Saturday September 26 2020



Village History

Len’s life on two wheels

Posted on April 30 2016 at 12:12:32 0 comments


Sally Oldaker meets a motorcycle enthusiast who has made his name as a classic bike builder.

Every so often, this magazine reveals something surprising about our villages and their residents – and an old photo we published in December led us to Alvechurch’s very own champion motorbike builder, Len Francis.

Len at school

That photo (left) showed children and teachers outside the old village school in School Lane, and reader Will Francis got in touch to tell us that the boy on the far left was his father, Len – who grew up to become a well-known figure in the classic bike world!

In fact, he’s regarded as one of the best classic motorbike builders in the country, with plenty of awards to his name. . . as well as recognition from motorcycle racer and TV personality Guy Martin.

Len, now aged 67, hand-builds classic bikes from his garage in Alvechurch, where he has lived all his life. Growing up in Withybed Green, he caught the bike bug from his father:

“My dad always had motorbikes. As a small boy I would sit on the tank and hold the handlebars – Dad steered the bike but I thought it was me doing it.”

At the age of 16 Len got his first bike – a BSA Super Rocket – and quickly learned how to make running repairs to keep it on the road. 

However, he always had an eye for the “café racer” style of bike with low handlebars and a racing seat, made popular among the rockers of the early 1960s who favoured the lightweight bikes for short, quick rides between cafés.

“I had a mate who built a Triton café racer [a Triumph engine on a Norton frame] which I thought looked really good – but at the time I decided to stick with my BSA,” Len recalls.

Eventually, it was a colleague in the machining department at Garringtons forging factory in Bromsgrove (where Len worked for 30 years until he retired at 59) who turned Len’s attention to building bikes from scratch.

“We became good mates after chatting about his Triton, and he asked if I might be interested in building a bike,” says Len. “He had a frame and an engine as a start point, so I helped him put it together – and things went from there!”

Len is now the proud owner of four self-built café racers, each one taking around two and a half years to complete: a Triton Nourish 8-valve, a Triton 750, a Norton Dominator, and a Norton Jawa with a speedway engine.

Len explains that they all feature a featherbed frame, originally developed in the late 1940s and early 1950s for the Manx Norton racing bike before being adapted for road bikes.

“I get the parts by visiting ‘autojumbles’ specifically for classic bikes, usually in London,” says Len. “I can usually find everything I need, although the parts do get dearer as they get older and rarer.”

He says it’s becoming more and more popular to build bikes from scratch, with some enthusiasts building “hybrids” that combine parts from more than one manufacturer.

It was the Triton Nourish that won Len his biggest award to date: the Pride of Ownership Winner (1960-69 models) at the NEC Classic Car & Bike Show 2012.

This is regarded as one of the top honours in the UK, and was presented by Guy Martin – who requested the sit-on photo (pictured left) himself and has chatted to Len several times about his bikes.

Len has also won Bike of the Show at the Classic Racing Show in Malvern, Best British Race Bike at the International Historic Motorsport Show, and Best 1960s Bike at the Malvern Classic Bike Show.

His creations have also been featured in an exhibition at Coventry Transport Museum, and Classic Bike magazine recently interviewed him for a five-page article.

“I used to apply to attend the shows, but now they invite me!” says Len, perhaps a little bemused but quietly proud that his “hobby” attracts national attention.

As you might expect, Len’s enthusiasm also extends to watching motorcycle racing, and he goes to the Isle of Man TT race or the Manx GP every year.

However, he rides all his bikes when he can, and has no plans to sell them. In fact, the Norton Dominator was built for his son Will, who bought the parts for his dad to work with.

Will’s brother, Len, has six bikes (“another nutter!” says Len Senior) while the grandsons, aged 12 and 7, already seem interested in following the family tradition. . . it looks as if classic bike-building in Alvechurch will continue for another generation!

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