Cotton Motorcycles / Pat Onions / 2020
Pat Onions was born in 1922, his family moved to Canada when he was six-months old, returning to England when war broke out. Pat was old enough to join the RAF in 1942, and took on the terrifying position of a rear gunner on the heavy four-engined bombers, he was obviously very good, and was eventually commissioned as Flying Officer Pat Onions.
John Draper, Pat Onions, Mike Smith & Fluff Brown
Pat was a man of quite strong opinions, balanced by a good sense of humour and this seems to have helped him survive the war, and then the ‘ups and downs’ of the post-war motorcycle industry, virtually unscathed.
After the war he went into the motorcycle trade in 1948, he had caught the bike-bug, very badly, from his elder brother, he would borrow his 500cc Ariel scrambler, and go racing, what else would you do after being a ‘Tail-end Charlie’, he loved it, and had reasonable success.
His shop was just around the corner from the Cotton works, so Pat gradually got to know Frank Willoughby Cotton, as we know him, Bill.
“Bill was a gentleman,” Pat said, “He trained as a barrister, but never practised”.
So one day, out of curiosity, I asked him, “Why did you stop making bikes”.
“He just said, he didn’t want to bother at his age”.
Pat was keen on Cotton, and their history, so he hatched a plan to save the brand. He went to talk to his close friend, also from the RAF, Monty Denley, an accountant, and they got together and bought the company, in 1954.
Bill had made a few JAP side-valve, twin cylinder-engined machines after the war, but the supply of these engines dried up, and he and his old storeman were reduced to selling spares.
When production resumed under the new management, Bill remained interested, he introduced Monty and Pat to his suppliers, and popped in most days, he would write letters for them and would do any odd jobs around the factory to help out.
With their limited resources, there was no way the newly constituted company could make their own power units, so they were totally dependent on proprietary engines and Villiers monopolised that line of business.
So production was confined to lightweight motorcycles, built around these engines, the first few bikes to come out of the Victorian three-storey factory, known as the Vulcan Works, were built using Villiers 197’s, using up all the old triangulated frames, designed back in 1939, but using Metal Profile forks.
They developed from here to build their own bikes, the first of these would be the 197cc Vulcan, with swinging-arm suspension, undamped MP forks, and a Villiers 8E engine. They sold around 400 of these, in the first eighteen months.
Brenda and Pat Onions
Then came the Cotanza, which was introduced in 1955 and powered, if that’s the word for it, by the Italian, 250cc Anzani two-stroke twin, basically an outboard motor.
“It was alright in a boat,” says Pat, “But not much good for anything else.”
They didn’t have much choice and persevered with it until 1959, and even built a few with the bigger, 322cc Anzani’s.
Cotton was never a large company, Monty Denley was managing director, a title which also encompassed selling the bikes, organising the contract engineering and keeping a tight rein on the firm’s finances, Pat was the works director.
By 1959 though, the firm had slowly expanded and employed two-dozen people, including the top management.
Pat Onions / Eric Lee
Eric Lee had joined the firm in 1957, as chief designer, he was also a very skilful welder and metalworker, and the Anzani engines had kept the firm ticking over, whilst they put together a new machine. In his first year they introduced the Cotton Herald, using the Villiers 2T twin and this was a big step forward, this was a much better motorcycle.
Things were beginning to take shape, and this gave Pat more time. In 1958, he built a trials machine for Alan Bell, which was a great success and became the prototype for the production model. The trials model was introduced in 1959, and along side, was the scrambler, powered by the 250cc Villiers 33A engine. On the prototype, Pat had used the Armstrong leading link front forks, for the first time, and this was soon to become the Cotton trademark.
A 250cc trials bike was later added to the range, and Jonny Draper claimed a first class award in the 1961 Scottish Six Days with the works model.
Cotton were again beginning to rebuild their sporting reputation, Fluff Brown joined the firm in 1960, to help drive this effort, as competitions manager, he concentrated on the development of the 36A Parkinson barrelled engines, to give the scramblers as much power as possible.
Fluff Brown / Cotton Cobra 360cc
“Fluff was a fair old rider,” Pat remembers, “He, Badger Goss, Jimmy Timms, Billy Jackson and Ken Messenger were our works team. But there was a time in 1960 when they hadn’t won a thing for weeks and so I told them they were bloody useless.
“To get them going, I said that I could do better, of course they said, they’d like to see me try!”
“They could see I was overweight at 15 stone, so I started slimming, walked the poor dog for miles and in a few weeks had lost a couple of stone. I then built a really special lightweight scrambler, for myself.”
“The first time I raced it, the team were there, watching and laughing. But at the start, I was second away, and then the leader, dropped it, and I nipped into the lead, the track blocked behind me, this got Badger going, and he chased me down and just managed to pip me to the post, but point made.”
“At the next meeting, Badger broke his bike in practice, he borrowed Fluff’s, and broke that, he then started to look at mine.”
“ So I wound him up, and said no, I’m sure I can win, he got more desperate, he was itching to get out there, so being a ‘gentleman’, I said Okay, so off he went, he won that race and more wins soon followed.”
Cotton Cougar 250cc / US Showroom
Everyone though, was having trouble trying to wring more power out of the now out-dated Villiers two-stroke engines, but Fluff was doing well, everyone respected his skills in the ‘Dark Arts’ of tuning.
Pat, “They were a hell of a nice bunch at Villiers.”
“But the management were letting them down, they had become complacent, and didn’t want to hear about, what we needed.”
“So to up the power, we had first bought the Vale-Onslow, alloy heads and barrels, then we switched to the Parkinsons, because they were cheaper, we did everything we could to remain competitive, in price and track position.”
“Then came our big break”.
Cotton Telstar’s / Cotton Factory
“Villiers gave us the three prototype Starmaker engines, and asked us to report on them, this was sometime before there release, at the Earls Court Show in 1962.”
“They had cast iron barrels and did get very hot, and with the two Amal carburettors, they were unusual and some found the throttle action very heavy, but they went extremely well.”
With 25 bhp on tap, before development had really started, Pat was quick to realise the potential of the new power unit, and decided they would build a road racer.
He threatened everybody with the sack, and he was serious, if anyone breathed a word, he wanted his new machine to have a real impact when he revealed it at the Earls Court Show.
The frame was designed, during our lunchtime. “We used the scrambler’s head angle and the same suspension pick-up points, but raised the engine by half an inch.
We should have, in hindsight, raised it by at least an inch. It was okay with the four-speed box, but later on John Favill designed us the six-speed version and this would scrape the road on the corners.”
“The project was moving forward really well when, quite by chance, Derek Minter rang to ask if he could borrow a trials bike. I asked him to ring me back, and in the meantime I suggested to the board that we should try and strike a deal. It was agreed, he could have the trials bike for the winter, if he came to Gloucester and adviced us on the Telstar, as the racer was to be called, and of course, he agreed.”
“From the first meeting we got on very well, and we would soon become great friends. He was most outspoken and at times abrupt, but he said he thought the bike was marvellous and wanted to take it to Brands for a practice day and give it a thorough testing.”
Bill Ivy’s. Frank Higley, Special Cotton Telstar 1965.
Pat wasn’t keen to have it seen in public, but the offer was too good to pass by, so once Earls Court was over, they would go ahead. Minter was impressed, “He suggested that we ought to change the Armstrong rear suspension, and put on Girling’s racing units, also improve the damping on the Armstrong front forks”.
“The front brake wasn’t good enough for the high speeds required, it was alright up to 70mph or so, but when he tried to stop the bike from 100mph, the torque arm would distort the backplate.”
“Also he said, the engine needed more gears, the scrambles engine was good but the gap between the first two gears was much too wide, so John Favill went to work.”
“With Villiers we made nearly all the alterations he had asked for, then early in 1963, Derek took it back to Brands for another test.”
“He came back chuffed, and said he was going to race it at Mallory.”
Peter Inchley, Derek Minter, Clive Noakes (Villiers), Pat Onions / Brands 1964
We couldn’t afford to pay him, but he was ready to go, Eric took the bike up there for him, and found the paddock full of very fast Aermacchis. Syd Lawton told him not to be downhearted, “If you finish sixth or seventh you will have done well,” he said.
Derek smiled, before long he was out there and leading, ahead of Mike Hailwood on his Ducati twin, we eventually finished second, a fantastic first outing for the Telstar, and Syd was the first to rush up and congratulate us.
In 1964, Minter had tuned the bike in, and with that six-speed box he won the ACU Star.
Peter Inchley, Pat Onions and Bill Ivy, being young and having fun
Later on came further success, Bill Ivy won many races on Frank Higley’s Telstar Special, which also had the six-speed box, the production Telstar’s retained the four-speed units.
But like many of us, Pat thought the press wasn’t that kind to the Starmaker, the two-stroke up-start.
“Bill and Derek finished first and second at the Oulton Park International’s in 1965, beating the works, Honda’s, MZ’s, Suzuki’s and Yamaha’s, but the press played it down.”
“Derek and Peter (Inchley) won the 250cc Grand Prix d’Endurance over 500 miles at Castle Combe, on the Cotton Conquest, they thrashed the Triumph twins down the straight, and the press said it was a fluke.”
