It was a very interesting conversation, firstly with Mick Bowers about the BSA Bantam trials project, that then led to a phone call to a certain Michael Martin. My father Ron had mentioned his name on many occasions, and I, as a young person, had seen thi
At the time of the start of the BSA Group crash I was working at The BSA Group Motor Cycle Research Centre, Umberslade Hall, at the time rejoicing in the job title of Chief Project Manager – Single Cylinders. So in 1972, I elected to take my redundancy money and set up Mickmar Engines.
A Mickmar Engine
Some years earlier I had been Group Chief Development Engineer of BSA General Engineering Division at Redditch, Worcestershire, which amongst many things produced the BSA range of industrial and agricultural engines. The General Engineering division had been disbanded so that the main Redditch factory could be switched totally to motorcycle production, and the power unit business was sold to Villiers.
A group of us had discussed setting up a power unit manufacturing business of our own, but this had only been talk. Apart from that, the Mickmar Engine project was not a long, drawn-out project; it was quite a sudden decision to set off into the blue with the new engine! Even the name was derived by the lads that worked for me at Umberslade Hall who thought up the name — not that difficult!
In the last month, before I left they would tell people who were visiting me ‘you’re wasting time talking to him, he can only think of his Mickmar Engine’. During that last month, I did work very hard at making sure that the projects I had worked on were properly documented and handed over to the appropriate people. I did visit Bert Hopwood, the main man at Triumph, who had no time for the Umberslade set up. He asked me what I was going to do and by that time I could see no point in being other than truthful. “I am going to set up a business to manufacture engines. Firstly I am looking at doing a 175cc five-speed two-stroke engine. I want to fill the gap left by the withdrawal of the Villiers Engines from the market” I said.
When I had been in charge of the engineering of the BSA Bantam and the future range of twostroke engines at BSA we had started to look at the smaller capacity sizes for the future two-strokes. We had got up to the point where we had got wooden patterns for the new proposed 175cc engine. The project had stopped there and the projects mothballed. Mr Hopwood, with a grin and a wink, said: “I suppose you know where the pattern equipment is for the abandoned 175 is?” I said: “Say no more sir!” In fact, we set out with the widest of objectives not just as narrow as motorcycle engines. Indeed we did do a design of a 150cc side-valve engine for Atco lawn mowers and a scotch crank engine for a local foundry. However, the first important project was to get a two-stroke trials engine going.
At that time there was still a vestige of a motorcycle industry that had existed around the Villiers engine. They were looking for a sensible engine. Minarelli and Puch engines had been tried and found wanting. However that opportunity to supply engines was, in fact, time-limited. Firms were stopping production of motorcycles almost by the month.
By the time we got sorted the market had gone. We then needed premises, and we found an old unit in Selly Oak, Birmingham, that had made delivery carriages for horse-drawn Co-op operations. It was a somewhat rickety unit on three floors. The top floor, being on street level, had access to Bristol Road and the lowest level had access to the canal. It was about a mile from the old Ariel factory.
Initially, the team consisted of me, my then wife, Roy Richmond who had worked for me as a Project Engineer at Redditch and Umberslade and Mac McGowan, who had worked for me at Redditch & Umberslade and previously at Royal Enfield. Mac was the most hands-on of all of us. Roy didn’t like the Selly Oak premises and only lasted about a month, and was replaced by Rod Arscott. Rod was a family friend previously working for the City of Birmingham Public Works Department. Anyway, I got on and indeed designed a 175cc piston-ported two-stroke engine with a bolted on five-speed gearbox.
I was well known in the motorcycle world at that time, and we had plenty of publicity. Bob Currie, then Motor Cycle’s Midland Editor, was an enthusiastic supporter and was always calling in to see how we were doing. The result of this publicity was an approach from Greeves. Greeves did not want a 175cc. It had to be 250cc. So my wonderful ex BSA 175cc castings were no use to me! However, one set of castings I converted in my guise as chief pattern maker to make 250cc heads and barrel patterns.
