in the late sixties taking the machine to runner up spot in the 1967 Scottish Six Days Trial.
Mick Bowers then continued with development before the project folded. Trials enthusiasts saw this as a missed opportunity to produce the machine as everybody knew what a good little trials engine the single cylinder two-stroke power plant was.
In 1970 he was producing enough parts to put together the BSA Bantam engine into a frame of his own design for trials and scrambles.
Motorcycle frame fabricator, Jim Lee, came to the project with so much enthusiasm and experience which he passed onto Ted Wassell and the construction of the first two prototype Wassell motorcycles were built.
There would be two models, a trials machine and a scrambles model and they would use the 173cc BSA Bantam engine.
He showed the two new models at the 1970 Motorcycle Show in a hope that the BSA management would provide him with new engines to produce the models. BSA was not interested in the slightest but such was Wassell’s spirit he took it as an opportunity to make his own rolling chassis kits.
The short-sighted BSA management could have taken a leaf out of the vision of its Japanese rivals as four years later the Yamaha TY 175cc would be released and go on to be a massive seller. The new frame kits would take the ‘Bantam’ engine and carburettor as the donor and you could then build your own ‘special’ machine up to the specification you required.
The company could also supply complete machines as they had the facility to refurbish the engines which were readily available and fit many of the company’s range of parts to make the complete machine. The kits came complete with ball ended competition levers fitted with built in adjusters (new at the time), all the cables and handlebars and grips, engine mounting bolts, waterproof ignition coil with snap connectors and plug lead.
The main stay of the kit though was the frame which was stove enamelled in hard wearing hammered silver paint which was easy to ‘touch up’ if damaged. Chrome parts included the steel wheel rims, handlebars and exhaust pipe. To complement the look of the silver frame, high quality parts such as the fuel tank, wheel hubs, side panels and chain guard were manufactured from polished aluminium which also helped to keep the weight down. To keep the emphasis on quality the footrests, brake pedal and all fittings including nuts and bolts were either zinc or cadmium plated.
When completed the machine certainly looked the part and was a good way of getting people into the sport at a sensible price. The complete cost of a ready to ride machine was a very competitive £175.00 which at the time was quite a lot cheaper than the new machines from Spain which were slowly creeping into the market.
With a wheelbase of 51 ½ inches and a good 12 ½ inches of ground clearance, fifty complete machines were sold by the end of 1971 as well as many frame kits.
Another attraction was the ease of maintenance on the little single cylinder machine. Many riders had been brought up with British two-strokes and were not over familiar with the new generation of foreign machines with their metric thread nuts and bolts, etc.
With little interest in the scrambles model, the company decided to concentrate on the booming trials market. With the demise of BSA as a manufacturer and the drying up of donor engines they needed to start sourcing a replacement engine.
The Austrian company, Sachs, had produced a superb little 125cc six speed gearbox motor which had powered many of the small capacity trials, enduro and motocross machines and this would be the engine they would use to power their new trials machine titled the ‘Antelope’.
Ted Wassell had visited the Milan show in late 1971 in Italy with friend Pete Edmondson and a supply contract was signed.
With the demise of the Sachs engined 125cc Dalesman trials machine due to economic reasons, they could not sell enough machines to make it profitable.
Wassell employed the redundant staff which included founder Edmondson and frame builder Jim Lee to manufacture the new machine, once again using as many of the company’s accessories as possible. In two months the
new machine was ready for production.
It was a masterpiece and once again the quality was very evident. The duplex cradle frame was manufactured from the new must have Reynolds 531 tubing, giving maximum strength with flexibility and was an all welded construction. Another nice touch was the use of maintenance free Silent bloc bushes in the swinging arm pivot and a chain oiler.
Also featured and quite new at the time was a spring loaded trailing chain tensioner to take up any slack in the chain during an event. The suspension also came in for some quality treatment with Girling oil filled units looking after the rear with chrome springs and Metal Profile 600 series forks on the front. Another nice touch was the fitting of Timkin taper roller bearings in the headstock which gave positive handling and required very little adjustment. All this was clamped securely in sturdy alloy clamps.
The engine came in for some fine tuning from Edmondson and an Amal Concentric carburettor was fitted. The frame was once again finished in silver, complemented with many highly polished parts including the fuel tank, which had a really useful capacity of approx 1 ½ gallons, the mudguards and the conical hubs, etc. The option was also offered of a high or low fitting front mudguard.
As per the BSA frame kit, all the components fitted were top quality either being zinc or cadmium plated and ‘Nylock’ locknuts were used to keep everything nice and secure.
With the machines now rolling off the production line at the rate of three per day, Ted Wassell looked across the pond to the massive expanding American off-road market.
His company had traded in the USA for many years with the wide range of motorcycle components it had to offer. He had an insight into the way of the American riders and upped the specification of the machines to meet their demands. His instinct was correct and eventually around one thousand of the
machines were exported to the ‘States’.
The company knew they had a quality product to sell and they managed to broker a deal with the American Penton motorcycle company to sell them. They were ordered by American off-road legend John Penton and carried the Penton brand name on the fuel tanks and were marketed as the 125cc ‘Mud-Lark’.
The same operation of importing re-branded machines had worked before and Penton knew this, having successfully carried out this exercise with the Austrian KTM brand. The trials machine would complement the Penton off-road brand in America. You must be reminded that the rapid growth in the huge American market was happening around this time.
With the Wassell and KTM Penton branded machines they could supply a complete range of off-road machines, Trials, Enduro and Motocross. You may think that the trials model named the ‘Mud-Lark’ was strange but the enduro models were named ‘Berkshire’, 100cc; ‘Jack Piner’, 175cc; and Motocross/Desert model ‘Six Day’ 125cc.
The new Penton badged ‘Mud-Lark’ machine initially sold very well but when the pound sterling plunged against the U.S dollar in 1975, overnight the machines became uneconomical to produce. Production finished at the end of the year and the dream was over.
The machine had never scored much success in competition and in the UK the machines remained virtually unknown but what it did achieve eventually ended with Wassell receiving a Queen’s award to industry.
Ted Wassell passed away in 1975 but the company continues to trade with his son Tim at the helm. Wassell continue to produce and sell accessories to the present day.
The Wassell BSA powered trials machine kit conversion
The Wassell BSA powered scrambles machine kit conversion
The sturdy frame ready to accept the BSA Bantam motor
Quick release ‘Knock’ through spindles were used
The air filter outlet was positioned high in the frame
Tim Wassell stands proud with the new trials machine in 1972
The trials ‘High Fender’ model
The trials ’Low Fender’ model
The brochure emphasis was on quality components
The Penton trials range brochure for the lucrative American market
In the USA the Penton machines were sold alongside re-badged KTM’s from Austria