The spring-frame 500cc Levis – What might have been

OBA Issue 22
Alan Pride’s 500cc Model D ‘King’ Levis is a very unique machine (the King referring to the rear springing over the standard rigid frame model D), particularly in Australia, where it is possibly the only such remaining model fitted with the unique and effective Mason rear springing.

In Latin, Levis means light, and that’s the best way to describe the first motorcycle to bear the badge. It was designed by Bob Newey, a Norton employee prior to WW1, and young Bob had high hopes that his idea would be adopted by Norton, and badged as such. Unfortunately ‘Pa’ Norton abruptly dismissed the idea of a two-stroke bearing the company name, and Bob’s idea looked like being stillborn. That is, until he met Daisy Butterfield and her two brothers.

Daisy Butterfield became Daisy Newey, and Bob went into business with her brothers to produce the Levis – a name suggested by the Butterfield matriarch. Despite the two-stroke being largely out of favour (apart from the Scott), Levis pressed on with the concept, eventually producing their signature machine – the 211cc ‘Baby’ Levis (later renamed the Popular), which was produced from 1912 to 1926. Both the Butterfield boys were keen competition riders, as was Newey himself, and the ‘works’ machines were soon seen fitted with expansion chamber exhausts in place of the usual open megaphone style. Early attempts at the TT were unsuccessful, but in 1920 a 250 cc class (within the 350 cc event) was introduced and Levis produced an enlarged 247 cc version, with a three speed gearbox. The result was a walkover, with Levis machines first, second and third. In 1922, the 250s got their own race, and the redoubtable G.S. Davidson (later editor of the famed TT Special newspaper) ran away with the race on his 248 cc Levis, winning by 13 minutes. It was to be the last TT two-stroke victory for 16 years.

But even Newey had to admit that his two-strokes were incapable of competing with the latest four-stroke designs, and in 1927 he designed a very neat little overhead valve 350, the model A, which was redesigned in 1929 with a saddle fuel tank as used on the works TT machines, and with a three-speed gearbox. The following year it gained an extra exhaust port and became the A2, with the magneto moved from the front to the rear, under the carburettor. With its slim, single pushrod tunnel, the 350 Levis had the appearance of an OHC model, and the new design sold very well. Much of its attraction lay in the fact that besides being an excellent road machine, it could easily double on up weekends as a trials, grass track or scrambles mount. Levis was still small enough to offer a bespoke service. Machines could be ordered in a choice of four colours, with various ratios in the gearbox, and either a 21 inch front/19 inch rear, or 20 inch front/18 inch rear wheel option – the latter being popular for sidecar use.

OBA Issue 22
Alan Pride’s 1939 500cc Model D ‘King’ Levis. Factory records show that only four ‘King’ Model Ds came to Australia, and this one was sold new to Arthur Roberts from Morwell, Victoria, who put 100,000 miles on it before selling it to Alan in 1974.

The success of the A2 prompted Newey to design a 250 cc ohv version, with the option of a four-speed gearbox. Again, the new machine sold well, encouraging the factory to step into the one class that remained, the 500 cc Senior. It was no walk-up start however, as the new engine, using 80 x 99 bore and stroke, failed to meet its performance parameters and required substantial modifications before it was capable of meeting its 80 mph target. Not content with the three ohv engines, Newey designed a very neat OHC 250 which was released in 1933. It was listed at £59, the same as a Model 18 500 Norton, and with the economy in dire straits, the new 250 was a sales flop and lasted only two years.

Ray Mason joined Levis in 1936 to work alongside Newey, and his 600 engine, with a 82 x 112 bore and stroke, was an instant success, despite the gearbox having to be redesigned to cope with the extra power. In 1938, Mason also designed an oil-damped rear suspension for the Levis cradle frame (Levis also listed a frame using the engine as a stressed member), which was available as an option for both the 350 and 500. But with the intervention of the war, very few spring frame models were produced, and the company was switched from motorcycles to aircraft hydraulic mechanisms and air compressors for the war effort. Motorcycles were a thing of the past, although Levis continues to this day as a manufacturer of air compressors, still operating from the same factory at Stechford in Birmingham in which it began operations a century ago. In more recent years, a second ‘s’ (Leviss) was added to the name to prevent confusion with a well-known manufacturer of jeans.

OBA Issue 22
Owner Alan Pride with his beautiful Levis. A real show-stopper.

