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Bill Douglas






Bill DouglasIn 2007, Kingwood's famed Douglas motorbikes, affectionally known as "Duggies", celebrated their centenary. John Hudson talks to family enthusiast Bill Douglas about his love of the classic machine.

This is a special year for "Duggie" fans - it's the centenary of the start of motorbike production in Kingswood and the 50th anniversary of the last one being made there in 1957. In its heyday, the Douglas Motorcycles employed some 3,000 people in what was then the biggest motorcycle factory in the world.

But that was by no means the only superlative attached to the marque which took the Manx TT and Grand Prix of France titles in 1912.

Over the next 20 years, Douglas bikes dominated the sport, and by 1923 they held 150 British and world records.

Bill Douglas's great-grandfather founded the legendary company but his personal introduction to the bikes was quite bizarre.

"By the time I was growing up in the early post-war years, my family no longer had anything to do with the company," recalls 72- year-old Bill.

"What's more, they didn't want to have anything to do with motorcycles either since my grandfather had had a bad accident on the Isle of Man, and my father had lost his hip speedway riding.

"There were second-hand "Duggies" all over Bristol in those days, going for next to nothing, and in about 1948, when I was 13 or 14, a gang of us clubbed together to buy an old pre- war thing to ride in Hanham Woods.

"We hid it in the bracken and rode it to destruction. It was much more dangerous than if our parents had let us have one on which we could learn to ride properly and keep well maintained.

"We just kept on riding it as long as the engine kept going. You could buy a two-gallon can of petrol for a shilling. We didn't worry if anything else went wrong - and that included the brakes."

Just a baby when his family sold the company in 1936, Bill spent his working life first as a market gardener and then, later, as a civil engineer.

His great-grandfather William, one of the two Scottish brothers who founded the company, was followed by Bill's grandfather William Wilson Douglas, and then by his father, yet another William.

Happily, the Douglas's approach to engineering was rather more imaginative than their choice of names.

A horizontally-opposed engine, first conceived by Bedminster man Joseph Barter, was used in an early motorised bike called a Fairy.

But in 1907, the company took both him and his engine into their Kingswood works, put it on another modified push-bike and gave the world a recognisable motorcycle.

The bike's success in the 1912 TT told the army all it needed to know about the Douglas's speed and tough reliability, and when World War I broke out two years later the company was to the fore in supplying some 25,000 machines for the forces.

Peace brought an even greater boom, since many enthusiasts wanted one of these bikes for their own.

Bill is fascinated by Douglas's early involvement in dirt track racing, later renamed speedway - a term imported from the States.

"Dirt track started in Australia before World War I, but it was in 1928 that it made an impact over here," he explained.

The track at Knowle opened that year, and people soon grew to love their Bulldogs team. The early machines were simply converted road bikes, but Douglas saw an opportunity and produced the first factory-built dirt track machine.

It meant the company were able to dominate the sport for the first three or four years until other makers caught on.

By the mid 1950s, Britain's motorcycling manufacturers, BSA, Triumph, Norton and Matchless, as well as Douglas, were being shaken to the roots by imports from Japan, Italy and Germany.

William and Edward Douglas, who originally came to the South West to repair bootmaking machinery, had started the company, as an engineering concern, in 1882.

The brothers set up a small foundry to produce boot and shoe lasts, as well as drain covers and lamp posts, but the meeting with Barter set them on the road to success

"It was a family concern in those early days, and the Douglases were just as well known in Bristol for riding bikes as making them," says Bill.

"My father and his brother Edwin, and their cousins Jim and Jack, all rode for the Bulldogs, and Jim and Jack's sisters Rosie and Renee were great competitors in hill climbs and trials.

"Rosie used to say she could ride standing on the saddle, and as a teenager she would borrow bikes from the factory and ride them down Kingswood High Street."

The wider Douglas clan was noted for its formidable women; an earlier one married into the Williamson family, who produced Rex bikes, while another was hitched to an absolutely brilliant engineer from Germany.

"His name was Willi Messerschmidt, and look at the bother he caused us," Bill reflects ruefully.

Motorcycle production continued throughout World War II, but by 1948 Douglas was in difficulty again, reducing its output to 350cc flat twin models.

The 1955 350cc Douglas Dragonfly was the last model to be made before Westinghouse Brake and Signal bought the firm out. Westinghouse ended bike production two years later.

Among Bill's souvenirs are a sterling silver helmet and silver-mounted gauntlet which were competed for in the early days at Knowle.

He keeps them polished perfectly, but there is no disguising some ominous looking dints in the top of the helmet.

"I could get them knocked out, but it tells more of the story this way," he says.

He's proud to have been president of the enthusiasts' club - but did his personal riding career really begin and end with those scrambles in the woods?

"Not quite," he replies. "When I was doing national service in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, I put in to be a dispatch rider.

"'Have you got a licence?' the sarge asked, and I had to admit I hadn't. 'Right,' he said. 'Ride round the square'. I did and he said 'OK, you've passed'."

This spring bank holiday weekend, May 27 and 28, (2007) the Bristol section of the club will hold a cavalcade at the Kingswood Heritage Museum in Tower Road, Warmley.

Bill Douglas
Bill Douglas, outside the Douglas factory
Bill, of Cadbury Heath, who is in his last year as president, hopes to see a turnout of up to 100 "Duggies" riding the factory's old test route of about 40 miles.

There will be some terrific bikes on show, nearly 50 of them dating from before 1915.

A special treat will be a visit to the Douglas factory's original site in Kingswood, now occupied by German brake manufacturers Knorr-Bremse.


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