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Chapter 1: RSW16 bicycle—From Cycle to Moped

by Mark Daniels

Raleigh RSW16Raleigh RSW16This tale has to start with a chap called Alex Moulton, an aircraft engineer, who came up with designs in the late 1950s to produce small-wheeled bicycles.  He approached Raleigh with the idea, but negotiations broke down, so he formed his own company as Moulton Bicycles Ltd and established a factory at Bradford-on-Avon, to begin building bicycles himself.

The original Moulton Bicycle was launched in 1962 at the Earls Court Cycle Show, and presented as a fresh new approach to cycling design.  It proved the right product at the right time, quickly being adopted as an icon of the ‘swinging-’60s’, and a fashionable mini-bike to go with mini-skirts and mini cars.

Within a year, Moulton Bicycles had become the second-largest frame builder in the country, of which Raleigh, as leading supplier, was now only too aware.  Having seen the roaring success of the Moulton small-wheel cycle, Raleigh now felt the pressure to come up with another small-wheel cycle design that wouldn’t infringe any of the Moulton patents.  A Raleigh Small Wheel 16 pre-production model was shown to Alex Moulton as early as 1964, to go on sale in 1965 as the RSW16, and differing from the Moulton enough in the critically patent covered aspects to get away with the design.

Both cycle types had a similar appearance with open-style frames and carrying capacity.

Moulton employed small diameter wheels of thin section to reduce frictional resistance, and used suspension to soften its ride.  The Raleigh had a rigid frame, using instead a new 16×2 ‘balloon’ tyre to give a suspension effect, though at the cost of greater drag and effort to the rider.  The Moulton was more efficient, but the RSW16 came at a cheaper price and looked the part, so it began to capture sales back from Moulton.

The RSW16 evolved through a number of changes and different mark models.  Initially introduced in two metallic colours, green and bronze (red), with a round chrome-plated headlight mounted on the front mudguard, and calliper rear brake.  The RSW also introduced the twistgrip gear-change selector, mounted on the right hand bar in the manner of a motor cycle throttle, with gear position shown by an indicator.

More colour options were added to the range, along with a stowaway RSW ‘Compact’ version with fold-down handlebars and break-frame that was humorously derided ‘to occupy more space in folded form than it did as an assembled cycle’!

RSWs were further promoted by use of models around ‘The Village’ in the popular 17-part ‘The Prisoner’ surrealist television series from September 1967 to February 1968.  This was filmed at Clough Williams-Ellis’s mysterious Portmeirion Italianate coastal resort near Porthmadoc in North Wakes, and featuring Patrick McGoohan as the former secret agent No.6.

Our featured example is a blue RSW16 MkII version, with tidy three-speed Sturmey–Archer SB3 rear hub brake, which was specially designed for the model, and a rectangular headlamp now mounted on a bracket off the bottom steering head.  The length of the frame head tube was increased over the Mk1.

The lighting set is powered from a front wheel hub-dynamo, there’s a tidy integral prop stand which makes parking the bike easy, and the rear bag detaches by a sprung clip at the back for use as a carrier with two handle straps. No tools are required for adjustment of the handlebar or saddle height as these are locked-up by quick release levers.

Raleigh RSW Compact
RSW Compact at the 1965 Brighton Show

Raleigh RSW Compact
Max Bygraves with an RSW Compact

For the purposes of our road test we got a fit young fellow who foolishly volunteered to give his all, while we tracked his performance from the relaxing comfort of the pace vehicle…

First gear (a frantic effort) 12mph.  Second gear (furious pedalling) 16mph.  Third gear (giving all and getting red in the face) 22mph.

It was commented by our rider that the RSW felt to be quite hard work to pedal in comparison to a conventional modern bicycle, so it looks as if the period criticisms of its cycling efficiency may well have been justified.  It seems more practical to keep the tyres firmly pumped up, and to use the bike best at a steady and economical pace, after all, it’s a trendy shopper—not a racer!

One particularly irritating aspect worthy of observation was that trying to back the bike with the side stand down would cause the left-hand pedal to rotate backward, and lock solid against the stand.  The bike would always come to a very firm stop, invariably resulting in some suitable cursing, then requiring forward pedal rotation to clear the jam.

