The following is a brief history of Greeves, written for the fiftieth anniversary, in 2003, by Colin Sparrow who is Essex born and has always been interested in the products of the Greeves concern.
The story of Greeves by Colin Sparrow
The story of British motorcycles is full of great achievements and gallant failures. In 1953 a marque was born that in the fifties and sixties, through competition success, gained a respected place among British motorcycles, but in the seventies burned out like a falling star.
That marque was Greeves, and 2003 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the start of motorcycle production for sale and the firm’s first appearance at the Earls Court Motorcycle Show.
Ask any modern bike rider today, and how many would have heard of the name of Greeves? Turn up (as I have) to ride the green lanes on a Greeves Scottish and you’ll be greeted with astonishment and interest over the curious forks and the strange alloy beam frame. Even among the classic motorcycle fraternity Greeves seem for some reason to remain a somewhat underrated make.
Greeves motorcycles were produced in a purpose-built factory at Thundersley in Essex from 1953 to 1976. Initially the bikes were an offshoot of the Invacar company which produced invalid cars and needed to diversify its products, and the founder of the concern was O.B. (Bert) Greeves MBE.
The machines were a prime example of “competition improving the breed”, the firm was active in competition from the outset, with the very first prototype being developed in local scrambles, and lessons learned were used to improve the competition bikes and found their way on to the road machines. The competition bias of the company was very strong, with more than half the total production being machines for competition in motocross, trials or road racing. The roadsters were, however, acknowledged as being considerably superior in construction and handling to their rivals in the lightweight market of the time.
The bikes were exclusively two-stroke powered, using proprietary engines from Villiers and British Anzani initially and always for the roadsters, but by 1964 they had developed their own engine for competition use, at first with Albion gearboxes, eventually with their own. The distinctive features of most Greeves machines are the alloy beam frame downtube and the rubber-in-torsion suspended leading link forks, although later machines (Griffon, Pathfinder) dispensed with the alloy beam, and the distinctive fork was modified to use steel springs and eventually superseded by telescopics.
For the few short years of their heyday Greeves were remarkably successful in competition, with wins in the European Motocross Championship, the Manx Grand Prix, the European Trials Championship and the Scottish Six Days Trial, and with Gold Medals in the ISDT and ACU 250cc Motocross Stars. Who can forget the Saturday afternoon televised scrambles when Dave Bickers and his teammates fought it out with the works riders from BSA and Matchless.
The other great Greeves success was in exports, at the peak of production the majority of output was sold abroad, primarily in the United States, at a time when the British balance of payments needed all the help it could get. Greeves were so successful in the USA that they can reasonably be credited with awakening the off- road biking scene over there, and with the invention as early as the mid-sixties of the trail bike with their road legal off-roader, the Ranger.
These days Greeves motorcycles are sought after, although prices have not yet escalated too far. They are capable in competing successfully in all branches of classic motorcycle sport and they are still an affordable and essentially useable classic motorcycle.
In the last couple of years the Pre-65 Motocross Club has been running a successful Greeves-only championship series with handicapping arrangements to allow Hawkstones from the late fifties to compete with Challengers from the sixties and Griffons from the seventies, and their meetings really recapture the spirit and atmosphere of 1960s scrambling. Greeves Silverstones are active and competitive in the 250 singles class at Classic Racing Motorcycle Club meetings, they are consistently first British bike home in the Lightweight Classic Manx Grand Prix, and one took first place in the 250 racing class of the 2002 Classic Bike Sprint Championships.
Greeves Scottish and Anglian trials models are ever-present in pre-65 trials, and recently, indeed, a new Greeves Motorcycles Company has started up to manufacture a version of the Anglian which was arguably the best of the Greeves trials bikes. They are based in Chelmsford, so the Essex connection lives on, and they can supply a good range of spares and improvements for the original machines. Villiers engine spares are readily obtainable from a number of helpful and efficient suppliers in this country, and many parts for the Greeves competition engines are available both in the UK and the USA.
The Greeves marque is supported by its own international one-make club, the Greeves Riders Association, and this year the club will be acknowledging the fiftieth anniversary of the marque. The main event will be at Battlesbridge in Essex on 6th July 2003, with a display and active events. The highlight will be a road run to the old factory site, which is nearby, to dedicate a plaque in acknowledgement of a once successful and still respected motorcycle maker.
As part of the 50th anniversary celebrations a Greeves presence is also planned at VMCC Founders Day on 27th July 2003, and it is hoped to see plenty of them there to acknowledge the anniversary, so if you have one make sure you bring it along.
Key dates in the history of GREEVES AND INVACAR
- 1942: Bert Greeves and his severely disabled cousin, Derry Preston Cobb, registered Invacar Ltd. to build invalid cars.
- 1947: Production started in Westcliff-on-Sea.
- 1949: Invacar won Ministry of Health contract to supply invalid cars. Initially 1,000 units, many more followed.
- 1950: Invacar moved to purpose built premises on Manor Trading Estate,Thundersley.
- 1951: Decision to diversify into motorcycle manufacture. In the same year the first Greeves motorcycle emerged. Designated XP1, it was built as a scrambler.
- 1954: Greeves motorcycles went into full production with a range of roadsters, scramblers and trials machines.
- 1977: Production of Invacars ceased with the end of the final DHSS contract.
- 1975: In November a major fire brought motorcycle production to a halt.
- 1953 – 1978: Greeves produced a wide range of motorcycles at Thundersley including the Silverstone road racer. Having achieved many competition successes the company closed in January 1979, never having fully recovered after the 1975 fire.
‘GREEVES THE COMPLETE STORY’ by Colin Sparrow. ISBN 978 1 84797 741 0