It was the first ‘battle of Britain’, and a prelude to the steamroller of history that would soon overtake all the participants. The garlands accorded the World Motorcycle Speed Record holder in the years before WW2 became arguably more important than race wins for publicity, as there was no proper world championship series in the Grand Prix scene, but everyone knew who was fastest.  Still, only a few factories invested the time in developing their machinery for a top-speed run, and the best results were gained using road- or track-racing engines in a modified chassis.  BMW used its supercharged road racer engines (at first the WR750 pushrod engines, then their OHC 500cc motor) in longer frames with metal cladding, then developed fully enclosed streamlining by the mid-1930s.  Gilera used its supercharged GP racing supercharged DOHC four-cylinder in streamlined bodywork. The British contingents – Brough Superior, Zenith, OEC, and AJS – tended to use standard frames (except OEC) with minimal streamlining, and relied on supercharged JAP pushrod v-twin engines (except AJS, who designed an OHC v-twin that was unsuccessful, but gorgeous). [For more on all these, see our series ‘Absolute Speed, Absolute Power’]
Joe Wright streaking down the straight highway between the towns of Montlhéry and Arpajon, France, in 1930, aboard the supercharged OEC-Temple-JAP, taking the World Land Speed Record at 130mph.  The white ‘stripes’ on his clothing are strips of tape! Used to prevent his clothing flapping in the wind, and causing wind drag. [Hockenheim Museum Archive]
1930 was a banner year for Land Speed Racing, as the absolute World Record swapped continents four times, between three different makes!  The final record taken in that frenzied year was a significant advance on Ernst Henne’s 137.58mph record achieved on his BMW only weeks prior, at Ingolstadt, Germany.  On 6th November, Joseph S. Wright rode a motorcycle powered by a supercharged JAP 994cc engine to 150.7mph down a stretch of rod-straight concrete pavé of the Carrigrohane straight, just outside Cork, Ireland.  It’s a record that’s still published in the official FIM register, but that account is dead wrong.  Not the speed, nor the man who made the record, nor the place it was taken, but the make of the machine on which he took the record is still recorded as ‘OEC-Temple-JAP’, but that was a convenient lie perpetrated on that November day by all present – including the FIM timekeepers – for understandable reasons.  Understandable, but still wrong.

Joe Wright’s successful bid for the World Land Speed Record on the Arpajon straight in 1930, seen here at the final timing section of the flying kilometer and mile section, as sanctioned by the Motorcycle Club de France. Amazingly, spectators and press are behind a fence – a rare concession to safety in an era with no regulations [Hockenheim Museum Archive]
Joe Wright had in fact taken the Motorcycle Land Speed Record with the same OEC-Temple-JAP on August 31st 1930, at Arpajon, France, at 137.32mph.  Less than a month later, Ernst Henne and his BMW had the cheek to snatch the record by a mere .3mph, on September 20th.  In answer, the Brits were determined to bump up the record significantly, and set about increasing the power of their supercharged JAP 994cc motors (nearly 250cc bigger than the BMW, but there were no capacity limits for the absolute speed record) to 85hp @6000rpm.  They also added a few simple streamlining modifications, like tiny aluminum fairings, tape(!) over fork tubes, disc rear wheel covers, metal shrouds around the engine cases, a streamlined helmet, and careful attention to the pathetically unsafe riding gear of their very brave rider, Joe Wright. Period films at the next attempt at Cork show the team mechanic using friction tape on Wright’s knitted wool sweater to keep it tight to his body in a bid to reduce air resistance.

Joe Wright being ‘taped up’ in preparation for his 150mph record run at Cork – note the tape already across his chest; it was also applied around his wrists, arms, and legs! He’s also wearing a ‘kidney belt’ to support his back (and insides) on the bumpy, semi-airborne ride he experienced with his rigid-frame motorcycle. [Hockenheim Museum Archive]
The O.E.C. (Osborn Engineering Company) had an unusual chassis, using its trademark ‘Duplex’ steering system, which steers via parallel upright tubes connected by substantial links. The forward tubes house springs, and the front axle slides up and down in slots in the tube, which negates the changes to wheelbase and trail endemic to both girder and telescopic forks. The advantage of this arcane steering system was great stability at speed, and front wheel suspension that didn’t alter the steering geometry when compressed by bumps, thus providing ‘neutral’ steering under all conditions. In practical use, the OEC chassis was incredibly stable, although resistant to steering input from the rider! So, while potholes and broken surfaces brought no front wheel deflection, neither did a hard push on the handlebars.  When asked to steer, it responded like Melville’s ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’, and simply ‘preferred not to’. Perfect for a high-speed straight-line chassis, actually.

Joe Wright in 1930 at the Montlhery speed bowl (see our film here), testing for the full-speed run on the Arpajon straightaway nearby [Hockenheim Museum Archive]
Regardless the OEC’s suitability and prep for the record, a pair of machines was present at Cork that November day in 1930; the OEC that had been prepared by veteran speed tuner Claude Temple, and a ‘reserve’ machine in case it all went pear-shaped. The second-string machine was a supercharged Zenith-JAP, of similar engine configuration to the OEC, but in a mid-1920s Zenith ‘8/45’ racing chassis, on which Joe Wright had done considerable track time at Brooklands.  But the illustrious Zenith marque was out of business in 1930, a victim of the Depression, so could provide no sponsorship to the record attempt, nor gain valuable publicity from a successful run, nor pay bonuses or salaries for any helpful staff who built/maintained the machine. While Zenith would be rescued from the trashbin of bankruptcy in a few months, and carry on making motorcycles until 1948, the reorganized company did not include its former star-making General Manager Freddie Barnes, never ever sponsored another race team, attempt, or rider.