The 250cc Engine
So the main design activity at Selly Oak was to design the 250cc engine. A lot of the design work had been done before Selly Oak appearing. The design of anything has to recognise the business environment in which the project is being produced. In our case, that meant everything had to be at near enough zero cost. That meant we had to use bits and pieces from wherever. The piston and piston rings needed to be made out of posh materials and machined on very high-quality machinery. We found a firm in Italy that was making pirate pistons for the 250cc Bultaco and Ossa machines. Thus the Bultaco, Ossa and then Mickmar all had the same 72mm bore and 60mm stroke!
Because I had been involved with the BSA Bantam for some years, and the Bantam itself was 58mm stroke, with the new engine we were operating in an area Amal was clearly the place to go for our carburettor. Phil Wood of Lucas was an old boy of King Edwards Grammar School, as was I, my brother and Peter Inchley who had much to do with the Villiers Starmaker. So it was Lucas ignition equipment.
We used a system that Montesa had used, using rollers in semi-circular grooves in the gearbox main shaft so as to avoid having expensive tooling to make splines. The nodular iron crankshafts and the iron flywheel came from Hayes Shell Cast where one of the directors was John Taft, a fellow BSA apprentice. We had one massive jig masterminded by Mac McGowan that served for the machining of the main castings.
We were trying to do things properly and on the second floor of the Selly Oak building we had installed a Heenan & Froude DPX 0 engine test dynamometer. The engines were run on the dynamometer as a Saturday job by Graham Carter, who had worked with me both at BSA Redditch and Umberslade Hall.
Because of the publicity we got from Bob Currie we had a fairly constant trudge of possible customers turn up at the door. What we really needed was customers with a certain amount of understanding and certainly tenacity combined with patience! On that basis, Greeves came and went very quickly without a machine ever appearing.
David Brand, who then owned Saracen, did achieve a machine that looked the part and in September 1973 gave Mick Bowers the honour of being the first competitive rider on a Mickmar. David couldn’t put up with our ‘snails pace’ of development work and went off to make radiators.
A very interesting machine appeared with Duncan MacDonald; just a look at the picture of his MAC machine shows he was years ahead of his time. He also frustrated by us though and switched to an Ossa engine. When it came to tenacity, we can name three Selly Oak projects that did help us forward in big ways. Firstly the great old man of motorcycling Len Vale-Onslow Senior, who had produced SOS machines prior to the war and had a small number of Valon machines after the war, engaged Steve Wilson to build a Mickmar powered Valon machine for Alan Wright. The Valon machine was also based on a Saracen frame. Having someone such as Alan on the machine was a real boom even if he did sometimes need a certain amount of ‘fettling’ to keep him going.
Then Bernard Gore appeared at the door one day wanting to buy an engine and make a frame and cycle parts to make an all-British machine. This he did and went on to record the first-ever Mickmar win and then followed that by winning The Welsh Trials Championship. He also rode in the British Experts, where he was the only solo rider mounted on a British Machine.
The next person to knock on our door was Pat Onions from Cotton. Pat and I got on so very well, right from that very first meeting. He was used to running Cotton on a shoestring. They were using Minarelli engines, but they had to put a lot of work in to make the engine into a trials one. Pat Onions and Eric Lee made the Cotton to take the Mickmar.
We then did a lot of testing with the Cotton riders Pat Barrett and John Close. Most of the testing was done on the Cotswolds at what was John Draper’s farm. What Pat wanted was to produce a clubman’s trials model so that the lads could have a bit of fun, but it had to be reliable. So he put John Close on the machine. Pat was looking for John to do a complete season on the Mickmar Cotton and deliver a First Class award in Western Centre trials week in week out. John proceeded to do this. Pat was so pleased; he was ready to order but…
Move to Yeovil
The next time Pat called in I had to explain that Mickmar had hit the buffers and we were going to have to give up. Pat would have none of it. “We haven’t come all this way to give up now; you’ve got a super power unit, and we want it. Don’t do anything drastic; give me a fortnight to sort something.”
