Paul d’Orleans

Top 100 Most Expensive Motorcycles

How do we love thee?  Let us count the ways. The Vintagent's 'Top 100 Most Expensive Motorcycles' is the definitive list. We've been keeping track of the top auction sales since 2006, and if you want editorializing on these prices, you'll have to ask nicely - these are just the facts, ma'am. (Note: Price conversions represent the exchange rate on the day of sale)

Number 1:

 

1951 Vincent Black Lightning: $929,000
Jan 26, 2018, Las Vegas, Bonhams 

Number 2:

1915 Cyclone Board Track - $852,500
Mar. 2015, Las Vegas, Mecum Auctions

Number 3:

1936 Crocker 'Small Tank' - $825,000
Aug. 2019, Monterey, Mecum

Tied for Number 4:

1907 Harley-Davidson 'Strap Tank' - $715,000
Mar. 2015, Las Vegas, Mecum

Tied for Number 4:

1937 Crocker 'Small Tank' - $715,000
Mar. 2015, Las Vegas, Mecum

Number 5:

1939 Crocker Big Tank - $704,000
Jan. 2019, Las Vegas, Mecum Auctions

Number 6:

1915 Cyclone Board Track Racer - $551,200
July 2008, Monterey, MidAmerica

Number 7:

1940 Crocker Big Tank - $550,000
Indianapolis 2019, Mecum

Number 8:

1930 Brough Superior SS100 Ex-George Brough / ISDT - $542,500 / £416,250
Mar. 2019, National Motorcycle Museum, H&H

Number 9:

1929 Brough Superior 'Alpine Grand Sports' SS100 - £315,100 / $494,580
Nov. 2014, Bond St, Bonhams

Number 10:

1912 Henderson Four (original paint) - $490,000
Jan. 2017, Las Vegas, Mecum

Number 11:

1931 Brough Superior-Austin 'BS4' 3-wheeler - £331,900 / $481,624
Apr. 2016, Stafford, Bonhams

Number 12:

1939 BMW RS255 'Kompressor' - $480,000 / £300,000
Jan. 2013, Las Vegas, Bonhams

Number 13:

1922 Brough Superior SS80 'Old Bill' - £291,200 / $469,800
Oct. 2012, Duxford, H&H Auctions

Number 14:

1929 Brough Superior SS100 - £286,000 / $465,350
Oct. 2010, Sparkford, H&H Auctions

Number 15:

1926 Brough Superior SS100 'Alpine Grand Sports' - £280,800 / $453,000
Oct. 2012, Battersea, RM Auctions

Number 16:

1951 Vincent 'White' Shadow - $434,000
Jan. 2016, Las Vegas, Bonhams

Number 17:

1939 Brough Superior SS100, ex-George Brough - £235,500 / $426,100
Apr. 2014, Stafford, Bonhams

Number 18:

1927 Harley-Davidson FHA 8-Valve racer - A$600,000 / $423,700
Sep. 2015, Melbourne, Shannons

Number 19:

1911 Flying Merkel board track racer - $423,500
Mar. 2015, Las Vegas, Mecum

Number 20:

1937 Crocker Small Tank - $423,500
Jan. 2019, Las Vegas, Mecum

Number 21:

1938 HRD-Vincent Series A Rapide - £275,900 / $417,000
Apr. 2015, Stafford, Bonhams

Number 22:

1946 AJS E90 'Porcupine' - £293,250 / $406,200
June 2021, Stafford, Bonhams

Number 23:

1926 Brough Superior SS100 Alpine Grand Sports project - £259,100 / $400,000
Oct. 2015, Stafford, Bonhams

Number 24:

1934 Brough Superior SS100 'Two of Everything' - £242,300 / $393,400
Apr. 2012, Stafford, Bonhams

Number 25:

1939 Vincent-HRD Series A Rapide - £275,900 / $374,160
Apr. 2016, Stafford, Bonhams

Number 26:

1942 Crocker 'Big Tank' - $385,000
Mar. 2015, Las Vegas, Mecum

Number 27:

1932 Brough Superior 'BS4' 3-Wheel Austin-engine - £246,400 / $377,950
Apr. 2013, Imperial War Museum, H&H

Number 28:

1948 Vincent-HRD 'Black Lightning' - £246,000 / $377,260
Apr. 2013, Imperial War Museum, H&H

Number 29:

1936 Brough Superior SS100 £276,000 / $367,660
Bicester Heritage, Dec. 2020, Bonhams

Number 30:

1938 HRD-Vincent Series A Rapide - £225,500 / $366,110
Apr. 2012, Stafford, Bonhams

Number 31:

1949 Vincent Black Lightning Supercharged - £221,500 / $383,400
Oct. 2008, Stafford, Bonhams

Number 32:

1938 Crocker Small Tank - $371,800
Aug 2016, Monterey, Mecum

Number 33:

1927 Brough Superior SS100 Alpine Grand Sports project - £236,700 / $365,400
Oct 2015, Stafford, Bonhams

Number 34:

1959 Harley Davidson FL 'Panhead', ex-Jerry Lee Lewis £238,700 / $358,000
Jan. 2015, Kissimmee, Mecum

Number 35:

1925 Brough Superior SS100 - $357,500
Jan. 2019, Las Vegas, Mecum

Number 36:

1907 Harley Davidson 'Strap Tank' Single - £186,560 / $352,000
Oct. 2006, Gooding and Co.

Number 37:

1939 Vincent-HRD 998cc Series-A Rapide - £198,400 / $347,200
Sep. 2008, New Bond St, Bonhams

Number 38:

1925 Brough Superior SS100 - $344,026 / £264,500
Oct. 2018, Stafford, Bonhams

Number 39:

1939 Vincent-HRD 998cc Series A Rapide - £270,300 / $330,700
Apr. 2016, Stafford, Bonhams

Number 40:

1929 Brough Superior SS100 'Moby Dick' - £210,000 / $330,000
Oct. 2011, Stafford, Bonhams

Number 41:

2013 Harley Davidson Dyna Super Glide (ex-Pope) - $327,000
Feb. 2014, Paris, Bonhams

Number 42:

1937 Brough Superior SS100, ex-Olympia Motorcycle Show £208,700 / $322,150
Oct. 2015, Stafford, Bonhams

Number 43:

2010 Ducati GP10 CS1 - e251,500 / $320,000
May 2012, Monaco, RM Auctions

Number 44:

1938 Brough Superior SS100 £219,900 / $319,099
Apr. 2016, Stafford, Bonhams

Number 45:

1938 Brough Superior SS100 - $313,000
Aug. 2019, Quail Lodge, Bonhams

Number 46:

1927 Zenith-JAP 8/45hp - £177,500 / $312,986
Sep. 2008, New Bond St, Bonhams

Number 47:

2011 Ducati GP11 VR2 - e245,700 / $312,500
May 2012, Monaco, RM Auctions

Number 48:

1922 Brough Superior Mk 1 '90 Bore' $308,000
Jan. 2020, Las Vegas, Mecum Auctions

Number 49:

1939 Crocker Small Tank - $302,500
June 2008, Monterey, RM Auctions

Number 50:

1912 Henderson Model A $302,500
Jan. 2019, Las Vegas, Mecum Auctions

Number 51:

1940 Crocker 'Big Tank' twin - £192,374 / $302,000
Aug. 2012, Quail Lodge, Bonhams

Number 52:

1937 Crocker 'Small Tank' twin - £192,374 / $302,000
Aug. 2012, Quail Lodge, Bonhams

Number 53:

1915 Iver Johnson twin - £193,841 / $299,600
Jan. 2012, Las Vegas, MidAmerica

Number 54:

1907 Harley-Davidson 'Strap Tank - $297,000
May 2021, Las Vegas, Mecum

Number 55:

1934 Brough Superior 996cc SS100 - £166,500 / $293,600
Apr. 2008, Stafford, Bonhams

Number 56:

1937 Crocker 'Small Tank' twin - £185,367 / $291,000
Aug. 2012, Quail Lodge, Bonhams

Number 57:

1954 AJS Porcupine - £163,600 / $288,475
Apr. 2000, Stafford, Bonhams

Number 58:

1956 Moto Guzzi V-8 (replica) - £196,250 / $284,600
Feb. 2016, London, Coys

Number 59:

1925 Coventry-Eagle Flying 8 - $284,200 / £218,500
Apr. 2019, Stafford, Bonhams

Number 60:

1939 Brough Superior SS100 - £181,420 / $280,400
Jan. 2011, Las Vegas, MidAmerica

Number 61:

1937 Crocker 'Hemi-Head' - £144,350 / $276,000
Nov. 2006, Los Angeles, Bonhams

Number 62:

1929 Scott Flying Squirrel 600cc (ex-Steve McQueen/Von Dutch) - £168,360 / $276,000
June 2009, New York, Antiquorum

Number 63:

1926 Brough Superior SS100 Alpine Grand Sports - $269,238
Apr. 2019, Stafford, Bonhams

Number 64:

1938 Brough Superior SS100 - £219,900 / $269,000
Apr. 2016, Stafford, Bonhams

Number 65:

1938 Brough Superior SS100 - £151,100 / $264,400
Sep. 2008, New Bond St, Bonhams

Number 66:

1911 Harley-Davidson 7A Twin $260,000
Jan. 2014, Las Vegas, Mecum

Number 67:

1970 Harley-Davidson FLH Shovelhead ex-Marlon Brando $256,000
June 28 2015, Julien's Auctions, Los Angeles

Number 68:

1938 Brough Superior SS100 - £157,700 / $255,900
Apr. 2010, Stafford, Bonhams

Number 69:

1912 Indian Board Track Racer - $253,000
Jan. 2019, Las Vegas, Mecum

Number 70:

1924 Croft-Cameron Anzani 8V 'Super 8' - £203,100 / $249,600
October 2016, Stafford, Bonhams

Number 71:

1974 Ducati 750SS - $247,500
Jan. 2019, Las Vegas, Mecum

Number 72:

1941 Crocker Big Tank - $243,800
January 2007, Las Vegas, MidAmerica

Number 73:

1930 Brough Superior SS100 $239,250
Jan 2020, Las Vegas, Mecum Auctions

Number 74:

1938 Brough Superior SS100 - $238,000
Jan. 2011, Las Vegas, MidAmerica

Number 75:

1929 Coventry Eagle Flying 8 KTOR - £163,900 / $237,837
Apr. 2016, Stafford, Bonhams

Number 76:

1939 Crocker 'Small Tank' twin - $236,500
Oct. 2006, Gooding and Co.

Number 77:

1912 Harley-Davidson Model 8A Twin - $236,500
Mar. 2015, Las Vegas, Mecum

Number 78:

1939 Crocker V-Twin Big Twin - $233,200
January 2008, Las Vegas, MidAmerica

Number 79:

1954 BMW RS54 Rennsport - £143,000 / $232,000
Oct. 2010, Haynes, HandH

Number 80:

1912 Henderson 4-cylinder - $225,500
Mar. 2015, Las Vegas, Mecum

Number 80 (tied):

1911 Pierce 4 (original paint): $225,500
July 2020, Indianapolis, Mecum

Number 81:

1928 Indian Altoona Hillclimber $225,000
Mar. 2015, Las Vegas, Mecum

Number 82:

1950 Vincent 'White Shadow' - $224,250 / £147,850
January 2015, Las Vegas, Bonhams

Number 83:

1927 Brough Superior SS100 Pendine - $223,500 / £166,750
Oct. 2018, Stafford, Bonhams

Number 84:

1937 Brough Superior 11-50 - £147,100 / $222,400
April 2015, Stafford, Bonhams

Number 85 (tied):

1943 Harley-Davidson EL - $220,000
May 2021, Las Vegas, Mecum

Number 85 (tied):

1946 Harley-Davidson FL - $220,000
May 2021, Las Vegas, Mecum

Number 85 (tied):

1954 Harley-Davidson / Indian Larry 'Grease Monkey' - $220,000
Jan. 2020, Las Vegas, Mecum

Number 85 (tied):

1940 Harley-Davidson EL - $220,000
Jan. 2020, Las Vegas, Mecum

Number 85 (Tied):

1925 BMW R37 - $220,000
Jan. 2019, Las Vegas, Mecum

Number 86:

1914 Miliaire Four cylinder - $214,500
Jan. 2020, Las Vegas, Mecum

Number 87:

1938 Brough Superior SS100 - £175,100 / $214.200
April 2016, Stafford, Bonhams

Number 88:

1933 Brough Superior SS100 - $209,400 / £161,000
Oct. 2018, Stafford, Bonhams

Number 89:

1930 Brough Superior 680 Black Alpine - £138,140 / $209,000
April 2015, Stafford, Bonhams

Number 90:

1937 Brough Superior SS100 - $203,000
Aug. 2012, Quail Lodge, Bonhams

Number 91:

1929 Coventry-Eagle Flying 8 JAP KTOR - £163,900 / $200,500
April 2016, Stafford, Bonhams

Number 92:

1974 Ducati 750SS - $198,000
Jan. 2020, Las Vegas, Mecum

Number 93:

1938 Vincent-HRD Series A Rapide £126,940 / $196,000
October 2015, Stafford, Bonhams

Number 94:

1914 Feilbach Limited 10hp (original paint) $195,000
January 2017, Las Vegas, Bonhams

Number 95:

1924 Montgomery-Anzani 8/38hp V-Twin £109,300 / $192,700
April 2006, Stafford, Bonhams

Number 96 (tied):

1947 Harley-Davidson FL - $220,000
May 2021, Las Vegas, Mecum

Number 96 (tied):

1911 Pierce T Four - $192,500
Mar. 2015, Las Vegas, Mecum

Number 97:

1949 Velocette World Champion KTT £135,900 / $192,400
April 2017, Stafford, Bonhams

Number 98:

1903 Indian single $190,000
Aug. 2017, Monterey, Mecum

Number 99:

1911 Harley Davidson 7D Twin $187,000
October 21, 2006, Gooding and Co.

Number 100:

1992 Honda NR750 - $181,500
Jan. 2019, Las Vegas, Mecum

And, in order of sale price, the Also-Rans:

1930 Harley-Davidson CAC Speedway - $181,500
Jan. 2020, Las Vegas, Mecum
1964 Bianchi Bicylindrica Bialbero GP - £122,650 / $177,840
Feb 2016, London, Coys
1914 Flying Merkel V-twin - $176,000
Jan. 2019, Las Vegas, Mecum
1923 Ace Sporting Solo - $175,500
Jan. 2019, Las Vegas, Mecum
1914 Flying Merkel V-twin - $175,500
Aug. 2015, Monterey, Mecum
1915 Henderson Model D - $170,500
Jan. 2019, Las Vegas, Mecum
1926 Coventry Eagle Flying 8 £106,780 / $166,450
April 2015, Stafford, Bonhams
2004 Indian Larry 'Chain of Mystery' - $165,000
Jan. 2020, Las Vegas, Mecum
1913 Henderson - $165,500
Jan. 2016, Las Vegas, Mecum
1953 Vincent Black Shadow - $165,000
May 2021, Las Vegas, Mecum
1936 Harley-Davidson EL - $165,000
Jan. 2014, Las Vegas, Mecum
1928/25 Brough Superior SS100 - $164,534 / £126,500
Oct. 2018, Stafford, Bonhams
1951 Moto Guzzi Bicylindrica GP - £111,500 / $161,675
Feb 2016, London, Coys
1939 Brough Superior SS100 with Sidecar - $160,00
Jan. 2016, Las Vegas, Mecum
1915 Henderson board track racer - $159,500
Mar. 2015, Las Vegas, Mecum
1934 Crocker Speedway $159,500
Mar 2015, Las Vegas, Mecum
1934 Crocker Speedway $151,200
Jan 2011, Las Vegas, MidAmerica
1913 Henderson 4 Cylinder $150,000
January 2016, Las Vegas, Mecum
1930 Indian Model 402 4-cylinder w/sidecar £96,700 / $149,350
October 2015, Stafford, Bonhams
1930 Brough Superior 680 £112,400 / $144,100
April 2017, Stafford, Bonhams
1967 Lito X-Cam Prototype - $143,000
Jan. 2019, Las Vegas, Mecum
1953 Vincent Black Shadow - $143,000
Jan. 2020, Las Vegas, Mecum
1916 Thor Model 16U - $143,000
Jan. 2019, Las Vegas, Mecum
Paul d'Orléans is the founder of TheVintagent.com. He is an author, photographer, filmmaker, museum curator, event organizer, and public speaker. Check out his Author Page, Instagram, and Facebook.

Vintage Revival Montlhéry 2019

Vintage Revival Montlhéry is a bi-annual event for pre-1940 cars, motorcycle, and bicycles at the famous banked concrete track about 20 minutes south of Paris.  It's the only original 1920s banked race track still in use, as all the wooden tracks are long gone, and the rest are destroyed or no longer in use, like the Sitges motordrome on Spain, and the rotting banked oval at Monza.  The Autodrome de Linas Montlhéry opened in 1924, as the brainchild of industrialist André Lamblin, who purchased the forested acreage and hired engineer Raymond Jamin to design the track.

The banking is big! It dwarfs both cars and motorcycles, and if you're not doing the 'ton', you're not going up the banking. [Paul d'Orléans]
Unlike Brooklands, which used an earthen banking when built in 1906, Montlhéry is an engineered track, with a steel understructure supporting the concrete paving: one can walk beneath the track while the racers are going at it. It took six months to build the Autodrome, and two thousand workers were employed: steelworkers, concrete teams, carpenters and truckdrivers, who used 1100 tons of steel and 10,500cubic yards of concrete.  Most of the steel grid was prefabricated - a very advanced building technique for the day.

A lovely Triumph TR3 contrasts with the steel understructure holding up the banking. [Paul d'Orléans]
The main oval has two steeply banked curves with fairly short 180-meter straights between them, as well as a longer, flat 'road' course which bypasses one banked curve.  The banking has a concave profile, which was calculated using a spiral logarithmic curve, which means it's fairly flat at the bottom and very steep at the top, where a vehicle needs to travel at over 90mph or so.  The banking is calculated so a car of 1000kg can safely travel at 220km/h (132mph) at the top.

A 1900 DeDion Bouton was the oldest machine on the track this year. [Paul d'Orléans]
I've only traveled at about 100mph on a motorcycle (Velocette Mk8 KTT) at the top of the banking, and it's pretty bumpy over the expansion joints.  I've also hitched a ride in the 'pilot' car that clears the track between race sessions (with a professional rally driver at the wheel) at about 110mph, and can't imagine what an extra 20mph feels like, because the ride was very exciting - in a not necessarily pleasant way! It's also a disorienting to ride the 'top line' on the banking, as you pass over the heads of slower riders below, who are nearly vertical while you are nearly horizontal.

