Excelsior, based in Coventry, was a British bicycle, motorcycle and car maker. They were Britain’s first motorcycle manufacturer, starting production of their own ‘motor-bicycle’ in 1896. Initially they had premises at Lower Ford Street, Coventry, and 287-295 Stoney Stanton Road, Hillfields, Coventry, Warwickshire before moving to Kings Road, Tyseley, Birmingham in 1921.
Originally a bicycle company making penny-farthings in 1874 under their original name: Bayliss, Thomas and Co, they later sold bicycles under the names of Excelsior and Eureka and changed the company name to Excelsior Motor Co. in 1910. In the early years of motor-bicycle manufacture they used Minerva, De Dion, MMC and possibly a Condor 850 cc single but went on to produce a wide range of machines with engines from most major manufacturers. In 1914, they offered a JAP-powered twin. A deal to supply the Russian Imperial government with motorcycles ended with the Revolution and Excelsior wound up with an excess inventory as a result.
The Walker family (father Reginald and son Eric) took over after World War I. R Walker & Sons of Tyseley, Birmingham had started as makers of ships lamps but in 1919 had made a range of motorcycles under the Monarch name to be sold by the London Department store Gamages. The company was re-registered as the Excelsior Motor Company Ltd, production moved to Birmingham and the Lower Ford Street factory in Coventry sold to Francis-Barnett. They made a range of motorcycles from 98 to 1,000 cc, mostly powered by JAP, Blackburne and Villiers engines, plus an 850 cc Condor engine. The new company put more effort in competition and racing. To avoid confusion with the American maker of the same name, they called themselves the “British Excelsior”.
Their first major racing success was in 1929 when they took the Lightweight TT race on a B14, soon to be their most popular model. Emerged from the Great Depression in a sound financial state, Excelsior commissioned Blackburne to design a 4-valve racing engine. Known as the Mechanical Marvel, it won the 1933 TT in its first outing. The complex machine continued with great success on the Continent but was retired at the end of the 1934 season as it was too complex to offer for sale as a production racer. That role was filled from 1935 by the 2-valve overhead camshaft Manxman.
The Manxman was first raced at the 1935 Isle of Man Lightweight TT. The works bike had a left port aluminium head and barrel but had a very long stroke and was slow. The following year saw the first appearance of shorter stroke four-valve cammy racers. They raced again in 1937 TT in both 250 and 350 capacities but were retired in May 1938 before that year’s TT. The TT bikes reverted to 2-valve heads but had plunger rear suspension. They were just as quick as the 4-valvers and much easier to set up. Excelsior did not officially contest the 1939 TT but a syndicate raced the previous year’s machines as well as a prototype 500cc production racer. Although Excelsior Manxman did not win a TT before the war, they came 2nds in 36, 37 and 38 and 3rd in 1939. Perhaps their greatest success was winning the European GP in front of 200,000 people at Chemnitz in Germany in 1936.
But the company wasn’t doing well and in the lean years following World War II racing and luxury machines were sidelined in favour of cheap two-stroke engines. After the war, they used Villiers engines to make the 250 cc Viking and in 1949 they used their own engine for the Talisman, a smooth two-stroke with 180-degree crank. A later 328 cc twin-carb sports version, the S8, did not sell well, although the engine itself achieved some success in Berkeley microcars in both 328 cc twin and 492 cc triple versions. In opposition to the talisman engine, the villiers twin engine was introduced in 1956, which was used by many small manufacturers.