Villiers 2 speed main image Villiers 2 speed main image Villiers 2 speed main image

Villiers is another of those resonant names from the tangled history of 20th Century British mechanical engineering. In my youth, slightly unkempt men with too much hair in their ears, and eyebrows that could use the attentions of a small hedge trimmer, would wax lyrical about the Villiers two-horse-power-two-stroke this or the J.A.P. five-horse-power-four-stroke that. To me they just looked like knackered lawn mower engines but these corroding lumps of metal clearly had some, very well hidden, charm.

The story of Villiers goes something like this...

At the end of the nineteenth century John Marston was building aesthetically beautiful Sunbeam bicycles in aesthetically particularly un-beautiful Wolverhampton, England. However he considered the pedals he was using to be unworthy of his exquisite machines. In 1890, to put this right, he sent his son, Charles Marston, to the USA to, among other things, discuss pedals with a US firm that made fine pedals called Pratt & Whitney. Charles might possibly not have guessed that one day Pratt & Whitney would spawn a huge operation manufacturing, the as yet undreamt of, jet engines and spacecraft booster rockets - but apparently they once made a mean pedal.

Inspired by this visit, in 1898, John bought a small factory in Villiers Street in Wolverhampton, to make bicycle components including pedals. He installed Charles as the boss. In 1902 John sold the business (now the Villiers Engineering Company) to Charles.

Also in 1902 Villiers invented and patented the bicycle freewheel. Over the next 5 decades Villiers manufactured many tens of millions of freewheels.

In 1911 Villiers produced their first petrol engine, and came to be a dominant force in the market for small petrol and diesel engines. They took over J.A.P., another legendary small engine maker, in 1957.

However by the 1960s the Midlands engineering base was collapsing, and Villiers was taken over and/or merged on a number of occasions. Wikipedia claims that the surviving descendant of Villiers is a company called Ultrasis, which claims to be:

“the market leader of computer delivered, interactive healthcare products; providing user friendly and cost effective solutions for healthcare professionals, the corporate market and individual consumers.”

I suspect that James and Charles would be mildly alarmed.

In terms of derailleurs, Villiers never produced a true derailleur, but at the 1934 International Bicycle and Motor Cycle Show at Olympia they launched the Villiers Two-speed, a clever two speed conversion unit. This used a secondary chain and freewheel ratchets, and could be fitted to a standard single speed bicycle. Mad, but admirably cunning.

see also UK Patent # 429,659 - Villiers 1934

see also UK Patent # 429,659 - Villiers 1934

UK Patent 429,659 - Villiers thumbnail

see also The C.T.C Gazette 1936 - Villiers ad

see also The C.T.C Gazette 1936 - Villiers ad

The CTC Gazette 1936 - Villiers advert thumbnail