The Military had the idea of a small lightweight motorcycle that could be dropped by parachute and be used as transport for a limited time by the airborne forces. The Welbike was designed by Harry Lester, and was powered by a 98cc Villers two stroke engine, and could fit in an airdrop container. The prototype was built at Station IX the Military research establishment at Welwyn in Hertfordshire. However this was not the first small lightweight motorcycle built for military use. The company Aveling Barford built a small prototype lightweight motorcycle in 1938, it was powered by a 125cc two stroke engine. However it did not go into production, but no doubt gave Lt. Colonel John Dolphin the idea for the Welbike.
The prototype was subject to a lot of testing which included being dropped by parachute. The motorcycle proved to be very strong and after the tests were complete the prototype was taken to the Excelsior motorcycle company for further development. Some improvements were made including an engine tuned up to give a bit more power than the standard unit. The Welbike went into production in 1942 with the Mark 1. The original plan was that after the parachute container had landed, a paratrooper could have the Welbike ready to go in under 15 seconds. This was a bit of a tall order as the container had to be opened; the handlebars had to be twisted into position and locked with pins. The saddle pulled up into position and the footrests folded down, the small fuel tank needed to be pressurised with the small incorporated pump before push starting the motorcycle.
Being of simple design they were cheap and quick to produce, nearly 4000 of these little motorcycles were produced from 1942 to 1945. The Welbike was used during the landings at Anzio and the D Day beaches in Normandy; it was also used by the airborne forces at Arnhem.
Paratroopers retrieving a Welbike from the air container
Picture by Mapham J (Sgt), War Office official photographer. IWM