Joe Wright at Brooklands ca.1928, aboard the unsupercharged version of his racing Zenith, while he rode under the tutelage of Zenith maestro Freddie Barnes. Zeniths gained more ‘Gold Stars’ for 100+mph laps at Brooklands than any other make, and Wright had considerable experience with his Zenith at Brooklands. [Hockenheim Museum Collection]
November 6th was an unlucky day for the OEC, as the Woodruff key fixing the drive sprocket to the crankshaft sheared off, and the OEC was unable to complete the required two-direction timed runs to take the Record.  The engine shaft drove the supercharger as well as the primary chain/gearbox, and was a one-off for which there was presumably no replacement, and there was no time to repair the damage.

A compelling shot of Joe Wright on the Arpajon straight on the OEC, with Claude Temple adjusting the machine he’d developed and tuned for land speed racing.  Temple had himself held the World Land Speed Record in 1923 (108.48mph), aboard the Temple-Anzani double-overhead camshaft V-twin he’d developed, which was sadly destroyed in the National Motorcycle Museum fire in 2003.  The collection of vertical tubing seen here is the ‘Duplex’ steering system typical of OEC. [Hockenheim Museum Archive]
With the OEC out of action, and FIM timekeepers being paid by the day, as well as the complicated arrangements with the city of Cork to close their road (and presumably police the area), a World Speed Record was an expensive proposition for a small, private team.  Thus having a ‘backup bike’ was a sensible preparation, although this attempt at Cork may have been the only instance in which the second-string racer was of a completely different make! Imagine Ernst Henne bringing a supercharged DKW as a backup in case his BMW broke; simply unthinkable!

The evidence (1): Wright sits his OEC, which has been further modified from its Arpajon form with minimal streamlining to the forks, frame, and engine casings, with a small fairing added atop the forks. Wright’s supercharged Zenith sits behind the OEC, clearly visible with its own minimal streamlining; note especially the distinctive square fairing panel on the front forks. [Hockenheim Museum Archive]
But, the British motorcycle industry at the time was very close-knit, sharing both engine tuners and riders, and the factories competing for top speed glory were very small – the annual output of Zenith, Brough Superior, and OEC combined probably equalled a month’s production at BMW, or less. They competed on friendly terms for national prestige, while the largest British factories (BSA, Triumph, Ariel), nearly ignored speed competitions such as the Grands Prix and Land Speed racing. Plus, the successful speed merchants used the same engine – JAP pushrod v-twins – so a tuner could easily take development ideas from one make to the next.  Thus at Cork, the engine for the OEC was in the same configuration and state of tune as the Zenith, and both had a chance at the record, as events would prove.

The Evidence (2): Wright’s Zenith being prepared by a pensive looking mechanic in the same location at Cork for the record run, after the OEC was out of action. Note the taped-up fork blades, crude enigne fairings, and disc rear wheel cover. [Hockenheim Museum Archive]
In the event, Wright did indeed set a new Motorcycle Land Speed Record with his trusty Zenith at 150.7mph, although the press photographs and film crews of the time were solely focused on the magnificent but ill-fated OEC, as Zenith was out of business and OEC paying the bills. Film footage of the record run clearly show it’s the Zenith at speed, and the OEC is nowhere but in the set-up shots. Scandalously, everyone present at Cork played along with the misdirection that the OEC had been the machine burning up the timing strips, and the Zenith was quickly hidden away from history, a situation which still exists in the FIM record books!

The Evidence (3): period photos of the record run at Cork, including film archives, show the Zenith at speed, not the OEC. Note the square metal fairing on the forks – this is Wright taking the record [Hockenheim Museum Archive]
Photographs from the actual event show the Zenith lurking in the background, while Joe Wright poses on the OEC, preparing himself for a blast of 150mph wind by taping his leather gloves to his hard-knit woolen sweater, and wrapping more tape around his turtleneck and ankles to stop the wind stretching them, and dragging down his top speed. His custom-made teardrop aluminum helmet is well-documented, but the protective abilities of his woolen trousers and sweater at such a speed are dubious at best…but there were no safety requirements in those days, you risked your neck and that was that. Nowadays such speeds are easily reached on a hot road bike, and Wright’s efforts might seem quaint, but he was exploring the outer boundaries of motorcycling at the time, and was a very brave man.

A clearly uncomfortable Joe Wright with the OEC at the Olympia Motorcycle Show in 1930, with the OEC touted as the World Record holder, which it was not! But OEC was in business, while Zenith was temporarily out of business [Hockenheim Museum Archive]
Of course, not everyone present was comfortable with deception, and letters from the period in the trade magazines made a note that the attribution was incorrect. The subject would come up decades later in the ‘letters’ page of the VMCC magazine, when the existence of the record-breaking Joe Wright Zenith was discussed, and one correspondent set the record straight. The location of the Wright Zenith was a rumor for decades, but the passage of time revealed its existence, and now the bike is in fully restored condition, and is occasionally shown at events.  The OEC is also in fully restored condition, after a long life of modifications; after Cork it was sold to a team who used it as a mule for a supercharged Austin four-cylinder engine in an unsuccessful record run. The chassis was later stretched and installed i

n ‘streamliner’ bodywork by Bob Berry, and sat in the Pendine Museum for many years. While that bodywork is in its original form, the OEC chassis was rebuilt, and the machine is in its original ‘Montlhéry’ configuration.  Both the OEC and the Zenith are World Speed Record holders, but if motorcycles could talk, I bet the Zenith would have something to say to the OEC…

The supercharged World Land Speed Record Zenith-JAP as it exists today [Hockenheim Museum Collection]

The OEC-Temple-JAP at the 2014 Concorso di Villa d’Este, where it appeared in a remarkable display of World Speed Record motorcycles of the 1920s and ’30s. [BMW Classic / Concorso Villa d’Este]
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