Watsonian-Squire – history in the making!
Watsonian and Squire – a “potted”history
T E Watson - founder of Watsonian
In 1912 there were many side car manufactures and early transport pioneers who were experimenting with various forms of personal transport including fourcars. Fred Watson of Watsonian was originally a builder by trade. Early on he identified that people who lived in terraced houses couldn’t get their sidecar and motorcycles into the back yard, down the narrow passages between the houses. As a result Watson devised a “folding sidecar”, the side car was entirely collapsible and could then be wheeled down the narrow passage into the back yard or garden. As a result of this invention he formed a company called “The Patent Collapsible Sidecar Company”, he later changed the name to the Watsonian Folding Sidecar Company. The business quickly grew by the 1920’s to become the largest side car manufacturer in England, with a factory premises based in Birmingham until the 1980’s. With a UK sidecar market share at its height of approximately 50%, over the years Watsonian bought out, absorbed and closed down many competitors. This included the famous Swallow sidecar brand of William Lyons, Jaguar fame. This famous brand name is still owned by the Watsonian-Squire group.
In the late 1930’s and just after the Second Word war, before cheap cars became increasingly available, sidecar production was at several hundred units a week. However as early as 1923, cars were starting to become serious competition for sidecars, with the increasing sale of cars like the Austin Seven.
Watsonian was a very innovative company and after the war they became involved in glass fibre work for Land Rover and they also had a forge making wheel braces and cast iron bottle jacks. The economic boom after the Second World War helped Watsonian with its volume sidecar sales, as personal transport became available to the masses. However by the mid 1960’s sidecar sales had dropped off significantly with the arrival of cheap cars like the Ford Popular and the ubiquitous Austin Mini which converted many motorcyclists to four wheeled transport. As such sidecars were no longer viewed as a convenient mode of transport anymore and as such, became more of an enthusiast purchase.
Watsonian’s work for Land Rover became a substantial part of the business , but then this work was suddenly withdrawn by Land Rover at short notice this hasted the decline of Watsonian, who by the early 1970’s where left producing just a few sidecars a year. Subsequently Watsonian moved to their current location near Blockley in Gloucestershire in the late 1970’s.
In 1972 Squire was formed in Bidford-Upon-Avon by Peter Rivers and Mike Williams. Originally Squire was set up to do engineering prototype work for the motoring industry and vehicle restoration. As part of the vehicle restoration business Squire employed Harry Briggs of the now defunct Briggs sidecars. Harry kept trying to persuade Peter and Mike to make traditional sidecars. Mike and Peter realised that there might be a market for side cars, but not traditional sidecars, rather sports sidecars to complement the modern Japanese motorcycles that were now entering the British motorcycle scene, in particularly the new at the time, Honda 750 Four.
So Peter and Mike started with an initial run of 25 sports sidecars and they immediately sold them, though on this first batch of 25 they lost money. Undeterred they built another 25, sold these and broke even; thereafter demand grew and grew and a market for sports sidecars was established. In the 1970’s Squire made a large number of sidecars for Jawa and MZ, such as the famous Jawa Javelin.
In 1984 Watsonian relocated to the current site near Blockley following a management buy out from the two founding detectors. The new management was Ron Watson, son of the founder and Cliff Bennett who was the real driving force behind the new set-up and managed the factory. In 1985 the company was bought out by Cyril Heath (a Watsonian employee), Peter Machon and Doug Bingham and they managed the company till 1988.
Watsonian-Squires premises near Blockley
In the 1980’s Squire like other companies was suffering from the effects of the recession, but as a business were holding their own. Peter and Mike wanted to push forward and decided they had common ground with Watsonian and arranged a meeting with them. Particularly as they were now based only 10 miles way from Squire’s Bidford premises . The result of the meeting was an agreement to merge the two companies, as there were matching skill sets. Squire had a strong engineering background but bought in their glass fibre shells, whereas Watsonian were glass fibre experts who bought in their engineering requirements. The company we know today as Watsonian-Squire was therefore formed in 1989 and Squire moved to the site near Blockley to join Watsonian, enabling the new company to offer the full gambit of side cars from full sports to ultra classic, as two separate ranges.
Peter Machon stayed on for 6 months and sadly Bill Heath died one year later. The Watsonian side of the business proved initially “troublesome” but it was sorted in the summer of 1989 with severe pruning and rationalisation. Following the merger, the Watsonian range was rationalised to concentrate on retro lifestyle designs that would appeal to the leisure market and the basic transport models were dropped.
