Obituary: Bert Greeves
Wednesday 06 October 1993
BERT GREEVES, invalid carriage and motorcycle manufacturer, was an original thinker who made his mark in two quite distinctive spheres of transport.
Born in France in 1906 to English parents, Greeves began his engineering career as an apprentice in the Austin factory before running a garage business in London. It was there that he built his first powered wheelchair for his disabled cousin Derek Preston Cobb, using an engine from a lawnmower. From that humble beginning grew Invacar, founded in 1946 and destined to become the dominant supplier of transport for the physically disabled through the 1950s and 1960s.
A motorcycle enthusiast from youthful days, Greeves built two prototypes in 1951 and by 1953 production began in his factory in Thundersley, Essex. Using lessons learned at Invacar, he adapted rubber as a suspension medium, predating Issigonis's Mini system by five years.
The Greeves range of motorbikes, always of small engine size and physically light, proved very successful in competition against the established giants of the industry. Greeves himself had an eye for riding talent and in 1957 he recruited Brian Stonebridge from BSA to ride in motocross. That year, at Hawkestone Park in Shropshire, Stonebridge rode a 200cc Greeves to second place in a leading 500cc cross-country race, beating all but one of the bigger factories' heavyweights. It was the death knell of traditional heavy machines in what was becoming an international sport.
Before Stonebridge could apply his talent fully for Greeves, he died in a road accident, a passenger in Greeves's car. His place was taken by Dave Bickers, who brought the company the European 250cc Moto Cross Championship in 1960 and 1961; it was the world title in everything but name. Another youthful recruit was Bill Wilkinson, who stunned the motorcycle world in 1960 by winning the British Experts Trial on a Greeves with his 'L' plates attached.
Bert Greeves had a wry sense of humour. When the factory entered road racing with the 250cc Silverstone model and twice won the 250cc Manx Grand Prix over the TT course, he encouraged his drawing office to sketch a design for a 125cc world championship contender. It was intended simply to set the rumours flowing. When the news was leaked, Greeves sat in the rocking office chair he designed (it used a motorcycle suspension unit to control the motion) and savoured the speculation.
Derry Preston Cobb shared Greeves's sense of fun, and at one time his Invacar was fitted with a 250cc racing engine that reputedly gave it a top speed of 80mph. He drove it with scant regard for his own safety and more than once had to be rescued from underneath, after turning it over.
Greeves was appointed MBE in 1972, in recognition of the work he had done for the disabled through Invacar. Ironically, it came when motorcycle production at Thundersley was ending, as an ingenious David was finally overwhelmed by Goliath.
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