Moto Major: Italy Reinvents the Motorcycle

During the long history of the motorcycle, very few designers have managed to realize exceptional fantasies as production motorcycles: they almost always remain as prototypes, left to us as beguiling 'what ifs'.  Such is the fate of the fantastic Moto Major, created in 1947 by Piedmontese engineer Salvatore Maiorca, which never ceases to create a stir.  The Moto Major has been featured in BikeExif, voted Best of Show at the Concorso Eleganza Villa d'Este in 2018, and is currently presented (from this November 29, to March 30, 2020) at the National Museum of the Automobile in Compiègne (France) as part their exhibit 'Concept Car: Pure Beauty.' 

Imagine the reaction of the Italian public at the Milan show of April 1948, discovering this futuristic motorcycle, with graceful fully enclosed bodywork, and without even spoked wheels. [Francois-Marie Dumas]
Fantastic, surreal, futuristic and yet very a product of its time, the Moto Major originated as an extraordinary styling exercise at an aerodynamic research facility. Its development was very costly, and financed in the immediate post-war period by Aeritalia in Turin, a subsidiary of Fiat that offered Salvatore Maiorca its industrial resources. The Italian car and aircraft giant knew and trusted Maiorca to explore a possible FIAT motorcycle.  This was  the second time FIAT expressed an interest in motorized two-wheelers: their first experience was a scooter designed in 1938, which proved very similar to a Piaggio prototype from 1945, the Paperino.

From every angle, the Moto Major is stunning, and compelling. The sole prototype remains in original and unrestored condition. [Giorgio Sarti]
While it may have been shaped in a wind tunnel, the Moto Major did not emerge in a vacuum.  Its themes of total enclosure combined with aerodynamic streamlining were au courant in the 1930s, and after the interruption of WW2, surviving designers were eager to put their ideas into metal.

The incredible bodywork of Louis Lucien Lepoix's personal BMW R12, built in 1947. Read more about Lepoix here. [Francois-Marie Dumas Archive]
The lineage to which Moto Major belongs is a legacy of great innovators, some of whom produced their machines in series, and some who could not.  These include Georges Roy, whose New Motorcycle and Majestic of the late 1920s were Art Deco masterpieces, while the Italian Miller Balsamo of 1939 still looks practicable today. From Germany, the 1938 Killinger & Freund blows up the Internet every time it's (re)discovered on social media, while Louis Lucien's Lepoix's post-war rebody of his BMW R12 is perhaps closest stylistically to the Moto Major, in its dynamic, fluid sweeps of bodywork.  Salvatore Maiorca's goal was as simple as it was ambitious: to create an extremely advanced motorcycle, both in terms of its style and its mechanical concepts, that utilized the unique industrial capabilities of the FIAT empire, with its ability to rapidly prototype everything from aerodynamic metal bodywork, new engine designs, and even aircraft-inspired wheels. Maiorca's creation certainly lived up to these ambitions.

The twin fishtail exhausts hide a secret: only one side is functional! [Giorgio Sarti]
Most extraordinary is that, more than 70 years later, the aesthetics of the Major are still revolutionary.  Yes, they are dated, but hardly so, with devilish aerodynamics reminiscent of cephalopods.  The sculptural bodywork is teeming with superb details, like the silencers whose horizontal fish tails exacerbate the dynamism of the lines. And what a drape! The steel sheet bodywork completely encompasses the motorcycle, leaving only the wheels, the headlight and the handlebars protruding.  It thus maintains an absolute purity of line, running from the head of the headlight to the rear wheel hub, while the front shell curves soft and clever to surround the front wheel, then flares back to protect the rider.

The handlebars move in a slot in the bodywork, between the speedometer and a steering damper knob. [Francois-Marie Dumas]
Bravo to this superb artist, whose ingenuity was not limited to style. The sublime bodywork is also designed as a self-supporting hull, and fully monocoque.  It is free to hug the front and rear wheels closely, because the suspension is not between the wheels and the chassis, but between the wheel rims and their hubs! Maiorca used the idea of  suspension-in-wheel in his aircraft designs, reinventing an idea almost as old as the motorcycle: the elastic wheel.

Felix Millet in 1887 with his revolutionary 5-cylinder in-wheel engine, coupled with his patented in-wheel suspension via coiled steel hoops. One of his motorcycles is still intact, and can be found at the Musée des Arts et Metiers in Paris. [Francois-Marie Dumas Archive]
The concept of in-wheel suspension was originally patented by Felix Millet in 1887, who also preferred to keep his radial engines within the wheels of his experimental two- and three-wheelers.  The elastic wheel remained an engineer's dream ever after, and was used on aircraft landing gear in the 1930s, for example the Gloster Gladiator.  The best known motorcycle example is of course the Triumph Sprung Hub, designed by Edward Turner in 1938, and intended for production on the 1940 Triumph models, but delayed by the war until the 1946 model line.  While Triumph's elastic wheel may have been an expedient dodge before introducing a proper swingarm frame (in 1955), it made sense as a method of keeping unsprung weight at a minimum.  Simply put: unsprung mass is what absorbs bumps and must move directly over them - the wheels and brakes, typically - instead of being insulated from these bumps - the rest of the chassis and the rider.  The lighter the unsprung weight, the more responsive the suspension, due to reduced momentum and lag.

The Moto Major's in-wheel suspension uses 12 compressed rubber disc per wheel for suspension, to provide a nominal 50cm of travel. [Francois-Marie Dumas]
The Moto Major's elastic wheel is simple in principle, and built in three parts. Two hub-mounted light alloy flanges pinch a central petal-shaped disc between six pairs of 50mm rubber cylinders, and two large bolts on the rim in turn clamp the center disc through six other pairs of buffers. It's a disc sandwich with rubber mayo.  In theory, this device maintains lateral stiffness while allowing for rim movement in a vertical plane of plus or minus five centimeters, as the rubber pads squish.  A contemporary road tester reported: "Movement of the rim is 50mm without transverse deformation, and gives an exemplary road holding comparable to a BMW. "  Maiorca assured the press that bench tests the equivalent of 40,000 kilometers were made, and showed minimal wear of the rubber elements, as each of them (24 in total) experienced only a small effort.  Doing the math: 150kg (bike) + 80kg (rider) = 230kg (506lbs).  Divided by 24 = 9.6kg (21lbs) of weight for each rubber buffer to handle, which is not enormous. But clearly, when the rubber deteriorates, the effect on road-holding will be double plus un-good, to quote a novel of the period.

An cutaway view of the 350 single-cylinder Moto Major, showing the steering system, inline single-cylinder motor, shaft drive, and fuel tank under the saddle. [Francois-Marie Dumas Archive]
The Moto Major was designed in both single- and twin-cylinder form, although only the 350cc single appears to have been built. On the twin-cylinder project, the elastic wheel design is more rudimentary, with a similar central disk suspended on a small internal tire, with side flanges ensuring rigidity.  Basically, the design has two concentric wheels with a small central tire acting as a damper, a bit like the 1955 patent of Boris Vian.

The Moto Major's 350cc engine was developed in collaboration with engineer Angelo Blatto, who had significant experience in the 1920s and '30s at Aquila, Augusta, OMB and  Ladetto & Blatto. It's an aero-engine inspired four-stroke, with a turned steel cylinder and an aluminum cylinder head. A fan at the end of the crankshaft provides cooling by forced air, while the long crankshaft drives a four-speed gearbox controlled by footshift, and a shaft final drive.  The kickstarter is removable, as on the first Honda 1000 Gold Wing of 1975.

The twin-cylinder Moto Major concept was apparently never built, but specified a watercooled twin-cylinder motor with a different form of in-wheel suspension and simpler steering mechanism. [Francois-Marie Dumas Archives]
Salvatore Maiorca's design for a twin-cylinder version of the Moto Major predated the single that was eventually produced, and was in some ways more exotic technically. The engine was a long, liquid-cooled, vertical twin-cylinder, with two radiators embedded in the fairing fed via air intakes up front. It was slightly retrograde in having a handshift emerge through the bodywork, and handlebars exposed. The twin exhausts exited through twin flattened fishtails out back, which the 350cc single model retained, in spite of having only one exhaust pipe!  The second fishtail is a dummy, for aesthetic balance only.

Rare period illustrations explaining the layers included in the Major's suspension. [Francois-Marie Dumas Archives]
In the blissful optimism of the post-war period, the brass at FIAT seemed to forget the prohibitive cost of building such a radical machine.  While the Moto Major remained unique, a company was created in Milan on January 15, 1948 to market its wheels, with SARE (Società Applicazioni Gomme Elastiche) and SAGA (Società Applicazioni Gomme Antivibranti) building plants for their construction in collaboration with Pirelli. Pirelli was happy to exhibit the Moto Major on its stand at the Salon of Milan in 1948, where it created an enduring sensation, akin to the BMW R7 ('The Best Bike BMW Never Made'): machines that, once glimpsed, remain in the memory forever, but also remain elusive and un-produced. The dream of the Moto Major was too good to be true.

The dream that was not to be. The 1947 Moto Major prototype. [Francois-Marie Dumas]
1947 Moto Major prototype

Engine: 4-stroke vertical single-cylinder engine with longitudinal crankshaft / Turned steel cylinder, aluminum cylinder head / Forced air cooling / 349.3cc (76 x 77 mm) / 14 hp @5200 rpm / Dell'Orto carburettor /  Lubrication by oil circulation and double pump / Battery-coil ignition.

Transmission: Dry multi-plate clutch / 4-speed gearbox with footshift / Transmission by shaft and bevel gear final drive

Chassis: Self-supporting sheet steel body / Spherical hub and rod-controlled steering / 19" elastic wheels with 24 deformable rubber-block suspension

Dimensions and Performance: 150 kg in running order (43 kg engine) / Tank 13 liters / 105kmh (63mph)

The Moto Major could run again, but its rubber buffers are unique, and deteriorating, so the current owner - the Hockenheim Museum Archive - has chosen to keep it exactly as it is, for now. [Francois-Marie Dumas]


Francois-Marie Dumas is Vintagent Contributor, and a Paris-based motojournalist, author, and Chief Judge at the Concorso Eleganza Villa d'Este.   Visit his website:

Legends of Montlhéry at the Cafe Racer Festival: Part 2

By Francois-Marie Dumas (translated/expanded by Paul d’Orléans)

Café Racer magazine (France) hosts its annual Café Racer Festival at the Montlhéry autodrome on the third weekend of June, and it remains the sole motorcycle-only event held at that historic track.  Other events like Vintage Revival Monthléry are mixed car and bike, so the CRF is something special [but watch our film on Montlhéry here!]. This year the event was made extra-special by the efforts of French moto-journalist and historian Francois-Marie Dumas (a Vintagent Contributor), who organized an exhibition of simply remarkable machines with racing and record-breaking history at or near the track.  Francois-Marie kindly provided us with photos from the Café Racer event, plus historic photos of these motorcycles racing and taking records at Montlhéry and nearby Arpajon in their day.

Here's a second batch of remarkable machines exhibited this year at the Festival:

1935/1952 Koehler-Escoffier 'Monneret' 1000cc

Collection: Henri Malartre Museum, Lyon (France)

Kids dig it! The 'Monneret' on display at Montlhéry for the Cafe Racer Festival [Francois-Marie Dumas /]
Considered to be one of the most beautiful of all French racing bikes, only 13 units of the 1,000cc Koehler Escoffier were built between 1927 and 1935, and this special model developed for the great Georges Monneret is unique. The first version of the K-E OHC V-twin appeared in 1927, and developed 35 hp @5,500rpm, with such a power/weight ratio that the rear tire had to be glued onto the rim with lacquer, to prevent it from spinning at startup!

A rare 1927 Koehler-Escoffer OHC V-twin, an impressive machine with four exhaust pipes and a beautiful shaft-and-bevel overhead camshaft drive. [Paul d'Orléans]
This imposing engine used the most advanced techniques of its time, with two simple overhead camshafts driven by shafts, using hairpin springs in the open air, and a separate 4-speed gearbox box housed in a simple rigid frame, without rear suspension. 78hp and 200kmh without rear suspension!

Georges Monneret at Montlhéry before his 1935 records aboard what began as a delicate flat-tanker, and was developed into a fire-breathing monster with twin racing carbs and 78hp!  [Francois-Marie Dumas /]
Remodeled for 1935, the K-E 1000 'officially' gained another 10hp, but it's said the special Monneret version developed 78 hp running on alcohol! After the parenthesis of WW2, Georges Monneret, with 8 French championship titles (6 of which were acquired on K-E) roared back in 1947 for new records and, in 1952, his son Pierre improved one last time on  his father's Montlhéry records. This was the ultimate feat of the 1000 Koehler Escoffier, which, after 1/4 of a century, deserves its place of honor at the Henri Malartre Museum in Lyon, but the magnificent beast comes out regularly for demonstrations of old motorcycles.

1937 AJS R10 500cc 

Collection: Motor Sport Museum Hockenheimring (Germany)

The AJS R10 500cc racer of 1937 [Francois-Marie Dumas /]
AJS has the equal of Norton for the longevity of its single-cylinder, chain-driven OHC production racers.  Both the AJS 7R/Matchless G50 and the Norton Manx have their roots in late-1920s designs that were continually developed through the 1950s, until their respective racing departments were shut in 1962.  Both designs have also been in near-continuous production post-factory, as replicas are built even today to support demand for vintage racing and spares. The AJS chain-driven overhead camshaft racer first appeared in the 1927 Isle of Man TT, and its simple design was made possible by the invention (and licensing) of the Weller chain tensioner (a sprung steel blade bowed against the chain run), making long chain runs possible without case-grinding chain whip. In 1929, the AJS team took their R7 (350cc) model to Montlhéry, gaining 117 world records(!), including a 2-hour stint at 160 kmh/96mph [it's interesting to note AJS/Matchless milked for publicity a 1 hour @100mph run at MIRA with a 650cc G12 in 1963 - progress?]. AJS continued to shine at Montlhéry in 1930, settting 5 new records in the 350 and 500cc classes.  The ultimate factory racers of the 30s, like the one exhibited, prefigure the post-war AJS 7R 'Boy Racer' by using an aluminum cylinder and head, magnesium crankcases, a reinforced crankshaft, and a Burman gearbox specially made for AJS. This 1937 version is the last of the rigid frame machines, as they gained rear suspension in 1938.

Georges Monneret on his last race at Montlhéry, aboard an AJS R7 in 1962 [Francois-Marie Dumas /]
In October 1951 an AJS 7R (rated 34hp @7200rpm) lapped Montlhéry at 183kmh (110mph) without a fairing, taking 16 world records in the hands of British Bill Doran, New Zealander Rod Coleman and French champion Georges Monneret, who was a busy man at that track!  The 7R took a 2-hour record at over 176kmh(105mph), and another 15 world records with a sidecar, from 7 hours to 1000 km. AJS returned to Montlhéry in October 1952 with a brand new three-valve version - the 7R3 - and Pierre Monneret with Bill Doran beat 21 world records including the hour at 186.07 kmh (111mph), that had been held for 14 years by a supercharged 250cc Moto Guzzi.

1937 Gnome & Rhône 750 Type X with Bernardet 'Avion' sidecar 

Collection: Jean-Claude Conchard (France)

The Gnome-Rhone 750X with Bernardet sidecar - Art Deco elegance! [Francois-Marie Dumas /]
France produced only a few large sidecar haulers after the First World War. The rare exceptions were the 750 and 1000cc René Gillet, and the Gnome & Rhone 750 Type X: the queen of French motorcycles. The first Gnome & Rhone in 1920 was the 400cc ABC built under license, a flat twin that won many competitions before its production was abandoned in favor of simpler and more economical single-cylinder bikes.  A flat twin reappeared at the 1930 Paris Motorcycle Show with a shaft-drive 500cc, followed in 1932 by the CV2 500, the fastest series of French motorcycles a top speed 130 kmh.

A Geo Ham (Georges Hamel) poster celebrating the Gnome-Rhone 750X and Bernardet sidecar [Francois-Marie Dumas /]
For Gnome & Rhône, the only thing missing is the supremacy of a sidecar bike, and the 750 X, presented at the 1935 Show, perfectly fit the role. Its flat-twin OHV motor gave 30hp @5500rpm, with a 4-speed gearbox. This very modern motor was housed in a rigid frame made of stamped sheet metal. Most often the 750X was hitched to a Bernardet 'Grand Sport - Avion' sidecar, with a chassis specially designed for it, the 750X gave a genuine 120 kmh. It also proved its reliability with 20 world records take in June, September and October of 1937, including 24hours at 136.56 kmh (81mph). Two years later at Montlhéry, from April to July 1939, it reaffirms its superiority with 24 new world records, including at 50,000km (30k miles!), made over nineteen days at a 109.4kmh (66mph) average.

1938 Nougier 175cc DOHC

Collection: Stable Nougier (France)

Jean Nougier was an engineer who spent his pre-war career upgrading French race machines with advanced overhead-camshaft cylinder heads, and other improvements to make them vastly more competitive. In 1935 he built a 175cc double-overhead-camshaft racer based on a Magnat-Debon, that so impressed the Director of the Magnat-Debon/Terrot factory (Jean Vurpillot), he supplied Nougier with raw castings of  magnesium crankcases, and aluminum cylinders and heads.  The hot engine of the new 125 DOHC racer built by the Nougier brothers for 1937 looks very much like Magnat-Debon's 175 LCP from 1935, but everything inside was different: the crankshaft was homemade and the fins of the barrel are square, a rarity at the time. A cascade of gears drives the camshafts.

Henri Nougier taking records on the 125cc version of the DOHC single [Francois-Marie Dumas /]
The gearbox is not the new 4-speed Terrot factory item, but a handmade 4-speed gearbox using needle-roller bearings. "It worked hard" says Jean Nougier "and took 7800 rpm in the race, and 8500rpm for the records that Henri Nougier beat on May 8, 1938: 50 km, 50 miles, 100 km and the hour, at an average of 114 kmh (68.4mph).

The 125cc race at Montlhéry: Henri Nougier #6, Richardson #8, and  Jacqier Bret on a 175cc Terrot on 8 May 1938, after the 4 world records at 7 and 8 hours [Francois-Marie Dumas /]
The record had been held by A. Morini on an MM at 100.23 kmh since 1927, and the previous one-hour record by Nash on a New Imperial was 112 kmh - we enjoyed beating an Englishman. Henri was even clocked at 122 kmh (73mph) on his second lap. An hour later, Henri was at the start of the 175cc race, and he rode again at 10:30 in 125cc category with the bike that broke the records 2 hours earlier!"

1938 Wicksteed-Triumph Speed Twin supercharged

Grab the handlebars and hang on!  Brooklands' notorious concrete bumps would have been hell at 117mph, and the curious stops on the 'bar ends would keep your hands in place! [Francois-Marie Dumas /]
In 1937, Marius Winslow and Ivan Wicksteed took advantage of London's Earl's Court Show sensation: the Triumph 500 Speed Twin. But Winslow is a racer, and Wicksteed a tuner: they decided to improve the beast by grafting an Arnott supercharger and a Bowden carburetor with a butterfly valve.
The Wicksteed Triumph as recently discovered and restored [Francois-Marie Dumas /]
Their idea was of course to race at Brooklands, the British counterpart of Montlhery, 4.43km long and located in Weybridge, a suburb of London. On October 8, 1939, they beat the Brooklands lap record with an average of 118.02mph. This record was never beaten, as later in 1939 Brooklands was given over to the Royal Air Force, for it had always included hangars and an airfield in its central expanse. The track emerged from WW2 in ruined condition, and was finally given to Armstrong-Vickers, who razed part of the banking to extend its airfield for jet testing.
Ivan Wicksteed at Brooklands before his 1939 attempt on the lap record.
Thus the Ivan Wicksteed supercharged Triumph holds the 500cc Brooklands lap record in perpetuity.  Wicksteed and Winslow, while still in their twenties, had actually approached Edward Turner (Triumph's Managing Director) for support in supercharging his new Triumph twin, explaining their plans to take the Brooklands record.  Turner granted them a brief meeting, heard their plans, and said, "A very logical conclusion. Good afternoon, gentlemen", then walked away! Of course, when Wicksteed's Triumph was successful, Turner wasted no time taking out full page ads in the press to congratulate Wicksteed and Winslow, and crow about their lap record.  To his credit, Turner then offered whatever factory support they needed, but the closure of the track in later '39 halted their collaboration...and, we might add, the certain discovery of every weak point in the original Speed Twin engine design!

1949 Triumph Thunderbird 6T 650cc

The Triumph 6T Thunderbirds used in the Montlhery publicity stunts were standard machines that were later sold without fanfare (or the knowledge of their new owners!) [Francois-Marie Dumas /]
Early in 1949 Ed Turner asked his engineering department (since he was no engineer himself) to enlarge the engine for the 500cc Speed ​​Twin.  They came up with a 650cc motor with a longer stroke (to use the same crankcases), but gave an added  7.5 hp.  The name of the bike was coined by Turner himself, who also drew the famous tank badge, while pondering the American market, and dreaming of the famous bird from North American Indian mythology.

Edward Turner congratulates the riders of 3 Triumph Thunderbird models in 1949 at Montlhéry [Triumph Owners Club Netherlands]
Triumph officially unveiled the Thunderbird on September 16, 1949 announcing that four pre-production models will rally to France by road, and take in some hot laps at Montlhéry.  According to the plan, three of the four bikes would cover 500 miles (805 km) at an average speed of 145kmh (85mph) on the Montlhéry ring, before ending up in apotheosis with laps at over 160kmh (96mph). The Thunderbirds fulfilled the plan perfectly, despite the poor quality of gasoline at the time, with 72 octane.

1950 Vincent 'Dearden' Supercharged Black Lightning 1000cc

Collection: Motor Sport Museum Hockenheimring (Germany)

The Beast: the only factory-supercharged Vincent Black Lightning [Francois-Marie Dumas /]
This is the craziest of all Vincents, a supercharged Black Lightning specially made for the British racing driver and motorcyclist Reg Dearden, who wanted to break the world speed record, then fixed at 279.3kmh (167.58mph) since 1937 by BMW. The very special factory-built Lightning was ready at the end of 1949, and was returned to the factory in 1950 to receive a Shorrocks supercharger, with the configuration designed by Philip Vincent himself. It was the first time Vincent had supercharged one of his motorcycles since the 1930s, when he experimented on both his singles and the V-twin HRDs. The foundation of the Dearden Lightning is identical to Rollie Free's Bonneville racer, made immortal for his photo stretched over his Lightning in a bathing suit to take the US national record at 241.9kmh (145.94mph) in 1948.

The Dearden Vincent at the factory, during the mockup for a record attempt [Francois-Marie Dumas /]
Nothing, alas, happened as planned for the Dearden bike. Fueled with alcohol by a single 63mm SU carburetor and the Shorrocks blower mounted behind the gearbox, the Lightning recorded 130hp @6800 rpm. Dearden's planned attempt on a German autobahn was postponed after NSU snatched the world record at 289.7 kmh (173.82mph) on 12 April 1951 in Germany, then 340.2 kmh (204.12mph) in 1956 on the Bonneville Salt Flats.

With the knights in their leather riding gear, Phillip Vincent (hand on bike) with the 18-yo John Surtees (left) on May 13th 1952. Journalist Vic Willoughby, who documented the record attempt, is 3rd from right [Francois-Marie Dumas /]
Beating that record was unrealistic, as the Vincent was naked, and their scheduled rider, Leslie Graham (the 1949 world champion) was killed in the 1953 Isle of Man TT.  Dearden then planned to install the Vincent into a streamlined 'cigar' in the United States, but the airplane he modified specifically for this transport from Britain was de-certified for flight! That was the last straw in what was essentially a private effort.  Vincent deserves a place with the record breakers at Montlhéry, as in 1952 a team including Georges Monneret, John, Surtees, and Gustave Lefevre took eight long-distance world records.

1954 BMW RS54 500cc streamliner with sidecar 

Collection: BMW Group Classic (Germany)

The BMW RS54 streamliner with 'sidecar' attachment, still the world record holder! [Francois-Marie Dumas /]
The absolute world speed record for sidecars dates back to the mid-1950s, taken with an unsupercharged BMW twin-cylinder of only 500cc. Is anyone up to tackling it today? BMW was extremely active in World Speed Records from 1929 to 1937 [as discussed in our post here], and re-entered the fray in 1954 at Montlhéry.  A solo RS54 racer was ridden by Walter Zeller and the brothers Hans and Georg Meier, while a streamliner sidecar was ridden by Wilhelm Noll, Fritz Hillebrand and Walter Schneider. Noll was the world GP sidecar champion that year, ending the supremacy of the Norton/British teams, and the BMW took 18 world records at Montlhéry on October 30 - 31.

The BMW RS54 Streamliner approachign the Montlhery banking at 160mph [BMW Museum Archive]
Their average speeds beat the previous 500, 750 and 1200cc sidecar records for 10, 50 and 100 miles, 50 and 100 km, and various time records. Noll did even better on October 4th, 1955 on the Munich - Ingolstadt autobahn, where he reached 280.155 kmh (168mph).  Using a special fuel mix that allowed compression ratios of 12:1 (instead of the usual 10:1).

An aerial view of the BMW RS54 streamliner [BMW Museum Archive]
The 500cc flat twin Rennsport gave 72bhp @10,000rpm, using  a Bosch fuel pump supplying a pair of 32mm Amal GP carburetors. Of exemplary stability, the RS54 perched on three 19" wheels weighed only 200kg (440lbs), plus 60kg ballast in the 'sidecar'.  The beautifully streamlined enclosure gave an extremely slippery  SCx (drag coefficient) of 0.15 M2, versus 0.28 M2 for an unfaired, solo Rennsport.

1956 NSU SportMax 250cc 

Collection: Top Mountain Motorcycle Museum - Hochgurgl (Austria)

The NSU SportMax that took mulitple records [Francois-Marie Dumas /]
On May 23, 1956, Georges Monneret, the 250cc world record holder, and his son Pierre, piloted this 250cc NSU SportMax factory racer to take eight long distance world records, from 50 to 500kilometers, the latter at a 160.28kmh (96.2mph) average, with a fastest lap at 198kmh (118.8mph), upping the previous lap record at Montlhéry of 190kmh.  This SportMax is nearly as per production spec, but is tuned with 30hp @9000rpm: special tires are inflated to 4.3 bars (62psi). These aren't the first SuperMax records; a few months earlier, on December 20, 1955, the Swiss rider Florian Camathias teamed with Maurice Bula, hitching an identical NSU to a 'sidecar' (actually just an outrigger wheel with a 60kg weight) that took 16 world records from 10 to 1000km at Montlhéry, with laps over 160kmh (96mph), taking 6 hours at a 145.8kmh (87.48mph) average.

Pierre Monneret takes over the handlebars after his father Georges in 1956 in Monlhéry [Francois-Marie Dumas /]
Monneret's machine is fueled by a 29mm Amal GP carburetor, but on the outside looks just like the standard 250 SuperMax, except for its large 22-liter aluminum tank and 210mm front brake drum. It weighs only 116kg (255lbs) without its fairing, and reaches 210kmh (126mph) with this very enveloping aluminum fairing. The NSU is peculiar in its valve drive system, with overhead rockers driven by two eccentric rods linked to the crankshaft. The Sportmax remained competitive until 1958, when Mike Hailwood finished 4th in the World Championship riding one!


Legends of Montlhéry at the Café Racer Festival: Part 1

By Francois-Marie Dumas (translated/expanded by Paul d'Orléans)


Café Racer magazine (France) hosts its annual Café Racer Festival at the Montlhéry autodrome on the third weekend of June, and it remains the sole motorcycle-only event held at that historic track.  Other events like Vintage Revival Monthléry are mixed car and bike, so the CRF is something special [but watch our film on Montlhéry here!]. This year the event was made extra-special by the efforts of French moto-journalist and historian Francois-Marie Dumas (a Vintagent Contributor), who organized an exhibition of simply remarkable machines with racing and record-breaking history at or near the track.  Francois-Marie kindly provided us with photos from the Café Racer event, plus historic photos of these motorcycles racing and taking records at Montlhéry and nearby Arpajon in their day.  Let's hope such exhibits become a new tradition at the Festival! Below is the story of some of the amazing bikes exhibited.

The display of Montlhérry and Arpajon record breakers during the Cafe Racer Festival [Francois-Marie Dumas]

1924 McEvoy-Anzani with 8-Valve 1000cc Anzani engine

Collection: Motor Sport Museum Hockenheimring (Germany)

The 1000cc 8-Valve McEvoy Anzani as restored today [Francois-Marie Dumas]
The British Anzani 1000cc 8-Valve engine was developed in 1924 by Michael A. McEvoy, who was then only 20 years old, but was an experienced competitor.   British Anzani (an outgrowth of Alessandro Anzani's engine design business in France) had already built a very complex DOHC V-twin that took the absolute World Speed record the year before (108.4mph), in the hands of Claude Temple.  McEvoy opted for something far simpler: a pushrod OHV motor with four-valve cylinder heads controlled by exposed rods and rockers.  The twin exhausts on each cylinder on this machine, made of flexible pipe, are consistent with the original.

Michael McEvoy with a special Anzani-engined McEvoy racer in 1925 [Yves Campion Archive]
As McEvoy was employed by Rolls Royce in 1924, he entered his 8-valve racer at Brooklands in 1924, under the pseudonym L. F. Ellis.  His McEvoy-Anzani boasted 45hp @4000 rpm, and was timed at over 180kmh (108mph) in the hands of the Belgian pilot A. Breslau, who beat a kilometer record in his home country.  Fed by a single-float Binks carburetor, the McEvoy used a three-speed Sturmey-Archer gearbox and Druid forks with two side springs.  What's unique about the McEvoy is not its engine (by 1924 both Indian and Harley-Davidson had built 8-valve racers), but the frame designed by Michael McEvoy: a rigid triple-cradle design at a time when all of its competitors, Brough Superior included, were satisfied with an open-cradle 'keystone' frame, with or without a bolted-on subframe.

1924 New Imperial with 350cc JAP DOHC.                                       

Collection: Motor Sport Museum Hockenheimring (Germany)

Bert LeVack on the Arpajon straight at 93mph on the DOHC JAP-engined New Imperial [Hockenheim Museum Archive]
J.A.P. (Joseph A. Prestwich)  was the most famous British engine manufacturer, supplying at least 22 different manufacturers with engines by 1923. The brand first challenged the French motorcycle industry in 1904, with a sidevalve engine for the International Cup races in Dourdan, part of the series of French races that inspired the creation of the Isle of Man TT (because of rampant cheating!). In 1922, in pursuit of new records, JAP abandoned its classic single-cylinder OHV design, and created this exceptional 350cc motor with a special DOHC top end with complex apparatus operating its transverse rockers. The bike ran on a mixture of gas and alcohol (Bert Le Vack, the pilot, admitted shamelessly that he got it from a distillery in London!).

The very special, one of six 350cc DOHC JAP racer of 1924 [Francois-Marie Dumas]
LeVack accumulated records at Brooklands in 1922 and '23 with, among others, a flying kilometer record averaging 150.9kmh (90mph). On September 9, 1923, he brought his 250 and 350cc DOHC racers to France to take records in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris (impossible in Paris  today!) where they were respectively timed at 133.83kmh (78mph) and 155.3kmh (93mph) on the flying kilometer. LeVack returned to France on October 11 and 12th, 1924, to win the 250 and 350cc inaugural races on the brand new Montlhéry Autodrome, and returned for more records in 1925 in 250 and 350cc classes. In total Bert Le Vack and this 2-valve 350 DOHC with two valves gained 16 world records from 1 to 300 kilometers.

1926-30 Zenith-Temple with Supercharged 1000cc JAP             

Collection: Motor Sport Museum Hockenheimring (Germany)

The 1930 configuration of the Zenith-Temple-JAP world record holder [Francois-Marie Dumas]
The careers of successful speed record bikes in the 1920s/30s were often long and tumultuous, as there simply wasn't much ultra-fast machinery available, or budgets to build new ones. Zenith motorcycles was the most zealous supporter of speed records and track work in their heyday of 1918-1930, when they took more Gold Stars at Brooklands (for 100mph laps in a race) and more World Speed Records than any other make, barring BMW.  This Zenith started out as a 1926 Championship model, with JAP KTOR motor, and saw plenty of track teim at Brooklands with veteran speed tuner and racer Claude Temple (who added the Harley-Davidson forks for extra stability) and rider Joe Wright, who established a record lap of 182.45kmh (113.5mph) at Brooklands when the bike was new.  The Zenith was totally overhauled in 1929, with reinforced Druid ES (enclosed spring) forks and the new long-stroke JAP JTOR engine fed by twin AMAC carburetors.

The supercharged Zenith-Temple-JAP at Cork, Ireland in 1930, about to take the World Speed Record [Hockenheim Museum Archive]
The magic barrier of 200kmh (120mph) was first crossed by O.M. Baldwin on this Zenith-Jap on the Arpajon straightaway (just outside the Montlhery Autodrom) on August 28, 1928. In 1929, Joe Wright used this bike for his own series of records at Arpajon, with a 5-kilometer record at 193.19kmh (115.9mph). In 1930, the Zenith found its final form as seen here, with an added supercharger and minimal aerodynamic cladding on the forks and around the engine cases.  In this configuration, the Zenith was at the center of one of the greatest scandals in the history of World Record competition [read the full story here]: in 1930 in Cork, Ireland, Joe Wright took the absolute world speed record at 242.5kmh (145.5mph) hitherto held by Ernst Henne on BMW WR750 compressor with 221.4kmh (132.84mph). The Zenith was a reserve machine, as the team planned to use an OEC-Temple, equipped with the same JAP JTOR engine, to take the record.  The OEC broke a transmission pinion, and the Zenith took the record, but the sponsorship money was provided by OEC (as Zenith was bankrupt). The OEC was therefore presented as the world record holder, and the deception, once discovered, made a huge splash in the British tabloids. [Read the full scandal here]

1925-30 Zenith 'Super Kim' with Supercharged JAP 1700cc        

Collection: Motor Sport Museum Hockenheimring (Germany)

Pure badass. The 1700cc supercharged Zenith-JAP built by Roberto Sigrand in Argentina: 'Super Kim' [Francois-Marie Dumas]
The story of this amazing Zenith is long and complicated [and you can read more here].  It's believed this was the actual 1925 Olympia Motorcycle Show machine, a Championship model built in extremely limited numbers (perhaps only 6) by Zenith under their Managing Director Freddie Barnes.  The story of this machine picks up in Paris in 1928, when the bike was raced by Roberto Sigrand, and the Zenith was re-badged as a 'D-S'. Roberto was the son of Camilo Sigrand, co-owner of Dibladis-Sigrand ('D-S', founded in 1922) motorcycles of Paris, who were notable after WW1 for building racing specials assembled from various parts, some from ex-military salvage, and competing in the very first Bol d'Or.

Roberto Sigrand in Paris in 1928 aboard the Zenith, re-badged as a 'D-S' (Dibladis-Sigrand), with the Harley-Davidson fork added [Sigrand Family Archive]
In 1928, the Sigrand family moved to Argentina, as Camilo sensed the conditions were ripe for yet another huge war in Europe.  The Sigrands intended to manufacture motorcycles in Argentina, but there was insufficient infrastructure to support this idea, so the family initially had a repair garage. Roberto Sigrand was the top dirt track racer in Argentina, and among the best in the world, regularly trouncing superstars like Sprouts Elder and Frank Varey at the Huracan track in Bueno Aires on his flat-twin Douglas.  Roberto also indulged in record-breaking with the Zenith, using a Harley-Davidson fork, taking both solo and sidecar South American speed records on Oct 19 1930 at 189.47kmh (113.7mph) solo and at 160.71km h (96.5mph) with sidecar.

Roberto Sigrand on the Zenith, about to take a South American sidecar record on a dirt road in Argentina [Sigrand Family Archive]
Roberto Sigrand founded the 'Aros Kim' piston ring factory in 1930 with fellow Frenchman Jacques Warnier, and further developed the Zenith to showcase the factory's potential.  The bike was renamed 'Super Kim' and the displacement was boosted to 1696cc (94.9 x 120 mm), and used a Roots-type compressor from an Amilcar C6, plus twin-spark ignition using two magnetos!  Super Kim took a new South American speed record at  250kmh (130mph), an honest claim, as Joe Wright took his Zenith with a very similar configuration to 242.5kmh (145.5mph), and Eric Fernihough reached 273.44kmh (164mph) in 1937 using essentially the same engine in a Brough Superior chassis. Most remarkably, Super Kim's record was taken on a dirt road!  Suitably long, straight roads, paved roads were hard enough to find in Europe in 1930, and impossible to find in South America.

Inside the Aros Kim factory, with Super Kim on display [Sigrand Family Archive]
The technical specification of Super Kim is fascinating: there are two primary chains, driving the transmission and the compressor, using lengthened engine mainshaft that's  supported by an outrigger bearing held in a pierced steel basket.  The clutch uses a similar steel basket for an outrigger bearing for the gearbox. The rear brake is huge at 254mm (10") and extremely light with many pierced holes, but its outer rim is finned for strength; the front brake is Harley-Davidson. The equally spectacular intake manifold is Y-shaped underneath the compressor to accommodate two twin-float AMAC racing carbs on each side of the lower frame rails,  just in front of the rearset footrests. The Sturmey-Archer gearbox is a 'Special Heavyweight' (SHW) version made originally for a Brough Superior SS100 (one of which was fatally crashed by a wealthy Argentine racer), and the rider changes gear with his knee!

Super Kim, showing the complicated primary drive for gearbox and supercharger, and the shifter mechanism mounted sideways for the rider's knee! [Francois-Marie Dumas]
The long saga of 'Super Kim' deserves a full telling: the story was lost to history, and the motorcycle was discovered in Argentina by Paul d'Orléans, who began the search for its background when he purchased the machine in 1999.  The full story was uncovered almost ten years later, and involves passion, intrigue, sex, international relations, cross-Atlantic romantic pursuit, Olympic athletes, dictators, political pressures, adultery, and suicide.  It is perhaps one of the best-documented and most interesting sagas around an individual motorcycle ever recorded, thanks to the efforts of Roberto Sigrand's great nephew Ignacio Acebedo, and will be told in full via soon.

1928 Gillet-Herstal 600R.                                                                           

Collection: Yves Campion (Belgium)

It's impossible to imagine an exhibition on Montlhéry's motorcycle records without a Belgian representative, because FN, Saroléa and Gillet, three brands established with Herstal-Lez-Liège, took plenty of records at the Autodrome.

The 1928 team with the victorious Gillet 600R [Yves Campion Archive]
After shining in road trials, Leon Gillet, owner os Gillet-Herstal, decided to tackle a few world records by hijacking Marcel Van Oirbeek from the FN design staff.  Gillet wanted a four-stroke unit-construction engine of 500cc, which Van Oirbeek delivered for 1926, including two Competition models: one with a shaft-driven OHC, the other with sidevalves. The sidevalve racer shared its crankcase with the production version, of the series, but the OHC engine is a unique design. Both 500cc racers shined on the racetracks, and a larger version of 598cc (the piston stroke grew from 90mm to 108mm) won overall and in its 600cc class with a sidecar at the Bol d'Or in 1928 and '29.  When fitted with a huge tank of gasoline, the 600R took a harvest of 83 records for Gillet, with riders  Milhoux, Debay and Sbaiz at the end of 1928 at Montlhéry.

1930 OEC-Temple with Supercharged JAP 1000cc engine             

Collection: Motor Sport Museum Hockenheimring (Germany)

The impressive OEC-Temple-JAP with supercharged JAP JTOR 1000cc motor [Francois-Marie Dumas]
A British-German battle for the absolute World Speed Record was in full swing in 1930, with the principal fighters being Ernst Henne for BMW, and Joe Wright defending English colors on Zeniths and this OEC-Temple-JAP.  Both used supercharged motors housed in minimally-streamlined chassis: Henne with his WR750 Kompressor launched the duel in France at Arpajon by reaching 216.48kmh (129.9mph) on the flying kilometer in Sept 1929.  Claude Temple and his OEC-JAP team decamped to Arpajon the following August, in 1930, to take the record back with this machine, and rider Joe Wright set a new World Record at 220.99kph (137.23mph).  Henne and the BMW team immediately returned to the fray, topping the OEC's speed by only .5mph at Ingolstadt that year, but it was still a World Record at 221.67kph (137.74mph) in September 1930.  Claude Temple, Joe Wright, and their team then traveled to Cork (Ireland) where they set an incredible record with his Zenith-JAP at 242.59kmh (145.55mph), that stood for two years.

Joe Wright aboard the OEC-Temple-JAP on the Arpajon straight outside Montlhéry in 1930 [Francois-Marie Dumas /]
Claude Temple was a race tuner and record holder using British Anzani engines in his own chassis, and later on OEC (Osborn Engineering Company) machines using JAP motors in the 1920s. Temple was the first rider to cover more than 100 miles in one hour at Montlhéry in 1925, and the first to exceed 120mph (193kmh), at Arpajon in 1926.  With sponsorship by both OEC and JAP, Temple built two machines for Joe Wright to race in 1930. Their JAP JTOR 996cc V-Twin OHV engines were mated to Powerplus compressors, giving about 85hp @ 6,000rpm, regardless of their frail rear tire of only 3.50" x 21".

Joe Wright at Montlhéry on the OEC-Temple-JAP in 1930, during testing [Francois-Marie Dumas /]
This OEC-Temple-JAP was restored according to its original construction, and is equipped with the very low double-cradle chassis that offered uncommon rigidity, paired with the curious 'Duplex' fork patented by OEC.   The Duplex system was very difficult to move from a straight line at speed, which made it slightly unpopular in regular use, but it was perfect for a speed record chassis.  And while the 1930 World Speed Record the OEC was intended to take at Cork was actually taken by a Zenith [read the story here], the OEC was timed at well over 150mph unoffically.  It spent its later years housing a supercharged, four-cylinder watercooled Austin 4 motor for record breaking, then was used with its original JAP engine by Bob Berry in his streamliner at Pendine Sands.

1934 Peugeot 500cc P 515 "World Record"                                          

Collection: Adventure Peugeot (France)

The 1934 Peugeot P515 'World Record' special [Francois-Marie Dumas]
Peugeot had not manufactured motorcycles of 500cc or more in the 1920s, but in earlier days competed with monstrous engines of 2Liters, and exotic DOHC 8-valve parallel twins from 1914.  Ten days before the opening of the 1933 Paris Salon, Peugeot presented their premium 500cc P 515 model, and year later, a special version of the P 515 was used to set nine new world speed records.

The Peugeot P515 taking its records at Montlhéry in 1934 [Francois-Marie Dumas /]
Peugeot designed a new and very complicated unit-construction engine block for the P 515, using a pair of fragile helical gears to run the longitudinal camshaft and the magneto, while a chain drove the dynamo, a pair of gears the oil pump, a second chain for the kickstarter, a third chain for the primary transmission, etc. In sum the engine was externally elegant, but internally complicated, monumental, and heavy. On October 5, 1934, the brothers Pahin, Camille Narcy and Pedro Verchère took to Montlhéry with a lightened P 515 (2nd and 3rd gear and the kickstarter were removed), tuned with 22 hp @5000rpm, giving 135kg (297lbs) and 150km/h (90mph) using a special 22L fuel tank.  The attempt was plagued with lightning and continuous icy rain, but the reliable engine took nine world records, including the 24 hours (118.74mh/71.24mph) and 3000km (118.16kmh/71mph) records. [Read more Peugeot race history here]

1934/38 Jonghi 350 DOHC                                                                         

Collection: Stable Nougier (France)

The 1934 Johghi with DOHC 350cc motor [Francois-Marie Dumas]
The successes of the Jonghi DOHC racers are breathtaking. Built on the basis of the Jonghi 350 TJ4, one of the most beautiful French production machines that Giuseppe Remondini débuted in 1931, the first DOHC version appeared in 1933 in a 350cc version, and was soon paired with a 250cc version. Like the 350 and 500cc Nougier, the Benelli Bialbero, and other famous racers, the Jonghi is distinguished by its overhead cams driven by a cascade of gears down the right side of a particularly compact engine block. It tastes its first successes with this 250cc version at  Montlhéry in 1934, where Louis Jeannin, the Jonghi factory rider, took four world records, including the one hour at a 156.24kmh (94mph) average. He then took the French 250cc Championship in 1935. In October 1936, a new 350cc version, developed by Louis Jeannin before he left the company, broke world speed records with Georges Monneret in the saddle for 50miles, 10 km , 100miles, while lapping at 172.94 kmh (104mph).

Louis Jeannin at the helm, and Giuseppe Remondini, the manufacturer, taking records in 1934 with the Jonghi 250 DOHC. [Francois-Marie Dumas /]
On October 25, 1938, Georges Monneret won a colossal prize offered by the "Race Fund", 150,000Francs for the fastest 20 laps of a 125 kilometer road circuit: the Jonhi averaged 113.788kmh (69mph) on a 50% gasoline-benzol blend, despite a fall at the Faye hairpin. The prize money was unfortunately never paid.