Then unfortunately again recession hit in the spring of 1991, luckily the businesses turnover was good with many outstanding orders. 60% of the production was now for export of specialist leisure sidecars and the rationalisation carried out following the merger put the new Watsonian-Squire company in a good position to weather and survive the recession. Nevertheless during the two years of the recession orders dropped 40%!
However the export market continued strongly, particularly thanks to Germany during this period and this helped Watsonian-Squire through the recessionary period. After the recession, Watsonian-Squire continued to build their business with the acquisition of the other businesses that now make up the Watsonian-Squire Group.
After the Second World war Watsonian had become the pioneers of glass fibre production in the UK, firstly in sidecars and then other products, which moved sidecar production away from plywood, aluminium and leather. However following the merger with Squire, glass fibre production was contracted out as these skills in the Watsonian company were no longer being managed properly, although the patterns are still made at the Blockley premises.
The German export market no longer dominates; this side car boom being based upon GP sidecars. Sidecars continue to produce strong sales growth for Watsonian-Squire, though most sales are for export. Japan is now the biggest export market, though many sales are made to Europe and Scandinavia, however only a few units are sold into the USA.
Watsonian-Squire's sidecar range
Most of the Watsonian ranges of sidecars are traditional; with an external steel tubular perimeter chassis, aluminium strips on the noise and a bullet shaped shell. There are 3 models in this style. The GP Jubilee a single seat sidecar, the GP Jubilee 700 which is 1 and ½ seat sidecar i.e adult plus child, and a Manx which is budget version of the GP Jubilee with a slightly shortened chassis and no boot lid. The range starts from £2,000 upwards to £4,500. Sidecars can be produced in a wide range of gel coat colours. Exact colour matches in metallic or pearlscent can be produced at a one off cost.
Watsonian-Squire help steer potential outfits owners to those motorbikes that suit the fitting of a sidecar. Fitment to motorbikes with aluminium frames are avoided.
Not just sidecars!
Watsonian-Squire manufacture trailers
However the Watsonian-Squire Group is not just about sidecars and has an esteemed history with many aspects of the British motorcycling scene. Shortly after the merger, Squire started producing motorcycle luggage trailers and can now fit tow bars and supply luggage trailers for a wide variety of motorcycles above 150-cc, including Pan Europeans, Gold Wings and Harley-Davidson™’s. Bikes fitted with Watsonian-Squire luggage trailers enable people to tour with tents and sleeping bags and cooking equipment, hence vastly increasing the touring scope of many motorcycles. You can unhitch the trailer at a camping site and then ride off to tour the surrounding area. 3 different sizes of luggage trailer are produced starting at £1000 up to £1,800.
Watsonian-Squire acquired the Harglo company from Wolf Harrison and Peter Glover in approx 1994. Harglo is a european children’s motorcycles spares and distribution business, which supplies spares for many european 50cc motorcycle brands from the 1960’s to the present day. These including Moto Minarelli, Malaguti, Italjet, Husqvarna, Moto-Roma, LEM, KTM and Franco Morini. Harlgo are also the UK distributors for Malaguti 50cc kid’s field bikes. However since 1994 the kid’s bike market has changed drastically with cheap Chinese imports effectively reducing the pricing margins on spares and kids bikes to almost uneconomic levels, when compared against the price of a new Chinese kids bike.
Through Harglo, Watsonian-Squire group are also involved in kids 50cc motorcycle racing, with the 11 hp Morini racing engine which is put into various kid’s machines including DB Motors and LEM bikes. These 50cc race machines, race in national and club level championships for the 6 to 8 year old age group; however KTM are the dominant manufacturer in this area with their orange Beta engined bikes.
A few years back Harglo actually sponsored a number of riders using DB Motors machines powered with Morini engines and this helped generate a lot of sales for Harglo, however the positive spin from such sponsorship is short lived as the youngsters quickly move on to larger capacity machine championships.
When Watsonian-Squire acquired Harglo this was at the start of the scooter boom in 1994 and as such they took the opportunity to import a number of Malaguti scooters including the F12 and F10. Sales mushroomed in year one from 100 scooters to 2,500 scooters a year. This lasted for 3 to 4 years, but then the scooter market became very difficult. Major players like Peugeot and Piaggio were fighting for market share offering free insurance incentives, plus an influx of good quality competitively priced Taiwanese scooter imports were taking market share. This meant the Malaguti brand got squeezed as the margins became increasingly slim; shortly afterwards Harglo wisely sold this portion of the business off, before the scooter market crashed.
