The H.E.C has a fairly low engine gear ratio (14 to 1), and this combined with the light weight of the machine and an
extremely ‘peppy’ engine, provides acceleration well above the average. Response to the throttle was immediate and a
speed of 25mph was attained comparatively rapidly. Higher speeds are available if required; indeed, under favourable
conditions the speedometer registered 35mph, which is remarkable for an 80cc power unit. In these circumstances,
slight vibration was felt, and without doubt the engine was happiest at a speed of about 25mph.
– The Motor Cycle, 25th May, 1939
An ‘Autocycle’ is essentially an upgraded lady’s bicycle frame with engine and petrol tank added, to cater for the market for lightweight motorcycles. With an engine under 100cc governed to a low top speed, and being started by pedals rather than a kickstart, it fell into a separate (cheaper) road tax class. The idea, in the 1930s, when these were introduced, was to encourage cycle riders to upgrade to a motorised machine. At that time there were no 49cc motorcycles, so the autocycle filled the spot currently occupied by mopeds.
One of the last pre-war Autocycles to be manufactured was the Levis/ H.E.C Power Cycle. The machine was introduced in 1939, but the company’s Birmingham factory was bombed on 3rd May 1940, halting production. This is one of the last machines made, and one of only few survivors. The engines were used during WW2 and after as power units for generators and the like, and the remaining stock of autocycles was sold when the war ended.
1940 H.E.C Power Cycle (H.E.C 80cc two-stroke engine)
The H.E.C Power Cycle, manufactured by Hepburn Engineering Co (H.E.C) of Kings Cross, London, was fitted with an 80cc deflector-top two-stroke engine made by Levis. The machine made its debut at the Earls Court Show in November 1938 and went on sale in 1939, with a LEVIS badge on the engine. The engine was updated later that year, ready for the 1940 season, and the Levis badge on the engine was replaced with an H.E.C badge (as on this particular machine).
However, sales were short-lived. With the outbreak of war, the company relocated to Birmingham. But, on 3rd May, 1940, the HEC factory in Thorpe St, Birmingham was bombed. No more autocycles were built, and Levis and HEC merged to manufacture air-compressors. Very few Levis/H.E.C autocycles were manufactured, and even fewer of the H.E.C badged examples survive.
Although the Power Cycle was very well-received by both the motorcycling press and the public alike, with a sales run of only one year few machines were sold. Production stopped at frame number 885 (the frame number of the first machine is not known, but companies rarely started with number 1; more usually 101).
Nearly every other British autocycle was powered by the Villiers two-stroke engine. Only Excelsior, Cyc-Auto and HEC/Levis struck out with engines of their own design. The Villiers is a fine engine, and the Excelsior is very similar. But the Scott and the HEC/Levis are far superior in design and performance: both of their engines give the impression of riding a larger motorcycle rather than a machine under 100cc.
As well as having one of the most interesting engines, with its limited production run, the 1939-1940 HEC Power Cycle is Great Britain’s rarest autocycle.
On page 614 you can see a restored example of this model, its engine marked ‘LEVIS.’ The example for sale on this page, however, is the 1940 version: if you look at the close-up of the engine in the photos below, you’ll see that the engine on this one is marked ‘HEC.’ The factory was bombed on 3rd May of that year, and few of the H.E.C badged machines were manufactured, so this particular example is very rare.
This H.E.C is in first class unrestored condition, with its maker’s transfers intact.
It has had little use during its lifetime, and was in dry storage between 2000 and 2011, when I bought it.
It has a V5C Registration Document (and original transferable registration).
I sent it to Mark Daniels last year, and he serviced it for me and also wrote an article about it for Iceni CAM magazine (reproduced with thanks on this page)
With less than a handful of either the Levis or H.E.C badged machines still in existence, this rare original pre-war autocycle is ready to provide faithful service to its new owner, as well as winning vintage shows.
THE HEC AUTOCYCLE, 1938-1940
HEC Power Cycles Ltd, 234 Pentonville Road, London N1
The HEC Power Cycle was one of very few autocycles that did not use the more common Villiers engine. Instead, it had an 80cc two-stroke engine designed by Hepburn Engineering Co (HEC) and built by Levis. The die-cast crankcase incorporated an oil-bath primary chain-case that enclosed the clutch and the duplex chain primary drive. The final drive was also by chain. This was unusual in using the same size chain as the pedals. Overall gear ration was 14:1.
Introduced in 1938, the prototype machines differed only slightly from later production models. The usual controls were fitted, using inverted levers to operate the brakes. The improvement of a back-pedal brake was later offered as an option – HECs fitted with this had a conventional brake lever. A rear stand and a carrier were other useful features that had not been included on the prototype but were incorporated on the production version. To accommodate the rear stand the exhaust had to be changed. On both models the engine exhausted into a large alloy expansion chamber; the long tail-pipe of the earlier machine continued to the back of the rear wheel but later models had a second tubular silencer and a short pipe to leave room for the stand to be lowered. A less obvious improvement was a change to a three-point, rather than two-point, mounting for the engine. Before World War II the HEC was marketed at the price of 17gns [£17.85].