The Conquest was introduced in 1965, and used the standard four-speed box with a head steady, to reduce vibration. The machine used for the 500 mile race had out rigger contact breaker points, developed from the racer.
“We had been holing pistons and Villiers decided that the crankshaft must have been flexing at peak revs which consequently varied the timing. They designed a nylon joint which went between the crankshaft and the shaft which drove the points and this allowed the timing to remain spot-on.”
“We also went through big-ends at a fair old rate as the conrod skewed from side to side, breaking down the oil film as the crankshaft flexed. Villiers cured this by fitting phosphor bronze washers to both sides of the crank pin, and after that a big-end would last out the season.”
Peter Inchley, Derek Minter, Pat Onions, Conquest Castle Combes
“Peter Inchley and Reg Everett, then took the Conquest to the 500-mile race at Brands in 1966, they won it again. Their bike had a five-gallon petrol tank, a racing seat, seven-inch front brake and racing tyres, these extras were all offered to our customers.”
“Apart from having a large bore Grand Prix Amal carburettor and outrigger ignition, the engine was the same standard unit Starmaker as used in any of our Conquests, but we had discovered that if we shortened the tail pipe we increased the revs, but we geared it for 8,000 rpm in top, to keep it in one piece.”
The bike gave Pat, a lot of pleasure, “When I got cheesed off with something at the factory, I would take it out, I would look for a BSA or Triumph twin along the South Wales Road, pass them flat in second and then change up. None of them ever caught up with me, it really is a lovely machine.”
acknowledgement Classic Bike December 1989
Pat Onions & Monty Denley
The Starmaker Range, the Conquest, the Scrambler, the Trials and the Telstar 1966, unfortunately Villiers was just about to be taken over by Manganese Bronze, along with AMC, to form Norton Villiers, which would cease the supply of the Starmaker engines.
Pat’s success with Cotton obviously gave him a great deal of pleasure, everyone I have come across who worked for or who dealt with Cotton have a huge affection for the firm, it was more than a firm , it was a family.
Julie and Claire Onions in the seventies, around the bikes
Nick Brown and Pat Onions, fixing Andy Roberton’s machine 1993 Bonanza
So here’s one of Pat’s lovely machines, rebuilt in 2020.
Cotton Conquest / Andy Pike / 2020
When I was 18, just prior to going to university, I spotted the bike of my dreams, it was mounted on a pedestal, in the centre of the Westbury Motorcycles showroom, a red hot, Cotton Conquest. Just beautiful, I had to have it, only trouble was the price, somewhere around £290 I think. Since my entire years subsistence grant was £156, it didn’t happen!
50 odd years later it has, well almost.
The starting point has been finding the correct, wide fin, Starmaker engine. They are few and far between, but searching the inter-net, for a few months, eventually turned up a suitable engine, and so off on a trip to Colwyn Bay, a fair way from my home in Leeds, to meet Jay Williams resulted in my returning home with a big smile on my face.
I stripped the engine and rebuilt it with new bearings and seals. Fortunately the bore was unworn and the piston excellent. Jay had told me that Paul Powell was the man to contact if I needed parts, so I gave him a call. As luck would have it, in the course of a conversation, it turned out that he had a Conquest project that he was willing to sell. So a day trip to Stroud, to see him, saw me returning with the vital parts. While I was there I also purchased a few other bits that he stock’s including a new inner chaincase, a centre stand, and a headlight fairing.
In the following few days I reviewed what I’d bought. I had a Cotton lightweight scrambles frame, very similar to the Conquest, the same geometry. A front wheel, with the correct British Hub Company 7 inch twin leading shoe front hub (talk about rocking horse dollop), new spokes and a Dunlop alloy racing rim. A matching rear wheel with the correct BHC hub, and the close fin engine and gearbox. Two tanks, a steel one, in tatty, but solid condition, and a 5 1/2 gallon glass-fibre racing tank, which is in good nick. Armstrong front forks, with the Telstar linkless loop. A 5-inch headlight shell, correct one is 8 inch, and a few other bits. Before I travelled Paul had told me exactly what to expect and was very honest about it all. I paid his price, which was a lot of money, but fair in my opinion. Paul has a wealth of knowledge and a goldmine of parts. Highly recommended, you can find him on his website,
It had turned out that the gearbox, on the Starmaker wide fin engine was a close ratio version, with a fair bit of wear. The gearbox on theclose fin engine from Paul was the correct 972E wide ratio box, which was originally fitted to the Conquest roadster. What a bit of luck, and even better, when stripped, turned out to be in perfect, unworn condition. Before reassembling it, I replaced all of the needle roller bearings as a matter of course. Most of my replacement bearings came from a local supplier who examined, measured and supplied them all at a very reasonable cost. And I must say it was a pleasure to deal with a small business, run by a couple of middle aged blokes, with a great attitude and who really knew what they were talking about, quite the rarity these days. Thank you Atlantic Bearings Ltd of Yeadon.