Alfa Romeo was a featured marque this year, and fantastic examples of 1920s and '30s machines were a treat for the eye and ear. [Paul d'Orléans]
The facilities at the track are primitive, and the only 'official' spots to watch the racing - a set of concrete bleachers on one side, and the balcony over the starting grid - are the least interesting points on the circuit: the short straightaways.  Otherwise, watching the action on the banking or the chicanes means tromping over grass and peering through a cyclone fence.  There's no access at all to the 'road' circuit used by the cars, which is too bad, because they're an exciting place to ride and drive.

This rare 1920 Rudge 'Multwin' has a belt drive with variable ratios and a 1000cc V-twin IoE motor. [Paul d'Orléans]
Perhaps its spare facilities keep the crowds at bay, because unlike other such events (Goodwood comes to mind), there is no crowd to contend with at the VRM: everyone seems to be a rider, driver, support person, family, or vendor, plus a few spectators to fill in the gaps.  Like the old Brooklands quote, VRM has managed 'the right crowd, and no crowding,' in spite of being a unique place to mingle with hundreds of amazing racing cars and motorcycles, many of them in single family ownership for decades, and sometimes since new.

Sebastian Chirpaz has expanded his A Piece of Chic scarf business into making period-correct clothing. [Paul d'Orléans]
Organizer Vincent Chamon took on the task of organizing VRM while in his mid-20s, in 2011, and this year is the 5th running of this bi-annual event. From the program: "For a whole weekend we will go back in time to the golden age of motoring at the heart of the last banked ring, born in 1924 and still in use in Europe.  There are over 500 sports and racing vehicles, cars and bikes all pre-dating 1940, which will take the track in the tire traces of our competition forebears."

The Yesterday's stand was bursting with fascinating machines. [Paul d'Orléans]
VRM is the world's largest pre-War motoring event, and with over 500 machines circulating on and off the track at all times, it's a glorious kind of chaos to walk the grounds.  Machines are being worked on, tires changed, engines revved, and vehicles driven on and off the track, back to their tents or pits, and there are no velvet ropes between visitors and competitors.  It's an incredibly democratic, all-access event, a kind of paradise for an arch enthusiast who loves the sound of a rare and highly tuned Vintage motor in use, and loves the sight of a fast machine taken up the banking on such a historic track.

The fantastic Zenith-JAP racer from the Brooklands Museum, parked beside the banking. [Paul d'Orléans]
I've caught every edition of VRM, because the combination of the venue and the vehicles is magical.  I was one of only two Americans present this year (the other was Somer Hooker, on his first visit), and it's amazing to me that for the price of three overpriced nights at a Monterey motel during Pebble Beach Week, one could fly to Paris, and experience the most interesting Vintage event on the planet.

Keeping the magneto dry during one of the many rain showers on Saturday. [Paul d'Orléans]
A lovely 1930s Terrot OHV single, resplendent in chrome and sky blue, an Art Deco masterpiece that could only be French! One of dozens of Terrots participating under the banner of the Terrot Club. [Paul d'Orléans]
Tazio Nuvolari lives! Or at least, in the visage of Graeme Hardy. [Paul d'Orléans]
A picnic on a fine day among the vintage cars, beside the banking - very nice indeed. [Paul d'Orléans]
No rain, no rainbow. While some are looking to the sky, our thoughts are in the gutter! [Paul d'Orléans]
The New Motorcycle! Designer Georges Roy's first machine, with a unique bent-steel monocoque chassis, and Chaise OHC motor. This machine is in original paint condition, is owned by Roy's grandson, and is the only example with rear suspension [Paul d'Orléans]
George Roy's masterpiece, the Majestic, with a car-like chassis, hub-center steering, and a 'body' bolted to the underslung channel-steel frame. We road-tested one - read about it here. [Paul d'Orléans]
Looking like bugs on parade, the beetle-back Morgan brigade presents an entertaining racing program. [Paul d'Orléans]
Like a ghost resurrected, an amazing Pavel Malanek re-creation of a lost Laurin et Klement four-cylinder motorcycle. [Paul d'Orléans]
Not just cars and motorcycles! There are daily parades of vintage bicycles and mopeds around the track, which is a healthy 2-mile pedal. [Paul d'Orléans]
Patina is the wardrobe of rugged glamour. This Frazer-Nash special is always a favorite, and is driven with great verve, slinging sideways in chicanes due to all-chain drive and no differential on the rear end. [Paul d'Orléans]
The Brooklands Museum crew starting up a star exhibit: an authentic Cotton-JAP racer with track history. [Paul d'Orléans]
Cyclecars are a thing. Whether original, restored, or freshly reproduced, they're an entertaining mix of motorcycle engine and lightweight chassis. There's even an event dedicated to them - the Festival of Slowth. [Paul d'Orléans]
The long line of competitors waiting for the off - some to go fast, some to merely circulate, all having a great time on a sunny day. That's Cannonballer Andy Kaindl with his 1915 Henderson Four up front. [Paul d'Orléans]
Very early machines are frequently for sale at VRM, like this 1902 Clément...I have an identical machine! [Paul d'Orléans]
Talbots, tents, and tension before the race. The runway onto the track is the best place to see racing cars up close as they warm up for their track session. [Paul d'Orléans]
A lovely setup purely for your enjoyment: a humble garage made portable for VRM, with a fascinating early machine ready to go. [Paul d'Orléans]
Bugatti's abound! If you're a fan of pre-war racers, VRM is the place to be. Most of the cars are in original, or at least well-used condition, often in the same family ownership from new. [Paul d'Orléans]
Period attire not required, but certainly appreciated. [Paul d'Orléans]
Even hi-wheelers get into the act, and are often the oldest vehicles on the track. [Paul d'Orléans]
One of the Harry Hacker Harleys circulating in European vintage circles: this one built of a Harley-Davidson JD with four-valve cylinder heads, giving a reported 70hp at the rear wheel, and an almighty bellow on the track. [Paul d'Orléans]
A c.1912 400cc OHV Magnat-Debon single in lovely condition. [Paul d'Orléans]
Postwar machines are ridden in for maximum style points, including this lovely French Harley-Davidson FL Panhead Duo-Glide. [Paul d'Orléans]
Speaking of style...it's all here, in spades. [Paul d'Orléans]
The Board Track session gave a rare opportunity to unleash these brakeless, clutchless, suspension-less beasts. [Paul d'Orléans]
A lovely Norton International from the Brooklands Museum team, perhaps the ultimate single-cylinder track contender of the 1930s. [Paul d'Orléans]
The balcony over the starting grid is one of only two 'official' viewing spots for the track, and is a popular spot. [Paul d'Orléans]
The name says it all. See you in 2 years! [Paul d'Orléans]
 

 

Paul d'Orléans is the founder of TheVintagent.com. He is an author, photographer, filmmaker, museum curator, event organizer, and public speaker. Check out his Author Page, Instagram, and Facebook.

Cannonball: Into the West

While there’s complication in keeping an 80-year old motorcycle running all day during the Cannonball, the landscape of America provides a calming counterbalance, as it's absorbed in slow motion from one coast to the other.

Michael Lichter caught my Cannonball partner Alan Stulberg of Revival Cycles riding the Brough through Glenwood Canyon, Colorado

For the Cannonball riders, every mile held fascination and variety, as the landscape shifted from the Florida swamps, to the Georgia farms, the Tennessee and Kentucky woodlands, the Missouri and Kansas prairies, the enormous mountains of Colorado, the red canyons of Utah, Nevada’s harsh and treeless desert, Idaho’s rolling hills and hidden canyons, and Washington’s vineyards and volcanoes.

Following the 'chopper dudes' on their 1936 Knucklehead choppers, through the red rock canyons of Utah, which looks to be their natural habitat

An examination of our country at such a pace allows for a full range of celebration and indictment, for while there was never a mile of nature I would have missed - even the long stretches of Nevada’s forbidding dryness - the footprint of America’s inhabitants varies from placid farmlands and charming small towns, to ugly and identical strip malls, a constant refrain of Wal-Marts, boring suburbs, and the shocking blight of near-abandoned cities like Cairo Missouri. We were given bottled water at one hotel, and warned the tap water was unsafe to drink because of nitrates from farming; in other towns, chemical residue from fracking had poisoned the water, and I wondered if the seemingly innocent pleasure of riding an 80+ year old bike across the country was actually a costly luxury.

Grain silos in Kansas, near the Colorado border, in an area with tainted water supplies, near Goodland

Make of it all what you will, but we’ve seen a 4000-mile swath of the country, in all its mixed glory. The pockets of inane suburbia were dwarfed by the enormity of the country’s natural beauty, which only grew as we chugged westward, into the great, uninhabited swaths of Colorado and beyond. I was unfamiliar with landscapes further eastward, the tobacco barns, humid wetlands, and sugary lilt of waitresses in the South, and the beautiful geometric Amish barn-murals as far west as Kansas. Each rider yearned to spend more time in some charming spot or other, to hang around a bit longer on two wheels, but we all suffered the Cannonball Curse: a 17-day parade of interesting places, with no time to explore.

Frank Westfall riding in the rain in northern Nevada, just south of the Idaho border

My 2014 Cannonball was the opposite of my 2012 ride, which was a sandwich of struggle and heartbreak, with a glorious 1000-mile ride on my Velocette KTT in the middle. This year, I’d arranged a partnership with Alan Stulberg of Revival Cycles of Austin, who took care of prepping our borrowed 1933 Brough Superior 11-50 (many thanks to Bryan Bossier of Sinless Cycles for the loan), plus cross-country transport and support, in the form of mechanic Chris Davis. Thus, I was relieved of mechanicking to concentrate on riding the Brough responsibly, an onerous task given its capabilities. Whatever reputation British motorcycles may have acquired for unreliability and fragility simply didn’t apply to the Brough, which was a rock. George Brough blew a lot of smoke, but there’s fire in his handiwork, and the consensus among Cannonballers was surprised respect; it was clearly the most all-around capable machine on the rally.

Team #38 chief mechanic Chris Davis from Revival Cycles at 6:30am, without a wrench in hand. Why? That was his day to ride from Springville Utah to Elko, Nevada, which might be the reason he looks a bit excited.

Which isn’t to denigrate the seven 1936 Harley EL Knuckleheads on the Cannonball, none of which experienced significant trouble, and most of which received perfect scores by Tacoma. I was offered a 240-mile ride over the Rockies on Matt McManus’ lovely blue/white Knuck, and it traversed the two 11,000’+ passes with aplomb, roaring across them at 60mph. The handling wasn’t as sure-footed as the Brough, but it was difficult to parse the square tires from the quality of the chassis. It took determination to heel the beast around hard bends, and is the only bike I’ve ever had to wrestle the bars in a steering – as opposed to counter-steering – manner. I came away impressed that Matt rides his machine so quickly through the bends, as even this corner-scratcher would be more circumspect. The engine, though, was willing and smooth, revving freely and feeling perfectly modern.

Darryl Richman explains his gearbox woes to Doug Wothke; a temporary repair with set screws to a bearing housing 'only' held for 3000 miles, and we still had 984 miles to go! Darryl got it sorted the next day...
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Quite a few bikes made all the miles, 32 in total, which included four ‘Class I’ bikes of 500cc, from the ’24 Indian Junior Scout of Hans Coertse (from South Africa, and the eventual Grand Prize winner), to a ’31 Moto Guzzi Sport (Giuseppe Savoretti from Italy), a 1932 Sunbeam Model 9 (ridden by Kevin Waters, with an engine built by Chris Odling of Scotland), and the BMW R52 owned by Jack Wells and ridden by Norm Nelson. Other Class I bikes struggled with the enormity of America, and gave bother, including a marque one might assume a cake-walk; early BMW’s have never had an easy run with the ‘Ball, and two retired completely before the first week had passed, while others found creative ways to lose mile points. The middle category, Class II, was dominated by Harley J series machines, which made up the bulk of the Cannonball entry. A litany of complaints prevented them swamping the leaderboard, as broken conrods and melted pistons, even a catastrophic fire, took a toll on their numbers.

Spirit of the Cannonball winners! Shinya Kimura, Ayu Yamakita, and Yoshima Niimi

The four-cylinder brigade of Hendersons, Excelsior-Hendersons, and Indians did well, and all were still running by the end. The big boys, Class III, generally did well, and had an easier time of the rally, being faster and more comfortable than the 1920s-era machines, yet cruised with their 1920s brethren at 50mph out of self-preservation. Riders of slower machines experienced a different rally, being unable to pass vehicles up big hills, and suffering the wake of large trucks as they hammered past; a slow ride is a patient ride, and vulnerable, but faster traffic (not that we encountered a density of cars) proved ultimately safe.

Ron Roberts with his '36 Indian Chief he found in a basement

As our Rally Master, John Classen, was unable to make the final banquet, I was asked to emcee the prizegiving ceremony, in which all rivalries were set aside for noisy celebration. As mentioned, Hans Coertse won the big prize with his pretty ‘24 Indian Junior Scout, which he described as having two speeds – 35mph or 45mph, and that’s how he crossed the country. Perhaps the most significant prize, regardless of points or mileage, went to the Japanese team of Shinya Kimura, Yoshimasa Niimi, and Ayu Yamakita, the only team using the same machine in all 3 Cannonballs, their 1915 Indian, which has become a rolling accretion of unusual mechanical compromises and artful fixes, changing daily as the next 100 year old part broke or vanished beside the highway. For all their persistence, they received a standing ovation, and the Sprit of the Cannonball award. Well deserved.

The sole Rudge this year; four valves, four speeds, but a real challenge over the vastness of America
With a cruising speed of around 45mph, Stu Surr had plenty of time to watch the scenery on his 1924 Rudge
A salt flat; pushing Ziggy's '36 Indian Chief with a flat tire into the panoramic photo session on very mushy salt at Bonneville - no records set today!
Half the panorama; Michael Lichter set up two full-group shots - first on Daytona Beach, then Bonneville, but the latter shot had only 73 bikes, 35 less than Daytona...
Scotland? No, Nevada, in Wild Horse Canyon; an oasis of good riding roads in the midst of a very large desert.
Scott Byrd on his JD bob-job north of Elko, Nevada
Shinya Kimura on his 1915 Indian, the only 3-time Cannonball machine
Shinya contemplating maintenance
Shinya Kimura doing night maintenance on his 1915 Indian
More grain silos; corn and soybeans fill up America's Middle
Yes, quite so. Running sweet and smooth, no problems, less worries as the days droned on...
Francisco Tirado of Spain on his cheater Indian Chief, a '36 rolling chassis with '47 engine...but he made it!
Team #38: Susan McLaughlin, Paul d'Orleans, Alan Stulberg, Chris Davis, at the finish line in Tacoma
The Brough didn't mind a few extra-curricular miles of exploring
Thomas Trapp (Germany) and Marcin Grela (Poland) stop to admire the Nevada desert

t's difficult to express the vastness of the America landscape in photos, but this gives a clue
At times, any flat spot helps when trouble strikes. At least it wasn't raining on Terry Richardson and his '32 Harley VL. Built in the thick of the Depression, this bike comes from a very limited run that year...
Despite the 'helmet hair', the Brough kept thundering along; here in Meridian Idaho.
Official Cannonball photographer Michael Lichter, and the groovy fringe jacket he found en route.

Picturesque ruins in eastern Utah, before the canyonlands, but after the mountains of Colorado
Arriving at David Uhl's studio for a fantastic dinner spread under a wedding tent
Shinya Kimura's 1915 Indian lost compression one afternoon. Or half its compression, anyway. He had it fixed that evening, and was on the road the next day.
Niimi addressing the Indian

A welcome, if unusual, sight at the top of Chinook Pass in Washington: the 1923 Neracar of Martin Addis

'Morticia', the ex-wall of death '29 Indian 101 Scout, with a wheelbase shortened by 4", and her owner Ryan Allen
Riding Loveland Pass on a borrowed '36 Harley was pretty special
Kevin Waters on his '32 Sunbeam Model 9, somewhere in eastern Washington
Testing the tires of a pair of matching Knucks, and a Brough, down Loveland Pass. Michael Lichter photo
Another Knuck in America's grainlands, Idaho

Some of Colorado's autumn splendor, and a few Knucks to boot (plus Fred Lange's special OHV JDH)
Some of Colorado's autumn splendor, and a few Knucks to boot (plus Fred Lange's special OHV JDH)
It was great to see Jared Zaugg in Idaho, here with his father's swanky Daimler convertible
John Stanley on his 1933 Harley-Davidson VLE
Just so you won't forget our Frera riders from Italy, Claudia Ganzaroli and Sante Mazza

Our German and Polish guests relax in the vineyards of Washington
Steven Rinker's '36 Indian Chief in the middle of nowheresville
Fashion is where you find it; while wet and very cold in Kansas, we stopped in a Wal-Mart for warmer clothes, and found some groovy camo gear too. Every man needs a Gillie suit.

The 1933 Brough Superior 11.50 and a grain silo, in the canyons of eastern Washington state
Ciro Nisi and his 1924 Moto Guzzi Sport in Utah. Ciro had a small spot of trouble, but made most of the miles
3 weeks of helmet hair is hard on a man, so I got a haircut at Legends Motorcycles in Springville Utah, from Dayna Boshard at the Refinery. Looks good! I'll post Paul Ousey's haircut next time, in my Wet Plate story...
Across the finishing line with Alan Stulberg.
I made a detour in Pasco, Washington, for some bank business, and came across a farmer's market, with a Louisiana fish fry truck. Best lunch of the Cannonball.
The riders who made it all the way.
Dottie Mattern turned 70 on the ride, and her '36 Indian Scout was a sight for sore eyes.
He kept calm, he carried on. Peter Reeves from Britain, on his '29 Harley JD
Inside Jeff Decker's Hippodrome Studio. Treasures untold.
Jeff Decker’s customized Crocker and ‘Vincent Black Lightning’ specials
Dan says it's just too easy on a Knucklehead...
Craig Jackman pleading with his hotrod twin-carb VL
The Cossacks Drill Team are a Seattle staple, and have been training for decades; they put on a great show!
Back in civilization after miles of desert…
Chris Davis ponders the Brough in the sage
Used as the maker intended. Even after it won the Born Free 6 show; Bill Buckingham's chopper.
Buzz Kanter in the vastness. Fires in California brought smoke all the way up to Idaho
A pair of cool cafe racers greeted us in Meridian Idaho; Triumph and BSA twins
Brough, sage, sky
Canyonlands; off-piste in eastern Nevada
The world famous Washington apple orchards

The red canyons of Utah offer an exceptional riding terrain – with a lot of groomed red dirt roads. The Brough didn’t seem to mind.

“But for me, that endless blacktop was my sweet eternity.” The Loveless
A little roadside repair for the BMW boys

Any vintage BMW owner has considered Todd Rasmussen at some point during a restoration or rebuild…here with his ex-Bulgarian BMW R51/2
“Sweet days of summer, the sagebrush in bloom”

Two bikes, one team; Alan Stulberg on the Brough, and me on Matt McManus' Harley Knucklehead
The final banquet of the Cannonball – general mayhem after 17 days on the road.
Our grand prize winner with his Jeff Decker sculpture; Hans Coertse of South Africa.