Over the next few days, Pat went around the industry to see if anyone would take us on. The one firm that was interested was Talon Engineering run by George Sartin down in Yeovil. They were going to supply hubs and brakes to Cotton and possibly also sprockets. George reasoned without an engine Cotton wouldn’t be wanting anything else. George saw it as a way of gaining extra business as well as protecting existing orders. So the exercise was put in place.
Mickmar in Selly Oak had a ‘controlled’ liquidation so that the suppliers remained on side to supply the Yeovil enterprise. The drawings, the stock, my family and me upped sticks and moved down to Yeovil. The Selly Oak machinery was of no interest to George, so Mac McGowan took the machines and set himself up as a machining unit. To this day in Astwood Bank, Worcestershire he makes spare parts for ancient Lister engines, etc.
The Talon Company changed its name to Talon Engineering Ltd with George as Managing Director and me as Technical Director. During this period George managed to organise it so that we could have a manufacturer’s team in the 1975 Colmore Cup Trial. Almost certainly this was the last time an all-British made machines team was entered in a National trial. I had watched it since I was a toddler, passengered in it and ridden solo in it. It had been one of the greatest classics of all and at that time was still one of the most important trials run.
The Talon Mickmar team was David Fisher, Alan Wright and Bernard Gore. We achieved a certain notoriety when some of the 12 machines were penalised 10 marks for exceeding the noise level in the noise test as two were Mickmars, with Bernard being the quiet man! At least they knew we had been there. The move to Yeovil was a boost to the engine project because Talon had some very good kit to make things and also were specialist makers of lost wax casting tooling. George himself set to and made new tooling for some of the gearbox parts. The gear selector mechanism on the early Mickmar had been something of a problem. The new tooling moved us to a different level.
Wasp Trials Bike
Yeovil is not so far from the Wasp production unit in Wiltshire. The boss of Wasp, Robin Rhind Tutt, had made some trials motorcycles over the years and was interested in including a TalonMickmar engined trials model in his range. Like Pat Onions Robin wanted to see a machine running week in week out in the local trials. Winning would be nice, but again he wanted to produce a clubman trials model that would be reliable. Robin gave George Greenland the job of making a prototype and the running of the machine we controlled from Yeovil, using Mike Hann as the rider. Mike worked at Yeovil College and so as well as being a good local rider he also had an engineering input to the project.
When the Talon-Mickmar project eventually floundered the Wasp was left abandoned at the Talon factory. Many years later Rob Sartin, the son of George and now boss man of the highly successful Talon Engineering business, asked Jock Wilson to sort out the old Wasp. A complete rebuild led to the machine that now resides in The Sammy Miller Museum.
It never came to anything, but the BSA cooperative approached us regarding making engines for an updated BSA Bantam. The little-known BSA cooperative was set up by the BSA workforce in response to the Triumph cooperative. A picture appeared in December 1975 in Motor Cycle News of BSA’s shop steward, Harold Robinson, with the Bantam and the Talon-Mickmar, though the engine was not named. It seemed that as I had been a BSA apprentice anything I may have designed was clearly BSA property! I am afraid when it came to militancy the Triumph lads had the edge over their Small Heath counterparts. Certainly, Harold was not the firebrand of his namesake ‘Red Robbo’ down the road at BMC, Longbridge.
The light at the end of the tunnel gets extinguished!
By the winter of 1975/76, we were still operating on a knife edge, but light at the end of the tunnel started to appear, only to be cruelly extinguished. At this time, around half a dozen trials machines were in regular use: Bernard Gore, by now was on a Miller Highboy frame Cotton and still performing well in Mid Wales; Mr Knight, who had bought the Saracen from David Brand, operating around Norwich; John Close was on the Cotton – our Mr Regular in the Cotswolds; and Yeovil riders Mike Hann was on the Wasp and Trevor Ring on another Miller framed machine.
