Why the most luxurious motorcycle ever built has 3 wheels.

The last of the species died so long ago we’ve forgotten it once existed; the luxury motorcycle. An oxymoron today, those two words once sat as comfortably together as cigarette and holder, or top and hat. In this century one finds so-called luxury items advertised everywhere, which are likely mass-produced in charmless foreign factories. While ‘finished’ by artisans in their nominal home country, such items retain a mere thread of bespoke in our outsourced world; they are de-luxe, the light of tradition and exquisite hand craftsmanship having nearly been extinguished.

The Brough Superior-Austin 4-cylinder 3-wheeler with Touring sidecar – not a four-wheeler under the law, as wheel centers within 24″ were considered a single wheel in the British vehicle code.

But in the 1920s and 30s, if one was flush, remarkable treasures were built by fantastically talented hands. In the motorcycle game, nobody could equal the products of George Brough (pronounced bruff). Magical showman, conjurer of wheeled dreams, bold motorbiking adopter of the Rolls Royce name, George was cut from cloth made nowhere today. As inheritor of a motorcycle factory bearing his name (should he choose), young George rode his father’s excellent Broughs in trials all over Britain in the ‘Noughts and ‘Teens, proving himself a skilled handler of the breed. His father William designed and built his own machines in their entirety, gaining a reputation for solid excellence, and George was on hand to prove they worked, as roving factory rider and charismatic brand ambassador.

The 1930 Brough Superior catalog announced the new model as the ‘Straight Four’; it was also called the BS4, or the Brough-Austin 4

While young George gathered trophies around the country, he also collected ideas for ‘his’ generation of manufacturing. Motorcycles in those early days had frames like metal gates and tanks like mailboxes, all squared up, tall, and awkward. ‘Teens machines had yet to shed their vestigal pedals, like froglets their tails, and were visibly just heavy bicycles with motors. George envisioned motorcycles with curves like women, swelling chests up front and tapering waists, hips that promised a memorable ride, and engine performance that delivered. He sketched out designs during WW1, hardening an ambition to make the fastest and most elegant motorcycle in the world.

The Brough Superior special catalog for the BS4, showing the faired-in radiators on the Show model, the only one so built. The other 9 examples had two radiators detached from the fuel tank

Back home in 1919, George’s sketches for a superelegant superbike met stony refusal from pére Brough, so George built his dream down the street in Nottingham. His prototype was gorgeous, with a curvaceous fuel tank in lustrous nickel plate that straddled the top frame tube – the first ‘saddle tank’. The engine was the most powerful he could buy, sourced from the J.A. Prestwich Co (JAP); their ‘ninety bore’ engine, a v-twin with advanced overhead valves and a capacity of 1,082ccs. Casting around for a name, a friend suggested ‘Superior’, as it so clearly was; thus the ‘Brough Superior’ was born, the greatest paternal fuck-off in motoring history. “I suppose that makes mine Brough Inferior?” his father queried. No answer was required.  Amazingly, the pair remained on speaking terms, his father carrying on building plain old Broughs through 1926.

What freaked the squares; the twin rear wheels of the BS4. One was ordered solo by journalist Hubert Chantry, who’d ridden the Show bike in an off-road trial in solo form. He was notorious for riding his solo – in reverse – around Picadilly circus! [Bonhams photo]
George proved a genius at motorcycle design, and one other thing above all – marketing. He competed his machines only in trials and races he was most likely to win, arriving on an always-sparkling machine (he’d quietly accompany them on a train), dressed impeccably in his signature flat cap (also his design). His gleaming bikes and gregarious personality meant press coverage far out of proportion to his production, but his bona fides were written in sprints. He’d overseen development of a very special JAP sidevalve 990cc v-twin racer called ‘Spit and Polish’, its flywheel and chassis pared to an absolute minimum, with the all-up weight under 180lbs! ‘Spit and Polish’ won 51 of 52 races entered in the early 1920s, crossing the line first even in that ‘lost’ race, although George had been ejected into the gravel many yards prior.   Subsequent months of skin grafts in those pre-penicillin days put an end to his competition career, but not his enthusiasm.

