Most Civic Society members will be aware that I am writing a history of the Elswick-Hopper Company, which started life in 1880 as F Hopper, Machinist and Whitesmith, on Brigg Road. In addition to becoming a major supplier of bicycles to the domestic and international markets Fred Hopper had ambitions, recorded as early as 1898, of becoming a manufacturor of both motor cycles and cars. This article is based on one that appeared in the journal of the Veteran Motor Cycle Club in January 2004. So far as the book is concerned I have completed three chapters and have probably five more to write. Research continues, both in terms of trawling through newspaper microfiche records, old magazines and interviewing ex-employees. I am also adding regularly to my digital and 'real' collection of photographs and catalogues relating to the company and would welcome a call from anyone with information on any aspect of Elswick-Hoppper history. I am indebted to John Andrew of Barton for supplying much of the information I have on Hopper motor cycles and for stoking up my enthusiasm for the subject. Also to Geoff Bryant for sowing the seed for this research on that fateful evening in the Wheatsheaf a few years ago.
Fred Hopper first ventured into bicycle manufacture just prior to 1890 and like many of his Midland contemporaries, such as Herbert Hillman abd George Singer, understood the huge potential of motor transportation. Unfortunately, his foresight and ambition were not matched by his ability to raise finance. Having bought the assets of the Newcastle based Elswick Cycle Company Ltd. in 1910, with the aim of marketing an additional range oif bicycles and motorcycles, he needed to invest in new buildings and equipment. After a few years of almost constant battles with his bankers he was persuaded to form a new company to take over the combined Hopper and Elswick assets. The Elswick-Hopper Cycle and Motor Company Ltd. was floated in June 1913 to attract sorely needed investment. A combination of bad timing and adverse comments in the Economist produced a take up of fewer than 5000 of the 130,000 shares available. Chronic cash flow problems and loss of confidence led to court action by the banks and a group of suppliers. The newly formed Elswick-Hopper Company went into receivership in October 1913. It was subsequently restructured and made substantial money during the Great War from government contracts. These included supplying forks to Ariel Motors Ltd and machine gun mountings to BSA. However, the trials and tribulations of the immediate pre-war period had diminished Fred Hopper's ambitions somewhat and he reverted solely to bicycle manufacture in 1920. In the late 1950s Elswick-Hopper had another shot at motorised transport (though cycle motor powered bicycles had been sold by them before that time) and prototype mopeds were road tested at MIRA with considerable success. However, manufacturing start-up costs meant that production was not viable and the decision was taken to import and market Auto-Vap mopeds and Capri scooters through a new Scootermatic subsidy. This company had unaccountably turned down the opportunity to become sole importers of Honda 50 in 1958 after extensive testing - but that's another story.
NSU, based in Neckarsulm, Germany, can also trace its history back to 1880 and by 1902 it was selling its new motor cycles in England through a Birmingham agent. Fred Hopper spotted the potential of the new single cylinder 2 hp machine and included it in his trade catalogue published in January 1903. By this time Hopper had developed from a bicycle maker to a factor and supplied the trade with a range of goods from sewing machines to shot guns, as well as a wide range of complete bicycles and frame sets. The addition of a motor cycle was an exciting development and it is interesting that it was advertised as a Torpedo motor cycle fitted with an NSU engine. The Torpedo brand name had been in use for some time for the top models of the Hopper bicycle range and continued to be used for all Hopper motorcycles and cars.
The Elswick range, available from 1911, was always marketed separately. In those days it was standard practice to place the seller's badge on such equipment and, indeed, most of Hopper's bicycles were sold with customers badges and transfers, with no indication of their Barton origins. There are no records of sales but by 1906 there were two twin cylinder NSU machines available, 4 hp and 5 1/2 hp and the cost of the smaller machine was £35 14s. For some reason these were advertised as NSU machines, rather than Torpedoe. The following year four single cylinder touring machines, three twins and a 1 1/4 hp lightweight were available. By 1908 the largest and smallest singles were dropped and these NSU sourced machines again wore a Torpedo badge.
