Historic Motorcycle Brands
The Cotton Motor Company was a Gloucester-based British motorcycle manufacturer, founded by Frank Willoughby Cotton in 1918. The company was reconstituted as E Cotton (Motorcycles) Ltd, in 1953 and traded until 1980.
F W Cotton engaged in motorcycle hill climbs and trials from around 1913, so he experienced the limitations of the ‘diamond frame’ design that had been derived from pedal bicycles. He designed a ‘triangulated frame’ and patented his design that was a Cotton feature until World War II.
Straight, narrowly-triangulated tubes ran from the top and bottom of the steering head to the rear wheel fork-end lugs. Another design option was that they joined at the seat post, but that doesn’t appear to have been used in production bikes.
Additional multi-triangulated tubes were used to connect the steering head, engine, seat post and the rear wheel fork-end lugs. This design provided strength and lightness, and avoided flexing, while providing a lower centre of gravity.
Sprung front forks combined with a sprung seat that provided rear ‘suspension’.
The First World War interrupted Cotton’s plans for motorcycle manufacture and although the Cotton Motor Company was founded in 1918, the post-War, ex-military bike-market glut meant that the first Cotton motorcycle didn’t appear until 1920.
In 1922, Stanley Woods rode a Blackburne-engined Cotton to fifth in the 350cc Junior TT and won the 1923 Isle of Man TT, averaging 55.73mph, bettering Douglas rider, Manxman Tom Sheard’s winning 500 cc Senior TT time.
Cotton motorcycles took second and third places in the Ultra Lightweight TT and second in the Lightweight TT. They scored second in the 1925 Junior TT and second in the lightweight TT. In 1926, Cotton took the first three places in the Lightweight TT. These victories helped establish Cottons as race-winning machines, with exceptional handling for that era.
UK Cotton Owners and Enthusiasts Club
A full order book enabled the move to a new Vulcan Works in Gloucester. Although the Cotton frame design changed little between 1920 and 1939, when the Great Depression bit into sales, Cotton responded by offering a wider range of engines, usually partnered with Burman gearboxes.
In 1930, engine choices were: 247cc Villiers two-stroke; 295cc, 348cc and 495cc, side-valve Blackburnes; 348cc and 495cc overhead-valve Blackburnes and 292cc, 348cc and 495cc overhead-valve JAP engines.
In 1931, the Blackburne side-valve engines were replaced by 348cc and 499cc Rudge-Pythons.
In 1932, side-valve JAP engines and a Sturmey-Archer engine were added, along with a JAP 150cc and a Villiers two-stroke. The largest engine in the Cotton range was a 596cc, overhead-valve Blackburne.
1933 Cotton – Yesterdays
By 1933 there were 17 Cotton models and additional JAP 596cc and Blackburne 150cc and 250cc models were added in 1934.
In 1935 the Python and side valve JAP engines disappeared, but with a new choice of coil or magneto ignition, Cotton could still claim 16 models.
However, as the 1930s wore on, sales slowed and racing success came less often. A highlight was achieving 12 world records for speed and distance by Eric Fernihough and Charles Mortimer, on a specially-prepared, 250cc JAP Cotton, in October 1935 at Brooklands. (The 75th anniversary of this special event was hosted by the UK Cotton Owners and Enthusiasts Club in 2010.)
In 1936, ‘super sports’ models, powered by 500cc JAP or Blackburne 25B engines appeared.
JAP powered Cotton – Gloucester BID
In 1937, the Cotton range was spearheaded by three new ‘high-camshaft’ 250, 350 and 500 JAP models, with four-speed, foot-change gearboxes.
In 1938, the 150cc Cotton model was powered by old-stock Blackburne engines, as Blackburne had ceased production.
In 1939, JAP had changed its engine design, introducing new, fully-finned 500cc and 600cc engines, without external push rod tubes, and fitted with external hairpin valve springs. The springs were fixed in the middle, with a valve at each end. These engines were available in standard or deluxe Cotton bikes. The high-cam JAP engines, the 250cc JAPs and the 150cc Villiers two-strokes continued.
When Cotton’s triangulated, rigid frame was introduced in 1920, it was ahead of its time, but by 1939, when sprung-heel and swing-arm frames were more common, rigid frames were obsolete.
Continuing with engineering work that sustained the factory during World War II, Cotton did not re-enter the motorcycle market at the War’s end, but continued to supply parts.
1956 Cotton Cotanza Anzanii 250cc – Cotton Owners and Enthusiasts Club
Faced with the big decision to redesign Cotton motorcycles for the post-War era, F W Cotton decided to retire, but the company was re-constituted in 1953 as E Cotton (Motorcycles) Ltd, owned and managed by Pat Onions and Monty Denley.
As before, Cotton made its own frames and bought-in the rest of the components for assembly. The first machine was the Cotton Vulcan, with a Villiers motor.
In 1955 the Cotton Cotanza was powered by a 242cc – 322cc from 1956 – Anzani engine and featured a new frame with ‘pivoted-fork’ rear suspension. That frame was also used in a new 1955 Vulcan model, fitted with a Villiers 9E engine and three-speed gearbox that became a four-speed in 1956.
Cotton Vulcan with Villiers 8E 197cc engine, converted for off road use – Cotton Owners and Enthusiasts Club
A Cotton ‘Trials’, stripped down version of the Vulcan with competition tyres and no lights, was released and the original Vulcan was dropped.
The only change for 1957 was a Villiers 2T twin added to the Cotanza range.
In 1959, all models were fitted with Armstrong leading-link forks and the Villiers 2T twin was dropped. The Cotton range included the Herald, Messenger, Double Gloster, Continental, Corsair and Conquest.
Cotton became involved in competitive motorcycling and a range of road, trials and scrambler models was available. In 1961, the 250 Cougar scrambler was released and a works racing team formed.
Cotton Telstars – Cotton Owners and Enthusiasts Club
The Villiers Starmaker racing engine was introduced in 1962, so Cotton went road racing. The 247cc Telstar road racer and Conquest were introduced in 1962 and 1964 respectively. Over the next two years, Cottons won races again.
However, Villiers was taken over in the early 1960s and stopped selling motorcycle engines, so Cotton was forced to source engines elsewhere. That included Minarelli engines for the Cavalier trials bikes, but production was slow. Cotton had been profitably selling bikes in kit form, but changes to legislation hurt sales.
Cotton Cobra replica – Nick Brown
Cotton diversified into production of the Cotton Sturdy, a three-wheel factory truck and produced a Rotax-powered, 250cc racing machine.
However, as for all British motorcycle makers, the writing was on the wall. The combination of more modern European and Japanese motorcycles was a death knell for Cotton and the factory downsized in 1978, but closed in 1980.
Following a series of successful 1990s Cotton exhibitions at the Gloucester Folk Museum, the Cotton Owners and Enthusiasts Club was formed and we’re indebted to this Club for some of the facts and photographs in this history.
A commemorative plaque to the Cotton name was unveiled in 2013, mounted on the wall of the City Folk Museum, close to the old factory location in Quay Street, Gloucester.