I have always regretted
that my father sold his old bike. The Spagthorpe Whippet is legendary
among enthusiasts, of course, for its innovative engineering and inestimable
character. I have been looking for another one ever since I was old enough
to spell “bike” and have yet to see such a beast, although I
have heard of several in various stages of restoration.
Rare snapshot of Lady Jilian Spagthorpe in front of the servant's
entrance of stately Spagthorpe Manor, preparing to test drive the
first production model of the Spagthorpe Whippet
(gaily painted by factory workers). Lady Jilian survived the test
drive intact; the motorcycle, alas, did not.
Miracle or Myth?
Each year the Cotswold
Section V.M.C.C. run a signpost rally for which the premier award is the
Bovinzer Trophy. This consists of an old side-valve blind cylinder barrel
mounted on a polished wooden plinth.
The barrel is said
to be one of the few remaining parts of the Spagthorpe Whippet, a machine
said to have first graced the Kings highway in the early twenties. Two
unusual features that immediately stand out are that the valves incline
inwards towards the cylinder bore and that the bore/stroke ratio is quite
wide making it necessary to flare the lower portion of the barrel to provide
Despite the bike’s
name cropping up in the results of various trials and speed events in
that period little is known of the machine or its fate so it has become
a tradition that the winner of the Bovinzer Trophy spends the year he
or she holds it attempting to discover more about the history of this
As this Section has
always exhibited a healthy interest in the older and odder specimens of
our hobby (religion) I thought members might be interested in the results
of my research. Below is a copy of the letter I sent to Reg Eyre, organiser
of the Cotswold Signpost Run and Spagthorpe connoisseur:
Dear Reg, 27th
Having the honour
of being the custodian of the Bovinzer Trophy for twelve months and
noting your comments on its fragmented history, I decided to look more
closely at the old cylinder barrel said to have at one time been part
of the elusive Spagthorpe Whippet.
By sheer coincidence
an old friend of mine, at one time a prominent member of the Automotive
Section of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, happened to spot the
thing on the shelf and immediately showed a keen interest. For some
time he was archivist for the Section and the unusual angle of the valves,
the long stroke and small bore rang a bell in his mind.
Some weeks later
he 'phoned to say that he had traced a couple of papers which were presented
to the Institution by a certain Dr. H.Robinson, graduate and fellow
of an obscure seat of learning in the U.S.A. The subject being the development
of alternative fuels for internal combustion engines. It seems that
many of Dr H. R.’s experiments were carried out on a single cylinder
motor cycle, make unstated, during the latter days of W.W.I.
friend and via the back door of a government research laboratory (which
must remain nameless) micro-examination of minute deposits from the
inlet and exhaust tracts revealed traces of organic particles not associated
with the internal combustion engine.
According to the
I. Mech. Eng. records, the said Dr. H. Robinson had carried out research
into the development of viable fuels from the fermented excreta of Horse
dung. It appears that such research was of considerable importance at
that time, oil based fuels being in short supply, and there were still
many horses on the roads providing an ample supply of basic material.
His early efforts seem to have employed a large gas generator carried
on a sidecar chassis. This would be partly filled with dung, a chemical
compound (composition not disclosed due to patents pending) and mixed
with water which brought about a rapid fermentation and a quick build
up of gas pressure. This was fed to the engine via a regulator-cum-carburettor
and was, apparently, quite successful. One of the off-shoot developments,
with sporting potential, was a mechanical scoop which could be lowered
as the outfit sped along thus picking up supplies of fresh basic fuel
without having to stop. This would sometimes be warm thus speeding up
Soon after war
ended, it is thought that financial backing for Robinson’s research
dried up. Also he lost two dedicated assistants due to asphyxia when
cleaning out the generator, although at the time he strongly disputed
this, claiming that their demise was due to influenza.
From all this
it could be that what you have in this handsome relic is an artifact
which played a vital part in what might have been an important development
in alternative fuels. I apologise for the rather lengthy notes but feel
that the details may be of interest to the historians among us who are
keen on the early evolution of motor cycling.
Having read the
foregoing, if anyone can throw further light on the history of the Spagthorpe
Whippet or better still know of its whereabouts (some believe it still
exists) I can be contacted via the editor and would be delighted to hear
It has always been
my understanding that the Spagthorpe Whippet perished one evening in late
September 1944. It was being ridden at speed over the Hogs Back, Surrey
(not far from the birthplace of the V.M.C.C. by coincidence) when, probably
due to the unusual exhaust note (a sort of continuous raspberry) it was
mistaken for a low flying Doodlebug by an Army patrol on manoeuvres in
the area. Their Bren gunner loosed off a short burst at the passing projectile
before the error was realised. Although the shooting was wild one round
penetrated the effluent tank causing it to explode vulcanising the unfortunate
rider in the pungent propellant. Temporarily blinded he careered off the
road, down an embankment and into the midden of a nearby farm. On happier
occasions the discovery of such a plentiful supply of fuel would have
been most welcome but alas the Whippet was damaged beyond repair (the
irreplaceable outside flywheel with patent scoop had sheared off and shattered).
The luckless rider escaped with only minor injuries and lived, so I understand,
to a ripe old age. But for the rest of his life he was burdened with the
nickname “Downwind” .
The saga continues :
In response to the
article on the Spagthorpe Whippet and in particular its possible demise
I have received a letter from a Mrs F.Stanay (nee Spagthorpe):
When I read the
story of the Spagthorpe Whippet I was struck by the similarity to a
tale I often heard my father tell about a wartime escapade of his. My
father was Able Seaman “Downwind” Spagthorpe. His shipmates
had bestowed on him the nickname “Downwind” because of the
unfortunate effect Navy catering hadon his digestive system and at the
time of this story, late September 1944 he had just returned from serving
with the Mediterranean Fleet.
To get home as
quickly as possible Albert, to use Dad’s Christian name, had borrowed
a 250cc Leggit which still had acetylene lighting. As my father was
riding across the Hogs Back he was stricken with a terrible attack of
“Malta Dog.” The resultant cloud of “gas” carried
onto the rear light where the acetylene flame ignited it. The explosion
that followed engulfed his lower half and, in a desperate attempt to
douse the flames, he swerved off the road down an embankment and into
a duck pond, extinguishing the flames and the life of a large Mallard
that had been sleeping by the waters edge.
The Leggit was
bent beyond repair so, after salvaging his kit bag, the Mallard and
some vegetables from the next field (there was rationing on then, remember)
which later made a very nice welcome home dinner, my father hitched
his way home in the car of a WRVS worker. He explained away his charred
and mud encrusted clothing by saying he'd been caught in an Air Raid.
He made such an impression on the girl that inside three months she
became Mrs Spagthorpe.
Given the similarity
of these stories it does not seem beyond the realms of possibility that
the report of the Whippets demise is no more than Able Seaman Spagthorpe’s
escapade distorted by the passage of time. If so it means there is still
a chance the Spagthorpe Whippet is still out there somewhere. Keep searching.