The marque itself had an illustrious history from its beginnings in 1919 in Gloucester, UK. Mr Frank Willoughby Cotton, a lawyer who was better known as Bill, had been a trials competitor pre-WW1, and apparently acquired the rights to a motorcycle that had been given the unfortunate name of Sudbrook. Cotton’s visual signature was the triangulated steel tubular frame for which Bill took out a patent. This connected the steering head to the rear axle via four straight tubes, producing a very rigid frame. The promise shown by early versions was vindicated when Stanley Woods finished fifth in the 1922 Isle of Man Junior TT on a Blackburne-engined version. The following year, Woods and the Cotton won the Junior TT, and business boomed for Cotton as a result. Output rose to around 1,000 units per year but when supplies of engines dried up, the factory eased out of motorcycle production, having done little in the way of development work, and with the range looking rather obsolete. Cotton filed for bankruptcy in 1940 but was able to continue in general engineering as part of the war effort. When Frank Cotton retired in the early 1950s, the cash-strapped remnants of the company was sold to Pat Onions and Monty Denley who renamed it E. Cotton (Motorcycles) Ltd. Only the frames were made in-house and were no longer the traditional triangulated design, being a normal single loop cradle. The first model from the new concern was the Vulcan which used the 197cc Villiers 8E engine/gearbox unit. The motorcycles were fairly unremarkable, competing with similar offerings from DMW, Norman, Ambassador and Sun, as well as the AMC models Francis Barnett and James. As well as the Villiers engined versions, in 1955 Cotton produced a model called the Cotanza powered by an Anzani 250cc two-stroke twin with rotary valve induction. The following year, the Vulcan appeared with the 9E Villiers engine and four-speed gearbox, while the Cotanza’s Anzani was upped to 322cc. A Villiers twin model was added for 1957, and a year later the range adopted the new leading link front end with the flagship model being the 250cc twin Herald and the virtually identical 324cc Messenger.
However a renaissance of sorts occurred when Cotton saw the emergence of a market hungry for 250cc competition models – a market dominated by the London Greeves firm, with DOT and James also eager for a share. Cotton’s fortunes rose as a result of employing talented scrambler and trials rider John Draper, and later the brilliant road racer Derek Minter. On the new Telstar model, powered by the Villiers Starmaker engine, Minter won the hotly contested British 250cc Championship, as well as the Castle Coombe 500 mile race on a basically similar Cotton Conquest. Out in the colonies, the Cotton name first appeared on the local scrambles scene when talented lady racer Jill Savage immigrated to Australia in late 1961 and settled in Melbourne. Jill had successfully competed in scrambles and in the International Six Days Trial on Greeves machines, but had been spotted by Draper and offered Cottons for the 1961 season. She brought two Cottons – a trials bike and a scrambler, both using the Villiers 33A engine – with her to Australia, and with encouragement from Denly and Onions she and her soon-to-be husband Allan McBeath set up a business to import the motorcycles, with agents in most states. Jill’s father Len was actually a motorcycle dealer in Farnbrough, UK, so the business was not exactly new to her, although she continued to work as a draughtsman in Melbourne, riding her Cotton trials bike to work. The first model imported was the Cougar scrambler; fairly typical of the British style of the day with Cotton’s own leading link forks and a Villiers 33A engine. The new machines found their way into the hands of many of the country’s top riders, including West Australian Bob O’Leary who won the 1963 Australian 250cc Championship in Brisbane. The Cougar soon gave way to a much-improved model, the Cobra, which used the new Villiers Starmaker engine in a new frame, although still with the leading link front end. Ridden by the likes of Geoff Taylor, Graham Batholomew, John Burrows and Matt Daley, the Cobra scored numerous successes, including the 1964 Australian 500cc Championship, in Taylor’s hands. But like the other once-dominant British makes, Cotton’s days were numbered and Husqvarna, CZ and Bultaco soon owned the scrambles market.
On the local road racing front, the Telstar enjoyed its own run of success, especially when a six-speed gearbox was added. Kevin Cass, Len Atlee and John Dodds in particular did very well, with Cass and Atlee continuing to race the Telstar when they went to Europe in the ’sixties.
