By David Jackson

It is said no plans survive first contact with reality, and for me things started to go wrong from day one. It was the 90th birthday of my Brough Superior SS80 and I planned to celebrate with a 2,000 mile trip around Portugal and Italy. I’ve got to know the foibles of this bike after 15 years of ownership and thought I’d been pretty thorough, having rebuilt the mag, replaced tyres and chains, checked and greased suspension, replaced cables, etc.  I’d put around 300 miles on her around my home town of Hay in the Welsh borders without a hitch and even the dynamo seemed to be generating a feeble but optimistic glow.

David Jackson’s 1931 Brough Superior SS80 is a very hi-spec model, with JAP KTC motor, Bentley&Draper rear suspension and Castle forks – rare options for the SS80 model that provide a very comfortable ride and excellent roadholding, but limited ground clearance. [David Jackson]
I was cheating a bit – my friend Russell seems to enjoy driving and had taken the bike, together with 8 others, to Porto in a truck. We only had to jump on an Easyjet and meet him there.  What I didn’t know was that Portugal did not accept the NHS Covid certificate and I was turned away at the gate. An uncomfortable night in the van at Bristol Airport followed, after which I got tested, and another flight to Lisbon the following day. I had to try to figure out how I could get to Porto, find my bike and catch up with the rest of the group. It had been left at a farm house just outside the city, so after an anxious journey by taxi, tram, tube and train I finally got started by late afternoon, about 8 hours behind the pack.

A clever idea that didn’t work: wedging the valve cap in place with pieces of wood. Even the low compression of the sidevalve engine was enough to blow them out. [David Jackson]
My head was pounding without sleep, but I thought I’d try to get two hours riding in before dark. The other riders I figured were about 150 miles north over the border with Spain. There was no way I’d get there that night, but decided the next day to head 200 miles straight to the north eastern town of Chaves where they were due the following night and I could stage a surprise interception. After all that hassle perhaps I would only lose a day’s riding. I found a hostel and feeling relieved to be finally making progress, crashed into bed. It was so deep a sleep I was oblivious to the pounding of the overnight rain and the next day saw the place enveloped in cloud and drizzle, every bit as cold as home. One of the features of my Lucas mag is a mysterious short to the frame in bad weather, and Vaseline in great dollops around the pickup is the only cure. I’m still nervous about the magneto in the rain, and I must have slathered on half a tub before I set off that morning. Despite all I was feeling rested and very positive, determined to make the hero’s entrance at the hotel that night. All the same, alone and abroad on an old bike in the cold and wet with no phone reception, every squeak and rattle begins to sound ominously threatening.

Riding a vintage V-twin through the mountains is an experience one remembers for a lifetime. [David Jackson]
The north of Portugal is not the Algarve; it is mountainous, thickly forested with spruce trees and has some excellent motorcycling roads which are largely free from traffic. Roads climb and plunge through steep valleys as high as 1000metres and I could really feel the engine richening up, losing power it really couldn’t afford. Throughout the day the rain continued and at times visibility fell to just a couple of hundred yards, but the Brough plodded along happily and I began to feel like I was on holiday. The JAP SS80 engine was already obsolete by 1931. It is a 1000 cc side valve total loss design generating something like 25hp, which consumes about a pint of oil every 100 miles depending how you set the pilgrim pump. The bike itself is a handsome but long slow steering machine of about 220 kgs, with very poor ground clearance. First to ground is the nut securing the footrest, which I’ve learned to use as a kind of skid providing feedback in a corner. They rarely last longer than a day so I always keep a handful in my pocket. Such an underpowered heavy bike with a hand change Sturmey-Archer three-speed gearbox makes the Brough a handful in mountainous terrain. Steep descents depend heavily on engine braking in second.  Regular dabbing of the back brake helps, but over use quickly leads to fade and the effects of the front brake are barely discernible.  The only thing to do is to plan far ahead, hope the unexpected doesn’t happen and if things get out of hand look for somewhere soft to bail out.

