The Vintagent Road Tests come straight from the saddle of the world’s rarest motorcycles.  Catch the Road Test series here.

Too much tap, tap, tap on the Mac, not enough wrist-turning brrumm brrumm, makes Jack a dull lad. So, at the end of the northern hemisphere’s riding season, on a cool but clear morning in London’s Chelsea district, the offer of a road test on a nice old Brough Superior was like a cup of warm tea in cold hands: a very good idea.

George Brough delivered. The SS80 is a luxury motorcycle with exceptional performance, smoothness, quietness, and style in abundance. [Paul d’Orléans]
The machine in question wouldn’t win a Concours d’Elegance, as it has clearly been – whisper it – ridden quite a lot, and shows the inevitable road chips, cable rubs, and modest oxidation which grows unbidden even in the mildest of climates. Not to say it isn’t a beautiful machine, in lovely condition; this 1936 Brough Superior SS80 was restored 3000 miles ago by BS-guru Tony Cripps, and kept by a careful owner, to whom proper function was paramount. The result is a motorcycle which starts easily, doesn’t drag its clutch in traffic, and is smooth as pudding.

The post 1934 Brough Superior SS80 used the Matchless/AJS MX motor, a 3-cam design shared by the Matchless Model X (see our film ‘Model X’ here) [Paul d’Orléans]
The ‘Rolls Royce of Motorcycles’, as Broughs are famously called (mostly by George Brough – “vide The Motor Cycle”- on every piece of their advertising from 1926), is a slightly inaccurate comparison, as Rolls never had the sporting pretensions (in terms of racing) that Bentley was famous for, although the esteemed quality of finish and envy-able flashiness of a vintage Rolls is very Brough-like. Their prestige, and ever-high price, has ensured few Broughs ever met the scrap-man, evidenced by a remarkable 72percent survival rate for late SS80s…

The primary side of the SS80, showing the vulnerable position of the battery, and the tidy cast aluminum chaincase, which uses a pool of grease rather than oil for the chain – less leaks. [Paul d’Orléans]
As George Brough hitched his star to the RR name, that star dragged Broughs right out of their sporting pretensions by the early 1930s, and into the realm of the luxurious Grand Tourer. By the time our test machine was built, 1936, Brough had ceased using JA Prestwich’s racing v-twins, as they had never successfully evolved from their hairy racing heyday of the 1920s, and were simply too crude to install in a luxury machine. Matchless/AJS had developed a pair of powerful, smooth, mechanically quiet, reliable, and relatively oil-tight engines – a sidevalver and overhead-valve, the ‘MX’ models, both of 990cc – and while they weren’t racing engines (with a difficult-to-tune 3-lobe camshaft), they fitted the bill for a touring machine perfectly.

All sorts of competing transport in the early-morning London commute. [Paul d’Orléans]
The evolution of Brough Superiors reflected the life and personality of the man who made them; George Brough in the 1920s was a demon rider and serious moto-dandy, building the motorcycles he most wanted, which couldn’t be found elsewhere in 1919, when he embarked on Superiority. Until other makers began copying the B-S pattern (bulbous-nose saddle tanks, long chassis, big v-twin engine), the Brough was alone at the top of the heap, and in terms of its quality of finish, remained there until the end of production (nominally 1940, although a very few Broughs were assembled during the war, and after, from broken machines or old stock). But, after a few nasty spills in his sprinting days (51 wins out of 52 starts, plus FTD in his last race while sliding on his backside, requiring skin grafts and 8 months in hospital), George fully supported other’s efforts at taking major speed records with very special Broughs, but the motorcycles he sold lost their athletic edge… and began to gain weight.

The control room: Brough Superiors typically use inverted levers for the front brake (right) and valve lifter (left), with a standard lever for the clutch on the left handlebar. This machine uses a standard lever for the brake: you could order a BS any way you liked, so this might be original. [Paul d’Orléans]
This 1936 SS80 has, as mentioned, a 990cc ‘square’ (85.5×85.5mm) engine sourced from Matchless, which also saw service in their own ‘Model X’ (fantastic name; cape and mask included?), although GB specified knife-and-fork connecting rods, where the ‘X’ used them side-by-side. George ditched the SS80’s original JAP sv sports engine in 1935, and in five years, 460 MX-engined SS80s were sold (another 626 used the JAP engine, 1923-’34). All SS80’s were famously guaranteed capable of 80mph (these late ones more like 85mph), although a timing certificate from Brooklands might cost you an extra £10 over the £90 purchase price…which was already enough to buy a small house outside of London.

