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Happy 100th birthday, Levis

2011-07-25 11:18

Dave Fall

Had the British motorcycle company Levis still been in existence, it would have celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2011.

Founded by the Butterfield Brothers in Birmingham, England in 1911, Levis was one of many motorcycle and car companies that didn’t re-open after the Second World War. The company hasn’t built a motorcycle since 1940 but still manufactures air-cooled industrial engines and small air-compressors.

While often confused with a certain brand of jeans, the company in 1975 decided to add another “s” to its name to avoid any confusion with trousers, now trading as Leviss.

British motorcycle specialist and author Cyril Ayton claimed in his A-Z of British Motorcycles: “There was a certain ‘hand-built’ quality about them.”

The Levis name is derived from the motto levis et celer, Latin for light and swift.


Research revealed Levis were renowned for their competitiveness and lightness of frame and came with a four-speed Burman gearbox.

Success came to Levis with their two-stroke variants achieving their first racing success at the 1920 Isle of Man Tourist Trophy with a 247cc machine, a feat repeated in 1922, earning them "The Master Two-Stroke" slogan.

When I first arrived in Pietermaritzburg 35 years ago my motorcycling enthusiast friend was looking for a project bike to rebuild, one that he could compete with in the Durban-Johannesburg (DJ) Races, and heard about a pre-war Levis 500 rusting away in the veld near Bishopstowe in KwaZulu-Natal.

I found the bike in good condition but it was very tired. It's four-stroke OHV 500cc single-cylinder engine offered a fair turn of speed, hence the twin-port head and upswept exhaust pipes. With the help of a well-known local motorcycle enthusiast we were able to build a set of exhausts from old originals.


The four-speed foot-change gearbox, quite advanced for its day, had seized and the headlight glass was smashed. The gearbox was driven by chain in a big oil-bath chaincase on the bike’s left-hand side that ultimately proved quite a tricky thing to repair, but he coaxed it back into good condition.

The handlebar levers and other bright fittings were repaired and re-plated. The mudguards panel-beaten, the Druid forks re-aligned and the seat reupholstered. It resembled a classic motorcycle.

Since then he has completed in about seven DJs with it, sometimes finishing near the front, but hasn’t tackled one for nearly 30 years. When I asked him if he would he consider riding the DJ again he said: “You know, I might just be tempted, if only for old time’s sake!” 

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