The catalog shows clearly the spine frame and extensions holding the final drive box in place – very similar to the Windhoff 4. One rear wheel has been removed to show the bevel drive, and the central propshaft inherited from the car design. The water-cooled Austin 7 motor was enlarged and used a ‘sports’ cylinder head of aluminum – some had twin carbs for extra power.

A 1923 press review of the Brough Superior SS80, a ‘super sports’ v-twin guaranteed to have exceeded 80mph at Brooklands, proclaimed it ‘The Rolls Royce of Motorcycles’. George sprinkled that phrase liberally on his advertising ever after, claiming he’d invited Crewe’s lawyer to visit after the inevitable cease-and-desist order. On the appointed day, every worker wore starched collars, white gloves, and brand-new aprons while carefully fitting-up gleaming SS80s. The boys at Rolls never bothered their two-wheeled kin again.

A fantastic cutaway drawing from The MotorCycle in 1930, showing full details of the BS4. Literally a lost art for motorcycles. [The MotorCycle]
Brough’s masterpiece, though, was the SS100 model of 1925, built around the latest JAP V-twin racing engine, the legendary KTOR overhead-valve 990cc ‘dog ear’ motor. Guaranteed to have exceeded 100mph at Brooklands, nothing on two wheels could match it in style and speed. After creating the SS100, George could have retired his pencil, as the SS100, besides being the most expensive and fastest motorcycle in the world, was by general acclamation the most beautiful as well.   It remains so today, barring the fastest bit; examples even in pieces sell for over £400,000, and no doubt it will soon become the first Million-dollar road bike.

A period press or factory photo, when distracting backgrounds were hand-painted out of the picture. This is not the first, Show model, but a later production bike with separate radiators and no deep valance over the rear wheels

But George still had a trick up his sleeve; a motorcycle so beguilingly lovely and silky-smooth it might be a luxury car. He’d long considered the four-cylinder engine ideal for a motorcycle, and in 1927 built a unique V-4, with angled pairs of cylinders flanking his famous round-nosed fuel tank. It was displayed under glass at the 1927 Olympia Motorcycle Show, mostly because he’d disastrously broken the crankshaft on a test run; the new crankcase was painted wood! In 1929 he exhibited a new B-S with an inline 4-cylinder engine from the Swiss firm Motosacoche, which had achingly good lines, but needed expensive development. Everyone lusted for these machines, but only prototypes were built – both survive today, and a talented fanboy machinist (at 75) even recreated the crankcase for the V-4. After this pair, Brough searched for a small, reliable 4-cylinder engine, and chose the most prosaic donor of all – the Austin 7.

The prosaic Austin Seven, perhaps the unlikeliest source for the heart of ‘The Emperor of Motorcycles’

The little Austin 747cc sidevalve 4 was water-cooled, and came with a 3-speed gearbox (plus reverse). But the driveshaft emerges on the center-line of the motor; fine for a car, tough for a bike. Rather than design a new gearbox with a shaft or chain beside the rear wheel, Brough had the crazy inspiration to keep the central driveshaft, and place a wheel on either side. A pair of close-coupled rear wheels could be driven by a central drive box, and under English law, if the rear wheel centers were within 24”, it was legally considered a motorcycle. Thus the ‘3-wheeled Brough Superior’ was born, and became legend. Catalogued in 1932 as the ‘Straight Four’ or ‘BS4’, the Brough Superior-Austin Four caused pandemonium when revealed at the 1931 Olympia Motorcycle Show. There had never been a motorcycle like it, and it remains unique, but it wasn’t just the extra wheel freaking out Depression-era showgoers, it was the sheer audacious luxury of the thing. Brough Superior ‘show models’ were always extra-bling, and dazzlingly lit on plinths, but the Straight Four was over the top. Up front were a pair of chromed honeycomb radiators with rounded housings which flowed into the B-S trademark bulbous fuel tank. The mudguards were deeply skirted front and rear, the back pair having matched valances curving over the rear brakes, with thin chromium strips outlining their edges. A sidecar in the shape of a small launch was bolted beside, its body black but outlined entirely with chrome accents, and a red leather upholstered seat. It was, and is, a thing of beauty.