Over the years Harglo have built up considerable expertise in the 50cc racing world and are considered to be a good source for tuning advice and the supply of spares.
Watsonian-Squire take on the UK Royal Enfield agency
In June 1999 Watsonian-Squire took on the UK distribution of Royal Enfield motorcycles following discussions with Royal Enfield in India; this classic British marque having being manufactured in India since the 1950’s. This followed an 18 month gap in the agency when Royal Enfield was not represented in the UK. Watsonian-Squire inherited the existing dealer chain as it was. In the first year of the agency Watsonian-Squire only sold 100 Royal Enfield motorcycles, but since then Watsonian Squire have worked successfully to expand the brand awareness and range in the UK. When Watsonian-Squire took on the agency, the range consisted of only 2 models the 350cc and 500cc Classic with half a dozen dealers that were traditional 1950’s style bike dealerships, at the time this very much suited the brand and types of customers who bought Royal Enfields. Customers then enjoyed dealing with a dealership that consisted of a mechanic and maybe just the proprietor.
Watsonian -Squire an integral part of Royal Enfield model development
In 2002, Watsonian-Squire introduced the electric start to the 500cc model, which was a milestone in the development of Royal Enfield motorcycles. This then extended the market for the bike and a whole new section of customers was obtained, people who through injury, arthritis, poor joints who could not mange to start the kick start only model could now buy a Royal Enfield they could start. However the kick start has been retained to appeal to those customers who still want to start the bike the traditional way.
However at the time, this radical move caused much controversy amongst the traditionalists who were unhappy that their beloved Royal Enfield should be fitted with a modern electric start. Nevertheless in its first year of on sale, the electric start model accounted for 70% of sales! Watsonian-Squire has recognized that for the brand to prosper in the highly competitive UK motorcycle market, it must be modernised to survive. Those that have complained about such progress, tend be those owners who have an original UK built classic Royal Enfields and may not in fact buy a modern Royal Enfield anyway.
In 2003 the Royal Enfield Sixty-Five model was introduced with a further modern development of a left hand gear change. Again this further extended the appeal and market scope of the Royal Enfield brand in the UK, introducing the bike to those customers who previously had only ridden left hand change Japanese machinery.
In 2004, perhaps the biggest change to date took place with the introduction of the Electra model with a whole new engine offering 5 speed gear box with left change, electric start, front disc brake. The engine is an Austrian designed all aluminium engine with gear driven pumps, roller bearing bottom end, CV carburettor and electronic ignition. It is a lean burn engine, introduced to comply with the increasing emission restrictions legislation. This modern engine is also designed to offer a far higher level of reliability.
The Indian factory only supply Watsonian_Squire with 3 basic Royal Enfield models. Yet Watsonian-Squire offer over a dozen models in the UK range. Watsonian-Squire customises and restyles these three basic models to produce all the different variants that are for sale in the official UK range. Hence this enables Watsonian-Squire to keep representing the brand to the UK motorcycle market and press. The UK range now includes Café racers, a trials version, street scrambler, as well as the standard road bikes, The Café Racers being the eye-catching “candy” of the range which helps propel the sales of standard machines. Watsonian-Squire claim to be the only UK motorcycle distributors who do this, that is producing their own styled range of models.
In addition Watsonian-Squire produces an extensive range of official accessories for the Royal Enfield range in the UK and supply extensive spares backup. Also many of the parts to style the UK models are manufactured or sourced by Watsonian-Squire, these include the manufacture of luggage racks, side stands, mudguards, mudguard stays, right foot gear change modification kits and Electra performance kits The Electra performance kits include a new carburettor, a modified inlet manifold, a new exhaust system all of which increase the power output of the Electra engine by some 25%.
Also Watsonian-Squire manufacture all their own side card chassis’s on site and as such have a tube bending facility, welding facilities and a full metal shop. The metal shop enable Watsonian-Squire to manufacture many of their own components, for instance with the trials variant Royal Enfield model, the mud guard stays, the bash plate, the exhaust carriers and seat brackets are all manufactured in house.
Paintwork is subcontracted out to another company on the same industrial estate in Blockley as Watsonian-Squire.