AGAINST THE GRAIN by Mark Daniels
In 1906, brothers William and Arthur Hughes Butterfield set up in business together as engineers at Stechford, Birmingham 9, with interests in a relatively new technology of the time—development of the internal combustion engine.
By 1910, William had built his own engine and was aided by engineer and keen motor cyclist Howard Newey, who worked on design of the machines. Within the following year they became established as motor cycle makers under a name taken from the Latin phrase levis et celer (light and quick), and so the Levis brand was launched.
Their first prototype motor cycle was based upon a bicycle frame with a 198cc single cylinder two-stroke engine and belt drive. A larger 269cc engine version appeared later in 1911, priced at £35–10s, and just two years later the business was going well enough for the company to become incorporated under the title of Butterfields Ltd, with Howard Newey as Works Manager. Butterfields designed and made their own two-stroke engines of 211cc, 269cc, 292cc, and 349cc and sold these in a number of Levis models until the domestic market became suspended in 1916 due to the First World War.
Motor cycle manufacture resumed again in 1919, with the Levis brand establishing itself as one of England’s leading builders of two-stroke machines, and consolidating their reputation through a very active involvement in racing. The business continued through the economic recession of the mid-1920s by concentrating on producing keenly priced economy machines, then introduced new models into the range as the Great Depression began to subside into the 1930s. The first Levis four-stroke engine, a 346cc OHV, was introduced in 1927, then an OHC 247cc and 498cc OHV in 1933, and further joined by a 591cc OHV in 1937, though the staple business remained primarily two-stroke based.
The Hepburn Engineering Company of 234 Pentonville Road, King’s Cross, London N1 set up HEC Power Cycles Ltd to manufacture autocycles, based on an 80cc deflector top two-stroke engine of their own design of 46mm bore × 48mm stroke, but manufactured for them by Levis.
The HEC Power Cycle first appeared at the Earls Court Show in November 1938, marked at a price of 17 guineas (£17–17s), and the prototype machines differed only slightly from later production models.
By spring of 1939, the business had relocated to Birmingham, and the bike and engine received some development modifications.
The usual controls were fitted, using inverted levers to operate the brakes. The improvement of a pedal-back brake was later offered as an option, though HECs fitted with this also retained a conventional lever braking set, so it really was an extra! A rear stand and a carrier were other useful features that had not been included on the prototype but were incorporated on the production version. To accommodate the addition of a rear stand, the exhaust had to be changed. On both versions the engine exhausted into a large alloy expansion chamber; the long tail-pipe of the earlier machine extended to the back of the rear wheel but later models needed the pipe shortened to leave room for the arc of the stand, and a second tubular silencer barrel further became added within the tube. A less obvious improvement was a change to a three-point, rather than two-point, mounting for the engine.
AGAINST THE GRAIN by Mark Daniels
Our HEC/Levis is certainly a wholly different machine that very much went against the grain of the more usual Villiers-engined generic autocycles of the period. Not only did the HEC have an exceptional motor that was unusually mounted in the crook of the frame, but the cycle chassis also appears strikingly individual, not least for its interestingly shaped petrol tank. The fuel tank design is most logically explained as all its folds and forms can be assembled by welded corners without the need for dedicated and expensive press tooling. This would have been a most ideal solution for low volume manufacture at the time. The distinctive fuel tank certainly imbues the ‘Power Cycle’ with a unique persona.
Another striking impression is how ‘compact’ the bike appears! It has a fairly similar height in the usual way of autocycles of the time due to the 26×2×1¾ wheels, but its length appears short and stubby, so we unfurl a tape and measure the wheelbase: just 44½”, which is little different from a conventional pedal cycle, so the ‘in-frame’ engine installation has hardly affected the geometry!
Continuing with HEC’s vital statistics, the scales read 6 stone dead (only 38kg) with oil and fuel, so light enough to manhandle easily in tight spaces.
It doesn’t take much handling however before appreciating that the pedals appear too close to the ground, since the fitted 5½” crank arms allow just 2″ clearance so, if you’re inclined to be a bit silly, they might be doubled-up as a useful side stand, even without the need to use a kerb! This poor pedal to ground clearance can make the machine quite impractical to cycle. After having caught your feet a couple of times, a rider may become cautious to start the machine by any means other than on the stand.
The fuel supply turns on under the right side of the tank by a small lever tap. The Amal 27/64″ bore carburettor has a flood button on the float chamber, but we never used that, favouring instead the shutter choke operated by a small rod up the right hand side of the tank. With no decompresser to the cylinder head, it’s generally better to get some turning momentum going with the clutch disengaged before dropping the lever, or it can be quite hard to turn the motor against compression from a standstill.
Once the engine starts firing, a tweak on the throttle lever and pushing off the choke finds that it probably didn’t require any enriching at all; the motor seems to run clear pretty much straight away and responds to throttle right from cold. The exhaust settles to a subdued gurgling note as we prepare to make our departure.
The spring loaded rear stand is a marvellous development that sadly wasn’t copied by other autocycle manufacturers. You just roll HEC off the stand and it flicks right back, ready to go! No messing about trying to wrestle the dragging rear stand into a clip at the back of the rear mudguard like pretty much every other autocycle—HEC’s stand is really good!
As you throttle up and drop the clutch off its grip-lock latch, the rider does need to give a little pedal assistance for initial take-off, then the engine takes over with a muted phuttering at low speed. Opening the throttle lever is responded to with an induction draw at the carburetter and louder roar from the exhaust. As the bike builds speed up the road, waves of vibration come up through the pedals, and the rider becomes aware of a fair amount of mechanical noise generated from the engine. There’s something of an ‘agricultural device’ feeling about way the machine rides: crude and harsh to the rider, though the passing impression to pedestrians and our tracking pace rider was the bike sounded smooth and pleasantly docile, which can often be the way with these ancient contraptions. Many old machines can be like this to varying degrees, seeming better to observe than to ride.
The rider quickly becomes aware of a ‘hunched’ nature to the riding position of this autocycle, primarily as a result of the relatively short cycle frame with its stunted wheelbase. This results in a very upright riding position, and is too compact to adopt any practical crouched posture against a headwind.
Any attempted contributions towards pedal assistance are readily punished by the pedals and your feet hitting the ground from the mere 2″ clearance, so this is an autocycle that will certainly hurt back if you try and help it, which might seem rather at odds with reportedly fitting heavy duty ½ × 3/16 chain and pedal sprocket sets to some machines.
The motor seems to settle down to comfortable and steady cruising around 22mph, with a best on flat clocked by our pace bike at 24mph.
The downhill run clocked off at 28mph, at which the motor was clearly revving into territory it didn’t want to be, with lots of mechanical noise and waves of vibration making this a particularly uncomfortable pace to run.
The Motor Cycle magazine published an HEC road test in their edition of 25th May 1939, and reported ‘The HEC has a fairly low engine gear ratio (14:1), and this combined with the light weight of the machine and an extremely ‘peppy’ engine, provides acceleration well above the average. Response to the throttle was immediate (*yes, it makes more noise) and a speed of 25mph was attained comparatively rapidly. Higher speeds are available if required; indeed, under favourable conditions the speedometer registered 35mph, which is remarkable for an 80cc power unit’.
We’re quite surprised at that report too, since our fastest downhill run only achieved 28, and there was absolutely no question this bike was ever going any faster than that, and certainly not 25% faster! We think their speedometer was probably a little optimistic.
The hazards of low ground clearance for the pedals will harden any rider’s resolve not to assist this autocycle in the following uphill climb, and the speed steadily fell away before the bike finally managed to struggle over the crest at just 12mph with no pedal assistance.
Both brakes were good, which is something we very rarely get to compliment on autocycles and, turning on the light switch, even at low engine revs, the lamps were so bright we quickly turned them off again for fear the bulbs might burn out. There was a feeling these might have been fitted with cycle bulbs of too low a wattage, and we didn’t feel the urge to revisit the experience with the risk of something going pop!
For anyone looking at pictures of our test machine for reference, we should point out this vehicle has been rebuilt with a number of obviously non-original fittings: the saddle, handlebars and stem, brake and throttle levers, headlamp and bracket, tail lamp, drive chain-guard, and magneto cover inspection plate.
The frame number of our feature machine appears to be 615, which places its dating around later 1939.
With the onset of World War 2 in 1939, the Levis plant was turned over to making aircraft parts and air compressors.
HEC’s Thorpe Street Works (behind the Hippodrome theatre), were heavily bombed on 3rd May 1940, completely wrecking the factory. HEC frame serialisation was concluded at number 885, and anything that could be salvaged from the ruined building was removed to Butterfields works at Old Station Road, Stechford, and the HEC business became merged with Levis.
According to employees of HEC, there had been some special developments of the Power Cycle; a ‘racing’ version with dropped handlebars and smaller 20″ wheels, and a tandem model!
There was certainly a significant number of Levis engines left over after the manufacture of the HEC Power Cycle was so prematurely concluded by the Luftwaffe, and these were being offered up for sale for many years afterwards. Though the Levis autocycle motor never again found its way into any other British production built machines, some continental assemblers later seemed to have employed the engine in small quantities; announced as late as May 1951, the Swedish built Apollo being one example.
Looking at various Levis 80cc engines, it’s notable there may be some differences, in that motors made for HEC generally seem have these initials cast onto the chain-case, while other engines are cast with the Levis logo on the primary cover, and have an additional filler plug at the top of the case.
Like the Wallington Butt and Scott powered Cyc–Auto models, the Levis propelled HEC is a rare and unusual example in the more general world of Villiers and Excelsior powered British autocycles. Like many machines, it has both good points, and shortcomings, but mainly it is interesting and different.
Mark Daniels excellent article on the H.E.C (featuring this actual machine) appeared in the April 2013 Iceni CAM Magazine – http://www.icenicam.ukfsn.org/articles5/art0082.html