Road Test: 1928 Windhoff

The creations of Hans Windhoff began in Berlin with radiator production for cars, trucks, and aircraft. In 1924, he entered the burgeoning motorcycle market with water-cooled two-stroke machine of 125cc - an excellent although expensive creation, with the engine built under license from a design by Hugo Ruppe, whose ladepumpe (an extra piston used as a supercharger to compress the fuel/air mix) design was used most successfully by DKW in their GP bikes.

 

Windhoff had much racing success with these smaller two-strokes, although enlarged racers of 493cc and 517cc were less reliable. By 1926, a totally new machine was offered; the 746cc overhead camshaft, oil-cooled 4-cylinder. Only Granville Bradshaw (creator of the ABC) had successfully used an 'oil boiler' engine in a motorcycle, and the new Windhoff was a technical tour de force.

From Tragatsch's 'Illustrated Encyclopedia of Motorcycles' - the bible! And as full of omissions, but it has a ton of great information, and is still the best general reference on old bikes.

The engine, designed by Ing. Dauben (later to join Mercedes to work on their legendary W194 - 196 racers) had no external 'plumbing', using only internal oilways to keep everything cool, with the engine finning acting as a giant radiator, and recirculating oil the cooling agent.

A period drawing of a Windhoff engine and gearbox, showing the valve cover removed, and the OHC mechanism clear.  The low-overlap camshaft lobes are also visible - not race tuned!

With all major castings in aluminum (barring the iron cylinder head), the massive engine is impressive and aesthetically pleasing, with an advanced single camshaft up top, very much like the best automobile practice of the day. No other 4-cylinder production motorcycle of the period had an overhead camshaft. The 63x60mm short-stroke engine produced 22hp at 4,000rpm, which gave an 80mph+ top speed. This engine performance is on par for other 750cc V- or flat-twin machines, and about the same as American 1000cc or 1200cc F-head 4s.  An engine came up for sale in Las Vegas back in 2010, which I wrote about here.

The Windhoff chassis is as radical as its motor, with no ‘frame’ to speak of, and no need for one, as the massive engine casting is far stronger than bent or lugged tubing.  It predates the Vincent in this concept by nearly 20 years, but the Windhoff is a true 'frameless' machine, as the forks and rear subframe (4 parallel tubes) bolt directly to the engine/gearbox unit. The trailing-link forks use double leaf springs for damping, and there’s no rear suspension; the rear frame tubes emerge straight out of the gearbox casting, and hold the final drive housing for the shaft drive, and rear hub and brake. Despite its massive appearance, the total weight of the machine is only 440lbs. The price when new was 1,750DM, a bit more than the 1,600DM of a BMW R63. A bit expensive, a bit unconventional, and a bit slow on sales, nonetheless the machine ranks as a landmark of vision and development, and is understandably very sought after these days.

While technically and aesthetically the Windhoff is extremely advanced, the overall engine design suffers from a lack of development which would have made it the smooth, quiet, and powerful sports tourer it deserved to be. Sadly, it suffered the fate of a launch at the worst possible moment, when world economic calamity sent incomes spiraling downward, and global motorcycle sales into the ditch. Like most other manufacturers of the late 1920s, Windhoff gave up the ghost, but their legacy is yet fantastic and speaks to a a visionary designer with an excellent idea. On price alone, the Windhoff was considered a luxury sport-touring machine, a category of motorcycling which no longer exists, as anachronistic as wearing a necktie in a Grand Prix race.

The camshaft drive chain enclosure is up front, and a timed breather alongside.  The single, rather anemic carb restricts performance, but it goes well for the period. The bolted-on gearbox is clearly seen, as is the depth of those footboards!

But therein lies its attraction today; a cutting-edge machine with its gorgeous styling born equally of an engineer’s and designer’s eye. The stack of horizontal engine finning is the centerpiece of the motorcycle, and the paired steel bars stretching to the rear hub continue the theme. There’s very little tinware for shape, the machine is almost all mechanical business, barring a shapely fuel tank capping the motor, and the rearward sweep of the handlebars. All else is practical, even ordinary; the fenders are simple C-section with no valence, and the ancillary components are bought-in from the usual suppliers like Bosch.

Smooth handling from the leaf-sprung front forks of short-trailing-link design

The magnificence of the engine, and the strong lines of the rear frame tubes, are key to the Windhoff’s visual success; it’s a stunning motorcycle, among the finest designs of the 1920s. Four cylinders of 187cc make for an easy kickover, and a slightly ‘gear-y’ kick brings the bike to a surprisingly sporty exhaust note. The 2-into-1 exhaust has little baffling, so the power is delivered freely, and the engine revs free too. The 3-speed hand shifter lies about at knee level, and a lack of a shift gate isn’t a problem as the internal indexing of the gears is apparent by feel. The clutch works easily on the left hand inverse lever, and getting off in gear is a simple matter of balancing the revs on the right handlebar throttle lever with a gentle clutch release. There’s plenty of urge from the motor, which sends the rider singing along quickly, accompanied by an audible engine gear symphony, not all of which is sweet music.

Hans Windhoff

The engine feels rougher than might be imagined, and it’s clear – confirmed by the experts – that the Windhoff could use more development to become the machine it wants to be. Canting the machine through bends is easy, and the handling is solid, inspiring confidence…too much confidence it seems, as the footboards are enormous hollow castings meant to hold the tool roll, and aren’t sprung or flexible. I was thoroughly enjoying the bends of the Schwabian countryside, and approaching a tighter corner I looked forward to feeling the chassis challenged a bit. But the bike would have none of it, grinding away valuable footboard aluminum before I rapidly modified my riding position to ‘hang off’ and keep the bike more vertical, taking it a little easier on the remaining bends. I know what I’d change, if the bike were mine!

 

The Windhoff is elegant and sporty to ride, with a glorious aircraft-like bark from the exhaust, and a bit of gear noise between your legs.  There’s no forgetting you’re aboard a real machine with lots of moving parts inside, and riding the bike is a machinist’s erotic joy.  It’s my understanding that long-term riding ownership means keeping after the motor, but nobody’s putting a big mileage on such a rare beast today.  In fact, it’s entirely possible the machine I test rode is the only Windhoff actually in use in the world, the others being fixed into mausoleums and static collections.  More’s the pity, as everyone who sees the Windhoff is curious, and enthusiastic about its amazing appearance.  Would that more people could sample its riding pleasures.

What Windhoff tried after the 750cc 4; a big sidevalve flat twin of more conventional construction in 1929.  In the end, they made a few more small two-strokes with Villiers-licensed motors, then vanished.
Rear end detail; a massive aluminum casting keep the rear frame tubes in line.
The inside of the 4-cylinder 750cc Windhoff motor; a 3-main bearing crankshaft, with a wet sump and oil pump on the left.
The cylinder head top and bottom, showing the passages through which oil circulates, and the flat combustion chamber tops, as per automotive practice. The two large holes at bottom are the exhaust passages; the inlet manifold bolted on.  This and the photo above are from the book 'Pluricilindriche' by Ing. Stefano Milani.  A remarkable, and unobtainable book.

At the end of their tether, the Villers-licensed engine produced for other German manufacturers.  From 'Motorräder Aus Berlin', by Karl Reese.


Absolute Speed, Absolute Power Pt. 1

A Short History of World Motorcycle Speed Records, 1896-1930

When Sylvester H. Roper attached a small steam engine to an iron-frame ‘boneshaker’ bicycle near Boston in 1867, one question burned in his mind; How fast will it go? I have no doubt Guillame Perreaux asked himself the same question in Paris that same year, when he also attached a steamer to one of Pierre Michaux’s pedal-velocipedes.  But it was Roper who was motorcycling’s first speed demon, and its first martyr. Every Café Racer on planet earth should affix to their bike a lucky charm with Roper’s visage. Forget St.Christopher - he never rode a bike; Roper is the true patron saint of motorcycles, and he died for the same sin which stains 21st Century bikers - the lust for speed.

The press of the day recounted Roper's untimely demise at the dawn of motorcycling

On June 1st, 1896, at the tender age of 73, Roper was asked to demonstrate his ‘self propeller’, as he called it, on the Charles River Speedway, a banked wooden bicycle racing track in Cambridge, Mass.  Roper’s steam cycle had a reputation around Boston as the fastest thing on wheels, being able to “climb any hill and outrun any horse”, as he stated. He was invited to pace a few bicyclists at the Speedway, which became a race, and Roper kicked their asses with the 65kph speed of the steamer. Track officials urged him to unleash the hissing beast, and the septugenarian inventor was excited to oblige. After a few scorching laps, Roper was seen to wobble and slow towards his ‘pit crew’ - his son Charles – into whose arms he collapsed, dead. Roper did not crash, but likely had a heart attack from the excitement. Roper became the first motorcycle fatality…not from a wreck, but from the thrill. He deserves a sprocket-edged halo.

== Burning Daytona Sands ==

American engineering genius, motorcycle and aviation pioneer Glenn H. Curtiss, with his V8 dirigible engined Daytona sands racer, which was timed at over 136mph in 1906

Glenn Curtiss inherited Roper’s lust for speed.  As one of the earliest motorcycle manufacturers in the US, he’d caught the racing bug first on bicycles, then attached an E.R. Thomas motor to his bicycle in 1899, which he called the ‘Happy Hooligan’ (yes, our great-grandpa was cool). Curtiss thought the Thomas engine, which copied Comte DeDion’s design, was crap, so he built his own motor.  Curtiss was a mathematical and engineering genius since his childhood, and his engines were reliable and performed better than anything else when introduced in 1905.  Curtiss engines were so good he caught the eye of the fledgeling aviation industry, and began supplying motors for dirigibles.  But Curtiss was more than an engineer; the question ‘how fast?’ burned bright in his soul, so in 1906 he constructed a spindly motorcycle frame around his V-8 dirigible motor, and travelled to Florida to test his monster on the only speed venue in the US; Daytona/Ormond beach.  

The Curtiss V8 record-breaker at Ormond Beach.  The original racer is on display at the Smithsonian Museum while a replica sits at the Glenn Curtiss Museum in New York.  The exposed drive shaft and rear bevel-gears can be seen clearly at the rear wheel...

Timed runs on the sand were conducted with cars and motorcycles, and Curtiss waited until the end of the day’s 'normal' speed runs, with ordinary production bikes, before wheeling out his 40hp Behemoth.  He promptly scorched through a 1-mile trap at 136.3mph - the fastest speed of any powered human to date.  His 'return' run was ruined by the disintegration of the direct shaft drive to the rear wheel (no surprise, with a sand bath for the exposed universal joint) and the rear wheel locked at 130mph, while the drive shaft flailed away at the rider... but Curtiss' considerable racing experience won out, and he hauled the beast to a stop without crashing. A true American hero.

Gene Walker with the special Indian Chief he rode to 104.12mph in 1920, the first FIM ratified World Motorcycle Speed Record...the last time an American machine would hold the record for many decades

With time, the FIM was created to supervise Speed Records, and the first ‘official’ FIM ratified speed was taken again at Daytona beach, when Gene Walker pushed his Indian Chief to 104.12mph in 1920.   That was the last time an American flag flew over the World Motorcycle Speed Record for 70 years.  For their own reasons, American motorcycle manufacturers, who built the technical equal of any bike in the world through the 1920s, virtually disappeared from global motorcycle competition after 1923, when Freddie Dixon took 3rd at the Isle of Man TT on an Indian 500cc sidevalve single.  America turned inward, to its own style of dirt-track racing, and the World Speed Records of the 1920s belonged exclusively to the British.  

Claude Temple aboard his remarkable DOHC Anzani-engined special at speed in 1923

In 1923 Bert LeVack took a frame built by Claude Temple, stuffed it with a mighty 996cc DOHC Anzani engine, and bumped along at Brooklands, half airborne on the notoriously bumpy track.  LeVack averaged 108.41mph, and the FIM didn’t have to cross the Atlantic again for motorcycles until the 1950s, when Bonneville became the location of choice for speed-mad riders.

 

Worthy of another shot - the Temple-Anzani DOHC special, showing the big Anzani engine, developed by Hubert Huygens, stuffed in a fairly crude chassis in 1923.  Apparently it 'handled like a camel' over Brooklands' bumps, but was certainly fast enough to take records.  This machine was destroyed in the controversial National Motorcycle Museum fire, and has yet to be replicated.  It was unique.

== ALL ENGLAND, ALL THE TIME ==

The rest of the 1920s was a fistfight between three tiny English workshops, sometimes called manufacturers, who all used JAP overhead-valve V-twin engines, and progressively made them faster.  The hunt began for a new place to go really fast, as Brooklands was fine for racing, but horrible for speed records. A decent straightway was found near Paris, in the village of Arpajon, the future site of the Montlhéry speed bowl.  The Arpajon road is still there and still very straight; if you got lost on your way to the Café Racer festival at Montlhéry, you probably took the very same road…but sadly, the roaring racers have long since been replaced by honking commuters.

 

Bert LeVack, development engineer at JAP motors, aboard a Brough Superior of the type used to take the 1923 World Land Speed Record, using a big OHV JAP KTOR engine

The immortal Bert LeVack became JAP’s racing engineer in the early 20s, and was hired by Brough Superior in 1923 for a new attempt on the World Speed Record at Arpajon, which succeeded at 118.98mph (or since it was in France, 191.59kph). Claude Temple wasn’t happy to have lost the record to George Brough, an egotist with no real racing experience, so Temple teamed up with the Osborne Engineering Company (OEC), who had unusual ideas about chassis design and steering systems (their nickname was ‘Odd Engineering Contraptions’).  The OEC speed-record racer used a complicated ‘duplex’ front end, which was heavy and didn’t like turning corners – perfect for a Speed Record. Temple used a special 996cc JAP engine to re-take the record at Arpajon in 1926, averaging 195.33kph.  

 

Joe Wright piloting the OEC-Temple-JAP to a World Land Speed Record at Arpajon, France, in 1926

Freddie Barnes, the owner of Zenith Motorcycles, sold the only proper road-racing motorcycles out of all the English factories competing for Speed Record honors. While Brough Superior was flashy and self-promoting, and OEC was preoccupied with bizarre ideas, Zeniths were busy taking more ‘Gold Stars’ for 100mph laps at Brooklands than any other marque, and the tall, lanky Freddie Barnes was their guru.  In 1928, he hired Oliver Baldwin, a Brooklands regular, to ride his 996cc KTOR JAP-engined Zenith to finally break the 200kph barrier, at 200.56kph.

George Brough aboard the 'Works' Scrapper', which he rode at 130mph at Arpajon, and Bert LeVack took the record at 126.75mph.  This machine can be seen at the Brooklands Museum.

George Brough could not bear it - who the hell was Freddie Barnes anyway? – and hired LeVack to breathe a little harder on the 996cc KTOR JAP (conflict of interest? Good business for JAP!) and heated up the competition the next year, 1929, in Arpajon.  George Brough himself rode his factory special to 130mph, the ride of his life, but failed to make a return run due to a minor mechanical problem. LeVack had better luck, averaging 207.33kph.  That was the last time a normally carbureted motorcycle took the World Land Speed Record, as the big old V-twin engines had could not breathe any harder, and so were forced; the Age of Superchargers had begun.

Joe Wright aboard his supercharged OEC-Temple-JAP at Brooklands, ca.1930.  Claude Temple, builder of the machine, stands behind

The English builders Zenith, Brough Superior, and OEC all used the same big V-twin JAP engine, and OEC decided to trump their fellow countrymen by attaching a huge blower to their engine, which increased power by 20%, although the science of supercharging was still young; every plumbing modification and carburetion change was an experiment.  Still, OEC hauled their new machine, along with fearless racer Joe Wright, to France; Wright piloted the OEC-Temple-JAP to 220.59kph (137.58mph) at Arpajon, a huge leap in speed, which meant everyone else needed a supercharger to play the Speed Record game.  Wright’s run was also the first time a rider had officially exceeded Glenn Curtiss’ 1907 speed record…

Ernst Henne aboard the semi-streamlined BMW WR750 OHV record-breaker, a supercharged machine with a pushrod 750cc engine

== THE WAKE-UP CALL ==

While these three Kings of tiny, dirty, and unheated little English workshops – Brough, Barnes, and Temple – were having a splendid time in their private fight for ‘fastest’ bragging rights (on French soil), they didn’t hear the whine of a supercharged flat-twin blasting along at 221.54kph in Inholstadt, and knocking the British flag over.  The English had mistakenly believed their own press and advertising, thinking their dominance of road racing and speed records was almost a natural right, a benefit of their extensive Empire and upper-class privilege, but they weren’t the only ones interested in going fast, and certainly weren’t the only engineers capable of building a really fast motor.

 

An earlier version of the WR750 with a young, confident Henne relaxing on a fine Spring day in 1929

The Absolute World Motorcycle Speed Record, of course, was only one of dozens of speed records available, each based on combinations of time, distance, and engine capacity.  Two German factories – BMW and DKW – were busy developing supercharged road-racing motorcycles; BMW since 1927 with a blown OHV 750cc flat twin, DKW since 1925 with their 175cc and 250cc two-strokes, which used ‘extra’ pistons to pump a fuel charge into their crankcases. Like manufacturers everywhere, BMW and DKW wanted to showcase their engineering prowess through racing and record-breaking, a process which accelerated rapidly in the 1930s, as DKW became the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world with its simple but elegant two-stroke roadsters, and fiercely fast supercharged two-stroke racers.  

The semi-streamlined DKW 250cc supercharged two-stroke twin built for taking speed records in the smaller capacity

International road racing and record-breaking heated up dramatically in the 1930s, regardless of the economic depression which gripped the industrial world.  While English factories like Norton and Velocette developed straightforward and very effective single-cylinder overhead-camshaft racers (the International and KTT, respectively), engineers everywhere understood that an engine which moves air most efficiently, and spins at the fastest rpm, is the engine which produces the most power.  Translated into metal, this meant more cylinders, supercharging, and camshafts near the valves for effective management of cylinder airflow.  The science of the internal combustion engine had been laid down by English engineers like Sir Harry Ricardo and Harry Weslake, who published their principles for everyone to read, but it seemed the German and Italian translations were the best-thumbed.  

The Brough Superior supercharged JAP 'JTOR' engine, revealing the glorious mess required to drive and lubricate the machinery.  Certainly not scientifically designed, but nonetheless a spectacular and successful machine.

Just because the facts are water-clear, doesn’t mean the horse will drink.  For whatever reasons, cultural or financial, the English motorcycle industry failed to embrace the challenge presented to them in 1930s international motorcycle sport, and carried on with designs penned in the mid-1920s, right through the death of British GP racing in the 1950s.  The biggest English factories – BSA and Triumph – had no factory race teams by 1930, while the biggest German and Italian factories probably spent TOO much money on racing.  The British factories who did race (Norton, Velocette, Rudge, New Imperial, etc) had the best engine tuners and chassis designers, with decades of hard experience, who could extract more power and better handling from their reliable single or two-cylinder racers.  