The replacement valve cap in situ, also showing the external shift mechanism of the Sturmey-Archer 3-speed gearbox (an ‘ankle shifter’). [David Jackson]
The knack of getting the best out of the engine is not to overfeed it with fuel, but to aid its digestion by regular use of the advance retard lever. A hill start for instance means a burst in first at full advance, followed by a panicky hand shift to second, then full retard for a slow pick up gradually advancing the spark as the engine begins to speed up. Missing second is easily done, after which you just grind to a halt and repeat.  Uphill switchbacks and hairpins offer a unique challenge; swing it around in second with as much speed as you dare, move to full retard, try to keep momentum and hang off the bike to minimise lean angle whilst trailing a shower of sparks from the unfortunate footrest nut.  None of this would have featured in George Brough’s promotional material, but then neither do I ride in with a tie, a Fair Isle sweater and a pipe. With only 20 miles to go, disaster struck. A sharp crack from the engine halfway around a corner and I immediately lost power. Pulling over I noticed a hole in the top of the cylinder – one of the “fir cone” valve coolers had blown off. This was bad news – even if I managed to find the thing it was most likely to have stripped its alloy threads which screw into the harder cast iron head. After a short search by the roadside I found it and sure enough only a couple of threads were intact. I screwed the cooler back in as best I could knowing it wouldn’t last long, and within a mile sure enough it blew again, this time ripping off what remained of the threads. Being so close I was determined to make it to the hotel under my own steam, nursing the bike along at 20-30 mph on one pot. One cylinder pulled okay without it having to fight the compression of the other but with a hole to atmosphere downstream of the carb I was very wary of it offering too weak a mixture and potentially damaging the front pot too.

Repaired an under way! Testing the Brough Superior’s road-holding around mountain corners on the MotoGiro. [David Jackson]
I arrived in a haze of smoke and oil, relieved to be amongst friends and we set about thinking about how to repair the cooler. It’s not a complicated thing – a large 2 inch diameter alloy nut with 16 tpi threads would do the trick – something which could easily be knocked up in 30 minutes on a lathe. The best idea came from Nick, a carpenter by trade, who thought he could hold the old cooler in place with wooden wedges placed between it and the bottom of the tank. The hotel staff kindly obliged and we set to work in their workshop. By 10pm that night Nick had quite skilfully put together a series of interlocking blocks holding the cone in place and I tightened the tank down to increase the pressure on the top of the cone. It was a crackpot idea but the best we had. I took a tentative swing on the kickstart. Suffice to say an explosion at 6 bar of compression smashed the whole lot to pieces and I was lucky not to ruin my fuel tank. It was not to be. Accepting defeat we loaded the broken Brough on the truck and I joined a couple of other casualties in a hired Fiat Panda. Stewart had fried the ignition on his 1960s MV Augusta and Clive had seized the engine on his Triumph Terrier. We had a pleasant couple of days touring the spectacular Douro Valley in our Panda jealously watching the other riders enjoying themselves.

MotoGiro particpants: combined age 260 years for a pair of Rudge Ulsters and the 1931 Brough Superior SS80. Vintage motorcycling at its best. [David Jackson]
My thoughts were turning to the next leg: the Motogiro Rally of Italy which was beginning just over a week later.  I really wanted to take the Brough – it would be its third completed Motogiro and it had become a bit of a celebrity there. Most Italians have heard of Lawrence of Arabia and it always seems to attract attention. I spoke to Mark Upham in Austria and he agreed to send a couple of fir cones out straight away, but you can never tell with post Brexit customs and I wasn’t sure I’d get them in time. I decided to get one made anyway and I watched fascinated as my local machine shop knocked one up in about 20 minutes. It was big and ugly, but it did the job and a week later, thanks again to Russell and his truck, there I was in Rimini on the Adriatic coast ready to start stage two. The Motogiro d’Italia has been an annual fixture since the 1950s, originally established to race small capacity Italian machines over 1000 miles of the toughest terrain in Italy. It is still a big deal: the organisers select different courses each year and carefully signpost the route ahead. There are stops organised roughly every hour, and local people come out in force to spoil us with pizza, cakes and sandwiches, often in beautiful medieval squares otherwise closed to traffic. Oh and wine, from 10 am throughout the day. A few mounted Carabinieri police accompany us, often shepherding us through traffic with sirens blazing. It all makes you feel very special.

Wild in the streets: the Brough leads a Rudge Ulster through a town on the MotoGiro. [David Jackson]
Nowadays bikes of all ages are welcomed but its heart is still old 1950s Italian tiddlers, and the winner must come from a prescribed list of machines. Around 20-30 Brits made it this year out of, I guess, about 120 riders from all over Europe and the US. A special “vintage” pre-war category had been created for me and Jeremy, also from Hay, who rides a 1936 Rudge Ulster. Jeremy and I tend to ride together but are fiercely competitive and up to this year had each won it once. Another Brit joined us in the vintage category also on a Rudge together with a nice old Italian on an a Moto Guzzi Falcone. By the end of the first day the Italian was way ahead of us on points and we guessed this year he was pre-destined to win. It’s a mystery, but it often seems to work that way. With apologies to George again I have to say a 1936 Rudge Ulster is streets ahead of a 1931 Brough Superior both in design and quality. A drip free alloy cast primary drive, four overhead valves, a four speed foot change box, a circulating oil system, interlinked brakes which work, a light short wheelbase flickable frame, about 10hp more from half the capacity and a bike you could buy for a fifth of the price. I could go on. But as Richard Thomson says it doesn’t have the soul of a Brough 31.