A local Levis

Alan Pride’s 500cc Model D ‘King’ Levis is a very unique machine (the King referring to the rear springing over the standard rigid frame model D), particularly in Australia, where it is possibly the only such remaining model fitted with the unique and effective Mason rear springing. Alan believes that only around 17 complete machines came out of Levis (although others were converted from rigid frames) with rear springing, his being produced in October 1939, just months before the firm switched from motorcycles to the war effort. Factory records show that only four ‘King’ Model Ds came to Australia, and this one was sold new to Arthur Roberts from Morwell, Victoria, who put 100,000 miles on it before selling it to Alan in 1974. Although much of the detail of the rear suspension is hidden behind the twin upswept exhaust pipes and silencers, Alan points out that there is some really clever thinking behind the design.

OBA Issue 22
Left: Front brake plate with no lever causes a few double-takes! Centre: Close up of the Lockheed lever-less system on the rear brake plate. Right: Centre line operates the hydraulic friction damper on the rear spring units.

“The spring units are linked by an oil line, and this ensures that the rear wheel maintains its axis with the steering head when subjected to side loads on cornering, “ he says. “At the front of each unit is a horizontal pipe, which leads to a piston faced with brake lining material. When the bike hits a bump, or when the weight of a pillion passenger is added, the pressure on this piston is increased and acts as a damper on the axle blocks as they rise.”

Another unusual feature on Alan’s Levis is the Lockheed braking system. Look closely at the front and rear hubs and you will notice the absence of a brake lever. “The Lockheed system works on a horizontal wedge to push the shoes apart, “ explains Alan. “ Instead of operating a lever, the cable is anchored to the wedge through the brake plate, and spreads the shoes when the front or rear brake is applied.”

A rather quaint feature of Levis four strokes is the persistence with a drip-feed oiling system, rather circulating the lubricant. The Levis owner’s handbook is quite firm on the thinking behind this, stating that “the bottom end is the most important part of the engine and must be lubricated with cool, clean fresh oil, otherwise the poor motor is trying to exist on circulating grinding paste”. The rider was required to regulate the oil flow through the Pilgrim pump to consume about one pint per 250 miles. “Several times on rallies I checked the flow and it was quite accurate,” says Alan. “ To make sure the oil mist was reaching the top end through the pushrod rube, levis say to go down a hill with the throttle closed, then rap the throttle open at the bottom and you should see just a wisp of smoke behind you. Even on rallies around Broken Hill, where it got extremely hot, the Levis never showed signs of overheating”

OBA Issue 22
Left: Badge of Honour. Centre: Magdyno sits at the rear of the engine – a departure from earlier models. Right: Twin port engine is rugged and handsome.

When the Levis reached 100,000 miles, Arthur Roberts decided to ‘give it a birthday’ and substantially restored the machine, including paintwork and plating. Alan Pride added another 42,000 miles prior to 2001, when he underwent an operation to remove a brain tumour – an operation that left him with much diminished sense of balance. “Since the operation, I am unable to ride a solo motorcycle any more, which breaks my heart,” he says with genuine dismay. But with 142,000 miles on the clock via just two careful owners, the Levis has probably earned its retirement, and these days is a very popular exhibit at displays and shows, where Alan’s son provides the manpower to move the bike. At the recent Macquarie Towns Motorcycle Restoration & Preservation Club Show Day at Windsor, NSW, the Levis took out the top award for machines 1931-1940, with crowds of onlookers gathered around it all day. Alan could be forgiven for becoming a little frustrated in having to correct well-meaning enquiries with, “No it’s not a Levi’s, it’s a Levis!”

A big year for Levis – 2011

The Australian Levis Register was only formed three years ago, but is going strong with 36 members who own 50 machines, from most states as well as New Zealand. Secretary of the Register Les Thomas says, “Many members have written saying they had had their bike for years but just didn’t know how to start to get it restored. Now, with a source of information and other owner contacts, it’s their number one project.”

The Register plans to celebrate the marque’s centenary in 2011 with a gathering in Wangaratta. “ Our resident member in Wangaratta, Barry Holland and I have been doing some planning for the event, which will be held from September 30th to October 2nd, 2011. Being a fledgling group, and as neither Barry or myself have ever been on this type of motorcycle event, let alone organised one, we are planning this to be a ‘members only’ occasion, but having said that we know that already various members are bringing friends who will be riding machines other than a Levis. The other reason for keeping it low key and why I call it a “Gathering” rather than a “Rally” is that I am encouraging members to bring their machines regardless of condition so that members can see original non-running “barn finds” which may help them to achieve originality on their own restorations.”

“We will be doing some riding of course but we have to bear in mind we will have 211cc flat tank two strokes so they will tend to be a series of fairly short runs rather than one long one. This is going to be easy enough to organise with Wang having a lot of places of interest. As we have members already booked from West Australia and Queensland we will also entertain them for longer if they wish to spend more time in the area.”

Story and photos by Jim Scaysbrook

This article first appeared in Old Bike Australasia Issue No.22