We look at a fantastic restoration of one of Francis-Barnett’s more outlandish models.
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Words by Oli with photography by Gary Chapman
The interesting thing about the Francis-Barnett Cruiser 91 Sports – apart from its somewhat ludicrous name – is how out of character it was for AMC to produce it. Francis-Barnett specialised in producing rather worthy, straightforward motorcycles for everyman. Its lightweight two-stroke bikes weren’t exciting to look at, and the company’s own advertising would eschew the usual dramatic images of high-speed riding for pictures of sensible men in sensible shoes, performing mundane ride-to-work tasks. It seems AMC didn’t consider that excitement was part of the experience of Francis-Barnett ownership.
Cruiser had been Francis-Barnett’s name for its top-of-the-range machines since the 1930s. By 1961, the Cruiser 89 was the brand’s luxury lightweight, with a top speed of just over 70mph. The Cruiser was – thanks to limited expenditure on model development – cheap to buy at £181. It was simple to look after and looked very British, with tank knee pads and a two-tone paint scheme. The AMC parts bin was raided for many of the cycle parts, the toolbox looking very similar to that from the M16 AJS. They popped the engine into a frame with a curious, oversized front down tube, as used on the Norton Jubilee 250. It wasn’t the prettiest frame in the world, though.
And then, as AMC meandered towards oblivion, a bright spark in the design department came up with the Cruiser 91 Sports.
The Cruiser Sports doesn’t even look British. Italian-inspired with a sparky Villiers 4T twin engine after AMC had a disastrous run with its own motor, the Cruiser 91 Sports looked like someone accidentally let a designer who knew what a good-looking motorcycle could be like have a try and then allowed them to build it. One can only imagine that the old traditionalists in management were out of the office that day. Anyway, they clearly didn’t care that much – by 1963 the firm was even getting the technical details wrong in its own advertising.
Using that square-barrelled 4T engine made all the difference, dragging Villiers’ own styling out of the 1940s. It’s certainly as good-looking as any of the Japanese engines of the mid-1960s, if a little less sophisticated mechanically, requiring petroil lubrication where its Far Eastern rivals were moving to oil injection. The 4T is identifiable by the square barrels that have a gap between them. The single Villiers carburettor feeds fuel into the engine through a manifold and while it wasn’t that fast at the top end, it made up for this by having decent acceleration instead.
The styling, in particular the tank, is what makes the Cruiser Sports stand out from the crowd. A curvaceous creation with silver and red panels, and the Francis-Barnett badge mounted high, it doesn’t look like anything Francis-Barnett or, for that matter, James, which sold the same model with different badges, would come up with. It may well have been Italian-made and has the air of something from that part of the world.
The frame is red and was delivered in that colour from the factory long before we all painted our Suzuki or Yamaha frames in the same shade. Mudguards are pared back to the bone. There is even a delicious set of rear sets. It’s all so unlike what you might expect AMC to come up with.
Simon Freeman is the chairman and events coordinator for the Francis-Barnett Owners Club, and he has this gem of a 1964 Cruiser 91 Sports. It arrived at his shed in 2019, having been bought from a classic car dealership for the princely sum of £187.
The showroom had been burgled and a lot of the bits were missing, but what there was included a frame, petrol tank, forks, wheels, the important short brake lever, and the folding footrest needed to clear the exhaust. “I’d always wanted one, and I wasn’t going to worry about the engine because those are easy to find. I did have to gather the cycle parts together, though.”
Simon set to work. Some bits had to be made. The spindles were unobtainable, and he made all his own stainless fasteners and bushes, and the centre stand was reconditioned. A battered battery tray and toolbox was pressed into service as a pattern so Simon could make his own. “I made the stays too. I did manage to get the right mudguards from Villiers Services.”
Bantam John, who sadly passed away last year, supplied some of the rarest parts. The legendary curmudgeon and spares stockist had new old stock side panels, shock absorbers and a headlight in his stores. A rusty and battered chain guard was found, welded, repaired, and sent for chroming. Simon covered the seat – including that smart white lining – with a replacement cover from RK Leighton. And then he found a fully rebuilt 4T engine on Facebook a mere 20 miles away from his Norfolk home. Simon said: “It was like it was meant to be.”
The engine rebuild had taken place some years before; to be on the safe side, he stripped it down, checked the bearings and replaced the seals. Inspection showed that the work carried out was of top quality. Exhausts came from Armours, and his friend and fellow F-B enthusiast Stuart Elkes came up with a numberplate, while Fram Wheels of Framlingham rebuilt the wheels.
“I can do most work, like welding, electrics, and mechanics, but I haven’t tackled wheel-building yet.” He reproduced the original Francis-Barnett paint scheme with rattle cans and sourced badges from an F-B club member who had made up a batch.
The frame is different to the earlier Cruiser 89, which used flat steel tubes and an oval front downtube. The Cruiser Sports uses a tubular steel cradle. Many of the cycle parts are common with other AMC lightweights from AJS, Matchless, and Norton. It has the same brake hubs, wheels and forks as the Norton Jubilee 250.
The rearsets are an original feature, which Simon modified slightly using a rose joint on the gearshift.
Any motorcycle restoration is a challenge and rebuilding an unfashionable motorcycle like the Cruiser Sports has its own difficulties.
“Building something from a basketcase is always a lot more challenging,” Simon said. “It’s always better if there’s some stuff there.
“I’ve been searching for four years for a rear mudguard for a plunger framed Francis-Barnett Kestrel I’ve got.
“Cycle parts are always going to a problem and you need to consider this if you are going to buy one – especially if you are not able to make things yourself. But they are really nice to work on, and are really simple and straightforward bikes.”
The intention is to take the Cruiser Sport to Scotland for the Francis-Barnett Club’s Loch Ness run later this year.
“I’ve not had the chance to put many miles on it,” Simon added, “but I’ve started running it in and it does go very well indeed.”
It seems a shame that the Cruiser Sports didn’t get a chance to reach it’s potential. A sporty British 250cc two-stroke twin could have been exactly what the market was looking for… once the bugs had been ironed out.
The club has more than 400 members and regularly has club stands at all the major bike shows and ride-outs throughout the year. The club is always looking for new members and their bikes to keep the marque alive. Details can be found at www.francis-barnett.co.uk or at any of the shows they have a club stand at. The club is an invaluable source of information and contacts for spares.
Engine and electrical spares:
Villiers Services can provide parts for any postwar Villiers engine and holds large stocks of parts for the AMC two-strokes.
“Building something from a basketcase is always a lot more challenging. It’s always better if there’s some stuff there. I’ve been searching for four years for a rear mudguard for a plunger framed Francis-Barnett Kestrel I’ve got.”
SPECIFICATION: Francis-Barnett Cruiser Sports
ENGINE: Villiers Mk 4T air-cooled two-stroke twin BORE / STROKE: 50 x 63.5mm CAPACITY: 249cc LUBRICATION: Petroil CARBURETTOR: Single Villiers middleweight TRANSMISSION: Chain GEARBOX: Four-speed right foot change Villiers FRAME: Single downtube cradle FRONT SUSPENSION: Telescopic forks REAR SUSPENSION: Twin shock swing arm BRAKES: 6in (20.4cms) drums TYRES: 2.75 x 19in front, 3.25 x 18in rear DRY WEIGHT: 267lb (127kg) SEAT HEIGHT: 29in (74cm) WHEELBASE: 49 ½in (126cm) TOP SPEED: 71mph POWER 17bhp @ 5500rpm