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 during the 1920s, 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 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. 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.|
|Freddie Barnes chatting with rival James L. Norton, founder of Norton Motors, in 1910, at Titsey Hill hillclimb - Norton won!|
|Photo courtesy Howard Webb, of Postcards Then and Now.|
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.|
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.|
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|
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!