Best of British – Sprite

Live Wire

A man with passion and drive was much needed in the British motorcycle industry in the 1960’s, a live wire to rejuvenate the ailing and once proud manufacturers of competition machines and Frank Hipkin was that man. He knew it was a time for change well before Sammy Miller started the trend with the Spanish manufactured Bultaco in 1965. This talented, larger than life character almost single-handedly dragged the entire established trials industry into the twentieth century with his ideas and passion to build his own machines which would eventually carry the Sprite name. In the early days he would spend any spare time in his cobbled together shed building his own Hipkin competition specials on which he would then compete getting a massive ‘buzz’ from beating the mass-produced competition machines of the time.

Copyright Words: John Hulme

Copyright Pictures: Yoomee Archive, Alan Vines, Malcolm Carling.

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Frank Hipkin and his business partner Fred Evans were time served plumbers but their backgrounds, like so many others, started from their interest in anything mechanical. Hipkin soon learned more outside of his trade about pipe-fitting and welding. His first competition interest came in the early sixties when he was an up and coming scrambler and he won the AMCA 250cc Championship from 1958 – 1961. As a clubman scrambler and occasional trials rider of some talent he soon became noticed when he took over a run-down motorcycle dealership in Handsworth, Birmingham with the idea of specialising in buying and selling second-hand competition motorcycles.

Before the advent of the Sprite name in early 1964, many riders had seen his ‘home brewed’ specials that he had been persuaded to build for his friends who could also test them before purchasing them. These were all British machines using the best parts including modified Cotton frames and Norton forks and in the engine department Alpha crankshafts and Greeves cylinders, etc. Other companies such as the Rickman brothers with their Metisse machines and in later years companies such as Wassel and Dalesman would follow this same style of producing off-road competition machines with donor engines and components. Hipkin’s machines had not been seen outside his small circle of motorcycle enthusiasts but they soon would be. From that simple back street business, Hipkin’s enterprise in those early years took off like a rocket to the moon and in a mere two years he became the manufacturer and supplier of more lightweight trials machines than any other manufacturer in the UK, proudly bearing the Sprite name. 

Kit Form Machines

In his early business years Frank showed little of his hidden talent for innovation as he pushed his business ideas forward. Motorcycles, including competition machines, were supplied by long established manufacturers who sold their products through equally long established dealerships. You must try to imagine the ‘boom’ time for motorcycles after the war and there were many large dealerships who were distributors for the British manufactured machines which dominated the world of motorcycle production.

Based on this business plan the middlemen earned a healthy mark-up on each machine sold. Hipkin, however, would soon change all that with his ‘kit form’ machines. He would obtain supplies of all the major components required to produce a motorcycle and then fabricate his own frames to supply a ready to build ‘kit’ motorcycle to the purchaser, who, with a certain amount of mechanical knowledge, could build his own machine carrying the Sprite badge using the easy to follow instructions.

His brilliant idea not only took advantage of a loophole in the British tax laws of the day, which allowed a motor vehicle in dismantled or kit form to be sold tax free but, of equal importance, it also cut out the dealer or middleman, reducing the price of the machine to the customer as Hipkin sold his part-assembled machines direct to them. What was interesting, as a result of this new marketing strategy the rest of the hard hit industry were obliged to follow his methods or go out of business, which some ultimately did. In 1965 the idea began to gather rapid momentum as the Sprite was priced at £149.00 which provided a very competitive trials machine but more importantly it was cheaper than its rival brands.

The new kit bikes arrived at the purchaser’s door virtually built with just their engine and wheels taken out with a guarantee from Hipkin himself that even the home assembler could complete putting the machine together in a maximum of three hours from kit to completion, which was well worth the effort for a massive saving of over £100.00 against, for example, an equivalent Greeves model.

The early Sprite machines were more functional and strong than fancy and it has to be said that although they did their job exceedingly well as an ideal first competition machine for the Novice rider, they were still very much built down to a price. The frame tubing was more like cheaply produced gas pipe than for instance the quality and market leading Reynolds 531 tubing but it was strong enough for the job. Many new owners though were not happy to find that its steering-head bearings were located and fixed in fibreglass rather than an accurate and finely turned precision headstock.

Hipkin’s own design Girling-damped leading-link front forks were both heavy yet spindly and the wheels were standard full width British Hub Company products. The engines used were the Villiers’ 32 or later 37A, using the company’s usual iron cylinder barrel. Hipkin was also more than prepared to provide a base frame kit to accept such items as Norton long Road-holder front forks and Triumph’s 199cc Tiger Cub engine instead of the Villiers unit.