Popular success of the RSW16 significantly ate into Moulton’s sales, driving the new company into financial difficulties, resulting in Raleigh buying the Moulton business, then finding itself building both types of small-wheeled bicycles.

Raleigh continued production of the RSW until 1974, by which time sales of small-wheeled bicycles had slowed to a trickle—the trendy fashion had fizzled out!  The ‘16’ was discontinued after reportedly selling some 100,000 models over nine years, but it’s slightly larger and more popular RSW20 version endured well into the 1980s.

A new Alex Moulton company continues to manufacture and sell specialist small-wheeled cycles today.

Raleigh RSW16

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Chapter 2: Raleigh Wisp—The Chicken or the Egg?

by Mark Daniels

Pre-launch advert for Raleigh Wisp

Even before the introduction of the RSW16, somebody at Raleigh had also come up with the idea to motorise the new small wheel bicycle by fitment of an engine that was already being licensed from Motobécane, as had been introduced in the RM4 from February 1961, and continued into the RM6 Runabout from May 1963.

The project to produce a motorised version of the RSW16 bicycle was coded RM7, and we can get some idea when this started because the engine specification was entered as 1.4bhp, as taken from the continuous-fin, 6.5:1 compression motor used in the RM6 at the time, and up to November 1965 when the early engine would be wholly succeeded by the new replacement split-fin 7.5:1 compression, 1.7bhp engine.

The RM7 code was allocated to the motorised RSW16 project before or at the same time as the RM8 Runabout project was issued.  The RM7 model required somewhat more involved development than the simple RM8 Runabout, which was announced and introduced in December 1963, so the RM7 project must also have been commissioned in 1963.

It’s easy to presume that the RM7 may have simply involved bolting an engine into the RSW16 cycle frame, but the physical mechanics don’t quite work like that.  The RM7 looked very similar to the bicycle, but actually employed a completely different frame with reinforced sections at all its joints.

Development of the RM7 was taking much longer than expected, as the RM9 was introduced in April 1964, and the RM12 Sports-50 from June 1965, then the RM11 Super Tourist from January 1966.

Raleigh Wisp at Coventry Air ShowThe earliest ‘D’-registered factory prototype RM7s were completed and running around on pre-production road tests from summer 1966 (JAU 70D), and early ‘E’-registered examples (after August 1966), at which time the models were already branded by a Wisp graphic.

The new moped was introduced on April 14th 1967 priced at 57 guineas (£59–17s–0d), but Raleigh never officially referenced back to the original RM7 project designation, and only ever called the machine ‘Wisp’.

The launch promotions and publicity material for the Wisp were particularly iconic, with a ‘symbol of innovation’ sculpture piece commissioned by Raleigh Industries for ‘Wisp’, incorporating the letters R and W.  There was a classically famous photo-shoot with the fashion model ‘Twiggy’ (Lesley Hornby) riding a Wisp.  A fantastic 16-page colour printed sales booklet that is now considered as highly collectable literature, and accompanied by a series of punchy advertisements in newspapers, magazines, and the motor cycling press.  A rhinestone studded Wisp was decorated to tour the circuit of promotional events, and Pathé Newsreel filmed two lady models riding Wisps at Kenley RAF Station, Surrey (2½ minute video and stills available).

With all the old continuous-fin 6.5:1 compression, 1.4bhp engines finally used up back in November 1965, production Wisps in 1967 were fitted with the newer replacement split-fin, 7.5:1 compression engine rated 1.7bhp.  Published specification data for Wisp however, mistakenly returned the original 1.4bhp rated information, which was subsequently interpreted that its performance had been restricted by fitment of the special inlet manifold cast by Raleigh to maintain the carb float bowl level due to Wisps greater inclination engine mounting.

Though the special Wisp manifold reduces this inlet bore to 3/8" (9.52mm) from the AR10mm Gurtner carburettor, this tiny change certainly wouldn’t wipe off 0.3bhp from a 1.7bhp motor.

The Wisp was mainly only produced in two colours, Fiesta Blue & Spanish Gold, though the rhinestone studded Wisp was finished for marketing promotional purposes, and some white ones were reportedly produced later in the run, but we’ve never seen any.