== The Scientific Racer ==

Ernst Henne's supercharged BMW at rest in 1933 at the German GP

The writing was on the wall, and engineers from overseas approached racing motorcycle design from an entirely different perspective, science-based machines designed from first principles, with calculated power outputs and target speeds far beyond what any single-cylinder or V-twin motorcycle could reach.  It was only a matter of time before their experiments were successful. The shock of a BMW taking the absolute World Speed Record was a matter of personal, and for the first time, national pride for the English competitors.  BMW had only existed as a motorcycle company for 7 years, and was already at the forefront of supercharging technology, having bolted blowers onto their flat twins since 1927.  While their supercharged road racers were fast, they didn't handle that well at the limits, and were no match on any race track with curves against the all-around riding excellence of a Sunbeam TT90 or Norton CS1 or Saroléa Monotube.

The Gilera 'Rondine' engine, which had its roots in a 1923 experimental across-the-frame 4-cylinder OHC motor by the OPRA research lab, which was then sold to CNA, who redesigned it as seen here with a DOHC cylinder head.  It gained watercooling and a supercharger, as seen here, by the time Gilera purchased the design...a fine example of a research-based motorcycle engine design, and the precursor to all modern 4-cylinder motorcycle engine

The WR750 Henne rode at Ingolstadt to 221.54kph was based on the R63 750cc OHV roadster, using the same tube-frame chassis, with some very special magnesium racing parts.  It was partially streamlined, but only to the extent of covering the steering head and some of the bodywork in form-fitting sheet metal.  While the overall effect was a bit lumpy, the WR750 was visually a more integrated motorcycle than its cobbled-up competition, because the entire machine was designed inside a single factory, with a set of engineers working to improve their product.

The 1931 iteration of the Brough Superior record-breaker, with supercharger plumbing marring the bike's usual clean lines...but making an oh-so-compelling machine

By contrast, their English competition formed an old-fashioned men's club of jolly sporting gents, who assembled the best components they could buy from industry friends, then worked with racing pals to combine these parts into the fastest possible package, in rented workshops beside the Brooklands track. The cross-Channel competition for World's Fastest became a battle pitting the Engineers against the Enthusiasts, the professionals against the privateers, the mind versus the heart. Of course, this metaphorical division is illusive; every effort required some mix of inspiration and experiment, but the flavor (or national character?) of our competing teams was distinct.  Teams of engineers in Germany working from plans, versus teams of English speed addicts working from intuition and hard-won racing experience.  The contrast between these factions became even more stark as the 1930s progressed, as the World Speed Record became a battleground between BMW and Brough Superior-JAP, and the political/propoganda implications of this proxy battle between rival nations grew far more serious.


Last of the old-school World Speed Record contenders: 'Super Kim', the 1925 Zenith-JAP modified in Argentina with a supercharger and 1700cc motor, seen here at the Vintage-Revival Montlhéry in 2011.  A machine I found in Argentina many years ago, and which now lives in Germany.

Stanley Woods and ‘Patricia’

Stanley Woods was a rising star in motorcycle racing by 1923, having most notably won the Isle of Man Junior TT that year on a Cotton-Blackburne 350cc.  At the end of the racing year, with a bit of prize money in his pocket, he decided to buy a big V-twin for daily use, hopefully a machine with enough sporting potential to race in the Unlimited classes at the Isle of Man and various beach events. So he went shopping at the big Olympia show in London, where all the manufacturers displayed next years' models.  Woods explained, "I actually went to the motorcycle show at Olympia in 1923 with the idea of purchasing a Brough Superior SS80.  This appeared to me, on paper, to be the most suitable motorcycle maker fitting the big JAP engine.  However, I was looking for a discount off the machine.  I had just won the Junior TT and had a big head.  George Brough was not interested."

'Patricia', the nickname Stanley Woods gave to his New Imperial Model 11 Super Sports with 976cc JAP four-cam engine.

"I ferreted around the rest of the show, and looked at Coventry Eagle and Zenith. I finally set my eye on a New Imperial.  Norman Downs, founder and managing director of New Imperial Motors, was a very keen supporter of the TT.  When I approached him he was prepared to co-operate on hundred percent. 'Go and see the JAP people, the gearbox, the carburetor, the magneto people, and whatever they will do for you, we will do the same.' I got a machine at about 40% off instead of the normal trade 20%. It turned out to be a fabulous machine."

Stanley Woods racing Patricia at Portmarnock beach in 1924...a machine of many duties!

Woods raced his New Imperial in local road races (the Temple and Cookstown Hundreds), but found it was too fast for small tracks, although he did find success in sand racing and sprints in Ireland.  The next year, having won virtually all the important Irish road races (but not the TT) he tried to convince George Brough once again to sell him the new overhead-valve SS100 model at a discount.  George said no!

A happy Stanley Woods at the 1923 Portmarnock beach (Ireland) race

[ Note: these photographs were scanned from Stanley Woods' personal photo albums, which were sold at Bonhams auctions several years ago.  The quotes from Woods are found in 'Stanley Woods: the World's First Motorcycle Superstar' (Crawford), to which I contributed a few photos.]

The caption says ‘Evicted’ from their Isle of Man hotel!
Stanley Woods retired with a flat tire at the Bungalow on the Isle of Man
Having fun with friends at Onchan, Ireland
Patricia entered at the Cookstown 70-mile race in 1924; with her twin-cam 1000cc JAP motor, Patricia was a capable performer
The Woods equipe at the 1924 Isle of Man TT, with New Imperial transport

Harley-Davidson FHA 8-Valve Racer

It happens every year; an ultra-rare motorcycle is loosed from the cold, dead hands of a collector, and the 'Net is abuzz with the certainty that THIS, finally, is the Million Dollar Baby.  Some odd mix of voyeurism and knowier-than-thou-ness compels us to excitedly proclaim the staggering rise in blue chip bike prices, while making a show of decrying the very same thing.  The truth is, very few people are savvy enough to know what a blue chip bike is, and fewer still combine that knowledge with a willingness to take a risk and open their wallet.  Prices have risen since the 1950s or the '80s or the 2000s, but the story remains the same - the folks who know and care and want important machines find where they're hiding and buy them.  The folks actually shelling out the big bucks today aren't complaining, because they've known for decades that ultra rare motorcycles are undervalued.  [For a little comparison shopping, check out my list of the World's Most Expensive Motorcycles]

A handsome and purposeful outfit.

The latest gem making the rounds of Instagram (and TheVintagent!) is this just unearthed, single-family for 50 years Harley-Davidson FHA 8-valve racer, which is documented and in as-last-raced condition.  Huzzah; a no-bull 1920s Class A racer which doesn't appear to have been messed with or faked up, like nearly all the others of its ilk.  Hilariously, some of the folks who've sold less than perfect American racers in the past few years have shown their hands with this machine, praising its originality and the importance thereof, while no such praise was possible for their own bikes!  But that's the reality of most old racers - they're usually compromised in the very areas collectors prize most; matching #s, original sheet metal, clear provenance.  When presented with a machine with all boxes ticked, the temperature rises.

The raised ring cast into the timing cover is the giveaway for a 4-cam timing chest.  The oil pump is the horizontal cylinder behind that ring.  Note the exhaust valve lifter emerging from the front of the case, operated by a small lever below the fuel tank.   Although there are no bicycle cranks, a bicycle foot pedal is still used - a rider's affectation or original to the machine?

This FHA is among the last of the factory 8-valves produced by Harley-Davidson, as they were already experimenting with more reliable ways of producing power, and more, the American Class A race series was about to vanish due to the Depression, in favor of Class C, which was production-based and therefore much cheaper for everyone, favoring 'mundane' sidevalve engines instead of 'exotic' OHVs.  Of course, factories across the pond had been producing fast and reliable OHV bikes in increasing numbers since the 'Teens for everyday use, but American buyers trusted valves on the side, but that's another story.

A nice engine shot showing the primary chain oiler, the ignition wires which thread between the barrels, and two further oil lines, one presumably to the rear of the front cylinder barrel, the other to the oil pump on the timing chest.  Note also the small strap keeping the manual advance cable away from the exhaust. The carb is a racing Schebler - can one of my American racer experts fill in the type?

The FHA used a twin-camshaft timing chest, externally distinguished by the raised ring on the timing cover, which of course meant better valve control and thus higher revs and more power.  The revs were also made possible by the good airflow of the 4-valve cylinder heads, which took advantage of the gas-flow research of Sir Harry Ricardo, which proved many small valves pass more air than two big ones.  But without positive lubrication and the oil cooling it provides, a grease-lubed 4-valve cylinder head is a fragile thing, even with the rocker gear exposed to the airflow... plus dirt, cinders, and dust when raced on the Australian tracks this beast has seen.

[Update: the FHA sold for A$600k, which was $423,700US on the day, making it the #10 most expensive motorcycle ever sold at auction]

A good shot of the struts attached to the early H-D forks, which help prevent flexing under the huge side loads from a sliding sidecar. Note also the small steering damper and slotted plate just below the top fork clamps.  The handlebar bend is standard for board trackers.
Fantastic patina.
The FHA was delivered new to the Milledge Bros Harley-Davidson in Melbourne, Australia.
A period shot of the outfit, showing the braced forks, and the canted wheel angle for sliding on dirt tracks.
The simple direct-drive system is clear, with a countershaft running in a robust casting at the bottom of the frame, which holds the clutch and final drive sprocket. One speed!

 

For moto-geeks; note the attachment of the sidecar to a U shaped late and the reinforced engine plates up front.  Plus the extensively ribbed drive-side crankcase.  There's a direct oil line to the (missing) primary chain.
The oval port of the late 8-valve motor is clear, as is the single-rocker system used on a simple, pent-roof combustion chamer.  All exposed, of course, to whatever dirt is thrown up by the track.  Also clear is the camshaft layout, with side-by-side pushrods emerging from the timing chest - a cam for each cylinder, plus the crankshaft oiling line emerging from the front of the motor.
1927 FHA #81...not that they built so many!

Favored by the Gods of Speed

Over the past few years, Bonneville seems determined to reclaim its lakehood, to the great disappointment of speed fans who’ve traveled the globe to test their metal against the clock.   The Speed Trials have been cancelled several times, so last weekend the SCTA - hallowed sanctioning body of speed - held its first ‘Mojave Mile’ event at the Mojave Air and Space Port airstrip, to allow all those revved-up teams a chance to redeem their substantial investments. The Mile is different from Dry Lake top speed runs, organized more like a solo drag race over the 12,500’ runway used by the Space Shuttle.  There’s another ‘Mojave Mile’ event which is open to all comers, but this SCTA event was only for Land Speed Record machines which fit the appropriate specs/regulations, and fills the gap left by a wet early-August Bonneville.  With no spare real estate for a typical speed run, riders are WFO from the start line, with their speed measured at the end of the run. 

On the start line at El Mirage dry lake

Among the Mojave competitors was Bonneville regular Alp Sungurtekin, an Industrial Designer who has developed a pair of pre-unit Triumph twins into the most potent examples ever built for speed.  I met Alp at end of the 2013 Bonneville Speed Trials, where he agreed to sit for a few ‘wet plate’ portraits. His first machine, based on a 1950 iron-head Triumph 6T Thunderbird, is legendary for recording 132mph at Bonneville, with a two way average of 127.092mph, making it the world’s fastest unfaired 650cc stock-framed Triumph in the Vintage gas class. 

At speed, but not the optimal riding position due to handling issues (Jerry Garn photo)

With the experience gained from his success, Alp built a totally new bike in 2014. “I’ve been designing this Special Construction-class bike for 2 years, thinking it over and drawing it out on the computer, and started building it in November 2013.  The frame and all components were finished in March 2014 - it took 4 months to build, and was ready for the May races. My first test that May was bolting the 1950 engine into my new frame, and the bike went 139.226mph, the A-VG record, and that June it recorded 140.2mph.” 

Alp developed this frame with an adjustable rear axle height and stressed-member engine/gearbox assembly

As seen in these photos, Alp’s new racing frame is built to keep the rider as low and close to the engine as possible.  As a result, it’s a tiny machine, with the engine sat well back, and a very short final chain run. The engine plates were built of ½” thick 6061 aluminum alloy, which were hand cut, as Alp has no milling machine. The engine and gearbox form a structural part of the frame with their substantial engine plates.  

Alp with his crew chief/girlfriend Jalika, and the 1950 Triumph he's ridden to 132mph (photo by Adam Bendig photography)

“I have a nice 1958 Buffalo Forge Drill Press that I used like a mill to smooth out the edges. Took forever, little by little. I always fabricate my prototypes by hand and test them on the race course, but all the parts that I build for my clients are CNC or waterjet cut. The frame is very accommodating; its designed to ‘complete’ the rider’s body. It’s not just about the right weight or geometry, it gives a really good weight ratio distribution for maximum traction.  Another feature of the frame is adjustable axle plates that make it possible to change the ground clearance and wheelbase.  It’s different ergonomically, the difference between a land speed racer and a drag bike.  The sitting position won’t let you take off instantly.”

The first iteration of the 1950 Triumph, with girder forks, from 2011

Alp’s Vintage-class iron-head 1950 Triumph Thunderbird uses the original Triumph engine cases, barrels, and that single-carb iron cylinder head, and runs on gasoline.  After recording 132mph with that motor, he began work on a new engine with an all-alloy top end and twin carbs, to compete in the Special Construction “A” class.  The twin-carb alloy head is post-1956 (it's a '64 head), so is ineligible for the Vintage class, but runs in the 650 A-PG/F class.  Aftermarket cases are allowed in this class, and Alp is sponsored by Thunder Engineering, who supplied beefed-up cases and rods. The engine was designed to run on Nitromethane, which gives tremendous power - a supercharger in liquid form - but is known to reveal any lubrication or heat dissipation issues in a spectacular fashion.  “The Nitro gave me clutch problems initially, but the good thing is I didn’t blow up the engine. My Vintage Triumph, running on gasoline, puts out 58-60hp and will hit 140+mph.  But many tell me with the Nitro, my later engine probably produces more than 140hp at 160+mph.”

Crew chief Jalika with the 172mph LSR Triumph

“I first tried the new all-alloy engine in the 1950 frame; running on Nitromethane we hit 149.279mph.  That’s with a stock Triumph frame!  But I didn’t realize that I’d bent the frame, and the rear fender mount shredded the rear tire and slowed me down – I was on my way to 160mph.  The existing record was set in 1995 by the Tatro Machine Special Harley-Davidson – Many fellow SCTA racers told me he blew up many engines to get that speed.  He heard that I’d broken his record, and is coming back in October!”

How low, how small can you get?  Not much of either, in this case.  Alp spends much time and research on cheating the wind, one of the secrets of his success.  He doesn't need a wind tunnel, but has developed a system for very accurate feedback, measuring the effect of minor position changes on speed.  My lips are sealed!

“With the alloy engine in the new frame, I was recorded at Mojave doing 169.1mph -within a standing-start mile, with an exit speed of 172mph. As you know, we’re running a pre-unit 650cc open-class motorcycle with no fairing!  This is a speed no other naked vintage or pushrod 650cc motorcycle has ever achieved in the history of Land Speed Racing.  Our speed is faster than the 650cc/750cc partial streamline APS-PG/F bikes and 750cc / 1000cc open pushrod ‘fuel’ bikes as recorded by any sanctioning body – SCTA/AMA/ECTA.”

Doing the ‘Rollie Free’ on Alps’ Triumph at Bonneville (MotoTintype.com)

“The success of a racing bike is the whole package, not the parts.  I designed my frame for this engine, and I balanced the engine and crankshaft for this frame.  Howard Allen, who used to race at Bonneville and El Mirage in the 60’s/ 70’s with Triumphs and Harleys is one of my greatest inspirations, he was always there when I needed help.  For speed, my cylinder head is the key.  Doug Robinson, builder of the BMRRoadster (the world’s fastest naturally aspirated roadster at 290mph) told me the only secret to speed is how you get the air in and out of the cylinder head – it’s a pump. I’ve probably redesigned and built between 15-20 heads in the past few years; how I modify them is probably my only tuning secret.  I’m using NOS cast pistons (which I wouldn’t recommend), buying them oversized and shaping them by hand – they look really funky and organic.”

“We had some interesting problems – the special construction frame has a rake of about 39deg with about 4-5” trail; it’s meant to go straight at high speed.  The problem showed up while under load, wide open; the runway at Mojave isn’t flat, like Bonneville, it has a crown and the bike pulled to the right, so I had to slow down several times, just trying to stay on the course.  This is a rigid frame, and on this course it bounced like crazy!  El Mirage and Bonneville are much nicer without the paving.  Bonneville is truly flat; I believe going straight is still better with a hardtail frame, even in the semi-saturated spots - it still wants to go straight.  On the runway, without suspension, every time there’s a bump it pushes you to the side, and the very center has a seam in the paving, which is pretty dangerous at 150mph. The course was tough, but even so, the bike was still pulling at 172mph; don’t be surprised if I do 175mph, unless I destroy the bottom end!”
Touché - Alp shoots the photographer!

Alp would like to thank his sponsors: Lowbrow Customs (Amal GPs)Klotz Synthetic LubricantsMorris Magnetos, Thunder Engineering (cases and rods).


Out of the Blue, Into the Black

Vincent Black Shadow.  Legend, faded photograph, dog-eared book, campfire ghost story, popular song.  A dark castle formidable with reputation, built up over the decades as owners, and those who aspired to own, called her ‘widow maker’…‘the world’s fastest standard motorcycle’… ‘pure hell on the straightaway’...’snarling beast’.

The Falcon Black on the grass at the Quail Motorcycle Gathering, exposing the oil tank/spine frame

 

To approach a Vincent Black Shadow, intent to improve it, while standing in the spotlight of peer and media scrutiny, is an act of folly, egotism, or sheer screw-you audacity; examples of each have Been Done in the Custom world.  You may celebrate or denigrate these altered Vincents, but they exist as a confirmation of the Black Shadow’s stature in the motorcycle Pantheon.  Something which had Not Yet been done, though, is wrestling with the ghosts inside the Shadow (‘the Phils’ Irving and Vincent), embracing them with one’s thoughts, hands, and tools, finding new solutions to their old problems, re-thinking the whole motorcycle, re-solving their original questions.  Rare humans have strength of character, and lack of ego, to work with the legendary deceased as trusted advisers, but Ian Barry, for example, is such a man.

