A thoroughly modern Imperial Rover

When I started looking carefully at the contents of the Lewis Album, the photograph of a car and a motorcycle posing outside the Lewis Cycle and Motor Works on Gawler Place seemed as good a place as any to begin. Arbitrarily this became photograph 01, and what a good choice it turned out to be. Following the leads offered by the two machines, we get an insight into the activities at the Lewis Works in the early days. Here we follow the story of the motorcycle.

01 bikedetail.jpg (57418 bytes)

A preliminary identification of the motorcycle was easy enough: the similarities between our bike and the c1903 Imperial Rover are too numerous to ignore. Look for the twin front down tubes, tank shape, tool box shape (particularly the bottom), position of the mudguard stays, the long front mud flap, the curvy exhaust (you can just get a glimpse of it to the left of the wheel rim), chain wheel spoke pattern, and the unusual horizontal frame tube running from the seat tube to the top of the crank case at the rear.

improver.jpg (24547 bytes)

The problem is, of course, the chain final drive.

Searching though my reference material, I was unable to find any illustration or even mention of a chain drive Imperial Rover motorcycle of the period, although chain drive (and a luggage carrier like the one our machine) was used on a larger Rover forecar. Rob Saward provided an intriguing suggestion: could the machine have been converted to chain drive using contemporary Chater Lea components? As a teaser he provided the following illustration from a 1907 Chater Lea catalogue:

cl1907chain.jpg (35851 bytes)

Interesting speculation indeed! Usually such a suggestion is followed by a comment like "...if only we could see what went on in the Lewis workshops back then..." and the speculation remains just that. But here we are in a different position. By remarkable chance we can look inside the Lewis works to see what was going on.

The series of photographs inside the white garage gives us an overview of the motor side of the Lewis Cycle and Motor Works. One of the photos (photograph 04) shows almost frenetic motorcycle activity with four largely-complete motorcycles on the shop floor, two in pieces on the bench, and another frame being brazed in the hearth. It would be easy to think that the activity is focussed manufacture of Lewis motorcycles, but in fact the activities are quite varied.

If we look at the activity on the bench, we see the particularly dapper gent in the foreground performing mystical frame alignment procedures on a new Lewis Minerva he is assembling. The frame is built - as were all Lewis frames at the time - from Chater Lea frame lugs. But for the moment let's focus on the work going on at the far end of the bench.

04 bench.jpg (58035 bytes)

The man with his back to us is intently studying the rear end of what is indisputably a belt drive Imperial Rover. His left hand is resting on the joggle in the chain stay to clear the belt rim which is still fitted to the rear wheel in the bike. The Rover motor, complete with engine plates and muffler, is leaning against the backboard of the bench in the middle ground. Both the engine and cycle parts look road weary. Clearly the Imperial Rover has been stripped for renovation, and part of that renovation will include conversion to chain drive.

Lewis must have been substantial users of Chater Lea components, and would have had no trouble obtaining an appropriate chain drive hub. In fact hanging on the wall to the left of the workbench is a complete chain drive wheel, albeit with a smaller drive sprocket than the one fitted to the refurbished Imperial Rover.

04 wheels.jpg (15891 bytes)

It's not clear what arrangements were used at the countershaft, but presumably the bottom pedal bracket was retained to give axle and bearings for the various sprockets. In its final form, the drive runs directly from the engine sprocket to a sprocket on the countershaft which looks much like the original Imperial Rover chainwheel. Since the pedals are still present, I assume that large and small drive sprockets are simply coupled and spinning freely on the bottom bracket axle, with pedal assistance via the original chain wheel, cycle chain and freewheel on the right side of the bike. To complete the most professional conversion, the belt-rim joggles were removed from the rear seat- and chain- stays and the machine re-enamelled prior to displaying it for the photographer in the street in front of the showroom.

There are a couple of postscripts to this story. The bike makes a special guest appearance in photograph 05, where it can be glimpsed at the far left. It is standing very close to the bench where we have seen it in pieces, so an educated guess might be that the photographer has caught it just prior to disassembly.

05 bike.jpg (9651 bytes)

In a more contemporary postscript, some interesting early Rover motorcycle hardware did survive until recent times in Adelaide. The bones of a complete 1904 machine (with a new frame design) has now found its way back to the UK, while an early motor - could it have been the motor from our machine? - was sold in the 1990s.

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