The Excelsior Welbike was an ingenious
oddity that grew out of the special needs of wartime.
Intended to be dropped by parachute or landed by glider
as front line transport for the Airborne Forces, the
machine had to be cheap, lightweight, small and expendable.
The motorcycle to fit the bill was not designed by
the Excelsior factory themselves. An established engineering
concern, Excelsior could lay claim to being the first
British maker of motorcycles for sale to the public,
but was never a majot manufacturer. In fact, at the
begining of the war the factory had undertaken contract
engineering rather than motorcycle production.
The prototype was produced at the military research
centre in Welwyn in Hertfordshire - hence the name,
Wel-bike. Its designed began with a standard airborne
equipment container and sketched a minature motorcycle
with handlebars and saddle that folded to fit inside.
Powered by a 98cc two-stroke Villiers autocycle engine,
there was no suspension, no lights and only one brake,
the bare minimum necessary. The tiny fuel tank had
to be pressurised by pump. To ready the Welbike for
use, the handlebars swung up and out until they locked;
the saddle pulled up and the footrests pushed down
until they locked.
Excelsior was contracted to build the machine and
after some refinements it went into production with
Excelsior's own 98cc autocycle engine. As planned,
the Welbike could be made very cheaply and quickly.
Almost 4000 were built and saw action i nparachute
drops as well as beach assaults from 1942 until the
end of the war. However, its low performance, especially
over rough terrain in the heat of battle was seen
as a drawback. As a result many saw more use as airfield
transport than on the front line.
Afte the war some were sold off - although, without
a front brake, they could not legally be used. Meanwhile,
the original designed had been developing a civilian
version, which was built and sold as the Corgi. It
soon proved too slow and unrefined and was discontinued
- although the concept returned with the folding Honda
monkey bikes of the 1960s and 70s.
Meanwhile Excelsior continued production of their
own autocycle and later built a popular two-stroke
250cc twin, the Talisman. The firm survives today
as the makers of Britax accessories.