A Triumph Terrier under a punishing rally schedule and torturous roads? Only for the brave (ie, Clive). [David Jackson]
The first day was a wash out. It rained torrentially and got worse the higher we climbed. Off the main highways the roads were in dreadful condition, with large land slips to the sides, strange undulating ripples and huge nut crunching potholes often lurking around blind bends. Choose your line and speed on the Brough and you must stick to it, whatever lies ahead. A dry afternoon spell brightened things up until – wham! – the front end washed out and I found myself sliding across the oncoming lane at 20 mph towards the Armco.  The brunt of the damage was to my dignity and the poor old footrest, but looking at the road, my speed and impact point I can honestly say there seemed no reason why it happened. I don’t mind falling off due to my own idiocy but its unsettling when you suddenly find yourself on your arse and don’t know why. A lorry was labouring uphill and 20 seconds later I would have been under its wheels. On the first day too – but either I was going to spend the next six days worrying myself into a neurotic mess or I was going to pretend it never happened. I banned Jeremy from laughing about it until after the trip and we carried on.

An impressive Doric facade dwarfs a legion of riders, but that’s Italy – the architecture is amazing. This is likely a pagan temple converted to a church perhaps 1800 years ago. [David Jackson]
Who else should be at the start line by the way but Clive on his Terrier, who had found an equally knackered spare engine on his shed shelf and hastily installed it for Italy. Whatever my woes, I always consoled myself that Clive’s lot was infinitely worse. A big man, he was always to be found in the 121st position of the pack, hunched mournfully over his machine labouring up yet another mountain billowing smoke. Each night found him spannering in the car park, head and piston akimbo and surrounded by helpful advice. A sheared rocker feed and lost cover ended with him directly injecting oil into the exposed valve springs by syringe every ten miles or so. I’m surprised that wasn’t a feature of JAPs. The next six days blended into a whirlwind of magnificent countryside, good weather and ancient but seldom visited Italian towns. Some days were as long as 8-9 hours riding, with little time to grab a sandwich en-route. The condition of the roads, together with the fact that you are always busy on a Brough, left little chance to look up and enjoy the scenery. The relentless pace of the event is perhaps its only drawback, but the compensation is that you don’t have to map read and are led through some marvellous country which few visitors know exist. We criss-crossed the Apennines  numerous times, from the Adriatic to the Med, back and forth, up and down, at one time through the snowline with the temperature falling to 3 degrees. Altitude stretched the Brough’s slender reserves of power to its limit, and at one stage it refused to pull in top gear at all.

Twisting roads though the Italian hills are the norm on the Motogiro. [David Jackson]
No day was entirely incident free. I snapped my rear brake cable twice, one of the things I’d carefully made up in my shed before the trip. The bike is hair raising enough with a rear brake, but losing it adds entirely new layers of excitement. Without brakes you have to time your entry onto an Italian roundabout between vehicles, as if you were shuffling a deck of cards. A mountainous descent felt like a dance with death. I kept thinking about pilots on the western front, fluttering to earth in a spinning string bag and how much worse life was for them.  Jeremy and I tried our best to make another cable, only for it to fail again. I don’t know the reason why, the frayed soldered thistle just pulled its way out of the nipple on both occasions. Perhaps I’d been using softer electrical solder, it’s something I will look into. At one stage we were concerned that Nawal, the other guy with a Rudge and aged in his 70s, had failed to appear by 9pm. It had got dark three hours earlier, he had lost the course, fallen off and smashed his helmet visor. His eyes streaming with cold he had navigated home on mountain tracks using the light from his phone.  We had to laugh. There is a special bond which develops between people on the Giro and by the end of it you feel you have been in a bubble of kind, funny, adventurous, like-minded people you are sad to see go.

In the end, it’s all about the connections you make with people that make international travel rewarding. [David Jackson]
Finally the last day came, my rear brake cable snapped once more and it was with relief and exhaustion that the bike and I plodded over the finish line back at Rimini. The poor old girl had completed 1100 miles in 6 days on terrible roads, was starting to oil its plugs and misfire, was burning a lot more oil than usual and was generally ready to give up. It felt like I’d been bullying an elderly dowager through an assault course and she seemed not to appreciate her birthday treat.  I myself may never walk normally again. But the prize for sheer British pluck must go to the indefatigable Clive and his Terrier, whose arrival in that tell-tale cloud of blue smoke was heralded by applause and back slapping from all nationalities. He looked ready to throw the bloody thing in a skip. The best bit? I beat Jeremy on points.


For more on Brough Superiors, check our many articles on the subject here.

For info on riding the MotoGiro d’Italia, click here.

David Jackson is a long-time Brough Superior enthusiast living in England.
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