Marketing Success

The whole idea of the kit form theme turned the brand into a major success story but Hipkin was not slow to play his ‘ace’ card. To prove the worth of the new Sprite machines in the competition market he soon realised that with the collapse of many of the major manufacturers who no longer produced pure trials competition machinery such as BSA, that many ‘works’ riders were without a team ride.

He provided machinery to a host of top rider names around the country including Dennis Jones, Roy Peplow, Sam Cooper, Chris Leighfield, Bill Wilkinson, Ken Sedgley, Rob Edwards, John Hemmingway, Norman Eyre, Dennis Saunders and Jim Sandiford to keep the machines name in the national trials results so that it would sell itself. The rest of the industry which included such names as Cotton, Cheetah, Bultaco, DMW, Dot, Butler, Scorpion, etc. would have to follow suit to remain competitive with their pricing structure and all sell direct and in kit form. Greeves were the only manufacturer, who largely out of loyalty to their dealers who wanted to continue with them, were obliged to introduce cut-price machines using the basic 37A Villiers’ engine without any of the expensive alloy trimmings and the result was the cheap and cheerful Greeves Wessex.

Hipkin always addressed any problems with the machines almost immediately and he soon realised that due to the machine’s popularity in the trials market he would have to tidy up its appearance which he duly did. In early 1966 the duplex steel tube main frame was cleaned up somewhat and lightened by over 6lb. The works team which was led by Dennis ‘Jonah’ Jones had their machines equipped with thinly disguised Ceriani-type telescopic front forks providing a hefty 7 ½ in movement which were being produced for the company by Robin Humphries at Crowthorne in Berkshire. That was the first of Sprite’s really big years as competition success came their way. It was becoming increasingly obvious that it was only a matter of time before the machines would start to play a major part in trials success.

In the British Championship Dennis Jones was proving the Sprite names worth and at the National Victory trial he missed the premier award following an unlucky five after leading for the majority of the event. Riding the iron barrelled 37A Villiers-engined machine which had been bored out to 254cc he had taken the over 250cc award  in the West of England but it was riding close to home at the Birmingham based National Greensmith Trial that he shook the established stars by taking the premier award. At the Scottish Six Days trial he kept the machine on the leader board all week despite the Iron barrelled Villiers engine having constant electrical problems and he then took another well-deserved win at the Manx Two Day trial.

These results were reflected in the popularity of the Sprite machines in the face of the new machines from Spain including the Bultaco, Montesa and Ossa. Because Jones was using the cheaper Villiers’ 37A iron engine it persuaded the average clubman to look favourably at it. Why would you want to spend up to an extra £100 on something like a Greeves Anglian with its aluminium top end cylinder barrel and head when Jones was courting success and telling everyone how much he preferred the cheaper Iron barrel version and he was proving it was not just talk with National and numerous local wins every week. 

Time to Move

Never one to rest on his laurels Hipkin had been very busy trying to secure the long term future of his company and had negotiated and dispatched what would be the first of many large orders for off-road machines including trials and scrambling models from the American Eagle Corporation of California in America. Due to the growth of the brand the manufacturing company were forced to move into much larger premises at Eel Street in Oldbury, Staffordshire where he also started to cast his own components in the foundry he had created. With the kit-form machines now very popular it was interesting to note that other manufacturers such as Cotton and DOT had also seen an increase in demand for their machines which were all using different variants of the tried and trusted Villiers engines.

In 1967 Hipkin made the decision to offer optional extras to the Sprite range so that customers could upgrade their machines when ordering them new by adding more expensive parts, or, if they wanted, at a later date they could purchase them. The Robin Humphries Ceriani type front forks were proving very popular and they became optional Sprite fittings adding £20.00 to the price of the kit machine or they could be supplied separately at £33.00 for updating earlier Hipkin machines or even rival brands.

Frank was never shy at supplying components to other manufacturers if profit could be made. For long distance events or National trials which covered many miles he offered a two gallon capacity fuel tank to replace the one and a half gallon one which sported a universal fitting so once again it could be used on other machines. Due to increased production costs the complete machine price was pushed up to £164.00 if it was supplied with telescopic front forks but a less expensive option was available with the leading-link front forks fitted at £134.00. It was rumoured at the time that Villiers would supply complete engines at around £70.00. It was interesting to note that they sold more of the more expensive model than the cheaper version.

Sales figures continued to climb as the both the Expert and Clubman appreciated that Sprite could offer a machine to suit all the riders requirments at a price they could structure themselves with the choice of their own specifications. They also knew that in the right hands it was a proven winner.

