The Mar. 19, 1936 edition of The Motor Cycle included this intriguing story of a future motorcycle ride, with famous brands of the day – Norton, Rudge, B.S.A., Triumph, Scott, Sunbeam – that have all evolved different power sources, including steam and electric. The story is possibly a response to the first-ever road test of an electric production motorcycle earlier that year, of the Belgian Socovel electric scooter, which the magazine called ‘gentlemanly in every aspect.’  Food for thought for a writer with a bent on prognosticating…and the scenario imagined here could in fact be from 2020!

The fabulous hand-drawn Art Deco lettering of the original 1936 article in The Motor Cycle magazine. [Vintagent Archive]

Shilling in the Slot

An Imaginative Tale of Motorcycling in the Year 1986, by K. Fairfoul

Bill Sanders, the club secretary, shut off his engine and swirled into the forecourt of the Eastern Counties M.C.C.’s headquarters, and pulled up alongside a little group of men and machines.  Ironical cheers greeted his arrival.

“What ho! Here’s the Sec. and his kettle.”

“Tea-water boiled yet, Bill?”

A club secretary is used to this sort of greeting. Sanders merely grinned and hauled his B.S.A. steamer on its stand.

“If some of you explosion merchants kept pace with the times and tried steam you’d get along faster than you do.”

Jimmy Farrant, one of the internal-combustion die-hards, eyed a thin wisp of steam that curled upwards from the B.S.A.’s condenser with grim disfavour.

“You’ve got a leaky gasket there. ‘Pon my word, I don’t know what this game is coming to. It’s steam, steam, or Government Power all the time.  Nowadays half the boys don’t know the difference between a camshaft and a gear box. All they seem to care about appears to be squirting oil into a burner or putting a shilling in a slot and twisting a grip.”

The future imagined by a motorcycle designer, Laurie Jenks, who actually built his ideal machine, the Mercury: read about it here. [Hockenheim Museum Archive]

Self-change Gears

“Not quite so bad as that yet, Jimmy,” said the Sec. “There’s just as much to play about with in a steam motor as in a petrol bike. I thoroughly agree with you about Government Power , though.  The fellows who use that are beyond the pale. Thank goodness none of our boys have fallen for it yet.  Anyway, there’s as many petrol bikes about as any other type.”

Jimmy groaned. “And what bikes! When Norton went over to four-cylinder two strokes and self-changing gears they knocked the bottom out of the game. I bet I get a bigger kick out of that old ’36 Norton, that was doing duty in a field as a scarecrow until I picked it up, than any of you chaps with your modern machines.  That old bus was doing seventy during the Old Crocks race at Brooklands last week.  When your bikes are fifty years of do you think they’ll do that? Not on your life!”

The exponents of modern design were joining forces to tear the diehard to pieces when the arrival of the captain provided a diversion.  His totally enclosed Ariel swept up, dropped is retractable side-wheels, and came to an upright standstill. He swung back the transparent cockpit cover and stepped out.

“Hullo, you fellows, rowing again?”

Jimmy grunted. “I’m merely telling all you steam and two-stroke merchants where you get off. I’m all for the good old days of singles and camshafts.”

“Well, what with steam and Government Power, i.c. motors would only be seen in South Kensington Museum nowadays if it wasn’t for the two-strokes,” said the captain. “Look at that mass of fiddley bits on your Norton.  Yet even in its prime that old single could whip up the horses of my two-stroke ‘four’ of half the size.”

“That’s the stuff, Skipper,” cut in the Sec.,  “let him have it.”

“The amazing thing is,” continued the captain, “that old brigade had the key to real power under their hands for nearly forty years before they discovered they’d got it. About the only use they had for a two-stroke was in a potter-bus. Why, it wasn’t until that four-cylinder Scott wiped up the field in the 1948 Senior T.T. that the boys started talking in terms of end-to-end scavenging and multi-stage supercharging.  You read the moor cycling history and find out.”

“Carry on, Skipper,” said somebody. “What happened after that?”

“Why, Nortons and Rudges and the rest of the pack found that they couldn’t get anywhere near those Scotts, so they scrapped everything they’d done and started designing all over again. They had to. Nortons brought out a four-cylinder supercharged two-stroke, which was something on the lines of an old D.K.W. that was running in 1936, except that the Norton had four cylinders and self-changing gears.  Douglases designed an axial five-cylinder swash-plate job with the whole unit lying horizontally in the frame. And Rudges abandoned internal-combustion engines altogether and came out with the first steamer.”