The Falcon Black on an exclusive road test in Los Angeles, with the Falcon Bullet

 

That the Black is both a Falcon and a Vincent simultaneously, is testament to this collaboration’s success. The Australian engineer Phil Irving, the v-twin’s mechanical designer, was notorious for quirky ‘solutions to problems nobody asked’, creating rider adjustability - without tools - for brakes, chain tension, riding position, even gearing.  Barry has taken Irving at his word, examined these ‘conveniences’, and made them more elegant, more beautiful, and in fact, more functional.  The front and rear wheels, seat covers, and even the petrol tanks can be removed with no tools at all, while the handlebar and footrests position, chain tension and brake adjustment are all easily fine-tuned by hand, very much in the spirit of the original Vincent, but better.

For a 1000cc hotrod, the Falcon Black is incredibly slim and light

Phil Vincent was an uncompromising visionary, who acquired the ‘HRD’ motorcycle name from bankrupt TT-star Howard R. Davies in 1928, hoping an existing brand name would give a head-start to his advanced ideas on chassis design.  The early HRD-Vincents used stiffened, strutted frames for good handling, plus a distinctive triangulated swinging-arm suspension which Mr. Vincent patented in ‘28, which looks like a modern ‘monoshock’, but in fact originally used a pair of springs with friction dampers for shock absorption.  These early, awkward-looking HRD-Vincents were single-cylinder machines, but by 1936, with Phil Irving’s help, a 1,000cc v-twin engine was created, the inspiration legendarily arriving when two tracings of the single-cylinder engine were overlapped. The Series ‘A’ Rapide had arrived, and it was the fastest production motorcycle in the world, capable of 185kph.

The Falcon Black and Kestrel on display at the Kohn Gallery in Los Angeles during the reveal of the Falcon White and Ian Barry’s wall art

During off-hours in WW2,  ‘the Phils’ discussed and drew up plans for a much-improved v-twin, which débuted in 1946 as the ‘Series B’ Rapide. Eliminating the unnecessary weight of a tube frame, the ‘B’ used the new unit-construction aluminum engine as a stressed element between Brampton girder forks, and that distinctive triangular swingarm, which now used hydraulic shock absorbers.  The new Rapide was faster, more robust, and a much cleaner design than the pre-war ‘A’, giving 190kph performance, if you had a good one.  As the Vincent factory was not destroyed by German bombs in WW2, the machine tools which built the new Rapide were old and worn, giving rise to inaccuracy in machined parts, so laborious hand-assembly was required to bring out the best in the engine.  When the new ‘Black Shadow’ super-sports model was announced in 1948, the 200+kph top speed was created less by ‘hot’ new parts, than the careful selection of the timing and valve gear, properly-machined castings, and ‘blueprinted’ assembly.  In truth, ‘good’ Rapides could be every bit as fast as Shadows, but lacked that magic name and sexy all-black paint finish. Still, the series ‘C’ Black Shadow, now with radical aluminum ‘Girdraulic’ front forks, retained the ‘fastest in the world’ title for Vincents, reaching a peak with Rollie Free’s immortal ‘bathing suit’ run at the Bonneville Salt Flats on a Shadow at just over 150mph.

The devil, or the deity, is in the details; how to integrate a twin-sided front brake with two cables with an internal-scroll throttle assembly, when all of it must fit into a 7/8” diameter handlebar? Then, make it beautiful

Thus the legend of the Black Shadow was created, and continued to grow long after the Vincent factory stopped producing motorcycles in 1955.  The image of Rollie Free stretched out and nearly naked at 150mph, the Hunter S. Thompson articles and books making crazy claims for lethal Vincent performance, and Richard Thompson’s song ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’, piled rumor onto story onto myth.  

The Silver Machine fights for dominance with my Louboutin ‘Rollerboys’…

After all that hype, the Vincent in the final analysis is just a motorcycle, but a damned good one for its day. But of course, 1940s technology leaves plenty of room for improvement, and the Vincent twins have always attracted Real Riders, who modify their machines as they see fit for touring, racing, or posing. But nobody has modified a Vincent Black Shadow quite like Falcon.

The sculptural brackets have an organic feel

The list of work done on the Black is staggering, but to sum up, the chassis was completely fabricated by Falcon, barring a single humble lug, at their LA warehouse; frame, forks, brakes, tanks, handlebars, controls, seat, mudguards.  Their silhouette is familiar as Vincent, clearly a family member, but everything is changed.  The forks are brand new and modernized, yet still Girdraulics; the blades completely redesigned with weight carved away, all bearings changed to needle-rollers for free movement, and the shocks are modern gas units, made bespoke by Works Performance to Falcon spec.  The front brakes have 4 leading shoes, their backplates rigid against the forks, with twin drums spoked shorter/stiffer than the originals, with double the braking power, and lighter to boot.

Phil Vincent’s triangulated rear end has been lengthened with a more robust pivot area, and the suspension modernized with another pair of Works gas shocks. The seat, perhaps the least satisfactory element on a Vincent, is replaced by a small saddle, very light, cleverly constructed, and far racier than the ‘King and Queen’ before.  The structure of the saddle, with the leather cover removed (another by-hand job, to swap ‘touring’ or ‘racing’ covers), is a fascinating and unique design by itself, and on any other machine it would shout. Peer under that seat at its mount, and say hello to a beautiful sculpture, put to new employment.

Ian Barry contemplates his creation a few days before it was debuted at the Quail Motorcycle Gathering

The oil talk, being half the frame of a Vincent, was fabricated entirely of stainless steel; now cooling fins act in symbiosis with pannier fuel tanks, whose hollows guide onrushing air towards the cylinder heads and bronze-alloy barrels.  Those hand-formed aluminum tanks press-and-click onto damned clever spring-loaded pins, vibration-damped by rubber o-rings.  With push-fit marine fuel taps, the entire system is removable in under 30 seconds, with no tools, if one needs to switch from ‘touring’ to ‘sprint’ mode, using the single small pannier tank with leather straps.

Even the springing arrangement under the saddle is beautiful

While the Amal GP racing carburetors thrust dramatically outwards at odd angles, this was standard Vincent dry-lakes racing and sprinting practice in the 1960s, which is the legacy of this particular Black Shadow, which lay in boxes for nearly 30 years in San Francisco.  The radical air intake blows back out through a gracefully curved 2-into-1 exhaust system; the carbs and pipes are the most visually extravagant features of the Black, as the whole machine is characterized by remarkable restraint. There are no fancy flourishes or flashy paint jobs, no engine-turned decoration, no engraved scrollwork, no gemstones or precious metals.   

Former Norton-Villiers co-owner Mike Jackson discussed the Black with Ian Barry

The staggering volume of Time invested to create the Black – 7 highly skilled artisans spent an entire year of their lives building it – was not spent ‘decorating’ a custom Vincent.  The time was spent creating new engineering solutions to the same set of problems faced by ‘the Phils’ when originally designing the Black Shadow, and once these new solutions were devised, each part was crafted in metal as an object of striking beauty in itself.   That Falcon’s parts are superior in their function to the original Vincent parts is outrageous, a slap in the face of History, and generates questions not typically raised in the world of Customs, where Form generally follows Fashion.  Questions like, ‘when is a design finished?’ and ‘can an iconic motorcycle be a conversation over time?’ and ‘just who does Ian Barry think he is?’

More lovely details – no zip ties here

This is the Falcon signature -Ian Barry’s metal handwriting - the sheer sculptural beauty of the motorcycle and its parts, combined with extremely functional modifications.  In this, Barry and the Falcon team are in very rare company, and their work is pushing the boundaries between motorcycles, fine art, and jewelry. The Black is #3 of Falcon’s projected ‘Concept 10’, and exhibits the definitive stroke of a young designer gaining confidence and technical prowess, unafraid within the swaggering world of Motorcyclists to shape footrest hangars, tommy bars, air scoops, and even frame lugs in the most gorgeous, bone-like, and organic forms, shapes impossible to machine, proud evidence of their hand-made creation.  Cast them in silver and sell them to fashion houses, the bits are drop-dead gorgeous.  Bolt them together, and we have an Olympiad with the figure of Jessica Rabbit.  Some lucky bastard actually owns this motorcycle…but he can’t stop us filling our eyeballs.

The technical arrangement of the handlebar mount is absolutely unique, with several parts drawn together on tapers for a tight fit
Ian Barry accepting his ‘Best Custom’ win at the Quail Motorcycle Gathering: he’s since decided ‘no more shows, no more contests’, as he feels everyone’s work deserves accolade
One lucky bastard. The fleetest, smoothest, best-handling Vincent I’ve ever ridden.

Ian Barry at Kohn Gallery - The New York Times

While I was in Sturgis installing the 'TonUp!' exhibit, this article cropped up in the New York Times, which I reprint here in its entirety, with the accompanying photos.  I'll post my own photos and story of the exhibit soon.
CUSTOM MOTORCYCLES AS SCULPTURE: 'THE WHITE, THE BLACK, THE KESTREL'
[the White installed in the Michael Kohn gallery in Los Angeles]
The artist Ian Barry’s newest sculpture could easily be mistaken for a mere motorcycle. It is an impressive piece of hand-built machinery, but that’s not how Mr. Barry sees the newest creation in his Falcon Ten series. To him, his custom motorcycles exist on a different plane than the two-wheel conveyances people drive on public roads. His bikes are the gasoline-powered embodiment of living, breathing, moving art.
In 1998, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum presented “The Art of the Motorcycle,” an exhibition that focused on vintage motorcycles as sculptural objects. The new exhibition “The White, the Black and the Kestrel” by Mr. Barry at the Michael Kohn Gallery in Los Angeles, adds fresh traction to that line of thought. The exhibition includes three of Mr. Barry’s functional motorcycle sculptures. It also includes eight framed works he has culled from raw materials, including industrial clay, aluminum and solvent-dewaxed heavy paraffinic in his Los Angeles studio.
The centerpiece of the show is the public introduction of the White, a completely custom motorcycle built around a a 1967 Velocette Thruxton “Squish head” racing engine, held above floor level at its center on a very slender cylindrical mount. It is the fourth motorcycle in Mr. Barry’s Falcon Ten series, a sequence of 10 custom motorcycles he plans to complete over the next several years. The three displayed at Kohn will be there until Aug. 31.
The Black.  photo: Ian Barry
“One thing I can say about that particular engine is that it’s extremely rare,” Mr. Barry said in a phone interview. “Only nine of them were ever made. It was made specifically to compete at the Isle of Man. That exact model holds the record for averaging 100 miles per hour in an endurance race. That one point was an interesting fact to me. It was an extreme; it’s done something in its history that carries a certain energy. It’s a charged object.”
Mr. Barry has built a following among vintage motorcycle enthusiasts since he helped found Falcon Motorcycles in 2007 with his partner, Amaryllis Knight, an industrial designer. The Bullet was the first motorcycle in the Falcon Ten series and was based on the 1950 Triumph Thunderbird. It was the recipient of the Custom Culture Award at the 2008 Legend of the Motorcycle International Concours d’Élégance in Pebble Beach, Calif.
Mr. Barry produced the Kestrel in 2010, based on a modified 1970 Triumph Bonneville. The Black originated from a 1952 Vincent Black Shadow in 2011.
“Each one carries a particular meaning,” said Mr. Barry. “They are breeds of falcon. That particular naming applies to the work itself. There is an extreme nature to a falcon. They mate with the same partner for life; there are a lot of facts surrounding falcons. They deal in extremes.”
The Kestrel.  photo: Ian Barry
The White is the standout among the trio and is Mr. Barry’s most involved creation. He said the White was built over 6,000 hours during the last two and a half years. The shiny, futuristic finished work bares no resemblance to the monochromatic, utilitarian Velocette racing motorcycle it was originally.
“It starts with foam, clay, modeling, but there is no methodology,” he said. “That’s by design.”
Unlike the other motorcycles in the series, the White strays from historical context. He said he fabricated the parts almost entirely by hand, apart from the engine and the tires.
“Each one is an evolving concept,” he said. “On the first three I chose these historical references, and now I’m choosing to ignore those things and move forward. They will all complete a bigger story of the whole. It’s more about forms and a study that’s not linked to history in any way.”
The White finds Mr. Barry pushing boundaries on the motorcycle-building and sculptural processes, flirting with lightweight, exotic alloys — like unusual types of aluminum, copper and titanium – sometimes used in aircraft construction.
“The fact that I have to research all the mechanical properties informs the work in a way that traditional sculpture doesn’t,” he said. “After I got the materials, the specs disappear and I focus on what I’m trying to communicate.”
Mr. Barry said he was introduced to the Michael Kohn Gallery, which provided a more ideal setting for his vision than a motorcycle show, through the artist Case Simmons.
The Bullet.  photo: Ian Barry
“I made a decision to not ever show at a motorcycle concours again,” Mr. Barry said. “While I appreciate that environment, and those people are enthusiastic and appreciate what I’m doing, it’s something that carries history.”
The Falcons are very much functional works of art, though Mr. Barry shies away from sharing the more technical components of the engineering.
“I’ve ridden the Black over 100 miles per hour and for a couple hundred miles, and I love that riding them is part of their possibility, but it’s beside the point for me,” he said.
Mr. Barry said he had his work cut out for him to top the intricate production process in the remaining six motorcycles.

 

“I’d imagine that it’d be a decade or more before I close the chapter on this series,” he said. “I hope I get to see them all together one day.”

Jeff Decker's 'Black Lightning' at Auction

Jeff Decker is rightly famous for his sculpture, the motorcycle equivalent of Frederick Remington, which has earned him the position of ‘official Harley Davidson sculptor’; his twice life-size ‘Hillclimber bronze statue outsidethe Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee is truly magnificent and a testament to his tremendous artistic talent.  Mr. Decker is also a collector of rare motorcycles (Crockers, genuine racing Harleys from the 1920s onwards, Speedway machines, etc), motorcycle memorabilia, motoring artwork, and ‘1%er club cutoffs’, the sleeveless vests emblazoned with motorcycle club logos.  All of his obsessions with the art and culture around motorcycling have made him a legend in his lifetime, especially for his outspoken opinions on these same subjects.
Jeff Decker is equally outspoken regarding his ultra-famous customized motorcycle, a 1952 Vincent Rapide which he calls ‘The Black Lightning.Decker uses the term ‘Lightning’ to emphasize his machine’s full-race specification, and to puncture any inflated notions that the infamous Vincent Black Lightning – of which only 31 were built – was the greatest motorcycle ever.  In truth, the men who made Vincent famous by setting numerous speed records and winning ‘drag races’ all across the Southwest - Marty Dickerson and Rollie Free – used race-tuned Rapide and Black Shadow models.  
The fact that the most famous Vincents are not actual ‘Black Lightnings’ is critical to understanding Jeff Decker’s motorcycle: the parts used in its creation are mostly ex-Marty Dickerson, as used in his Bonneville Salt Flat record attempts and drag-racing career. They were gathered from archVincent collector and recognized authority Herb Harris, who supplied the ex-Dickerson crankcases, two front cylinder heads, and genuine Black Lightning wheel hubs.  Most parts used are genuine Vincent, and the engine is tuned to Black Lightning specification, with MkIII racing cams, and two ‘front’ cylinder heads.  As the important parts of his machine were actually used in competition, Jeff Decker says “my bike’s got more racing history than 90 percent of the Lightnings out there.”
After collecting the necessary basics, Decker set about narrowing the fuel tank by 4.5” and lowering that tank as much as possible onto the engine to emphasize the brutal beauty of the Vincent V-twin engine.  The tiny ‘banana’ seat is cantilevered from the rear engine mount, and makes the saddle height nearly 8” lower than stock.  He fabricated a custom exhaust system with terminates in a ‘waffle box’ silencer underneath the engine.  The handlebars are straight, with Decker’s own custom-fabricated controls.  The headlamp is a tiny unit tucked well into the girder forks, which use a custom hydraulic shock absorber.  The alloy wheel rim flanges are ‘Deckerated’ with aesthetic drilling, along with the brake cooling ribs, andan original Black Shadow speedometer crowns the front girder fork.  The complete machine is amazingly compact and light, weighs significantly less than a standard Vincent, and looks lean and tough.
Jeff Decker’s “Black Lightning” is a rare thing; a custom motorcycle built by an actual artist, with his hands and by his own design, as an homage to the machines which passed into legend through their racing and record-breaking success.  It is especially rare being a ‘sculpture’ by a famous artist which can actually be ridden down the road, and ridden hard.

'The Ride' Hits the Bookshops

Apologies for being near-absent a few weeks on TheVintagent, but I've been finishing my contribution to the BikeExif book, 'The Ride: New Custom Motorcycles and their Builders', published by Gestalten in Berlin, which I co-wrote with Chris Hunter, David Edwards (Bike Craft, Cycle World), and Gary Inman (Sideburn).  Gestalten publishes big, beautiful art books; this is their first motorcycle book, but as 'The Ride' is already #1 on Amazon's 'motorcycle' search results, they'll likely publish another!  I met with Robert Klanten (publisher at Gestalten), in both Biarritz (for Wheels and Waves) and in his offices in Berlin; as a lifelong rider, he's the perfect guy to pursue the subject.

'The Ride' is a survey of contemporary Custom motorcycle-building culture via the BikeExif slant - ie, what's cool and new-school, and the current trends in various 'styles' - Cafe Racer, Bobber, Board Tracker, Street Tracker, Chopper, etc.  And finally, of course, it's possible to hold a book in your hands to look at these machines, rather than pixellated images limited to 250kb/32dpi....
The Ride: New Custom Motorcycles and their Builders is available here!  And of course, I'm in the middle of writing a second book!  Based on the 'Ton Up!' exhibit which I'm installing -right now- in Sturgis, for Bike Week, all about Cafe Racer culture from the 50s to today - bikes, art, photography, writing.  It will be published by Motorbooks, and I'll keep you posted on developments!

Wot! No Bike?

Guest post by David Lancaster.

Paul Simonon’s first memory of motorcyclists is etched in his mind. “It was in Paddington, where I grew up,” he recalls. “Rockers would hang around the 59 Club there, tearing up and down on bikes. One time, a bunch of these characters started wolf-whistling my mum. I said: ‘Who are they?’ – like she knew them. We kept walking. But something lodged. These things are very vivid when you’re a kid – these people racing around, the leathers like a suit of armour.”

“A leather jacket never ages”

Fast forward some years, and the former Clash bassist’s new series of paintings and book Wot No Bike distil a lifetime of painting and riding motorcycles, and the enduring appeal of the classic biking and punk rock uniform: the black leather jacket.

The Clash were perhaps the coolest and most enduring of punk bands. In addition to his bass playing and occasional song writing, Simonon’s artistic sense and drive also led the band’s distinctive look and stagecraft. Since the band disbanded in 1986 and frontman Joe Strummer passed away in 2002, Simonon has played with Damon Albarn’s groups Gorillaz and The Good, the Bad and the Queen.

Paul Simonon during his tenure as punk rock demigod with the Clash

But painting came before bass playing. As did motorcycling – a later brush with two-wheeled culture came when when a scholarship took him to Byam Shaw School of Art in central London. “There was girl there called Dianne. She was a short little girl, but she had this great big British bike,” he recalls. His head was turned onto British bikes.

