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The Famous James: ISO Brand Investor – Not Picky, Must Love Brit Bikes

Any Takers?

A Famous James motorbike. Media sourced from BikeSure.
A Famous James motorbike. Media sourced from BikeSure.

When I think Birmingham, I am immediately transported to my Netflix history, where dubious derring-do’s of Peaky Blinder Thomas Shelby (Cilian Murphy) top the shelf for ‘best ways to spend a weeknight’…but did you know there’s a bike brand out there that started in those coal-infested, tweed-happy times? 

Well, more like a generation or two before the first PB episode….but who’s counting.

A Famous James motorbike. Media sourced from Mecum Auctions.
A Famous James motorbike. Media sourced from Mecum Auctions.

Birmingham-built motorcycle brand The Famous James has been around since the Victorian era (the 1880s) – and by around, we mean they’re working on it. 

Originally founded as The James Cycle Company Ltd and finding success in the creation of penny-farthing bicycles, the brand punted out their first motorcycle in 1902 and even experienced some successes on the track, before shutting its doors in the mid-1960’s (via The Famous James’ website). 

Today, the brand name and IP rights belong to one John Oakley, who wants nothing more than to see Tha Famous James ‘ride from the ashes’…unfortunately, to do that, he needs someone to invest in the company first. 

A Famous James motorbike. Media sourced from Mecum Auctions.
A Famous James motorbike. Media sourced from Mecum Auctions.

“What I wanted to do was take that wonderful brand and that superb history and put it back on the British map, get British employment going, get a British manufacturer to take it on,” explains Oakley in the report from MCN

“Somebody could pick the brand up tomorrow and start manufacturing under the Famous James brand. It’s got three associated logos and they go back a long way.”

Are you the backer The Famous James has been looking for? If so, you’d be a part of a marque with very deep roots in British soil – something that is a niche in and of itself in the motorcycle industry these days.

A Famous James motorbike. Media sourced from Wikipedia.
A Famous James motorbike. Media sourced from Wikipedia.

“There aren’t many companies with the history that James has got,” Oakley adds stoutly. 

“It was founded by the famous Harry James and it employed hundreds of people in the heart of England, in Birmingham. In the forties [a James motorcycle] really was THE bike to have in terms of the working person’s motorbike.”

“During the war, they manufactured parts for the Spitfire engine, they made ammunition for the war effort and they also made 6000 motorbikes for the frontline British Army.”

An advert of a Famous James motorbike. Media sourced from The Shovel Shop.
An advert of a Famous James motorbike. Media sourced from The Shovel Shop.

What do you think? Stay tuned by dropping a comment below and joining the conversation; be sure to also subscribe to our newsletter, and as ever – stay safe on the twisties. 

*Media sourced from Bikesure, Wikipedia, James Motorcycles, Mecum Auctions and The Shovel Shop*
  1. Ahh, the Villiers engine. The one with the flywheel for the magneto that’s held on with a brass nut, that is permanently attached to the flywheel, and spins in it’s own groove. No flywheel key. Interesting things have been said about this design, not printable here. But if you can, imagine the sound of a giant Whitworth wrench, size XX or some nonsense, pinging off the garage floor. Nice bikes/

  2. I first encountered the Famous James marque at an antique motorcycle show in Austin, Texas. As my last name is James, I thought ‘I really ought to have one of those!’

    A few months later, a coworker was shopping for a motorcycle in one of those freebie newspapers that were so prevalent prior to craigslist, and as I leafed through it, sure as hell, there was an ad for a James! The seller had the year and engine size wrong (there was no title) but it was relatively complete, and I had visions of restoring it to its former glory.

    This was pre-internet, so my search for information about the bike was drawn out and painfully slow. I wrote letters that often went unanswered, scoured magazines for any mention of the marque, and ran up my long-distance telephone bill chasing leads. I once rode my Harley halfway across Texas to attend a swapmeet sponsored by the Antique Motorcycle Club, on the off chance someone there might know something about it,

    It took a while, but I eventually learned I had a first-year James Comet manufactured in 1948, and marketed as a 1949 model. It was a two-stroke postwar runabout powered by the versatile (and ubiquitous) Villiers 98cc 1F engine. Engine spares were not a problem, I learned, but things like tank decals, appropriate accessories and exact paint colors…. not so easy to find.

    I drug that bike around with me on various moves, from Austin to East Texas and back, up to Temple (where it lived in my living room and doubled as a telephone stand and hat-rack), and finally back to Austin, where I’ve lived for the past twenty-three years. Here, the James sat in the backyard shed, dry and safe but ignored, still a ‘one of these days’ vision, until I got hurt.

    Specifically, I fell 35’ from a structure I was working on, breaking my back and right leg and shattering my left foot. I limped on (literally) through surgery after surgery, therapies, medications and all the rest, but finally had to admit that ‘someday’ was never coming. I was hesitant, but I finally listed the James (on craigslist, actually) and the next morning had a buyer in my driveway, trailer trailing and cash in hand. I realize now that I sold the James too quickly, and for too little, but at the time all I could think was ‘Maybe he’ll do what I never could.’

    I have no idea what (if anything) its new owner ever did with the James. For all I know, he turned around and sold it for a huge profit the next week, or maybe I’ll see it, fully restored, at the antique motorcycle show I’m attending later today. Wouldn’t THAT be a hoot?

    And I love the idea that John Oakley wants to reanimate the marque but, to be honest, I don’t hold out much hope. Look at how Indian – one of the better-known marques in the world – has struggled to find its footing. How is an obscure British motorcycle few modern riders have ever heard of supposed to compete? It’s a lovely windmill he’s tilting at, but it’s still a windmill. As much as I’d love to be part of the new James Motorcycle Company, my money’s staying in its piggy bank.

    I’ll close with a quick anecdote. I was leaving a restaurant one evening, back when I still lived in Temple. In the parking lot an elderly man was eying my Harley, so I braced myself for the usual ‘I used to have one of those…’ sagas every rider hears, sooner or later. I always listen because my Dad was one of those guys, and you occasionally hear some pretty cool stories, but this guy shocked the hell out of me. His first words were ‘Have you ever heard of a James motorcycle?’

    Of course, I shocked him right back when I said ‘I have one parked in my living room!’ 😏

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