An overhead view; while the BS4 was largest motorcycle produced in Britain at the time, it was still slim and light; even with a sidecar the overall weight was around 600lbs – inconceivably light by today’s standards. [Bonhams photo]
With its sidecar, the Straight Four was a four-wheeled motorcycle, so was it a car? Brough Superior built cars too, with Hudson motors, but the ‘BS4’ was so much better. Motorcycles are dangerous, exposing riders to the elements and other people’s stupidity; a healthy dash of bravery is required. More, it is the second most intimate of machines (the first resting in milady’s bedside drawer), with the rider straddling a mechanical beast, sensitive to its every message for the sake of his or her own pleasure, and avoidance of mortality. A luxury motorcycle therefore combines bravery, skill, danger, and exquisite artistry; it is the sum and acme of Romantic impulses. George Brough leveraged all this to sell his machines, but the Straight Four was different; the combination of its outrageous design with equally audacious styling was a one-two punch to the psyche. The motorcycle’s perfume of danger, mixed with the skill required to master this entirely new combination, and the sheer gorgeous expense of the thing, coalesced to make the Straight Four the Emperor of Motorcycles.

The actual Show model as seen today, on The Vintagent’s Road Test of the machine, which is in perfect running condition, and as elegant a motorcycle as you’ll find.

 

Ten were built. Nine survive. The destroyed example has since been re-created, by the then-80-year-old fanboy who fixed the V-4. One was recently rediscovered, half-buried in detritus in an old man’s shed, kept company with 8 other Brough Superiors in equally shocking condition, guarded by his ever-present shotgun. His estate is a cause of recent celebration, and his rusty, incomplete Straight Four sold at the 2016 Bonhams Stafford Spring sale for nearly $500k. But what is it like to ride one? George was challenged at the ’31 Show, ‘it surely couldn’t be ridden solo?’, to which he replied indeed, and loaned the Show bike, sans launch, for pressman Hubert Chantry to ride in the London-Edinburgh Trial that December. After writing his report, he promptly ordered his own –solo- Straight Four, which he famously rode backwards around Picadilly Circus. The rusty barn-find auctioned was that very machine.

The ‘Bodmin Moor’ BS4, the ex-Hubert Chantry machine, which will surely be revived given the world’s interest in this model. It sold for $481,682 [Bonhams photo]
I’ve ridden the 1931 Show BS4 [see the Road Test here], which is not rusty. I first met her in the 1980s, in the collection of the world’s largest ‘privateer’ amphetamine producer, but the BS4 didn’t follow him to prison in ‘89. She recently re-appeared in the harem of a German collector of impeccable taste, who invited me to make her acquaintance. After sampling the cosseted joy of its launch sidecar, I was given the reins, solo. Half an hour on the BS4 was like sex with Catherine Deneuve in a Cannes dressing room; over too quickly, but savored ever after. It was indeed the most elegant thing on two, three, or four wheels, and I’ve ridden everything, and driven a lot. Silky smooth, quiet but not too, with a chuffing from its open carburetor bellmouths, and proper mechanical noises while twisting the throttle, clutching and shifting, and of course testing reverse. For 30 minutes, I was a mortal in the realm of the gods. And of course, being mortal, I uploaded it on YouTube.

What could be better than a Brough Superior-Austin 4-cylinder 3-wheeler? Why two, of course!

[Originally published in The Automobile magazine, the world’s best vintage car content]

 

 

 

 

 

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