The break with NSU took place in 1910, when Hopper produced his own frameand introduced the first genuine Barton Torpedo touring motorcycle. This was a Fafnir powered single cylinder 80mm x 90mm 4 stroke, rated at 4 1/4 hp and sold for £35 trade. Probably due to lack of cash, Hopper initially produced just the one model, a significant reduction in choice, compared to the NSU range. This was rationally, if not convincingly, explained in the catalogue.
"We have hitherto listed Motor Cycles of types varying from 1 1/4 hp to 6 hp, but are now of the opinion that the time has arrived when the type of standard machine may be regarded, with a few minor reservations, as definately settled. We are convinced that the chief demand is likely to be for a solo machine of about 4 hp and weighing 150 to 160 lbs. and we have decided not to supply any other model for season 1910. Moreover, we consider it essential that every motor bicycle should be fitted with Magnote Ignition and Spring Forks and have therefore decided to fit both as standard instead of charging extra as has been customary."
It is doubtful that more than a single model was practical from the sheer logistics of the production of frames and fittings and the assembly of completed machines. The decision to put all their money on "4 horses" was overturned within a year and at the November Olympia Exhibition there were two models on show, a standard 3 3/4 hp single and a lightweight 2 hp. These were fitted with Precision engines, a manufacturor that Hopper used exclusively from this time.
At the Olympia Exhibition of 1911 Hopper again displayed two Torpedo motorcycles, a 3 1/2 hp roadster model and a 2 1/2 hp lightweight roadster. Elswick motorcycles also made their first appearance from their new location in Barton and a 3 3/4 hp single and 2 1/2 hp lightweight were displayed in the traditional Elswick green livery. The larger machine was two speed clutch driven. To maintain the illusion of Elswick being a separate company the two makes occupied different stands.
The next catalogues were produced in 1912, one for the Hopper Torpedo range and one for Elswick models. As well as detailing the two machines shown at Olympia, the Hopper catalogue offered the engines separately, the larger being advertised as the 3 1/2 Torpedo touring engine and the smaller as the 2 1/2 hp "Torpedo-Precision" lightweight engine.
The Motor Cycle of August 15th 1912 includes the story of a visit to the Elswick Works at Barton. The new crankshaft free-engine cltch is referred to as having been in use on an experimental machine for some months and proven perfectly reliable. An idea of production rates is given by reference to about thirty machines a week being turned out by the motorcycle department. This undoubtedly refers to the output of both Elswick and Torpedo models, for which separate workshops were built between 1911 and 1912. Production figures were reported elsewhere as 718 during the 1911/1912 trading year and 324 during the last 5 months of 1912.
An article in the (Lincolnshire) Star of June 28th 1913, indicates that the local machines were quite competitive and that Fred Hopper was confident enough in his products to allow his only son, Freddie, to ride them. The newly formed Barton and District Motor Club held a hill climb at West Halton on the previous Saturday with five events for different classes: lightweights, touring, passenger machines, T.T. racing machines and unlimited. Of the 19 placed listed, six were Elswick, four Torpedo, four BSA, two Clyno, one Triumph, one Rilex and one Rex. The Torpedo places were all gained by Freddie Hopper, 21 years old, on a 3 1/2 hp machine, with second place in the touring class, first passenger, third T.T. and first unlimited.
The event was marred by an accident in which Herbert Barton, a young chauffer employed by F Hopper and Co., was thrown from his machine due to a puncture at the start of the one-in-seven hill while travelling at about 50mph. The flying start and a large quantity of loose stones on the road were said to have contributed to the accident.
In 1913 Hopper produced a catalogue for the Torpedo motorcycle range, comprising the 2 1/2 and 3 1/2 hp machines of the previous year. Being specifically aimed at enthusiasts, it contains many more details than the trade orientated publications. Thus, the frame is described as:
"considerably reduced in height and is now so low that an average sized rider can quite easily place his heals on the ground whilst seated in the saddle. Only best quality steel tubing is used and the frame is reinforced at all vital parts to ensure strength. The wheel base is short enough to steady the machine on grease or round corners and yet long enough to give comfort when riding on rough roads."
Testimonials were printed at the back of the catalogue, from as far away as Johannesburg, Montevideo, and Burlington, Ontario.While recognising that such letters may have been embellished, they do have the ring of truth and Hopper at this time was exporting bicycles to most corners of the globe. One verifiable testemonial was quoted from the Motor and Cycle Trader July 26th 1912:
"Accounts are just to hand of the Cape Peninsular Club's Speed Contest, which took place at Durban. There were thirteen entries, including a 7 hp machine and a 6 hp, while all competitors, with one exception, were driving nothing less than machines of 3 1/2 hp. The exception was Mr T.C.L. Smith, who was mounted on a 2 1/2 hp Torpedo. On formula, by which the event was decided, Mr Smith, with a score of 220, was far above the nearest competitor, whose score totalled 339. In actual speed time the little Torpedo was fourth, being beaten by the fastest, a 7 hp machine, by only 7 1/2 seconds, while the second and third competitors, both on 3 1/2 hp machines, beat it only by 4 and 3 1/2 seconds respectively. This is certainly an excellent performance for a machine of only 202 cc. specially since it was estimated that the Torpedo attained a speed of 43 miles per hour. A Mr Hodgeson of the Hull and East Riding Motor Cycle Club also had a good year on his little Torpedo as a private rider. He took the Gold Medal in the Leeds Club 24 hour run to London and back; the Gold in Hull and ER 100 miles non-stop ride and first prize in the 100 mile Reliability Trial."
The last Hopper catalogue in which motorcycles appeared was for the 1915/16 year, presumably compiled in 1914, close to the start of the war. It was the most ambitious yet, with six Torpedo models available: 2 and 2 1/2 hp lightweights, 2 1/2 hp two-stroke, 3 1/2 ho touring, 4 hp twin and 4 1/4 hp sidecar combination. This same line-up appeared in the 1918 price list, with the note that they were "withdrawn temporarily". The 1919 catalogue, under the heading Motor Cycle and Side Cars stated:
"We regret having to advise our customers that we are unable to quote for these models at present, as our Motor Cycle Department has for the last four years been engaged on important contracts with the Government, and we are ot yet in a position to deliver our New Models."
Just how many motorcycles were made post-war is not known, however, a report in the Motor Cycle of November 27th 1919 on the Olympia Exhibition covers the Elswick-Hopper stand:
"On this stand are shown two motor cycles. Both machines are identical except for finish, though one is known as the Elswick and the other as the Torpedo. The Elswick is an extremely neat lightweight, fitted with a Precision 3 1/2 hp two-stroke engine, which has sump lubrication as described in the Beardsmore-Precision. The machine is quite simple and on strictly conventional lines. It is finished in the well-known Elswick shade of green and lined with gold and this has a particularily distinctive appearance. The engine chain is neatly encased, the cover also enclosing the outside flywheel. A Sturmey-Archer two-speed gear box with kick-starter is fitted and the machine has Brampton Biflex spring forke."
I agree with John Andrew's assessment that the 1919 Olympia exhibits were an attempt by Elswick-Hopper to sell off whatever stock they had retained from before the war. We know that no further motorcycles were produced after 1919. Hopper having decided to stick to producing what he knew best - the bicycle.
Fred Hopper was a sound engineer, having trained at Marshalls of Gainsborough and was a great risk taker in the classic Victorian mode. Had he been born in Coventry or Birmingham, rather than in a small North Lincolnshire town, who knows what he would have achieved? However, he made the most of the attributes of Barton - low wages and access to the port of Hull for exports and he built a very successful bicycle company that at one point was second only to Raleigh in production. If he had managed to avoid receivership, would he have been able to continue to manufacture motorcycles? It is doubtful, given the strength of the competition in the cities of the Midlands and the limited number of skilled craftsmen in North Lincolnshire at that time.
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