The Paddington of Paul Simonon’s childhood, his home just minutes from the 59 Club, still bore the scars of its semi-industrial past. A nexus of road, rail and canal trades meant the area’s streets were a potent brew of workshops and pubs servicing the rail and canal industries. In many ways it was still the Paddington captured by one of his favourite artists, Algernon Newton, dubbed the ‘Canaletto of the Canals’ after his 1930 view of The Regent’s Canal, Paddington. Newton’s work, according to critic Richard Dorment, captured “vast featureless brick blocks built during the industrial revolution that had by then fallen into a state of dereliction”. Even in the 1950s and 60s when Paul was growing up in west London this remained the case – splashes of colour, such as they were, were mainly the state-monopoly red of Routemaster buses and Giles Gilbert Scott’s robust telephone boxes.

The area – “holding on to its soul today, just” according to Paul – housed the 59 Club in the hall by St Mary’s Church. It was run with a benign zeal by Father Graham Hullett, a committed motorcyclist and man of the cloth who, according to regulars, “wore his faith lightly”. For Lenny Paterson, 59 Club regular who was later to reignite so much with his Rocker Reunion Runs of the early 80s, “the 59 Club in its Paddington heyday was a magic time.” Not only did it offer a place for London’s young rockers to ride to, meet at, and fall in love in but in 1968 its private members’ status meant it was able to screen László Benedek’s The Wild One for the first time in the UK after the film was banned in the late 1950s.

Paul Simonon gives Joe Strummer a ride on his Triumph

The classic 1950s and 1960s rocker look of black jacket, straight-legged denims or leathers which had struck Paul in the late 1960s would re-emerge in punk of the mid-1970s, but not without a struggle. The greasers and teds of the 70s would cross the street to start a fight with a punk. As Joe Strummer observed in a late interview, punks took their uniform and “tore it up… which they saw as disrespecting their kit.”

Yet, despite fights on the King’s Road between teds and punks, the links of style and personnel between music and motorcycling had never been so close since the 1950s. As fellow punk pioneer and classic motorcyclist David Vanian of The Damned says, Rock and roll of the 50s came and went really quickly, and didn’t get a chance to mature. The look was clean, sharp.” The links between the two struck legendary DJ John Peel too, seeing the “raw energy of early rock and roll” re-emerge in punk’s guitar-led attack compared to the stoner-indulgence of much 1970s music.

It was fellow musician, the late Nigel Dixon from rockabilly outfit Whirlwind, with whom a shared love of motorcycles – and chance – led the two to take up biking Stateside and a further chapter in Simonon’s two-wheeled and musical life. “After the break-up of The Clash, we spun a globe – to see it land on El Paso. So we sold our bikes in the UK, and went to live in El Paso, and bought these two old Harleys,” he recalls. After riding across from El Paso to LA, the two pitched up at a bar to be met by a girl Paul knew from London. “Paul, I can’t believe you’ve got a bike like Steve’s!” she said. And so ensued recording sessions with Bob Dylan and months riding around LA on old Harleys with Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols and others, “Like a long, leather motorcycle snake,” as Paul puts it.

But the major influence on Paul Simonon’s motorcycling was the author, eccentric and Russian art expert, Johnny Stuart, introduced to him by Dixon. “The first Triumph I had was a white and gold 3TA”, Paul recalls. “And then a 5TA off a mate of Johnny Stuart’s. We’d all hang out, go for runs. I got to know him very well.”

 

Stuart was a key figure in late 70s and 80s London classic motorcycling, and Paul’s life at the time. Not only did he pen the seminal Rockers! in 1987 which collated and chronicled the rockers’ movement (Paul is photographed in it) but he built up an archive of original jackets and a network of friends and riding buddies who crossed boundaries of class, work and background. Paul remembers a “complete one-off – a scholar, rocker, great host.” Appointed Sotheby’s expert in Russian icons in the 1970s (his rival at Christie’s dubbed him the “greatest authority on Russian art outside of Russia”) he passed away at the age of just 63. A jacket of Johnny’s features in Wot No Bike.

“Johnny loved every aspect of 50s and 60s motorcycling,” says Paul. “The look, the bikes, the sound. Like everything he did, he became an expert.” His lodgers, Crispin Ellis and Trudi Gartland, would park their bikes next to their ground-floor double bed after a run, and Stuart’s Colville Mews house was, until the very end of the illness which took his life in 2003, a heady mix of Russian icons, dismantled Triumph engines, rockers and musicians such as Siouxsie Sioux, Brian Setzer from the Stray Cats and, of course, Paul. “You’d come home and there’d be a few bikes outside,” Trudi recalls. “But also a black limo, surrounded by bodyguards, as Johnny was valuing a piece of Russian art for some high roller.”

There is a quiet determination about Paul Simonon. He’d been playing bass for just six months before The Clash’s first recording. Yet, just a few years later, the band cut London Calling, dubbed by Rolling Stone magazine the best album of the 1980s. Simonon’s reggae-infused bass is a key part of such epitaphs: on the album’s title track it is as distinctive as Herbie Flowers’ playing on Lou Reed’s Walk On The Wild Side, adding a muscular energy and attitude to the limited canon of bass-lines you can you hum, but which also make the record. “The only punk band with groove,” according to Scott Rowley.

His painting displays the same application. For an earlier series of London landspaces, part of the process was “just getting out there, on a bridge, in the wind and rain, and painting,” he says. “I’d avoid eating or drinking – you didn’t want to leave the stuff unattended, or pack it up for a break. So I just carried on, with the odd smoke, for hours.” These days, his Paddington studio is warmer but the same work ethic is evident as the visitor takes in several canvasses on the go. He likes to “keep painting through”. Such commitment extends to being imprisoned for two weeks after working on a Greenpeace ship as a chef, his background unknown to his fellow activist-inmates.

Wot No Bike captures much about classic motorcycling, in elegant still-life. The artist himself is an off-screen presence to a jacket on a chair, or gloves, cigarettes and crash hat resting after a run. “A leather jacket never ages,” he says. A jacket swapped with Joe Strummer for one of Paul’s earlier works – “he couldn’t believe I would paint washing up, in a sink… so we swapped” – carries the title of the book and exhibition.

The paintings are refreshingly traditional, in the realist tradition Paul admires. And in the dark creases, distress and crumpled leather it speaks volumes of two-wheeled experience, both good and bad. “Johnny Stuart used to urge me to ride in the rain more,” remembers Paul. “I couldn’t see the appeal much then. But now he’s no longer with us to tell, I really get it: the balance of power and traction. The focus.”

Simonon’s daily ride is a lightly modified Hinckley Triumph. “The funny thing is when my mum first saw me with my bike, she said: ‘Oh, that brings back memories – your dad used to have a bike like that, a Triumph.’ Then I found out he was a dispatch rider for the army, in Kenya. These things come out. And now one of my sons has a bike. At a young age, he would say to me: ‘Dad, I want to make something that can propel me somewhere.’ And I’d say: yeah, it’s called a motorcycle.”

………………..

Based on his Introduction to Wot No Bike © David Lancaster

Pictures © Dave Norvinbike as marked, and others

The exhibition runs at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London SW1 from January 21 until February 6 (www.ica.org.uk).

Copies of the accompanying book available from Amazon and signed copies from www.paulsimonon.com.


The Last Great Brough Hoard?

I've heard rumors of this collection for years; a fine hoard of Brough Superiors, including SS100s and a 1-of-8 Brough/Austin 3-wheeler, sitting outdoors in a south England yard, and slowly rotting away.  The owner refused to consider many offers for individual machines or the whole pile, preferring to watch them slowly return to earth than watch grass grow in their stead.

Looking a bit rough; a 1938 MX-engined SS100, looking very complete, and completely rusty!

The rumors were recently confirmed by Ben Walker, who had just secured the rights to sell the collection of the late Frank Vague of Cornwall.  When he sent a 'for your eyes' photo of the machines in Vague's yard, I knew this was the collection so long spoken of.   So true, and so very sad!  But, as given the value of all Broughs, there's no doubt every one of them will be brought back to as-new condition in short order, keeping the likes of Dave Clark and other Brough restorers busy for many years to come!

The Brough collection as unearthed after 50 years collecting dirt and rust...

Ben Walker says, “This is one of the greatest motorcycle discoveries of recent times. A lot of mystery surrounds these motorcycles, as very few people knew that they still existed, many believing them to be an urban myth. There was a theory that they still existed somewhere in the West Country, but few knew where. Stored in barns for more than 50 years, the motorcycles were discovered whole, in parts, and some were partially submerged under decades of dust, old machinery parts and household clutter. This is the last known collection of unrestored Brough Superiors; there will not be another opportunity like this. Only eight four-cylinder machines were built, and the example in this collection is the final one to be re-discovered.”

1150s have shot up in value since I rode one successfully on the 2014 Motorcycle Cannonball (with partner Revival Cycles maintaining the machine).  Still, there's probably wiggle room in the price for this 1938 1150 with plunger frame...expect to re-tube the frame and forks for any of these machines, and perhaps make new aluminum castings for certain parts. Obviously all new tinware!

Perhaps the most interesting machine in Vague's collection is the 3-wheel Brough Superior with a modified Austin 7 engine (the 'BS4'), one of 8 produced, and the last one to be positively identified [see my Road Test of a BS4 here!].  George Brough felt the 4-cylinder engine was the ultimate ideal for a motorcycle, and of course Honda proved him right 40 years after he began making one-offs with four pots.  The Austin-Brough was the only 4-cylinder BS produced in series, limited though it was; the others were the in-house sidevalve V-4 and 'Dream' flat fours, and a Motosacoche inline 4 scrapped when Bert LeVack died.  All of these machines still exist.  This newly discovered BS4 was the property of Hubert Chantrey, who rode it solo in the London-Edinburgh Trial, and was famous for riding his BS4 in reverse around Piccadilly Circus!

 Bonhams will sell the collection next April 24th, at their Stafford Spring auction.  There are links to each machine below the bikes, if you're looking for price estimates...but I wouldn't put much weight on those!  Not a 'Brough guy'?  Well, there are two HRD-Vincent Series A twins at the same sale, and a Coventry-Eagle Flying 8 with KTOR motor...it's going to be one hell of a sale.

One of 3 SS80s on offer; this one a 1939 SS80 with plunger frame option, and Brampton girder forks.
3 Incomplete Brough Superior 'kits' will keep the less well-heeled collectors happy; long term project anyone?  I've owned a few myself...there's no sin in a basket Brough.  This is a 1926 SS100 with the KTOR motor gone missing.


Holes in the Memory

[Words: Paul d'Orléans.  Originally published in Cycle World ]

When Sylvester H. Roper attached a small steam engine to an iron-frame ‘boneshaker’ near Boston in the late 1860s, he had no idea Louis-GuillamePerreaux was fitting a micro-steamer to a pedal-velocipede at the same time, in Paris.  Kevin Cameron and I disagree on their species; he calls them ‘steam cycles’, but I think any motorized two-wheeler that delivers yeehaw is a motorcycle.  That’s a scientific measure; the all-important Y factor.  It’s what got both you and me and everyone else into bikes, even in the 1860s. Roper regularly rode his ‘self propellers’ around Boston, scorching the road between his home in Roxbury to the Boston Yacht Club, where he’d refuel and (presumably) have a beer. On June 1st, 1896, Roper was invited to demonstrate his steamer at the Charles River Speedway, a banked cement velodrome in Cambridge.  He out-paced a peloton of bicyclists, then steamed away from a top pro racer. Track officials urged him to unleash the hissing beast, and after a few scorching laps timed at over 40mph, Roper wobbled, shut down, and collapsed. He was 72 years old, and had a fatal heart attack during a major yeehaw moment; he was the fastest cyclist in the world, and felt it keenly.

'Did Joy kill him?'  Sylvester H. Roper's obituary in the June 2, 1896 Boston Globe

SylvesterRoper invented motorcycling; he was its first speed demon, and its first martyr. He’s our patron saint, and died for the same sin that stains 21st Century bikers - the lust for speed. His steam cycle of 1869 sits in the Smithsonian – their oldest powered vehicle, which they call a motorcycle – and the bike he died on sold for 500grand two years ago.  He’s pretty important to the history of our second favorite pastime, and a hero of mine.  So while visiting Boston last year, I was keen to follow the Roper trail, and asked Dave Roper (the first American to win an Isle of Man TT, and a distant relative) if he knew the address of his namesake?  He recalled 294 Eustis St in Roxbury, but a visit in the company of photographer Bill Burke revealed a parking lot.  I hit the Boston State Library, and found we were darn close – he lived at 299 Eustis St, and the house still stands.  I told every Bostonian I met about this exciting discovery, and admit to crazy fantasies of buying the place, because Roper!  If he’d created a cure for smallpox, or invented the automobile, or written famous novels in his day, you’d find a plaque by the front door, with the house listed in tourist guidebooks.  But this is motorcycles, still a dirty word to some, so the house remains uncelebrated and overlooked, except now you know about it, too.

The Google Earth snapshot of 299 Eustis St, Roxbury MA, the former home of the inventor of Motorcycling.

There’s little published on Roper, certainly no proper biography, just a few columns in 1800s magazines, and a lot of ‘web conjecture. The first motorcycle books weren’t published until the early 1900s, and all were ‘how to’ until Victor Pagé wrotea history of motorcycles in 1914.  That might sound like the dawn of the industry, but ‘Early Motorcyclesand Sidecars’, which is still in print, was published 45 years after Roper and Perraux pioneered motoring on two wheels.  Many thousands of books about motorcycles were published in the next 100 years, from ADV travel in the late ‘Teens (it was all adventure then), to tell-alls about 1%er club misadventures, to hundreds of histories of long-dead makes, from Aermacchi to Yamaha.  But there are still big holes in the literature, and a lot of important stuff is missing from moto-history.  I’ve been approached to write books on two brands this year – Zenith and Motosacoche – which in their day held World Land Speed records, won championships, and made a dent in their world.   Researching those stories is hard work, but it feels good, like cementing the foundation of the House of Motorcycles.  Put a plaque on it!"

Hanging with Roper’s second steam cycle, built in 1895…

Cycle World editor-in-chief Mark Hoyer and myself at the Handbuilt Show, with the hot-off-the-press May/June 2016 issue of Cycle World featuring the first ever hand-painted cover of the magazine, without a motorcycle photo!  It's an historic issue, and the cover looks great, by Ornamental Conifer - the 'Hand Built Issue'

 

Paul d'Orléans is the founder of TheVintagent.com. He is an author, photographer, filmmaker, museum curator, event organizer, and public speaker. Check out his Author Page, Instagram, and Facebook.

Shooting the ‘Arrow’

While Burt Munro's 'world's fastest Indian' is the most famous record-breaker to use Springfield iron as its base, it certainly wasn't the only Indian used in land speed record attempts.  Let's not forget that the first-ever certified absolute motorcycle world speed record was set by Gene Walker on his 994cc Indian, at Daytona Beach in 1920.  While he 'only' recorded a 2-way average of 104.21mph (167.56kph), this was faster than anyone else had done under the watchful eyes of a neutral (ish) sanctioning body - the FIM - who still oversee international records.  Glenn Curtiss was timed one-way back in 1906 at over 136mph on the same stretch of beach, but it was an unsanctioned record, and not repeated in a return run.  

The front half of the streamlining of the Indian 'Arrow' in 1937 at Bonneville

In 1936, Oakland Indian dealer Hap Alzina supervised the construction of a streamliner shell for another attempt to take the absolute honors for Indian. Alzina had secured a rare factory 8-valve 1000cc  racing engine from 1924, one of a dozen built by Charles Franklin.  These engines were capable of 120+mph speeds, running on alcohol, and it is supposed Alzina's engine was used to set the American speed record in 1926, with Johnny Seymour blistering along at 132mph. It seemed to Alzina that a bit of streamlining, as clad other world record machines (BMW, DKW, and Brough Superior specifically by 1936), could send the Indian name ot the top, especially as Joe Petrali had recently taken the American record on his modified 'Knucklehead' at 136.183mph - on a streamlined machine which had its body removed after it was found to be unstable.  The last-generation 8-Valve  engine was at least as fast as any unsupercharged motor then in existence, so in theory they had a chance.

The aircraft techniques used to build the streamliner included lightweight balsa wood 'stringers' and plywood bulkheads, all very light - uneccesarily so.

Knowing streamlining was  tricky business, Alzina hired an aircraft engineer (William 'Bill' Myers) to draw up and construct the very plane-ish body, which was constructed of balsa wood strips over plywood bulkheads, covered in canvas, and sealed with 'dope', just like a biplane.  A chassis was constructed around the engine from a variety of Indian racing parts, with 1920 forks, a recent frame, and an older rear section, all of which was very light, as per their usual racing practice.  The tank was from a '101' Scout, and the naked machine looked surprisingly coherent for a cobbled-up special. To economize on the timekeeping expenses, three machines were taken to the Bonneville Salt Flats for record-breaking: a Sport Scout, a Chief which had been stripped down to Class C rules, and Alzina's 'Arrow'.  All 3 machines were in fact heavily 'breathed on' for the records, and the Scout became the fastest 750cc in the USA at 115.226mph, while the Chief managed an impressive 120.747mph, both Class C American records.

At Bonneville in 1937, with diminutive rider Fred Ludlow, who just fit into the shell

Fred Ludlow piloted the 'Arrow' in tests, and the ultra-light weight and racing chassis geometry of the bike did the attempt no favors.  That the streamline shell was untested, and also very light, was also bad news, and while the bike was very fast indeed, it proved unstable above 145mph, weaving and tank-slapping until it was blown off course, and realizing the shell was unsuitable, the attempt was scrapped.  It's easy in hindsight to diagnose the flaws of their machine, but Alzina was a private dealer with a little factory help, and not a well-funded, factory-backed racing effort.  It was clear the project needed a lot more work, but he'd spent a bundle on the machine already, and ultimately decided to shelve the project and concentrate on Class C racing, hillclimbs, and selling motorcycles. The 'Arrow' languished in Hap Alzina's back room for decades, and it was eventually purchased by the Harrah's collection in the 1970s.  It certainly exists today, and photographs show a compelling motorcycle, almost a 'resto-mod' with those early loop-spring forks, and one which every Indian fan wishes they owned!

The Indian Arrow racer as seen in the Harrah's Museum

 


‘The Killer’s’ Panhead Tops $385k…

AMecum's Kissimmee auction yesterday, Jerry Lee Lewis' 1959 Harley-Davidson FL 'Panhead' which he's owned for 55 years, and was a gift from the Harley-Davidson factory, sold for a remarkable $385k, including fees.  This places his Harley at lucky #13 on my 'Top 20' list of the World's Most Expensive Motorcycles; wholly appropos.   I was asked to interview 'the Killer' and provide text for the auction, which is below:

The Panhead on delivery in 1959 from Ralph Murray of Harley Davidson Sales in Birmingham, Alabama

"Rock n’ Roll legend Jerry Lee Lewis has an outsize reputation as a larger-than-life character living with scant regard for public opinion. Regardless of debauched tales and extreme behavior, this electrifying showman not only climbs onto pianos, but also motorcycles…which should come as no surprise at all. In the 1950s, he seemed the most‘at risk’ performer of all, pioneering a new musical style with an aggressive, almost wild stage presence, as well as the original “sex, drugs, n’ rock n roll” lifestyle…yet he remains alive today, still performing on occasion, and still with a clutch of Harley-Davidsons in his stable.

 Lewis bought his first motorcycle – well, a Cushman scooter – at 16 back in 1951, when he “wasn’t big enough for a real bike”, using money he earned working on his father’s farm. But ‘farm work’, and the Cushman, wouldn’t last long; his first hit record from the historic Sun Studios dropped in 1956, ‘Crazy Arms’, which sold 300,000 copies, mostly in the South. The next year, ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’ spread like a grassfire across the globe, and as a gift to himself, Lewis purchased a brand-new, blue 1957 Harley-Davidson FLH ‘Panhead’, with the big 74” motor. “It was a fine motorcycle, and I rode it all over the place. When I put out my first record is when I bought that bike.” 

Jerry Lee with his third (of 7!) wife (and cousin, Myra Gale Brown, aged 13) in 1957, with his first Panhead, also a '57 model

Jerry Lee Lewis was at the peak of his early career in 1958, having already sold millions of records, and established himself in the Rock ‘n Roll firmament alongside Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Gene Vincent, and Little Richard. The Harley-Davidson factory, always savvy with ‘product placement’, gifted a pair of new 1959 FLH Panheads to Lewis and Elvis Presley. Jerry Lee got his first, which irked The King; “Harley-Davidson asked if I’d like to have a new bike, and they brought it down to Memphis and gave it to me at my house. Elvis got the second one, and there was a bit of personal talk about this – he couldn’t understand why he got the second one, so I asked if he wanted to trade! That was just a joke.”

Good times, when girl fans tore the clothes off his back...

Lewis really enjoyed this ’59 Panhead, “It’s a fine motorcycle, no comparison to my ’57 Panhead - the motor on that one wasn’t quite as nice. This motor is just as good as the day it was given to me.” Asked why he’s selling a precious piece of personal history he’s owned for 55 years, Lewis becomes pensive. “There was a time I wouldn’t take a zillion dollars for it, but now it’s just sitting there. You can crank that motorcycle up and she purrs like a kitten – but you have to kickstart it you know. I could probably sit on it alright today, but I wouldn’t take a chance. I’m 79 years old. This bike is like a child to me, but I’ve decided it’s time to let it go.”

 Jerry Lee Lewis’ loss is a memorabilia collector’s enormous gain, as few celebrity motorcycles have such an indelible association with a notorious and legendary owner. ‘The Killer’s ’59 Panhead, looking fresh as the day the factory gave it to him, still in his ownership after 55 years; it doesn’t get any better than that, and likely there will never be another classic Harley for sale with such solid gold provenance. If that doesn’t leave you ‘Breathless, Honey’, it’s time to check your pulse."

Great Balls of Fire!

In the 'now it can be told' file, Lewis admitted a big reason he was selling the Panhead was to prevent a family feud after he dies, with many heirs clutching at whatever fortune he's retained after half a century.  He still has one bike, a Sportster, which he's revved up on stage in the past, and now sits in his Florida restaurant.

 

Here's a video of the auction sale:


BMW Path 22: Hanging Ten on the Trends

[Words: Paul d'Orléans. Originally published in Cycle World]

While in the south of France for the Wheels&Waves festival last week, BMW revealed its concept surf-moto, the 'Path22' - a reference to the forest service road Vincent Prat takes to his favorite surf spot north of Biarritz. With paint by Ornamental Conifer and a custom surfboard by Mason Dyer, Path22 is a lovely homage to an event which has become the premier alt.moto festival in the world in just 4 years.  Here's the article I wrote for CycleWorld.com. 

Nicolai Sclater, otherwise known as 'Ornamental Conifer', painted the Path22 by hand in his signature avant style

The Southsiders MC, organizers of the Wheels&Waves festival in Biarritz, have been tearing up the Basque Pyrenees every June since 2009.  There were 10 of us that year, and six years later the gang has grown to 10,000.  The first official edition of Wheels&Waves appeared in 2012, and was modest by comparison, but smelled of gunpowder. The artists, writers, builders, and publishers who participated knew something was up, and it was only a matter of time before the rest of the world felt the blast.

Robert Klanten of Gestalten (my publisher for 'The Ride' and 'The Chopper'), and Chris Hunter of BikeExif get the tour of the Path22's features from BMW head motorcycle designer Ola Stenegard

BMW was the first brand to sign on with Wheels & Waves the following year, as  ‘Sonic’ Seb Lorentz (of Lucky Cat Garage) cajoled his bosses at BMW France to literally take a stand.  It was a shrewd move, and their presence has grown yearly, first bringing historic machines to display (a pair of Ernst Henne’s supercharged world speed record missiles), then revealing special collaborations, like the Blitz R9T custom, with the world’s first 3d-printed fuel tank.

Details of the fun paint job - not the typical BMW effort! But it's all about fun...a new direction for BMW

This year BMW’s big reveal was the Path 22, an in-house collaboration with artist Nicolai Sclater (Ornamental Conifer), who hand-painted an appropriately fun Wheels & Waves scheme on a Scramblerized R NineT. Mason Dyer was commissioned to shape a board to haul alongside, on a special factory-made—but sadly not catalog-offered—surfboard carrier. When pressed about the missing wetsuit pannier, BMW Motorrad’s chief designer, Ola Stenegard, rolled his eyes and laughed. “I know. But then we’d have another one-off piece to explain we’re not going to produce,” he remarked. Too bad—the carrier was beautifully crafted, and surfers would benefit from a proper accessory instead of some cobbled up contraption with duct tape.

In its native element: the Concept Path-22 on the beach in BIarritz (CycleWorld.com)

Obviously, the Scrambler theme has already been trod by Ducati. While BMW has long owned the street/dirt combo with its GS legacy, there’s a whisper on the wind that the factory will offer its own Scrambler. Looking at the abbreviated lines of the Path 22, the way is clear. Riders will line up for this machine, just as they do for the standard R NineT, which has become BMW’s top seller. Getting Nico to hand-paint a groovy geometric scheme is another matter, and might require a mix of patience and lucre. But what’s important with Path 22 is that BMW has gotten the message—what people need from motorcycles right now is maximum fun.


 

Paul d'Orléans is the founder of TheVintagent.com. He is an author, photographer, filmmaker, museum curator, event organizer, and public speaker. Check out his Author Page, Instagram, and Facebook.

Kenji Ekuan

As a child, he wandered the streets of his native Hiroshima just after the nuclear devastation, and spoke of hearing the voices of 'mangled streetcars, bicycles and other objects', lamenting they could no longer be used.  After his father died from radiation poisoning, Kenji Ekuan became a monk, but changed course to become the most celebrated industrial designer in Japan. He graduated from the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music in 1955, and set up his own design business in 1957. Regarding 'futuristic' design, Ekuan stated, "When we think of the future of design, we might imagine a world where robots are everywhere, but that's not it.  The ultimate design is little different from the natural world."

The 1977 Yamaha TZ250, a classic entry-level production racer, with perfect bodywork designed by GK Dynamics

Ekuan's GK Design Group went on to work with Yamaha, and the VMax is one of Ekuan's most famous motorcycle designs. Far more famous is his ubiquitous red-capped Kikkoman soy sauce bottle of 1961, which was inspired by watching his mother struggle with transferring a large bottle of soy sauce into a smaller container for the table.  The GK group also designed Japan's Bullet Train, corporate logos, and musical equipment.  Kenji Ekuan was awarded the 'Golden Compass' award in Italy for his lifetime of brilliant design.  Ekuan was born on Sep.11th 1929 in Tokyo, and Feb 10, 2015.

Kenji Ekuan

According to Yamaha, GK Design Group was responsible for nearly all of their motorcycle designs until very recently. In 1989, a separate division within GK Design Group was formed specially to deal with vehicle design, GK Dynamics, which also contracted with Toyota.  It wasn't until 2014(!) that Yamaha formed an in-house design team, headed by Akihiro 'Dezi' Nagaya.

Ubiquitous: no higher accolade for a man's work – Ekuan’s sketches for the Kikkoman soy sauce bottles

 

I've been familiar with the unorthodox design philosophy of GK Dynamics since 1989, when they published 'Man-Machine-Soul-Energy: the Spirit of Yamaha Motorcycle Design'...which I've always referred to as the 'Yamaha Sex Tract', as it is the first published motorcycle design document which explores the erotic and sometimes explicitly sexual nature of our relationship of "the second most intimate machine" (my quote - the first most intimate is, of course, the vibrator).

Among Ekuan’s most famous motorcycle designs; the Yamaha VMax

I recommend reading the book if you're a student of design, or would like to explore how differently the Japanese designers in Kenji Ekuan's firm thought about and discussed their work - it's a fascinating glimpse into a wide-open mind and industrial design philosophy, and I doubt any such discussion was ever held at Harley-Davidson or BMW!  And I reckon few industrial designers working for major corporations have publicly acknowledged the debt of modern design to DADAist artist Marcel Duchamp.  It's remarkable stuff.

An elusive but illuminating read!  And definitely my favorite corporate communication ever; it took years of searching to find a copy, but I recommend finding one.

Here's a sample from the book, written by current GK Dynamics President Atsushi Ishiyama:

"When I first came into contact with the motorcycle as an object to be designed, my first impression was that it is extremely sexy, even considered in terms of pure shape, the single cylinder engine is truly phallic...the part where the engine connects to the frame is thick, giving it the very shape of a sex symbol.  The muffler also has the unique glow of metal, making it look just like internal organs.  The tank has a richly feminine curve, and the metal frame bites tightly into the engine like a whip.  I am certain the the designers did not have this aspect in mind, but it is quite a shock to anybody who suddenly comes into contact with it for the first time.  The mechanical parts of the engine, the suspension...as well as all other structural parts give the impression of a sexual analogy.  The first time I saw one, I felt like I had come into contact with a very abnormal world.

A great blue many-armed many-headed deity locked in sexual union with his consort, contrasted with the engine layout of the VMax. “Blazing energy soul Source”.  Awesome.

I feel that such works as 'Nude Descending a Staircase' and 'The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors' by the father of modern art Marcel Duchamp were the first artistic expressions of eroticism through mechanism....Duchamp's fresh approach is seen in his use of mechanism as his means of expression.  The motorcycle is also created upon the basis of a thoroughgoing desire to create a loveable artifical life through a mechanical assembly of the mechanism of human sensitivities."

No matter your taste regarding the VMax or other Yamaha products, designers Ekuan and Ishiyama have created design for the ages, and have long been an inspiration of mine.

GK Dynamics designed the original and next-gen Bullet trains
Kenji Ekuan’s design team worked with Yamaha from the very beginning, and every iconic model bears their stamp; in this case, their first production racer, the YD1
A 1973 design lecture series in Australia featuring Kenji Ekuan
An early sketch of Yamaha’s Virago, perhaps the most explicit (and successful) attempt to cash in on the Chopper craze
Japan Domestic Market (JDM) stuff we never saw out West; the Yamaha SDR two-stroke café racer.  Looks like fun!

The Lost Peugeot Racers

Here's a fun fact: Peugeot is the oldest motorcycle manufacturer in the world, since 1898. Sorry Harley, sorry Indian, the French got there first...but you knew that, right?  Most American factories based their early engines on a French design - the DeDion motor - whether copied or licensed (except for Pierce, who copied a Belgian design, the FN four!).   But Peugeot's heyday as the world's preeminent force in two- and four-wheel racing was so long ago it's nearly forgotten today. 

Italian racer Giosue Giuppone was a pioneer professional rider on the Peugeot team, racing both cars and motorcycles.  Here he rides a 1.7liter track-racing 'Monster' c.1906 [Aldo Carrer]
Over a century ago, Peugeot seemed to be 'first' at everything important in racing, even in the English-speaking world.  The first Isle of Man TT in 1907 (multi-cylinder class) was won with a Peugeot motor (Rem Fowler's Norton-Peugeot), and the first motorcycle race at Brooklands was too (the NLG-Peugeot).  The company also produced fearsome track specials at the dawn of motorcycle competition, with heroes like Henri CissacGiosue Giuppone, and Paul Péan riding monsters with 2-liter motors, weighing under 110lbs to comply with early rules restricting weight (not capacity!), riding on the makeshift bicycle tracks before the first purpose-built racing circuits existed. 

Henri Cissac on a 1.7Liter Peugeot track-racing v-twin c.1906; weight 110lbs! [Jean Bourdache]

Les Charlatans

While Peugeot's early v-twins (as used by Norton et al) were reliable and reasonably fast in the 'Noughts, in the 1910s Peugeot débuted the most technically sophisticated engine designs in the world, first for automobile racing in the burgeoning Grand Prix series, then in a series of remarkable motorcycles. In 1911, Swiss engineer Ernst Henry was commissioned by 'Les Charlatans' (Peugeot racing team members Jules GouxGeorges Boillot, and Paul Zuccarelli to draw up a new four-cylinder racing engine from ideas they'd discussed. Henry wasn't a 'qualified engineer' but a draughtsman, with enough experience in motor design already (for boats and cars) to have caught the attention of the Peugeot team drivers. 

Swiss draughtsman Ernest Henry at the drawing board.[Bibliotheque Nationale de France]
Racing men were no prima donnas back then, but skilled mechanics too, savvy enough to make the models for their dream engine's foundry castings, as well as machine components from raw metal.  The team of Henry and Les Charlatans worked independently of the Peugeot brass (apparently over the usual disagreement - investment in racing vs production), camping out in the Rossel-Peugeot factory in Suresnes (a Paris suburb), where their aircraft engines were tested.  Paris was a hotbed of the burgeoning aircraft industry, so most of the car's engine castings came from local aircraft subcontractors, even though it appears all the design work and pattern making was done by the Charlatans themselves.

The 1912 Peugeot L3 'Lion 3Liter' racer with Essai driving and Thomas as mechanic. [The Automobile]
What the Charlatans proposed was revolutionary; the first automobile engine with double overhead camshafts, and four valves per cylinder. The result of Henry's design work was the legendary Peugeot Grand Prix EX1 or L76 ('L' for 'Lion', Peugeot's symbol, and 7.6-liter) and L3 (3-liter) four-cylinder racing engines.  The overhead camshafts were driven by a shaft-and-bevel arrangement at the front of the engine block, and the engine was water-cooled of course. They were raced from 1912 onwards, and literally won everything they entered, including the Indianapolis 500! 

1913 Indianapolis 500 winning Peugeot with Jules Goux driving.  Goux drove the entire 500 miles without a co-driver, the first driver to do so (1913 was the 3rd running of Indy).  The Peugeot L76 was the first wire-wheel car to run Indy (previously 'military' spoked wheels were the norm), and finished 13 minutes ahead of the second car, and averaged 76mph in the race. [The Automobile]
The Peugeot racers even won the Vanderbilt Cup and Grand Prize in 1915 at San Francisco's Panama-Pacific Exposition, driven by 'Dolly' Resta.  American driver Bob Burman purchased a Peugeot racer that year, and sent it to designer Harry Miller and machinist Fred Offenhauser to 'shrink' the motor to the new 5-liter limit for the Indy 500.  Burman spent $2000 transforming the Peugeot with Miller-designed light alloy cylinder/heads, tubular rods, a pressurized oiling system, stronger crank, and 293 cu” displacement...which coincidentally founded the Miller/Offenhauser engine dynasty.  It would not be far wrong to say Ernest Henry's 1911 design last raced at Indianapolis in 1976...or at least, its direct offspring, bearing a striking resemblance to the original.

Paul Péan on the 1915 Peugeot 500M on an advertisement for its successes. [Francois-Marie Dumas]
It's not known who or what prompted Ernest Henry to adapt his 'L76' engine design to a motorcycle, but in 1913 he drew up a totally new 500cc engine as a straight-twin or 'vertical twin', in the configuration first used by Werner in 1903 (and in 'laid down' form by Hildebrand&Wolfmuller in 1894!).   The cylinders and heads were one-piece in cast iron, and included four inclined valves per cylinder, actuated by twin overhead camshafts, driven by a train of gears between and behind the cylinders from the center of the crankshaft, running in angled aluminum cases.  The Peugeot 500M introduced in 1913 was the first DOHC motorcycle in the world. 

Paul Péan at the Parc de Fontainebleau, at its second race in June 1914. [RAD magazine]
In comparison to what the industry was then building - single-speed, single-cylinder or v-twin sidevalves and F-heads - it might as well have landed from outer space.  And as with most engineering 'firsts', the DOHC motor was the culmination of very rapid development of the gasoline engine; the first inclined valves in 1904 (Bayard-Clément), the first overhead camshaft operating inclined valves in 1905 (Welch, Premier), the first four-inclined-valves pushrod motor in 1910 (Mercedes-Benz), the first OHC four-inclined-valve motor in 1911 (Rolland-Pillain).  There were other engines with two camshafts up top before the Henry motor, but they used vertical valves and rocker arms, or were two-stroke diesels using louvers rather than exhaust valves, and more importantly, they were obscure, and usually only drawings or prototypes, and did not exploit the huge power advantage possible with direct valve actuation.  It seems fair to say the Peugeot was indeed the first proper DOHC motor as we know it today.

Driveline details of the Henry Peugeot, with direct belt drive to the rear wheel, and no clutch.  Note the use of a countershaft for the final drive, which also drives the cascade of gears to the cylinder head. [Hockenheim Museum Archive]
The Peugeot 500M was first raced by Lucien Desvaux on April 5, 1914 on a very muddy Rambouillet circuit; his was the only 500cc machine to finish the race!  On June 14th, during the Automobile Club de France's ‘Records Day’ in the forest of Fontainebleau, the 500M exceeded 122kmh (75mph) over a measured kilometer and 121kmh (74mph) over the measured mile.  While the 500M was clearly fast, the Collier brothers at Matchless recorded a timed 92mph (147km/h) with a 1000cc sidevalve v-twin that year, and board track Cyclones and Indian 8-valves were pushing 100mph.

Paul Péan with the third version of the 500M, designed by Gremillon, with right-side cam drive by a cascade of gears, and a clutch. [Bibliotheque Nationale de France]
Clearly the translation from a water-cooled 4-cylinder version of Henry's auto engine to an air-cooled parallel twin required further development.  Unfortunately, two weeks after the 500M's first speed tests, the Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, and 6 weeks later France was at war; Peugeot suddenly had bigger fish to fry, and the 500M was abandoned. Ernest Henry was not retained by Peugeot during WW1... he took his engine design first to Ballot, then Sunbeam/Talbot/Darracq, all of whom subsequently won a lot of races! 

