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

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