Off the tracks however, there was very little in the way of Cotton presence in Australia, with only a handful of privately imported road machines making their way here. That’s why the featured machine, a 1961 Cotton Continental, is indeed a rarity in these parts. Cotton, and other companies, were hard hit when Villiers ceased motorcycle engine production, and were forced to look elsewhere. The Italian Minarelli engine, initially 175cc and later enlarged to 220cc, was chosen for the trials and enduro models, named Cotton Cavaliers. The company soldiered on until 1980, by which time its sole output was the 250cc Rotax tandem twin road racer which appeared as both a Cotton and an Armstrong. Continuing financial problems forced Cotton to move from its traditional Gloucester base to Bolton, Lancashire, in 1978, but the end was near. In the end, Armstrong took over the company and the Cotton name was consigned to history. Today there are a number of Cotton owners’ clubs around the world with the best-known – the Cotton Owners & Enthusiasts Club – being located in the UK. The club has an international membership, publishes its own magazine (“Cotton Pickins”) and stages a rally every year at the Gloucester Folk Museum.
Pick of the Cotton crop?
This was the rather cliché headline bandied about upon the release of the Cotton Continental in October 1960, just in time for the Earls Court Show in London. When the 1961 range was announced, Cotton cutely avoided naming the new model, saying only that it would be ‘new and exciting’. The Continental certainly was new, in that it
featured a completely redesigned frame – a far cry indeed for the old triangulated job. The frame was of full duplex design in Reynolds tubing, with the twin front down tubes passing horizontally beneath the engine to pick up the base of the single seat tube and lower sub-frame members. The seat tube continues forward to form the upper of the two tank rails. The rear section of the frame was welded rather than bolted to the forward section, with the pivot plates for the swinging arm placed as far apart as possible for maximum stiffness. A centre stand was standard equipment, with a lifting handle on the nearside. The dual seat hinged upwards from the front to give access to the battery and tool kit. At the front was the now-familiar Armstrong leading link fork, modified by Cotton with a loop running around the rear of the front wheel – a feature developed on the successful Cotton Cougar scrambler. This was more important than it may have seemed, as the standard Armstrong forks were known to twist badly, and the Cotton design was later picked up by others, including DMW. Twin Armstrong units controlled the rear end. A fibreglass shroud concealed the midriff section, with a small fibreglass cowling and Perspex screen up front to give a slightly sporty appearance when combined with the semi-dropped handlebar. Miller electrics were used. Inside the cowling sat the headlight shell, with a Miller ammeter and Smith speedo, as well as the headlight switch. Steel was used for the 2.75 gallon fuel tank. Early models used Italian Grimeca hubs with cable-operated brakes – the 180mm front featuring an air scoop – but these were later replaced by the British Hub Company’s Motoloy units. The rear hub incorporated a cush drive which was actually developed by Cotton themselves, with vanes cast into the hub to engage with a rubber moulding attached to the rear sprocket carrier. Power came from the ubiquitous long stroke Villiers 2T twin cylinder two stroke engine, which had been around since 1956. The engine was unusual in that each barrel had its own crankshaft, separated by a central disc in the crankcase holding a central bearing, with a roller bearing on the magneto side and a ball bearing on the drive side. The version used by Cotton was specially fitted with high compression cylinder heads and modified pistons, raising the standard 2T 8.2:1 to 8.7:1, or 9.4:1 on the Continental Sport. Even the standard job, developing 15 hp at 5,500 rpm, was good enough for a 75 mph top speed. A Deluxe version was offered from 1963 which had valanced chromed mudguards and a larger Villiers S25 carburettor. When Villiers ceased manufacture of the 2T engine at the end of 1963, Cotton switched to the 4T, which developed 17hp and used a Villiers flywheel magneto. The 1960 version of the Continental was finished in red and black; a décor that had been synonymous with Cotton for many years, but in 1961 the model was offered in a sky blue. The model remained in the range until 1967, but the sale of Villiers to Manganeze Bronze (who then amalgamated the company with their existing Norton/AMC and ceased supplying engine units to other manufacturers) finished off the Continental as well.
Thanks to CLASSIC STYLE AUSTRALIA, 34 Peninsula Blvd, Seaford Victoria 3198 PH: (03) 9773 5533 for the opportunity to photograph their Cotton Continental.
Alan McBeath’s Cotton Cougar, one of the first to be imported to Australia.
Not a bad looking unit, the 2T. Note the position of the ignition switch. Fibreglass cowling encases the headlamp, speedo and switches.
Tank badge mirrors the company’s patented triangulated frame.
Semi-dropped ‘bars were all the rage with the early ‘sixties café racer set. Where would the British motorcycle industry have been without Villiers?
Alloy casting enclosing the carburettor keeps the usual two strokemuck out of sight. Armstrong leadling link front end was supplied to a number of British manufacturers, including Norman and Ambassador, but Cotton added their own touch with a tubular loop running around the rear of the wheel. Pictured at the 2015 New Zealand National Rally, Robert Eunson’s 1929 Cotton/JAP (centre) with the famous triangulated frame.