Raleigh WispOur first tester, registered on 27th September 1967 is a Fiesta Blue Wisp trimmed with white cables, saddle cover, carrier box, and handle grips, showing frame number 016420, and fitted with original specification 44-tooth rear sprocket.

To start Wisp, there’s a little petrol tap ‘key’ that inserts through a hole in the left-hand engine cover just below the petrol tank.  Though the ‘key’ is removable, that function is only intended to enable the cover to be removed, which wouldn’t be possible with the ‘key’ permanently fixed in place as part of the fuel tap.  It isn’t really practical to use this as any security device to disable the fuel supply since it isn’t so easy to relocate the extended shaft back into the petrol tap socket, and requires rotation of the flat on the shaft to feel into alignment with the flat in the tap, then push in to click home.

Turning the key clockwise through 90° turns on the main tank, and a further 90° clockwise to the stop gives reserve supply.

Turn the throttle twistgrip forward to decompress, pull in the trigger choke under the left-hand bar, firmly kick the pedal to spin the motor and twist the throttle open at the same time.  If you’re lucky the motor might catch.  If not, then pedal up the road (we don’t really recommend pedal-starting on the stand since this is usually what’s responsible for lots of ruined moped centre stands).

Apart from an initial flat-spot when the clutch shoes engage the drive, acceleration from a standstill proved quite reasonable, though it was very quickly obvious that this was because the bike appears dramatically under-geared, and achieving only 22mph (paced) along the flat.  The bike further slowed to 19mph against a light uphill gradient, which rather surprised us since we thought the low drive ratio would allow it to climb the incline without dropping any pace, but not so—never underestimate the power of gravity!

Raleigh WispDownhill run 25mph, but this was ridiculously over-revving.  Vibrations through the seat were akin to receiving an electric shock, and were so uncomfortable that you really didn’t want to be sitting on the sprung ‘super comfort’ foam padded-saddle.  Within a few hundred yards at this speed, it felt as if you’d been injected with anaesthetic!  This was a level of vibration that crossed the pain threshold.  No wonder it’s common to find so many cracked number plates and mudguards on Wisps!

The riding experience wasn’t quite as claimed in the sales booklet, which stated ‘Beats 25mph without any fuss.  Feels great all the time’—that’ll be artistic license then.

In January 1968 the rear sprocket was changed to 36-tooth to address dealer and customer complaints of over-revving causing engine failure, and excessive vibration.  The Wisp frame was also reportedly modified at this time with an increased angle on the head tube and the handlebars altered to suit the new angle.

Considering that the rear sprocket change raised the final drive ratio by over 18%, it’s easy to appreciate how dramatically under-geared the early Wisps were with the original 44-tooth sprocket.

Raleigh Wisp sprocketsThe 44-tooth rear sprocket was initially fitted, simply because it was the smallest sprocket available from Motobécane to fit the Atom hub—but it very clearly wasn’t at all suitable for the tiny Wisp wheels, and why Raleigh even went ahead with putting out production bikes with such a dramatically low drive ratio that could so easily over-rev their engines, was a total mystery.

Raleigh had to make the 36-tooth sprocket themselves as a special.

Considering that the RM6 Runabout, fitted with the same engine and using the same 44-tooth rear sprocket, drives 23" diameter wheels to the Wisp’s 16", then the original Wisp seemed to be running a 30.5% lower drive ratio!

Raleigh WispOur second tester is a Spanish Gold Wisp, which colour scheme was trimmed with the same white cables, though black saddle cover, carrier box, & handle grips.  Fitted with the smaller 36-tooth rear sprocket and registered in 1968, this would appear to be a ‘new specification’ manufacture, but with frame number 012376, this appears to be a lower serial than our first 44-tooth tester, so we’re a little confused how Raleigh’s frame numbering was working on these machines?  Our conclusion is that this bike might have been retrospectively fitted with the smaller 36-tooth sprocket to resolve its revving and vibration issues.

Both our feature bikes mounted the ‘super comfort’ pad-saddle, which hinges from the front, with a shock absorbing compression spring between the back of the base and the saddle mounting frame clamped to the seat post.

