Francis Barnett - James
Home Frame Wheels Engine


17 May 2011

I bought this on Ebay where it was described as a Frances Barnett Plouver (sic) basket case.  I contacted the seller and agreed a price which was very reasonable.  I am not sure why I wanted it so much, or even at all..... they don't make much money even when fully restored, and parts are hard to come by as most shed their mortal coil some years ago having been ridden to death by flat capped woodbine smoking factory workers.  I guess it was a whim, trying to recreate my first ever motorcycling experience, a Tandon with a Villiers 8E 4 speed engine.  The name of Tandon has long since passed into obscurity, along with the few machines built by the industrious and innovative emigree from India who conjured up the marque.

My parents bought the Tandon for 15 in 1968 and I rode it miles, pushed it miles, and swore at it constantly.  It was unreliable but I wouldn't have missed the experience of its custodianship for the world.  I digress.....

I was clear in my own mind before I bought this bike that it was certainly not a Francis Barnett, despite the description in the green log book which the seller had.  In particular, it most definitely was not a Plover.  The Plover model was a pigs ear of a machine with a frame constructed partly from tube and partly from pressings.  The Plover swinging arm was some wierd pressed steel affair with  rear damper springs concealed behind a hideous oversized mudguard.  Some parts of  the bike I had bought may be Francis Barnett, the tank, forks and wheels, but the frame was clearly a James Captain, as was the toolbox. Undaunted, I went to collect it in early May and brought it home the same day.  The green log book indeed described the machine as a Francis Barnett Plover but the frame had been replaced, the log book noted and authenticated by Dorset District Council, and the engine subsequently replaced, the log book similarly annotated.  This being the case, I had no hope of retaining the original registration number so a decision had to be made about the future role of this particular 'Metisse'.

Research confirmed that the replacement frame indeed was a James of 1955, and the engine was despatched to the James factory at about the same time.  I know nothing of the history other than this, but clearly a machine with a non original frame and engine is something of a dichotomy.

Anyway, I was still very pleased with the machine (thanks Allen) and within a few days reduced it to its component parts.  I was still undecided about the role it would play.  originally, I thought I might restore it but it became clear that with its somewhat bizarre provenance, and the fact that so much of the original had either been replaced or gone missing, it seems that it may eventually metamorphosize into a trials bike.  The rationale behind this postulation is that if James Motorcycles were famous for anything, it was for their off road bikes.  History  has judged the marque to have been supreme at the sport throughout production, and the Captain, in its trials form as a Commando and scrambles form as a Cotswold were famous for their respective disciplines for many a long year. Added to this was the fact that so much of the machine I had bought was beyond repair or re-use.  Those who have followed my previous projects will realise that I hate destruction, and in particular, wanton or gratuitous activity resulting in the loss of a valuable asset is anathema to me.  However, there is a line over which I am not prepared to cross in the name of heritage, and this machine sits fairly and squarely on that line - hence my indecision.

To business..... First job is an engine strip down.  This proved surprisingly easy.  Someone once said that if you can't strip and rebuild a Villiers engine with the aid of just the handbook and a penknife, then you have no mechanical aptitude.  Somewhat close to the truth even if not strictly so.  The engine came apart easily and save a bad score in the barrel, needs no further attention so has been reassembled at least temporarily. In time honoured fashion, progress on individual components will be posted on their respective pages under the usual headings of Engine, Frame, Forks, Wheels, Exhaust etc etc.

Update 25 May

I have decided to pursue the trilas bike option.  Having discarded the wheels, mudguards, toolbox and handlebars and confirmed that the machine does not have its original frame and engine, both of which have a James heritage, a rebuild to standard is just not cost effective nor even meaningful to the provenance of the machine.  I am still very pleased with my purchase and am now actively seeking the parts to make this an attractive Pre-65 machine.  Some parts will need to be custom made but most will be within my capabilities  This should prove to be an interesting challenge so read on if you wish.....