Pat Onions, from Cotton, had got to the stage of asking us to supply Cotton with six engines per week and Wasp had ordered and taken 12 engines. With these two manufacturers, it looked like we would be making some 40 units per month. But it just didn’t happen. Wasp was so busy making their world championship winning sidecar outfits they just never got round to producing the machines to the Greenland prepared prototype.
Even worse was to happen with the Cotton project. Cotton had a sleeping Director, Terry Wilson, who came into some money and bought out the other shareholders and made himself Chairman of the Company, leaving Pat Onions as a non-powerful Managing Director.
Cotton now wanted to set out their stall with a supply of 200 engines per week. Frankly, we could not see it and also we had to look to fund three months of production. It just wasn’t going to happen. In the last few weeks of our operations, we did look at setting up a bigger company, but funding was not available. During this period I also did the initial design work on a 500cc twin and a 750cc triple based on the 250cc single.
In April 1976 we did produce one oversize engine of 320cc, using a Bultaco piston. This engine was put in one of the two Miller catalogue specials built from Sam’s catalogue parts by Les Thomas. Yeovilbased Les had made Triumph Cub Trials machines in years gone by and was a very enthusiastic supporter of the Talon Mickmar project.
By the spring of 1976, it was basically all over. George and I shook hands and went our separate ways. Talon went on to become a very successful business making a large range of sprockets and other motorcycle goodies and to become one of Yeovil’s leading engineering employers. I went to work as a Type Test Engineer at Westland Helicopters and then moved to being Managing Director at British Seagull in Poole, the outboard engine people. By a quirk of fate, the Technical Director at British Seagull was Doug Helen, my old friend from BSA/Triumph days. There was a spell then as Chief Engineer at Villiers Industrial Engines, and then some consultancy work. I still do a bit of consultancy work to this day, helping small firms managing their operations in line with various international standards.
A Bitter Sweet Victory
During the summer of 1975 we were approached by David Hale from Westfield School, Yeovil for an engine to power a Hovercraft. I am quite sure when I started the Mickmar project that I have had many ideas as to where a Mickmar might appear, but a Hovercraft was not one of them! Anyway David Hale got his team of enthusiastic pupils to build a machine. David Hale really wanted me to go to one particular event, but I didn’t want to know. By then the novelty had worn off. I should have gone though because Westfield School won the All England Schools Hovercraft Championship held that year at Longleat Safari Park in Wiltshire. We did also supply one other customer with a Hovercraft Power Unit, but then having supplied it we heard nothing, until five years after the project had ended they phoned up wanting to order engines!
Attempts to Restart
There were some abortive efforts to keep the engine going. Ashley Tubes, who used to supply Triumph with frame parts, wanted me to move back to the Midlands but I was not enthusiastic. Len ValeOnslow and Evesham Motorcycles made various efforts, but none was successful. At some point along this route, the drawings got lost – so that really was that!
The MAC idea from Duncan MacDonald provided the mould for a future generation of trials motorcycles using the aluminium monocoque idea. 1974: Duncan MacDonald on the Mickmar engined MAC – MacDonald Auto Cycles – at the back of Birmingham University....
A very interesting machine appeared with Duncan MacDonald. Just a look at the picture of his MAC machine shows he was years ahead of his time.
This is the picture of the Montesa Impala and its ingenious use of grooves and pins instead of the conventional splines more commonly found in the gearbox. The complete Saracen Invader with the Mickmar engine housed in the frame. The new Mickmar engine.
Bob Currie used this superb open-engine drawing in an article on the Mickmar project for Motor Cycle. Is this the ultimate BSA Bantam trials model? When Michael had been in charge of the engineering of the BSA Bantam he conceived the machine that could...
Based in Derby, Silk Motorcycles produced this tidy looking trials prototype with the Mickmar engine. Many years later Rob Sartin, the son of George and now boss-man of the highly successful Talon Engineering business asked Jock Wilson to sort out the...