Another un-sprung version of the ‘super comfort’ pad-saddle was also sold as an accessory for Raleigh RM6, RM8, and RM9

Rather than simply being mounted ‘flat’ as the un-sprung ‘super comfort’ pad-saddle, insertion of the spring requires the saddle to be pitched at a suitable forward angle so it can comfortably sit flat under compression of the spring with the rider mounted.

Starting procedure was exactly the same as the earlier model, and pulling off from a standstill, you notice the gearing difference straight away.  There’s now a big flat-spot as the clutch shoes engage the drive, and the motor labours hard against the higher ratio.  It’s easy to imagine that there might now be some circumstances where the bike might appreciate some pedal assistance in pulling away.

Acceleration is obviously slowed by the ratio change, but it does make a huge difference to the Wisp.  The engine revs are much more leisurely, considerably reducing vibration, and making the whole riding experience a lot more comfortable for mid range cruising.

While the final drive gearing has been raised by over 18%, this doesn’t seem to translate directly into 18% more speed for our test mount, which burbles along quite happily, but seems too docile to achieve anywhere near the kind of screaming revs our earlier under-geared example achieved.  Possibly our brief test run being its first outing following 25 years in the back of a lock-up garage wasn’t enough to clear the cobwebs, but the pace results were a little disappointing.  It just didn’t seem quite ready to get-up-and-go.

Raleigh Wisp23mph along the flat, dropping back to 19 on uphill climb, and 25 downhill.  Little difference really to the earlier low-ratio version, but a whole lot more comfortable to ride.

Theoretically achieving the same revs should have expected 26mph along the flat and 29 downhill, but this example proved a little off the pace for its top speed.

At the end of June 1969, Raleigh’s owners Tube Investments delivered the bombshell news to its employees of the Motorised Division that they were all on three months’ notice of redundancy, and that all powered products were to be dropped.  Introduced 14th April 1967, Wisp production officially ended in September 1969, along with the RM5 Supermatic, RM8 Automatic MkII, RM9 Ultramatic, and RM9+1 (RM10).

With a revised frame numbering system, only the faithful RM6 Runabout soldiered on to burn off stocks, until January 1971, when the last Raleigh moped officially disappeared from the lists.

After some four years in development, the iconic Wisp had been in production for a mere 2½ years.

So what came first, the chicken or the egg?  Neither actually—The RSW16 bicycle and RM7 Wisp were conceived at exactly the same time, somewhere back in 1963 when Raleigh were deciding on a way to reply to Alex Moulton’s small-wheel bicycle.  It’s just that the RSW16 bicycle was completed for sale first in 1965, while the Wisp moped required more development, so consequently wasn’t launched until 1967.

Next—An ancient name, returning back from the pioneering dawn of motor cycling, though strangely, one of our most difficult research projects to track, since so little ever seems to have been published about them!

It’s been particularly hard piecing together all the various fragments of related history scattered over an incredible 137 years.  This project research file was actually started in April 2006, way back before we’d even started IceniCAM!

You want a clue what the bike may be?  Who takes 46 years to build a moped?  Return of the New King.

This article appeared in the January 2016 Iceni CAM Magazine.
[Text & photographs © 2016 M Daniels.]

Making The Chicken or the Egg?

Raleigh RM7 advert

The concept and structure of our Raleigh Wisp article was formulated quite some time back, and was planned with the intention of creating a definitive and fully comprehensive production.

Since the Wisp technical specification was revised after its first season to address the over-revving and subsequent engine failure & vibration issues, we would be needing standard models in each configuration.

The Wisp was only sold in the two metallic colours of Fiesta Blue and Spanish Gold, so we would also ideally be wanting two bikes, both in original factory finishes for the photoshoot.

Being primed with a reflective aluminium base coat, then coloured with a translucent topcoat, makes the original metallic finishes of the Wisp particularly difficult to reproduce properly, and most seem to become repainted in either a standard block blue or some proprietary gold, which rarely look anything like the original finish.

Since presenting the correct colours was considered so important for the photoshoots, we decided that only good original paintwork would suffice, which instantly ruled out a lot of the available examples.

