Friday, October 17, 2008


Frederick W. Barnes was perhaps the most famous 'forgotten' motorcycle manufacturer in Britain; his Zenith motorcycles were among the fastest motorcycles in the world for a time, and held the majority of speed records at the Brooklands racetrack in the 1920s.  F.W. Barnes (the 'W' was likely William, after his father William Henry Barnes - his mother was Emma Siddall) was born in Stretford/Didsbury, Manchester, around 1877. He was the second child of five, with two brothers and two sisters. By 1901, at 23, he was living in Leeds and working as an 'Engineering Draughtsman'. By 1906, he was living in Surbiton, where he was married in that year. There is little biographical information available about Mr. Barnes, but we do know about his time with the Zenith marque, with a few anecdotal gems from those who knew him during the heady Vintage days at Brooklands, when Zenith was simply the 'make to have' if you wanted a Gold Star.
The Zenith Bi-Car of 1905, with hub-center steering
The Zenith story began in 1905, with the introduction of 'Tooley's Patent Bi-Car' at the Crystal Palace Show, an interesting machine with hub-center steering and rear suspension. The newly-formed Zenith motorcycle company purchased the Bi-Car design from Tooley, and began production of the Zenith BiCar, which was also developed into a TriCar! F.W.Barnes, M.I.A.E., was hired as chief designer in 1907, and immediately penned a more orthodox motorcycle with Druid forks and a sidevalve engine, called the 'Zenette', as the company had become the 'Zenith Motor Works' in that year.
The 'Gradua' belt-adjuster system can be seen here from 1912.
In late 1907, Mr. Barnes designed the soon-to-be-infamous 'Gradua Gear', a mechanism by which the diameter of the engine belt pulley could be increased and decreased by means of a quick thread, simultaneous with the alteration of the wheelbase (!), keeping the drive belt taut, via rods and levers and a slotted axle lug. The mechanism works thus; when the rider turned a handwheel on the tank top, the rear wheel was moved forward or back, while the engine pulley expanded or contracted, giving a 'gradual' change in the drive ratio. Thus, you had different 'speeds' without 'gears' (and Rudge used a similar layout with their 'Multi' system). Ratios between 3.5:1 and 9:1 were available, and while the change of wheelbase was undesirable, it wasn't a great issue at 1909 race speeds!
Freddie Barnes chatting with rival James L. Norton, founder of Norton Motors, in 1910, at Titsey Hill hillclimb - Norton won!
Freddie Barnes was always keen to compete his products, and the Gradua system gave such an advantage over all other single-speed belt-drivers, that his mechanism was banned from many events. This gave rise to the famous Zenith 'Barred!' trademark, and while the logo remained on all Zeniths hence (until 1949, when the marque ceased), the advantage was to last only until around 1912/13, when dual primary drives (Scott and Royal Enfield) and countershaft gearboxes (from Sturmey-Archer, Jardine, Moss, etc) began to arrive on the competition.
Photo courtesy Howard Webb, of Postcards Then and Now.
In 1909, just in time for the opening of the Brooklands racetrack, the Zenith factory moved to High Street, Weybridge (above), about half a mile from the track, and very close to the London and Southwestern Railway. Mr. Barnes himself became a track racer, and set the very first Test Hill standing-start record (18.63 sec, averaging 12.89mph!) on March 29th, on a 3.5hp Zenette-JAP. On the following Jan.3, 1910, he pruned 3.02sec from his record (on a 3.5hp Zenith-Gradua-JAP) and averaged 15.4mph. He continued to shave time from the Test Hill ascent over the next few years, but by 1920, when the Brooklands track re-opened after WW1, such climbs were irrelevant as gearboxes and engine power made even steep hills a doddle (plus, the sharp crest at the top of the Hill makes for spectacular flying leaps above 20mph).

Barnes didn't contain himself to the Test Hill, though, and personally won quite a few events at the track during 1909-1914, using his own machine of course, usually in good company, as his customers filled the leaderboards as well. Barnes set records in 350cc, 500cc, 750cc, and 1000cc classes during this period, although by 1913 he seems to have concentrated solely on sidecar racing, using 488cc or 988cc JAP engines.  The photograph above shows Barnes at the helm of a 986cc Zenith-Gradua-JAP, having won the sidecar handicap race on April 2, 1913, at 60.92mph, with Sam Wright as passenger, in that lovely wicker 'slipper' sidecar. His engine uses two carburetors (which look like B&Bs) - Barnes was the first to experiment with two carbs on a v-twin.

The British War Office held a trial at Brooklands (Jan. 29th, 1912) with an eye to using motorcycles as military machines, and set an 'ideal' target of a 45mph flying-start lap of the track for a 500cc engine. None of the machines were able to meet the goal (clearly they snatched a figure from the air), but Freddie Barnes came closest on his 493cc Zenith-Gradua-JAP, at 44.2mph. As an aside, the 350cc target of a 40mph lap was met by Gordon Fletcher on a Douglas (at 42.8mph) - and Douglas machines were used extensively during WW1. Both the Zenith and the Douglas were successful in timed runs up the Test Hill for the military examiners. (No mention is made of why Zeniths are invisible during WW1, though).

In 1912, big Zenith-JAP 988cc v-twins (as seen above, this machine ca. 1914) began appearing in the Brooklands laurel circle, often with a sidecar attached. Barnes was a regular maker-and-breaker of the 1000cc hour-record and winner of speed trials. By 1913, the list of competitors using the Zenith marque continued to grow, while Freddie Barnes began to drop from the winner's lists, perhaps ceding best to his clientele. His motorcycles remained at or near the top in the 350cc-100cc capacity classes, while using engines from several makers; JAP, Green, Precision, Blackburne, Bradbury, and MAG.
1912 Zenith with Green watercooled 500cc engine; the 'dimpled' surface is the radiator attached to the cylinder barrel.
Between 1914-1919, the Zenith factory was used for war production, and there is reference to Barnes' military service in WW1, but there is currently no information on what they produced during this period, or if Barnes was indeed away in the military.