The engine from Paul turned out to a Stormer 250, so I sold it loosely assembled as a renovation project. I was honest about its condition, but it still sold for £800, which offset some of my outlay.
To complete the engine I needed a new clutch drum (missing tooth), primary sprocket, primary chain and some other bits like the missing inner and outer scroll assembly, which disengages the clutch. These came from Nick Brown at AJS Motorcycles Ltd, who has a great stock, and from Villiers Spares.
Regarding costs, without being too graphic I calculated that I could have bought about 17 brand new Conquests by now, if I had time travelled back to 1966!
Experience has taught me that rare parts are expensive but at one time I was going to take a helicopter-flying course, which would have been an expensive hobby!
With the engine ready I set about the cycle parts. The frame was slightly modified to lengthen the top tubes, so that the steel tank would fit. I had taken some photos and measurements of Paul Powell’s Conquest, so I knew exactly what to aim for. I also added some brackets for the centre stand and rear set footrests. I usually have the frames of my restorations powder coated, but I sprayed this one black, in case any further welding was required. I will probably keep it painted, as I like the finish in this case. When I restore a bike I aim for a ‘better than new’ finish. I know some people disagree with this, in fact some prefer a ‘patina’, which often means, not even degreasing!
But it’s my bike and I like them to look as good as possible!
Next came the tank, after a quote of £320 + vat, to remove a few dents, I found a way to do it myself. This involved cutting out the panel on the worst side, and then I could reach all of the damage on both sides. I have a TIG welder so I was able to re-attach and then seam weld the panel with no distortion. It was tested for leaks, before going to my pal Ryan, for filling and painting. After I had rebuilt and painted the forks I refitted them, at the same time adding the headlight carriers, which I made to match original Conquest fittings. I then fitted the front wheel, still with the original Avon tyre. The correct chrome valenced mudguards are impossible to find so I settled for a pair of high quality stainless steel ones. I then made some new stainless mudguard stays, as fitted to the original bike. I followed the same procedure with the rear mudguard, after allowing clearance for the measured suspension travel.
Now I have just completed the steel seat base, and that’s going away to a specialist this week for foam and a cover. While it’s away I am planning to make some alloy footrests, and a back brake lever. I also need to polish the wheel rims that surprisingly, were not polished when the wheels were rebuilt. The hubs were polished and new spokes were used, but the rims left tarnished. It would have been a lot easier to polish them unassembled but I’ll manage somehow. I’ve got new tyres ready to fit when that’s completed. I have also manage to get a correct size headlamp shell, off eBay, which Ryan is now painting for me, happy day’s.
Here is the next set of photos of my Conquest rebuild.wheels polished, new bearings and tyres. Seat upholstered by Tony Archer of Huddersfield. Brake pedal fabricated. Bars fitted. Headlamp shell mounted.still to do:- cables, wiring, chain, air filter, bikini fairing, headlamp fairing and screen, instruments. Only thing I’m missing is a correct chain guard. If anyone out there has one for sale I’d be pleased to hear from you. Had a month off with Covid 29! Feeling ok now. Back to work. Regards to all. Wayland.
Here is my restored 1966 Cotton Conquest. I have spent the last year on a comprehensive rebuild. It has a rebuilt Villiers Starmaker 250cc engine and gearbox with all new bearings, new Electrex electronic ignition and a new Amal 369 carburettor. A Cotton Cobra frame slightly modified to Conquest spec. Genuine original BHC hubs with Dunlop alloy rims, new bearings, linings and Avon tyres. Many new and custom made parts and stainless fixings.
The Conquest was the fastest British 250 ever made, a racer for the road. Reputedly capable of 105 mph! The bike is newly registered as a 1966 Cotton Cobra due to the frame number. Apart from this slightly different frame number (CA as opposed to CQ) it is as close to an original Conquest as it’s possible to get. It is an historic vehicle and therefore exempt from both road tax and MOT.
Very few Conquests were build at the Cotton factory at Gloucester. They were built as homologation specials to enable the factory to enter the bike in production racing. Only a few remain, less than 10 according to my research.
The rebuild cost me close to £6000 in parts alone. The bike starts first kick and needs just a little more tinkering to be exceptional, primarily with the carb jetting. Ideally it could do with a session on a dynometer to set the carb up perfectly.
This is a bike for a collector or an enthusiast, it’s not suitable for daily transport in my opinion.