Not much is heard these days about Douglas motorcycles of Bristol, UK, but for two decades their motorcycles were ranked among the best and fastest on the planet.  Especially in the in the 1920s, Douglas racing machinery was among the most innovative in the world. They built the first 500cc motorcycle to record 100mph in the UK (1921), won many Isle of Man TT’s, and developed the first disc brakes. Shown in the photo below are two Douglas ‘RA’ racing models, after a race on a banked circuit. The ‘RA’ was so named after the Research Association, a group attempting to advance motorcycle technical development, and which created the disc brakes on these two machines. Hydraulic calipers, as used today on discs, weren’t developed yet (not until the late 1930s), so these used mechanical leverage with a steel ‘shoe’ that pressed onto the v-shaped disc, which was made of friction material – the opposite of today. Still, they were much better brakes than the ‘dummy rim’ type on most British and European motorcycles of the day – basically a flimsy secondary wheel rim attached to the spokes, onto which a shoe of friction material is pressed (a design cribbed from horse-drawn carriages!).

A very rare shot at a board track in the USA circa 1923: a pair of Douglas RA racers. Ron Hipwell rides #16, while American rider Ralph Hepburn congratulates him. [The Vintagent Archive]

These RAs would have run on alcohol, and in full flight would have probably hit 110 mph; this is 1924. Amazingly, similar 1920s racing Douggies are still used in competition today, albeit in vintage sprint meetings, where they win regularly against bikes from the 1960s and 70s, pulling 1/4 mile times in the 11sec. range.  As a side note, I love the old one-marque sweaters which were fashionable in the ‘Teens and Twenties, probably knit by a sympathetic mother. If you look closely at the lettering on the right rear mechanic, it’s a different font from all the other ‘Douglas’. Also, the American rider is wearing a football helmet, which was a common sight on board track and dirt track racing in the USA.


Paul d’Orléans is the founder of He is an author, photographer, filmmaker, museum curator, event organizer, and public speaker. Check out his Author Page, Instagram, and Facebook.