Higher Specification

It was not just in the UK that the machine range was proving popular as the orders for both Europe and the USA were also very healthy for the machines and the secret, the price! Other leading manufacturers at the time had witnessed the Sprite success story and soon changed the way they marketed their products. Cotton and now Greeves had adopted similar marketing techniques and with better quality products had dramatically closed the price gap but they never knew what the business mind of Hipkin was thinking and it was time for him to review his standard of product yet again.

He went for an all new lighter and higher quality specification machine named the Mk 2 250cc Trials machine which went on sale in August 1967 at the price of £169.00. It featured many improvements and the main frame had lost its twin seat supporting tubes which were replaced by a full rear seat top loop which also incorporated a rear mudguard support. To enhance the quality of the machine’s appearance the frame finish was bright nickel plated. The wheel hubs were relieved of the cooling fins for neatness which also saved a few ounces and the wheelbase was reduced by one and a half inches giving an overall wheelbase of 51” making it more nimble and easier to turn. Hipkin had also developed a new exhaust system featuring an expansion chamber that he claimed improved the machine’s performance at the expense of a little extra weight.

It’s a fact that Frank Hipkin sacked his number one rider, Dennis Jones, on a regular basis but, as they say, they always ‘kissed and made up’. In late 1967 it looked like the relationship was over for good as he moved to ride the ‘Micro’ Suzuki powered machines. Rapidly improving Yorkshire centre rider John Hemingway took over the role of senior works rider and started to win everything on the new odd looking short wheelbase machine which the trials buying public did not have much faith in but Hipkin had an even bigger problem on the horizon to deal with.

Around 1968 the Manganese Bronze Company buy-out of Villiers had hit the supply of the engines which had rapidly begun to dry up removing the Sprite machines future production. They briefly turned to the racing Starmaker engine which were freely available after Villiers had stock piled them but despite the best efforts of Hipkin and the other trials manufacturers they could not get it to perform correctly. He also had other options as the foundry side of the business could produce components for manufacturing of engines such as cylinder barrels and crankcases. On the motocross side of the business he had got around the engine supply problems by installing Swedish Husqvarna engines into the Sprites.

Foreign Power

In 1969 Sprite employed a workforce of seventy five people in three sites around the Birmingham area producing off-road motorcycles and Hipkin was not going to let a small problem like engine supply get in his way.

Hipkin had loosely copied the Husqvarna engine and started to produce his own variant with many ‘Husky’ parts interchangeable. He had also started to play with a home manufactured hybrid 400cc trials engine but his interim answer for the trials market was announced in February 1970 with the all-new 5 speed gearbox 125cc Sachs engined Sprite Goldfinger.

The ‘Micro’ trials machine was in full flight with good strong English motorcycle names such as Cotton, Dalesman, DOT, Saracen and later Wassel all placing their faith in such tiny foreign engines out of necessity rather than choice and Sprite were no different. Sprite was the envy of many of the motorcycling manufacturing giants as some disappeared forever but no not Sprite! The new trials machine was an instant hit with its light weight of 163 lbs making it very popular both at home, and more importantly, abroad.

It began to achieve much success in the hands of Experts riders such as Roy Peplow, Jim Sandiford, John Hemmingway, Rob Edwards, Norman Eyre and Gerald Rathmell despite its very limited power and very narrow performance band which equated very much to the likeness of an electric switch; it was either on or off!

Initially, with a favourable price the sales were strong as the new machine was marketed well in the press and the works riders had some good results. Soon though the buying public realised the only other option and the best choice were the Spanish machines from Bultaco, Montesa and Ossa.

Sprite changed from Sachs to Zundapp powered machines to improve performance but to no avail. Dennis Jones would return in the early seventies as Hipkin played with his new trials machine powered by the Husqvarna inspired motocross engine with both 250cc and 400cc models. The 250cc would be the Venturer and the 400cc the Rustler. Jones competed on them in a few events such as the Bemrose Trophy in 1972 where he took the Up to 500cc Award but the machine was not as competitive as its Spanish rivals and only a small batch were produced.

Sprite’s downfall came during late 1973/1974 when their home market for trials and motocross models had dwindled to little more than a handful of machines being produced each week.

A contract with McCormack International USA to supply 250cc, 360cc and 400cc motocross models to be sold as American Eagles was Hipkin’s biggest export order. It was anticipated that the machines would sell in their thousands but after two thousand had been supplied the McCormack enterprise collapsed resulting in the ultimate failure for Sprite Developments in 1975. In reality, the US importers were the only remaining customers for the Birmingham company and by then the products had fallen out of favour on the lucrative American market, bringing an end to the production of Sprite competition machines forever.

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