What the Future looked like in 1935, courtesy Meccano magazine: enormous monowheels, which crop up regularly even today! [Vintagent Archive]

“Government Power”

“Between them they swept the board, and everyone else fell into line.  B.S. A.s and Triumphs went over to steam and the rest to two-strokes.  Ten years later the only four-strokes were side-valve potter-buses. Funny how things move in circles, isn’t it?”

There was a hum of rubber tyres on the road, and a yell of horror interrupted the yarn.

“Hey, look at that bike Harrison’s just brought along. It’s running on Government Power!”

All eyes turned to look at a black-and-gold Sunbeam that had glided silently up to the group. It was entirely sheathed in metal and beautifully streamlined.  The only outward proof of its propulsion was a small slot in the instrument panel.  Harrison detached himself from his machine and addressed the clubmen with lofty condescension.

“Well, what do you think of my new bus? She’s one of the first Show models on the road. Marvelous bike!”

The clubmen were speechless.

“Oh, I know exactly what you’re thinking,” went on the heretic, “but you take my word for it that there will be nothing else on the road in a year or two.  It knocks all your old-fashioned bikes into a cocked hat. Do you know that if I give it full throttle the acceleration is enough to rip most of the tread from the rear tyre?  Come and have a look.”

He opened an inspection door in the metal shell, revealing a large electric motor driving the rear wheel direct by shaft.  Mounted above the motor was a box containing a complicated mass of electrical mechanism.

“That’s all there is,” he said. “The Government power stations transmit electric power in teh form of wireless waves, and this arrangement here picks it up, rectifies it back into ordinary current, and passes it into the motor. The beauty of it all is that you pay for your power through this slot meter in the instrument panel.  As soon as you run through twenty units you pop in another shilling an carry one. No fooling about with garages or running out of fuel miles from anywhere. Anyhow, the Government is selling its power as cheap as dirt.”

2020 nailed in 1930! Ladies on their mobile phones, chatting with beaus or babies, just like today. From a remarkable set of collector cards out of Germany, from the margarine company Echte Wagner. The back of the card reads, “Wireless Private Phone and Television. Everyone now has their own transmitter and receiver and can communicate with friends and relatives. But the television technology has also improved so much that people can speak to each other in real time. Transmitters and receivers are no longer bound to their location, but are always placed in a box of the size of a camera.” [Vintagent Archive]

Not So Good!

“Of course, they are,” growled Jimmy. “It’s all a gigantic stung.  Power will be cheap until all the petrol and steam motors are driven off the road, and then the Government will be able to do what it likes.  Why, ever since motoring began Governments have tried entirely to control it, and now it looks as if they are going to be nearer to doing so than ever before.”

“Oh well,” said Harrison, “I think I’ll be getting along.  I just thought I’d drop in to show you a decent bike.”  He straddled the Sunbeam and gave the clubmen an airy wave of his hand. “Cheerio!”  He twisted his grip slightly and the machine ghosted away.  After a dozen yards or so it came to a standstill again.  The clubmen strolled over.

“Anything the matter?” enquired Jimmy.

“Only run out of power,” said Harrison. “Now note the ease of it all. If I had been one of you fellows I should probably have had to walk a mile or so to the nearest garage.  As it is, all I have to do is to put a shilling in the slot.”  He fumbled in his pocket and pulled out a handful of silver and copper.  For a moment he sorted the coins over.  “I say, and any of you fellows change half-a-crown?”

The clubmen felt in their pockets and withdrew a miscellaneous collection of money.  Then they smirked at each other.

“Hasn’t anyone got a bob?” moaned Harrison.

Nobody had a shilling!

Georges Roy in 1928 with his New Motorcycle, a unique design with monocoque chassis. His Majestic would be even more radical in appearance: perfect for a steamer, multi-cylinder two-stroke, or even Government Power! Read more about the Majestic here. [Hockenheim Museum Archive]
Notes: In 1936, who would have imagined that 50 years later, in 1986, there would be no British motorcycle industry at all? The story gets a few things right, as advanced four-cylinder two-strokes dominated Grand Prix racing by 1986, producing far more power than any other engine type.  Electric motorcycles were nowhere though, and are still struggling with enough staying power for long rides.  If motorcycles could tap into Government Power running on the airwaves, all those battery issues would be solved, and electric motorcycles would surely dominate the market.  A charming ‘what if’ story, in any case.

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