Our first and most promising opportunity came in summer 2012 when the workshops bought in a brace of bikes from Hemel Hempstead, as a ‘his & hers’: a 1964 80cc Suzuki K10 and a 1967 Fiesta Blue Raleigh Wisp in early 44-tooth configuration.

Of the two bikes, the Raleigh Wisp was actually processed first and, as an obviously low mileage machine, restored to fantastic original condition.  This represented a great example to get our article started, but the road test proved an horrendous experience, with screaming revs and shattering vibration due to the original undergeared 44-tooth low drive ratio.

You instantly appreciated how Wisps’ first customers must have felt—it was dreadful!

Having got the blue Wisp road test & photoshoot completed in August 2012, the bike was very quickly sold on.

The workshops then set about restoring the Suzuki K10, which was subsequently completed for RT&PS in April 2013, but didn’t appear in the Thin End of the Wedge article until in January 2015.

The Wisp project had meanwhile gone into mothballs awaiting the availability of a later specification Spanish Gold example with 36-tooth rear sprocket.  You’d think this should be a fairly easy demand to satisfy, since there are lots of Wisps around, but it seems funny how you can never find exactly what you want when you’re after something so specific.

It wasn’t until August 2014 when we were at the West Anglian section’s Shuttleworth Shuffle event based at Moggerhanger village hall, that we diverted to the outskirts of Milton Keynes after the event, to collect another 1969 Wisp that the workshops had done a deal to buy in.

This machine proved to be the correct original Spanish Gold colour and later 36-tooth specification we were looking for—but what a derelict!  25 years storage in the back of a lock-up garage had certainly taken its toll.

This was going to take an awful lot of fixing … there was a major worklist for this bike and the rotted petrol tank had to be replaced & repainted.

It was July 2015 before this Wisp rolled out of the workshops for RT&PS, and again, our second Wisp was shortly sold on after its purpose had been fulfilled.

Meanwhile, towards the last months of 2014, the workshops had also acquired a promising and obviously minimal-use RSW16 MkII bicycle that required some work and new tyres, but was clearly too good not to save—so now we had the opportunity to add a third element to our Wisp feature.

The RSW16 was fixed up for RT&PS in January 2015, then shortly sold on to the same buyer of our Kieft KS50 from the Racing Heritage feature in our last edition of October 2015.  When Norman Crawford bought the Kieft and RSW16, he also made a donation to sponsor the KS50 article, but we’d ‘misplaced’ his details at the crucial moment when the credits were being attached, so Norman ended up sponsoring his RSW16 instead.

All articles are initiated as individual text files on RT&PSs, so the Wisp file started from notes on the Fiesta Blue bike, then the Spanish Gold notes were added on later, and the file subsequently collated with related research notes from there.  Much of this text was developed and written up while Danny was in Malta during September 2015; in fact most of IceniCAM edition 36 was drafted over this week in the Mediterranean, so we were actually well ahead of the game for a change this time.

The RSW16 file was separately developed from its own individual file, so by the time we’d decided to present the RSW and Wisp features in the same article, they’d already evolved as separate entities.  Instead of engaging in a complete re-write to blend both text files together, it was decided to produce the article in two distinct chapters.  This unusual structure however, seemed to work out quite naturally for this particular feature, since Raleigh launched the bicycle so quickly in 1965, while the RM7 motorised version wasn’t completed until a whole two years later.

Not until all the various Raleigh project timings were collated, could it really be appreciated that the RSW16 bicycle and Wisp were actually initiated at the same time in 1963, while everyone had always presumed that the Wisp had evolved later as a development of the bicycle.

Several titles for the RSW/Wisp article were toyed with, but From Cycle to Moped & The Chicken or the Egg? seemed most appropriate for the time honoured question of which came first?

Raleigh marque specialist Les Gobbett has had a long-standing sponsorship credit lodged with us for another Raleigh article, and it’s certainly taken a while to work this Wisp feature to completion: 3½ years in fact!  We felt it was particularly important being patient enough to get all the article details absolutely right in the end, to finally present such a worthwhile and definitive reference piece about the Wisp moped.


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