[Words: Paul d’Orléans.  Photos: Laurent Nivalle]

As hypothetical scenarios go, being asked ‘would you like to ride a Brough Superior at Wheels+Waves this year?’ is a pleasant fantasy. I don’t think it was on anyone’s radar that a Brough would actually be ridden through the Pays Basque in June, winding between all the other groovy custom bikes in the mountains. 8 Broughs would be on display at the Art Ride exhibit, but seeing one on the road…that doesn’t happen enough, anywhere. I was asked the question for real in May, but I didn’t totally trust it would happen, because life is like that. People make promises they can’t keep, stuff comes up – you know. But Mark Upham, who owns Brough Superior, is a man of his word, and I unloaded his 1933 ’11-50’ myself in Biarritz, anxious to get to know the beast.

My first ride with the Southsiders was the first Southsiders ride, back in June of 2009. I’d met Vincent and Frank at the Legend of the Motorcycle Concours just a year before, where I was a judge, and they brought a cool Norton custom. The boys invited me for a ride the next summer, and generously loaned me a Commando for a weekend in Biarritz. There were 12 of us. Nobody forgets their first taste of the Pays Basque; the dry cider, the ham fed on black acorns, and the old villages on the crazy mountain roads. The gang was really fun, the location outrageous. The Southsiders kept organizing rides, and I kept coming, from wherever I was, to join them.

[Paul d’Orléans]
This year, Vincent asked if my photographic partner Susan and I would hang our ‘MotoTintype’ prints at the ArtRide exhibit; of course I said yes. The Brough Superior ingredient came at the Concorso di Villa d’Este, where, again, I was a judge, and Mark Upham a guest. We’ve been friends a long time, since the days I owned four Brough Superiors myself, before I sold them all around 2001. Too soon, it turned out, but don’t cry for money you never had, right? I bought all mine between 1989 and 1999, and a 1938 ’11-50’ was my favorite. It used the biggest JAP motor, 1100cc, a sidevalve with 100mph potential, a real sleeper, and strong as a train. We all love the early JAP SS100s, but even in the late 1980s they were crazy expensive for a man with a job; the sidevalve bikes were pretty cheap, and I never paid more than $15k for a Brough. Still, that was twice what I paid for my ’66 Velocette Thruxton the same year, but the same price as a new Harley with all the options. That Harley today is worth half today, while the Brough is worth 5x that, and only going up.

Not that money matters so much. Mark said, “It’s just a motorcycle – no matter how much they cost, they can be repaired. The point is to have a good time.” Mark is one of the good guys in the old motorcycle scene; generous and funny and crazy as a loon. To buy an old brand like Brough Superior and decide to revive it…that’s not rational. But, his mania has created some very cool motorcycles already, and perhaps I’ve misjudged him. Me, and the world.

So, what’s it like to ride a big Brough with the Southsiders? To get acquainted, first know that the left hand-grip controls the ignition advance, while the right one is the throttle – no tricks like an Indian, with its reversed controls. There’s a four-speed Norton gearbox, and a good Norton clutch, and pretty good 8” drum brakes front and back. It’s not heavy at 158kg, but it has a very long wheelbase at 1500mm, exactly the same as a bevel-drive Ducati 900SS of the 1970s, but 30kg lighter, and with a seat height of only 760mm. The 11-50 is long and low, with a wide tank holding 18L of fuel, and wide handlebars. The riding position is perfectly comfortable, with a big sprung saddle making up for the lack of springing at the back wheel. Starting is easy; turn on the fuel, tap the carb float until it floods, then kick the big 1100cc engine over. That’s not as hard as it sounds, as the compression is only 5:1, as it’s a sidevalve motor…but it produces around 50hp (hence the ’11-50’ name), and was tested near 100mph when new. The cams are surprisingly hot on these motors, so they move along well, but give a mellow chuff-chuff sound most of the time. The gearchange lever is too long, so you really have to lift your knee to change up, but otherwise everything is easy on this bike, it’s a big luxury machine and the details were sorted out a long time ago. This was the best you could buy in ’33, and it shows.

Out on the road, two-up with Susan through the mountains, I wasn’t going to thrash the old thing, but I wasn’t going to baby it either. Just a nice mellow ride at ¼ throttle, and an indicated 100-110kmh cruise. But we were passing a lot of bikes, and lost our friends for a while, until we stopped – our speedo was wrong, and our ‘easy cruise’ was more like 130-140kph. Oops. Flying the Brough flag, by accident. With so much torque, I hardly needed to change gear in the mountains, even in the tight corners; there was plenty of power to pull away, and after the first 80km, I was completely enjoying myself. The bike handled best when Susan crouched right behind me, and we could push the tires in the corners – then the breeding really showed up. As we descended the big mountain, I saw a pack of riders a kilo ahead, and decided to catch them; the curves were a bit more open, and the road well paved, so we really laid it on, opening the advance and the throttle together, while the engine’s mellow burble became a snarl, and we slalomed down the hill at a very fast pace. The pack ahead was a group of prewar BMW riders, and it felt good on the clattering old beast to roar past them in the corners. A very old rivalry, you see.

[Paul d’Orléans]
A great old motorcycle is a machine with huge character and charm; how an assembly of metal parts comes to have such identity is one of the world’s mysteries, but the big Brough was a great friend after two days’ riding, and I was sad to give her back. Many thanks to Mark and Christine Upham for the loan of their special bike, and to Vincent and the rest of the Southsiders for extending the hand of friendship all these years.

What’s not to love about riding in the magical Pyrenees? [Paul d’Orléans]