Len Vale-Onslow

Adventurous founder of Vale-Onslow Motorcycles

Len Vale-Onslow's life was frequently lived close to the edge. He rode his first motorcycle on the road in 1908 and had his final ride at the age of 102.



Leonard Leslie Hubert Vale-Onslow, motorcycle designer, manufacturer, rider, retailer and restorer: born Sutton Coldfield, Warwickshire 2 May 1900; MBE 1995; married 1930 Elizabeth Edwards (died 1979; two sons, one daughter); died Hallow, Worcestershire 23 April 2004.



Len Vale-Onslow's life was frequently lived close to the edge. He rode his first motorcycle on the road in 1908 and had his final ride at the age of 102.

Born in Sutton Coldfield in 1900, the eighth of nine children, he came from unusual stock; his father Frank was a contracting master builder and mother Emily a brass founder employing 20 people at her works in the Hockley area of Birmingham.

Len's brothers showed engineering talents and in 1908 were caught up in the global enthusiasm for powered flight. They built an aeroplane that flew successfully, testing a wing of bamboo and balloon fabric covering by lashing the eight-year-old Len to it and launching him from a steep hillside near the family home. His climb was arrested by the retaining sash cord in his brother's hands and he crashed to the ground, to remain unconscious for days. He frequently claimed that this experience accounted for his attitude to life and danger in later years.

His sense of adventure was confirmed when he rode his first motorcycle - built by his brothers - on the road in 1908. The pursuing constable found him hiding in his brothers' garage and a summons was issued against his father, who thought news of an eight year old riding would produce good publicity for his business. But the case was heard in camera and Vale-Onslow senior's lateral thinking was rewarded with a fine of £2.

The family developed a transport business that gained armaments- carrying contracts during the First World War. When one of their drivers proved to be a Canadian army deserter and was arrested, Len, aged 15, altered his motorcycles-only licence by rubbing out the red inked lines that forbade him from handling larger vehicles and was drafted in to continue the urgent work, driving a three-ton Henry Garner truck adapted to his small stature.

When war ended, the family moved the business to Worcester and Len Vale-Onslow was soon managing a branch at the nearby village of Hallow, where he built motorcycles from available parts for the impecunious local youth. Persuaded by them to build new machines, he realised that economics demanded in-house production of the cycle parts, but absence of a gas supply for stoves meant no conventional brazing of tubes into ready made lugs in the established manner.

Vale-Onslow looked at more up-to-date technology, then cast around for weldable tubing, which he found at the Accles and Pollock foundry in the West Midlands, where supply then was strictly to the Air Ministry. He called on the Ministry and came home with permission to use the restricted material and trained men drawn from a farming background to weld.

So in 1927, the Worcestershire village of Hallow was home to the Super Onslow Special (SOS), boasting the first welded production motorcycle frame, the method universally used today. To prove the product, Vale-Onslow used his considerable riding skills in the reliability trials that were popular at that time, beginning a run of qualifying for eight rides in the exclusive British Experts Trial.

Back at his factory, the supply chain from Birmingham-based suppliers to his rural location proved to be unreliable and frustrating and he moved production back to Birmingham. However, he realised that future prosperity lay in retailing, not production. "I could make maybe £2 on a motorbike I made myself, but if I sold another maker's machine as a dealer, I could earn 17.5 per cent commission, which meant up to £14," he reasoned in later years. He bought premises in the city's busy Stratford Road and opened Vale- Onslow Motorcycles in 1934.

As the retail business grew, the SOS manufacturing rights and title were sold, while Vale-Onslow's competition career continued as he publicised the family name. When factories cleared old stocks with the advent of the Second World War, Vale-Onslow bought them out and stored them in the growing row of shops; with the coming of peace the process continued and the shop grew until it occupied Stratford Road's numbers 96 to 118.

When Norton closed their Birmingham factory in 1962 and moved south, Vale-Onslow cleared their warehouse, and when the faltering BSA Group discontinued production of the popular "Bantam" lightweight that had sold over 100,000 models, he offered £75,000 for title, production tooling and all spares. A consortium of dealers had agreed to help finance the purchase and placed initial orders for stock, while Vale-Onslow had arranged production space in the recently vacant Royal Enfield factory in Redditch. But he could not get a decision from a manager by the name of Eustace ("We called him Useless") and eventually learned that the tooling essential to production had been scrapped. He brought in East German MZs and carried on providing basic transport to an active market.

In later years, Len Vale-Onslow's presence in the business was centred around the restoration work he carried out for old bike enthusiasts who realised what a wide stock of unobtainium he had acquired over his years in the trade.

In 1990 he retired from active competition with ribs bruised in a scrambling accident; nominated as Britain's oldest working man in 1995, he refused a television appearance on the Kilroy show, saying there was too much work in the shop to take a day off (although his daughter Jean persuaded him to be driven to London for the show in the end). In the same year he was appointed MBE, a proud achievement for such a patriotic man; and made an appearance on This Is Your Life.

Aged 100, he was feted by the motorcycle industry and rode one of his restored SOS machines down Pall Mall for the benefit of the cameras, flattered by crowds of onlookers apparently there to witness the Changing of the Guard. On 12 April this year, he was cheered when he appeared at the annual Red Marley Hill Climb in Worcestershire, an event he had established in the Twenties.

He died on St George's Day and at his funeral in Birmingham last week, the city honoured one of its outstanding sons by closing the busy A34 Stratford Road for the cortège and its accompanying motorcycle escort to assemble and drive to the crematorium. There the chapel was filled with the sound of Steppenwolf's "Born to be Wild" as mourners assembled to say a final goodbye.

Jim Reynolds

News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleActor, from House of Cards and Benidorm, was 68
News
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEnd-of-year leaver's YouTube film features staging of a playground gun massacre
Travel
travel
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Voices
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
News
i100This Instagram photo does not prove Russian army is in Ukraine
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show
tvBig Bang Theory filming delayed by contract dispute over actors' pay
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
art
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Environment
Tyred out: should fair weather cyclists have a separate slow lane?
environmentFormer Labour minister demands 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists
News
people
Sport
England celebrate a wicket for Moeen Ali
sportMoeen Ali stars with five wickets as Cook's men level India series
News
Field of broken dreams: Andy Bell visits Passchendaele
news5 News's Andy Bell visited the killing fields of the Great War, and his ancestor - known only from his compelling war diary - came to life
Travel
travel
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

VB.Net Developer - £40k - Surrey - WANTED ASAP

£35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: .Mid Level V...

Digitakl Business Analyst, Slough

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Competitive Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Dig...

Mechanical Estimator: Nuclear Energy - Sellafield

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Car, Medical, Fuel + More!: Progressive Recruitmen...

Dynamics NAV Techno-Functional Consultant

£50000 - £60000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: An absolutely o...

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In my grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel