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WWII Welbikes
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The Excelsior Welbike:
A military vehicle with a sense of humor.

Original Welbike
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An original Welbike.

Reproduction Welbike (mine)
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A replica Welbike.

In January of 2006 I decided to invest in the replica Welbike that is pictured above-right.  As is usual in my hobbies, this started me on what is now a continuing process of research about this unusual military vehicle, and the following is some of what I've found.

EARLY DEVELOPMENT

In 1943 the British needed a vehicle that could be dropped by parachute because, at the time, there was no British plane capable of lifting a jeep or other suitable motorized transport.  The Excelsior Motor Company of Great Britain responded to this need by designing a lightweight motorized cycle based on their experience building scooters and motorcycles before the war.  The work was done in cooperation with SOE (Special Operations Excecutive) at Station IX, Welwyn, which is how the scooter got it's name.  All machines developed there were given names with the prefix "Wel"  such as the Welcar, Welboat and Welsub, etc.

A Commando on a Welbike.
A Commando on a Welbike.

MECHANICAL DETAILS OF THE WELBIKE

The Welbike weighed 75 lbs and was designed to be folded to fit inside a 13 inch diameter drop canister (see the picture below).  Powered by a single cylinder, 98cc (6 cubic inch), 2 cycle engine made by Villiers, it generated 1.5 HP.  The range stated in the operator's manual was 90 miles on 6 1/2 pints of gas-oil mix (since the engine operated on the "two cycle" principle, the fuel had to double as the engine's lubricant), giving it an estimated 111 miles per gallon. 
 
The Welbike's small size restricted it's payload to a single paratrooper in full kit, which limited the bike's practicality.  Also, the lack of any suspension made the scooter uncomfortable to ride on anything rougher than a paved road.  To add to the Wekbike's problems, the fuel tanks needed to be pressurized before the fuel would flow into the carburator, which required the rider to operate a hand pump (similar to a camp stove or kerosene lantern) before the scooter would start, and then every 10 to 15 miles afterwards.  In all, it wasn't the most handy of vehicles.

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A Welbike packed in a drop container.

WARTIME USE

Because of these mechanical limitations the SOE quickly decided they didn't want the Welbike, so it was given to the Parachute Regiment in hopes they would find the machine more suitable for their operations.  While there is a lot of evidence that the Welbike was used during training excercises, the evidence I've seen to date suggests the Welbike was used in only two major battles; D-Day on June 6, 1944 and Operation Market Garden, September 17, 1944.  There is a possibilty that Welbikes were dropped for Operation Varsity (crossing of the Rhine River), too, but I've not seen anything to support this.

Below is the only photographic evidence I've seen of the Welbike in action.  This is the Headquarters company of the 4th Special Service Brigade, making their way from their LCI(S)s (Landing Craft Infantry Small) onto 'Nan Red' Beach, JUNO Area, at St Aubin-sur-Mer at about 9 am on June 6, 1944.  Look carefully at the center of the photo and you'll see two commandos carrying a Welbike between them.  Look even more carefully at the top of the ramp leading down from that ship and you'll see another Welbike who's owner is getting ready to carry it down the rather steep ramp!  There is a third Welbike at the base of the ramp, just being picked up by two men.  In addition, there might be a folding bicycle, or a motorized bicycle, seen out of focus in the background at the top of the second landing craft getting ready to descend to the beach.

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Photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum

Below is a photo of how the Parachute Regiment used their Welbikes.  As noted, this photo is staged.  As far as I know right now, all photos and films of Welbikes being used by the Paras were taken during excercises.  The best example I've seen of this (and the most fun to watch) is a documentary/propaganda movie that featured the Welbike (along will all the other equipment used by the Paras) being used in a large-scale battle excercise.  This film is availible from the Imperial War Museum in a DVD collection of movies about the Parachute Regiment.

Crown Copyright.
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Note the sheet metal bumper on the right is undented, another clue that this is staged.

One story I've been able to confirm since first writing for this website is the story that a Welbike survived Operation Market Garden.  The bike was found by a Dutch farmer just after the battle at Arnhem and hidden in a barn until the war ended.  After that, the Welbike was used by the farmer and, later, by the local boy scouts.  After many years of use, the owners realized the historical importance of the machine (and probably noticed the engine was completely worn out), which prompted the owners to donate the Welbike to the Airborne Museum in the Hartenstein Hotel.

Welbikes were also exported to different parts of the Empire.  I've had at least one veteren tell me he remembers riding a Welbike in Burma.  I have also confirmed there are two Welbikes that are running (and a third being restored) in India from locally found parts.

DECLINE OF THE WELBIKE

By late 1944 air transportation for the British greatly improved when the RAF obtained DC-3s (called Dakotas) from the Americans and large cargo gliders appeared that could carry jeeps.  This made a single-person, short-ranged motorscooter useless in combat and rendered the Welbike obsolete almost as as soon as they were distributed.

However, just because Welbikes were worthless in combat, that didn't mean they were totally useless.  Instead of being dropped into battles, many were taken out of their containers and used for personal transport in and around the RAF air bases where they had been issued.  These bases were large and dispersed with large areas of smooth paving, which were ideal for driving the unsprung Welbikes.  While I haven't seen any direct evidence of this, it is easy to think that many resourceful pilots and mechanics found the Welbike a pleasent alternative to walking, or pedaling a bicycle around those large airbases.

POST-WAR WELBIKES

Once the war ended, the remaining Welbikes were declared surplus by the British Army.  Many Welbikes were destroyed by the military because they were considered unsafe for use on public roads in Britain.  Despite this, a significant number of bikes were saved from the scrap heap and there is evidence that some were even registered for British road use during the late 1940's, taking advantage of the Welbike's fuel economy in a country where wartime fuel rationing would not end until 1950.  The last of the Welbikes were forced off the road when the Ministry Of Transport began requiring vehicle safety inspections in the early 1950's.  The Welbike's lack of a front-wheel brake and lights made the vehicle technically impossible to pass Ministry of Transportation's safety inspection.  However, there is unverified evidence that some Welbikes were licensed to operate on the public roads of England.

However, that wasn't the end of their history.  In 1946 Gimble's Department Store in New York City, USA, bought all the remaining military-surplus Welbikes and shipped them to the United States.  They were sold as personal motorscooters for a few years and most ended up doing duty as factory run-abouts, or as gag motorcycles in Shriner parades.  I suspect the light blue paint that is commonly found on Welbikes found in the USA these days was applied by Gimble's. 
 
Unfortunately the nature of the Welbike made it unsuited for extended use.  It's folding parts and large-internal-clearance engine caused the Welbike to wear out quickly and most of the machines were junked after a few years of regular use.  I've been told by one person who remembers owning one as a kid in 1953 that he sold his for only $15 after riding it for a year and ruining out the engine.

THE WELBIKE'S LEGACY (aka the Corgi)

WWII Welbike
WWII Welbike

Note the single steering column and low mounted fuel tanks.

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Note the lights, fenders, and double-bar steering columns (hiding behind the sign).  Also note the fuel tank mounted on top of the frame between the handlebars and saddle.  The only parts that resemble the original Welbike are the basic design of the tubular frame, the engine and saddle.

After the war, John Dolphin took an interest in the Welbike and began the engineering work needed to civilianize the machine.  Then John Brockhouse, of  Brockhouse & Co., Ltd., came to an agreement with Mr. Dolphin to use the design to make up for the loss of production caused by the ending of Brockhouse's wartime Army contracts.   The new motorscooter was named the "Corgi" after the British breed of dog that resembled the low-slung appearance of the scooter.  The machine went on sale in 1946.

 

This became the first popular British motorscooter of the 1950's, and even though the Corgi's Villiers engine had the same basic problems as the Welbike, the scooters proved popular and eventually around 25,000 examples of the Corgi were produced (as opposed to only 5,100 Welbikes).  Some historians have suggested that the combination of the Welbike's use on RAF airbases during WWII, their limited post-war life, and the popularity of the Corgi planted the seed of the post-war motorscooter craze in Britain that lasted well into the 1960's (think Mods versus Rockers).

 

Sadly, just like the Welbike, the Corgi's popularity didn't last very long.  When the Italian-made Vespa scooter began selling in large numbers the UK during the early 1950's, British riders quickly realized the Corgi's many shortcomings.  Production of the Corgi ended in 1954.

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