Since Watsonian-Squire took in the Royal Enfield agency they have completely overhauled the dealer network and expanded this to fifty official dealers with a good geographic UK spread. It is important to note these are official dealers because a couple of years ago a couple of companies brought in parallel import Royal Enfields. However this was stopped by Watsonian-Squire under a breach of copyright action, as those machines were not intended for sale in Europe.
However personal imports from India still continue and initially these look like a bargain; but these machines are produced for the Indian domestic market and are not built to the same standard as those for the UK market. They don’t meet Europe whole vehicle type approval standards, the finish is not he same, e.g. the paint is not lacquered, different material is used for the fork stanchions, cylinder heads don’t have hardened valve seats and aren’t suitable for running on unleaded fuel. Although the initial £,1000 upfront saving on a personal import looks good, by the time the bike has been imported the saving is marginal. With import duty and shipping costs, plus the costs to modify the bike to get it through an SVA to meet European legislation, which requires up to £400 worth of parts; tyres indicators, lights, mudguards, petrol tank and fit an emission control on the exhaust, the bike is not such bargain. Plus spares may not be the same against a UK bike and there is no warranty and no dealer network support.
Although Watsonian-Squire only give one years contractual warranty on UK bikes, thereafter they will look favourably at each case on its merits if a component fails outside warranty and the bike has been regularly serviced and cared for.
Watsonian-Squire works very closely with the Royal Enfield owners club and the sale of Royal Enfield’s in the UK helps swell their membership by some 5-600 new members each year. The owners club attends the annual open day ay Blockley and many official Royal Enfield dealers are involved with the owners club in their local vicinities and in fact several dealers run the local branches of the Royal Enfield owners club. Many of Watsonian-Squire’s potential Royal Enfield customers are “born again bikers” and being able to instantly join a social circle of like minded bikers via the Royal Enfield Owners club network is helping propel sales, by providing customers with an instant support network and lifestyle. For enthusiasts who run original UK factory Royal Enfield’s many of the parts on the current classic range are interchangeable.
Sales of Royal Enfield’s in the UK continue to grow thanks to the efforts of the team at Watsonian Squire, turnover was up 6% in 2006 and for the first 2 months of 2007 registrations are up 10%.
All of the current UK Royal Enfield range is complaint with Euro 2 emission legislation which came into effect June 2005, but the Euro 3 emissions regulations affect the current range from January 2008; although any Euro 2 machine Watsonian-Squire brings in to September this year can continue to be sold in the UK. However plans are already afoot to meet the challenge of Euro 3 and a new unit construction engine with fuel injection is being developed to move the Royal Enfield range through another milestone in its development. The new fuel injection unit will be sealed as far as the customer is concerned, but it will be possible for Watsonian-Squire to re-map the unit, for performance enhanced models in the future.
Customers are always welcome to visit the Blockley premises, however the site is only open factory hours, Monday to Friday. The entire range can be viewed, plus a whole range of demonstrators is usually available for prospective customers to test ride. However customers are advised to ring in advance if they want to test ride a specific model, just in case the bike is out on Press loan or on dealer loan or at a show. However no direct sales to customers are made from the factory, all customers are directed to their nearest dealer. Once a year the factory runs an open day, on the last weekend in July. Also club visits are also welcome by prior arrangement.
The Watsonian-Squire Team
Watsonian-Squire currently employs 23 staff at Blockley including 10 office staff, these include 2 of who are directors, 3 run the spares business, 1 administration person runs the Royal Enfield production schedule, and accounts person and a general manger. The metal workshop employs a welder and metal worker, in the factory there are 10 to 11 employs, one specialises in the fitment of sidecars, 5 employees assemble and make the various Royal Enfield range variants, 3 employees are involved with side car manufacture. It is important to note that whilst Watsonian-Squire no longer manufacture the fibre glass shells, the chassis’s and screens are made on site and the carpets cut, hood manufacture is also contracted out.
One employee works full time as a storesman looking after all the spares that are sold out and items used in manufacture on site.
A motorcycling milestone approaches.
Royal Enfield Electra and Watsonian-Squire sidecar
Watsonian have now produced sidecars now for nearly a century and their 100 year centenary is but a few years away. Already thoughts of planning a celebration party at Watsonian-Squire are a foot, to mark yet another milestone in motorcycling history for the Watsonian-Squire group, which has an uncanny knack for survival through the ages.
Article and Photos by Jon Booth – http://www.inter-bike.co.uk/– The UK Biker Site
Thanks to Mike Williams, Ben Matthews and all at Watsonian-Squire for contributions to this article.