The clever cast valve adjuster covers, and magneto drive chaincase: branding opportunities! [Paul d’Orléans]
Starting the big and surprisingly wide machine was simplicity itself; turn on the tap, a dab at the ‘tickler’ on the carb, and put your weight on the long kick lever. Boom, first time. And every time. No valve lifter required, no knocking back the magneto timing – it never spat or kicked back or sneezed, just rumbled into life with a very pleasant rolling basso voice, and very little clickety-clack from the timing chest, more a rustle actually.

Cafe racer? Well, we did stop at a cafe… [Paul d’Orléans]
Pull in the very light clutch lever, snick the Sturmey-Archer/Norton gearbox into 1st, without a clunk or other drama (try that on your new BMW…), and the engine rumbles and give off hints at hidden power, while staying pleasantly smooth, and building up speed quickly. Broughs use close-ratio gears (same as a Norton Inter, actually), which means a low 1st, a big gap to second, and the other two not far off. On a big twin with plenty of torque, this doesn’t make sense, as there’s no need to play ‘tunes’ on a Brough gearbox, just stick it in a high gear and let the engine do the talking. But, it was the best gearbox available (just ask any Vincent ‘A’ twin owner their opinion of the Burman ‘box and clutch), and had a very ‘sporty’ spec.

Our Road Test coincided with an exhibition of the work of Conrad Leach’s ‘Paradise Lost’ exhibit at the Gauntlett Gallery in London. [Paul d’Orléans]
Having ignored the mag and valve levers to start the beast, it was possible to ignore a third, while running – the front brake, which was, like all Broughs with ‘Castle’ or ‘Monarch’ leading-link forks, almost useless. As the brake anchor must move with the front wheel, braking power is transmitted through two ‘link’ pivots, which takes out all the bite. Brough owners have gone to great lengths at times to improve the situation, but dramatic braking brings other problems, ie, very bent forks, as their tubing, while lovely, is hollow and thin-walled. Luckily the rear brake is excellent, but its best to plan your riding lines carefully to avoid the need for panic stops.

Such a handsome machine in any environment. [Paul d’Orléans]
The Brough sits low, with a very modest saddle height (27″), and a very long chassis (and 58″wheelbase). That grand 4.5gal fuel tank with twin filler caps is imposing and implies gravity, but the bicycle is surprisingly light for a big ‘un, at around 430lbs. It certainly feels light when pushing it around, although with a very limited steering lock (a necessity with that bulbous chrome tank) tight turnarounds mean a lot of to-and-fro. Once the engine is warm, the lubricant return is checked in the oil tank (via a handy return line just below the filler cap on the 6 pint tank), and the clutch is let go, the Brough feels tiny compared to a new touring machine, because it is. And, while a sidevalve engine is cherished by some for a soft, woolly power delivery, the old girl still picks up her skirts and hustles down the road. The gap between first and second gear is so great, you might think you’d skipped a couple and landed in top, as an upshift has the engine barely ticking over at 30mph. As the chassis is so long, bumps don’t throw the bike airborne, and the ride is surprisingly comfortable in that extra-wide sprung Lycett saddle.

An absolute pleasure to ride, even in the city. [Paul d’Orléans]
The Brampton-built ‘Monarch’ forks do their job well, and that looong frame makes a very stable ride, without compromising smooth cornering. Not that you’ll be scratching around corners…well actually you Will be before you know it, especially on left-handers, as the patented prop-stand bolted under the left footrest will dig into tarmac at fairly tame angles of lean. Banking right is a little better, but the low ground clearance (5″ from ground to frame tubes), combined with a hefty lug for the raised footrest hangers, mean you’re grinding away valuable metal before you expect, if you’re used to a true sporting bike, even from the era. The cornering limitations enforce a gentlemanly riding style, fast yes but no corner heroics, just a well-planned line (those brakes) around the bends, all very graceful and relaxed. With a little practice, you’ll be Broughing it in style in no time.

Riding the Brough Superior in very early morning London, near Sloane Square, is a pleasure. [Paul d’Orléans]
Its easy to scoff at the whole Brough ‘thing’; decades of embellishing tales (mostly from GB himself) turned some off even in the day, and the current high prices/ego purchases can be eye-rolling, but sweep the rubbish away, and what you have is a beautiful old motorcycle, built to be the best it could be by a demanding rider/designer/manufacturer, which was indeed better than its peers. Superior even.


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.
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