Racing resumed at Brooklands in 1920, as the Vickers aircraft works in the infield made an attractive target for German bombers, and the track was badly damaged. Freddie Barnes returned to the races, but never again as a rider, instead assuming a new role supervising the use and tuning of his product. The years 1920-1930 were the heyday of the marque, and Barnes can be seen in many photographs, standing demurely behind the great riders of the day after victories with his Zenith 'Super Eight' racing JAP-engined ohv and sv racers. (In the photo above, we see Barnes behind T.R. Allchin's 996cc sv JAP racer, which has just set a two hours' record at 89.06mph on Sep. 6, 1924).
Herbert LeVack with his specially-prepared Zenith KTR, prior to the requirement of 'Brooklands can' silencers when racing at the track.
On October 27, 1922, Bert LeVack made history by lapping Brooklands at 100.29mph on a 980cc Zenith-JAP (see pic above, and a most beautiful machine it is), becoming the first rider of a British machine to reach 100mph. LeVack was an employee of JAP at the time, and was their principal engine tuner and development engineer.

The JAP engine became THE British speed engine for the 1000cc class, and Barnes continued to develop chassis to accept the new iterations of this big v-twin. By 1925, the new ohv KTOR engine dominated Brooklands events, and Zenith machines held fastest-lap records for the duration of the Vintage years, beginning with J.S. Wright's 110.43mph lap on July 18th of '25. Joe Wright and his Zenith (pictured below) held the lap record at Brooklands for the next 10 years, which by June 1929 had reached 118.86mph, a speed which remained unsurpassed until 1935.
Freddie Barnes, left, with Joe Wright in 1925 at Brooklands
Dr. Joe Bayley, in his fantastic book 'The Vintage Years at Brooklands', raced at the track and knew Mr. Barnes (pictured above on the left), says of him; "A delightful personality, he was to be seen at almost every meeting, giving practical help and advice to all riders of his machines. It is worth noting that during the Vintage Years, the majority of riders lapping the Brooklands outer circuit at over 100mph rode Zenith machines."

In 1930, the economic debacle pushed Zenith in to bankruptcy, and a reorganized company emerged, which seems to have put paid to racing activities, and Freddie Barnes' name quietly recedes from Brooklands. Echoes of his glory days continued even post-liquidation, as Joe Wright used a supercharged version of his Zenith-JAP for new speed attempts. At Cork in Ireland on November 6, 1930, Wright gained the Motorcycle Land Speed Record at 150.7mph - read all about it here!
Information and photos from 'The Vintage Years at Brooklands' (Bayley, 1968), 'Bikes at Brooklands in the Pioneer Years' (Hartley, 1973), 'Brooklands Bikes in the 20's' (Hartley, 1980), and 'The History of Zenith' (Collan, 1988).


Anonymous said...

Hi Paul,

your story about F.Barnes is amazing .I love it!!!

best wishes, Dieter

Anonymous said...


Your post on Freddie Barnes had me scurrying to the Borgelt diary for 1922,
with your mention that Le Vack set the Brooklands lap record at 100.29mph on
the Zenith-JAP on 27 October 1922. Lou Borgelt was at Brooklands the
previous Saturday 21 October where he saw Le Vack win numerous races
including the 1000cc solo 5 lap at 92.75mph race average on a "998 JAP"
(possibly the same Zenith JAP?). He didn't meet Le Vack on that day but on
a later visit to the JAP factory Le Vack promised to build Lou a very fast
race bike to ship to Australia.

Keep up the good work.


Anonymous said...

Hello Paul i have seen your site . and we have in Holland the same meeting for gider = webbvorkmeeting the interesting thing is that you are olso interesting in the clothting of the year of the motorcycle just as we are if you are interesting in it you can see it on our fotograaf is taking more pictures jmfotografie by overig algemeen. It is verry nice to see your pictures greatings from Holland Theo Schipper

soubriquet said...

On Zeniths being 'invisible' in the first world war, I found this quote at

"The firm moved their production to the mill in March 1914 [70]. But it was not long afterwards, of course, that the dark clouds of the First World War descended upon the country, and the company had to think of more serious things than competing in speed racing, hill climbing, and endurance trials. Henceforth production was geared to the requirements of the army and commercial trade. Within a month of the outbreak advertisements were saying to shopkeepers and tradesmen, "If your horses have been commandeered, the Zenith Commercial Side-car will fill the bill", and along with the first landing of the British Expeditionary Force came pictures of Zenith machines being unloaded for the use of despatch riders in France [71]."
-[71] is indexed as "Motor Cycling, 15 September 1914."

Piers Queree said...

Frederic Barnes was my Great Grandfather and Gertrude his wife my grandmother , his son John Barnes was my grandfather he too was a great race enthusiast and driver. He moved to Jersey in the Channel Islands with his family, my mother met my father and consequently I am alive. It is so nice to see that his name is remembered all these years on. Thank you. Piers Queree

Anonymous said...

le vack's engine is not KTCY - it's a two-cam crankcase with sports-cylinders. i think called KTR...isn't it? - stefan

The Vintagent said...

Stefan - KTR makes sense...I pulled that info from a published source, but just because it's in print does not, of course, mean it's correct. LeVack's machine obviously uses an early engine, pre- four-cam. Also, it's a two-cam engine as seen by the shape of the timing chest (narrow - the four-cam had a broader curve a the bottom).

Does that gorgeous sprint-tank Zenith racer still exist?