 Post WW1

In 1919, the Peugeot OHC motorcycle project was revived by a new engineer, Marcel Gremillon, who added a clutch and 3-speed gearbox with all-chain drive.  Henry's original 500M was a nightmare for even simple maintenance, with its one-piece casting for both cylinders/heads and 8 valves, so even simple tasks like valve adjustment and decoke required a total engine strip.  

The Gremillon Peugeot 500M, with the cascade of gears on the right side of the engine, as was common in the 1950s in Italian racing singles!  This is the first iteration, with a 3-speed gearbox. [Bibliotheque Nationale de France]
In 1920, Gremillon totally redesigned the motor with the cascade of gears on the right side, rather than between the cylinders as originally; the layout will be familiar to any fan of Italian race engineering of the 1950s.  The clutch was redesigned as well, with multiple discs for greater resilience; the clutch was housed in a distinctive open cage, and looks very robust! With each succeeding improvement of Henry's design, the Peugeot was increasingly successful on the track, but it was the final, simplest layout that proved best of all for reliability and top speed.  Sadly, it required abandoning the two cam/four valve formula to achieve greatest success, which speaks to the metallurgy and lubrication of the day, rather than the original concept, which is absolutely standard today.

The Peugeot racing team with 3 Gremillon-modified 500Ms c.1921. [Bibliotheque Nationale de France]
In 1922, a Romanian engineer, Lessman Antonesco, replaced Gremillon on the project. Antonesco totally redesigned the motor with a single OHC, driven by a shaft-and-bevel system, and utilized only two valves per cylinder, which created both a more powerful and more reliable engine. This 4th-generation Peugeot 500M began winning races in 1923, and was campaigned for two more seasons, before Peugeot's motorcycle Grand Prix project was abandoned altogether, after Peugeot split its motorcycle and automotive branches. 

A Peugeot poster from 1925, by Geo Ham. [Hockenheim Museum Archive]
It’s estimated by Peugeot that 14 of these special racers were built in total between 1914 and 1925, and only 3 in that first DOHC configuration of 1913/14.  No surviving first-generation 500M has been seen since the 1920s, and only a single last-generation 'Antonescu' 500cc OHC machine exists.  Its engine was installed by the legendary Jean Nougier into the frame of Peugeot P104 roadster. One more GP Peugeot exists, with a 350cc Antonescu motor, that shows up regularly at French vintage races. 

The robust shaft-and-bevel camshaft drive of the Antonescu Peugeot; note enclosed clutch/gearbox assembly (unit construction) and direct oil feed to the upper bevel drive.  A purposeful motor! [Francois-Marie Dumas]

The Recreation of a 500M

One of two suriviing Peugeot 500Ms, an Antonescu model built by Jean Nougier into a Peugeot 104 chassis, shown here with Bernard Salvat at the 2010 Rétromobile show in Paris [Yves J. Hayat]
The absence of the ‘world’s first’ DOHC Peugeot, barring photographs and stories from the period, is a tremendous loss to French heritage.  Several of the original 'Lion' automobile racers survive, but none of the 500M racing motorcycles built from 1913-1923.  But in the mid-1990s Emile Jacquinot, an archivist for Peugeot, discovered the original blueprints for the 1914 Peugeot 500M at the Peugeot family home in Valentingy.  They now reside in the Peugeot Museum in Sochaux, France.  Jacquinot told his friend Jean Boulicot about the drawings in 1998 during the Coupes Moto Legende event at the Montlhéry autodrome (before it moved to Dijon), and a spark was struck. Boulicot is well known in the French vintage bike scene, both as a restorer and officer of the Retro Motos Cycles de l'Est, one of the biggest vintage motorcycle clubs in France. During a mountain hike Jean Boulicot was inspired to recreate the 1914 500GP from the newly discovered plans. He reasoned that replicas of racing Moto Guzzi V8s, Benelli 4s, and Honda 6s had already been built, so why not a replica of the Peugeot, which is no less legendary? 

French moto-historian extraordinaire Bernard Salvat with the recreation of the 1914 Peugeot 500M, at the 2012 Rétromobile show. [Paul d'Orléans]
After going over the plans with the Peugeot Museum, the reconstruction began in the basement of Boulicot's family home in Evette-Salbert, Territoire-de-Belfort, France. An inventory of the plans showed a complete set of engine drawings, but the chassis drawings were incomplete. It was necessary to scale up frame drawings from period photos to supplement the plans.  Even the 'complete' engine plans, dated 1913, had only raw dimensions, without built-in tolerances accounting for heat expansion, or normal running tolerances.  The plans needed to be recalculated and drawn afresh with those constraints accounted for. Then Boulicot’s home lathe and milling machine were put to work making almost all the moving parts; sprockets, shafts, axles, etc. The connecting rods and the crankshaft were created from raw steel chunks.

A close look at the aluminum camshaft housing and open valves for the 8-valve motor, with central spark plugs. [Yves J. Hayat]
Recreation of the crankcases and cylinder block/heads were handled by a friend of Jean’s, a retired expert model maker. He hand-built (no 3D printing!) wax models of each part, then used resin to create the molds. For complicated parts, several "cores" were needed to create one piece; for example, the cylinder/head casting (as this was one large piece) required eight cores of cast iron. Jean machined and finished the raw castings himself. The cycle parts were fabricated by Peugeot specialist Dominique Lafay, who built the fuel tank in brass, and the frame from steel tubing. 

Where it all happens! Jean Boulicot in his workshop. [Yves J. Hayat]
The fork began as a Peugeot 175 ‘cyclomoto’ item that Jean cleverly modified, by attaching extra bracing of the correct dimensions. He hand-formed the mudguards using an English wheel roller built for the project. A few parts, such as the wheel hubs or the rear crownwheel, were machined up from solid. The reconstruction of this magnificent motorcycle required over 15,000 hours of work, spread over a period of 10 years. It was reborn almost a century after it was born, and made its first public appearance at the 2010 Coupes Moto Legende event in Dijon. It was fitting the project was revealed at the same event the seed was planted 12 years prior, and Jean Boulicot now demonstrates his remarkable machine at events like Vintage Revival Montlhéry. It’s certainly worth a close look!

The cam drive housing is clearly seen between the forked induction tube to the Zenith carburetor. [Yves J. Hayat]
Sources and Thanks:

'Motos Peugeot, 1898-1998; 100 ans d'Histoire', Bernard Salvat / Didier Ganneau, 1998, EBS

The Automobile, 'Peugeot Racing Engineers: Ernest Henry', Sébastien Faurès Fustel de Coulanges, 2012

RAD magazine, 'Résurrection d'Une Peugeot 500 DOHC', Alain Jardy / Fabrice Leschuitta (photos)

- 'La Motocyclette En France; 1894 - 1914', Jean Bourdache, 1989, Edifree

- Bibliothéque Nationale de France digital archives

Aldo Carrer archives

- Yves J. Hayat/ NewYorkParis


The Crocker Story

The story of Crocker motorcycles has been obscured by tall tales and myths since the very day they were introduced, first as Speedway racers, then big V-twins, and finally a scooter, all built before official US involvement in WW2 put a halt to civilian motorcycle production.  Wading through the murk around this famous American name, one bumps against vested interests and fast-held opinions, but enough facts emerge to which we can anchor our tale.  What is definitely known is they have skyrocketed in value in the past decade, filling many spots on our Top 100 Most Expensive Motorcycles list.

Paul Bigsby, Sam Parriot, and Albert Crocker at Muroc dry lake in 1940; Parriot recorded  136.87 mph on June 19, 1940 with the 'parallel valve' engine. [Bonhams]
Albert Crocker, born in 1882, had an engineering degree from Northwestern University's 'Armour Institute', an engineering school. His first job was with the Aurora Automatic Machine Co, builders of Thor motorcycles, and Crocker not only developed Thor engineering, he was a keen and successful racer during 1907-09.  In the natural course of a racing career, he met and conversed with the pioneers of motorcycle manufacture and racing in those early days, including Oscar Hedstrom and Charles Hendee, the chief engineer and owner of the Hendee Manufacturing Co, makers of Indian 'Motocycles'.   Al Crocker developed a friendship with the Indian camp, and soon joined Hendee.  

Rider Sam Parriot with Al Crocker at Muroc Dry Lake. [Bonhams]
By 1919, Crocker had opened an Indian dealership in Denver, Colorado, and there met, and eventually married, Gertrude Jefford Hasha, widow of Eddie Hasha, a famous 'Board Track' racer involved in the most notorious motorcycle racing disaster of the era.  On Sept.8, 1912, four schoolboys were killed (along with Hasha), and ten spectators injured, when Hasha's 8-Valve Indian went out of control, slid along the top safety railing on the banking, and clouted the four boys, who were craning their necks over the railing for a better look.  Spectator deaths generally mark the 'end of an era' for races (just as with the Mille Miglia).  Crocker surely knew Eddie Hasha, given his employment at Indian at the time.  Gertrude and Al had one son (Al Junior), in 1924, the year they were married. 1924 was a big year for Al Crocker; with a new wife and infant son, he took over the Kansas City Indian dealer/distributor, but by 1930, the call of the West could not be ignored, and he sold his dealership to 'Pop' Harding, then purchased the Freed Indian dealership at 1346 Venice Blvd in Los Angeles.  This address would become legendary as the home of Crocker motorcycles.

The Crocker 'conversion' engine, from an Indian Scout, in a Rudge speedway frame. [Bonhams]
In 1931, the staggeringly famous American dirt-track rider Sprouts Elder, who had been 'Thrilling the Millions' from England and Australia to Argentina, brought the sport of Speedway to the US, and it rapidly gained the same popularity as in the rest of the world, as the best-attended and most lucrative sport of all.  In response, Crocker put his engineering skills to the test, building a speedway frame to accept a '101' Indian Scout engine 45cu" (750cc).  This proved satisfactory, and in 1932, Crocker set about producing an OHV conversion for the Indian motor; the bolt-on cylinder and head echoed Indian factory racing practice of 1925/6, when their OHV Indian '45' was timed at 126mph, running on alcohol. These first Crocker OHV conversions had a 500cc (30.50cu") capacity, and when tested in the Crocker-built speedway frame, proved satisfactory in power output, out-performing the Rudge engines which were then dominant in Speedway.  A few Crocker OHV kits were apparently sold to the public.

The Crocker 750cc OHV conversion for the Indian Scout motor. [Bonhams]
In 1933, Crocker and Paul Bigsby next developed a single-cylinder 500cc (30.50ci) OHV Speedway racer, undoubtedly in response to the lighter weight of single-cylinder engines vs. the Crocker OHV v-twins.  A side note here; while rumor considers Bigsby (later famous for inventing the 'Whammy Bar' or tremolo for electric guitars) to be responsible for the Crocker engine design, Al Crocker was a trained engineer who had worked in motorcycle engineering for decades with Thor and Indian, as well as being Bigsby's employer...and while Bigsby was known to 'blow his own horn', certainly the Crocker motorcycles had input from many quarters.

The 1934 Crocker Speedway catalog. [The Vintagent Archive]
The Crocker Speedway racers first appeared on the Emeryville CA speedway track on Nov 30, 1933, and won 9 of 12 heats in one evening, prompting The Motorcyclist (Dec 1933) to rave of their début, "...two spotless and keen pieces of racing equipment surely worthy of the best the country had to offer as their pilots. The first race was ridden by Jack Milne…speedman par excellence...and Cordy Milne....Two American-built night speedway racing engines swept the boards…9 first places and 3 second spots out of 12 starts…The call came suddenly for the builder, for Al Crocker who was in the pits…[He] came to the microphone. His speech was short, brief; just the sort of thing that the situation called for…He was glad that they [the bikes] were good…They would be better."

The Crocker Speedway racer of 1934. [Bonhams]
With limited production facilities, only 31 of the Crocker Speedway models were built; Crocker even built a pair of experimental chain-driven OHC engines in 1936, which were intended to counter the new JAP Speedway motor, with 42hp.  It was clear the Crocker Speedway engine would need further development to remain competitive, but rather than continue with Speedway racing, Al Crocker turned his attention to the project which would hammer his name in stone; the big V-twin.

Not a sanctioned Speedway outfit; the Crocker Speedway machine. [Bonhams]
Designed during 1935, the Crocker big twin was intended as a durable and powerful, yet fast and nimble machine.  Its 45degree V-twin engine had hemispherical OHV cylinder heads, and a nearly 'square' bore/stroke (3.25"x3.62" - 62 cubic inches displacement), with an incredibly robust 3-speed gearbox.  While Bigsby made the patterns, most castings were subcontracted, then machined in-house.  The first models (the 'Hemis') used HD valve gear, Indian timing gears and brake shoes, plus occasional HD or Indian headlamps and ancillaries, leading to later rumors that Crockers were built entirely from Indian or HD parts, which is of course untrue. The heavy steel gearbox formed part of the lower frame, its case being brazed in place, its 3-speed gears and shafts so overbuilt that damage is unheard of even today.  Their most unusual feature was a pair of cast-aluminum fuel/oil tanks, holding 2.5 gallons initially (the 'Small Tank' models).  Most ancillary parts were purchased from standard motorcycle industry suppliers like Autolite (electrics), Linkert (carbs), Messinger (saddles), Splitdorf (magnetos), and Kelsey Hayes (wheel rims).

Al Crocker in 1936 with an early customer, ready for speed! [Bonhams]
Introduced in 1936, there was no 'standard' Crocker, as every customer, echoing Brough Superior practice, could specify the state of tune and displacement of the engine; the cylinder barrels were cast with extra thick walls, and could be extensively overbored; engines were built from 1000cc, to 1490cc, in the most extreme case.  The 'typical' 62cu" Big Twin produced ~55-60hp, which exceeded the current sidevalve Indian and HD models by 50%.  So confident was Al Crocker in the superiority of his twins, he offered a money-back guarantee for any Crocker owner who was 'beaten' by a standard HD or Indian, and of course, no such buyback was necessary.  Crocker had built the fastest production motorcycle in the US, with speeds over 110mph the norm.  Harley Davidson introduced their first OHV v-twin - the model EL 'Knucklehead' - 6 months after the Crocker, but it was at least 15mph slower.

Rider Homer Wood at Muroc dry lake with his 1936 'Hemi' Crocker. [Bonhams]
If not the fastest production motorcycle in the world, the Crocker was certainly in the same league as the HRD-Vincent 'Series A' Rapide, and much faster than a Brough Superior SS100.  While the Crocker's 3-speed gearbox and rigid frame were technically inferior to the Vincent's advanced swingarm and 4-speeds, the Vincent's bought-in Burman gearbox and clutch were unable to cope with that v-twin's power.  Conversely, one cannot imagine a Crocker racing at the Isle of Man!  'Horses for courses', it seems...

The 1936 'Hemi' Crocker engine, with exposed rocker and valve gear. [Bonhams]
The first 17 Crocker twins had hemispherical combustion chambers and a lovely 'Crocker' embossed rocker arm housing.  Known as the 'Hemis', their performance established the Crocker legend, although there were problems with valve train wear, as the exposed valves/guides/springs were vulnerable to grit and dirt.  Crocker redesigned the cylinder heads with parallel valves and enclosed springs, and what is effectively a 'squish head' combustion chamber.  Crocker continually developed his cylinder heads, and two different 'Hemi' castings were used (even on such a short production run), with four changes to the parallel-valve casting over its 5-year run.

The 1940 'Big Tank' Crocker which sold at the Bonhams Quail Lodge Sale for $302,000 [Bonhams]
To give his Crockers an extended range, the size of the cast-aluminum fuel tanks was enlarged in 1938, making all earlier models 'Small Tanks', and later models 'Big Tanks'.  Crocker continued to develop his motorcycles through his limited production of perhaps 72 total V-twins, but eventually ran into problems with ancillary suppliers, as the US geared up for WW2.  By 1942, 'war work' restrictions meant Crocker could no longer produce motorcycles, and he chose not to resume production post-war.

The Crocker has rightly become a coveted and very expensive machine, deserving of its place on the Olympus of Motorcycles, with the Brough SS100, Vincent Series A Rapide, and Zenith Super 8; the world's first 100+mph production motorcycles.  All were big, impressive V-twin Superbikes built in small numbers for a very discerning clientele...and all are very, very expensive today.

The red 1937 'Small Tank' Crocker which sold at Bonhams, also at $302,000 [Bonhams]

Test Ride: MV Masterwork

The original 1970s MV Agusta ‘4’ is legendary for its beautiful lines, and collectors scrabble when they come up for sale.  To dare approach Count Domenica Agusta’s glamourous baby, intent on customization, is almost unheard of. In modifying a ca.1974 MV Agusta 750S, Shinya Kimura has kept the chassis intact, to the point of retaining the Count’s ‘you’ll never race this’ shaft drive, the first item every MV hotrodder in history has ditched.  Why?  ‘I really like the radial fins on the final drive, it’s very pretty’.  His attitude fits his self-described role as a coachbuilder; respect your chosen chassis, but clothe it in a bespoke suit.  MV fours, though expensive and coveted, are hardly rare, and plenty have been racerized by the likes of Arturo Magni and Albert Bold.  None look like the naked aluminum creature in these photos.

Shining like a diamond in the grit of a forge; Shinya Kimura's masterpiece of coachbuilding  [Paul d'Orléans]
Shinya didn’t study Motorcycle 101 at university, he was an insect man, with a degree in entomology.  The bug world bears eerie parallels with bike design, as a hard, shapely, and functional carapace protects the vulnerable moving parts of a mobile creature.  Insect shapes aren’t clean or uniform; when magnified, their antennae, legs, and heads are exotically imperfect and frighteningly alien.  Because humans have a bony structure on the inside, we need protection while riding - helmets and body armor, just like our insect cousins.  While never outright mimicking critter shapes, Shinya’s work has a similarly alien beauty, clearly influenced by his years peering into a microscope.  What sets him apart from makers of horrid Skeleto-bikes or Gigercycles is restraint; while his hand-wrought shapes (he prefers a hammer to an English wheel) are exotic and unique, they stay inside the lines as recognizable motorcycle parts.  That’s the tank, there’s the seat, up front is a fairing, those are side panels; if you unfocus your eyes, the silhouette is pure café racer, but open your eyes, and you’ll wonder, just which café we talkin’ about?

Looking good from every angle [Paul d'Orléans]
Before taking the MV for a blast up San Gabriel Canyon Road, Shinya mentioned it had ‘never been really ridden’ by a member of the press, they’d all done short spins around the block, fearful of marring those stunning alloy panels.  Clearly, he expected me to cane the animal, and I would comply, once comfortable with its quirks.  That took surprisingly longer than I expected; the last four-cylinder bike I’d ridden was a BMW S1000RR, an object of immense power and modern ultra-competence, ridiculously fast yet kitten-docile.  The MV chassis and beating heart are 1950s high tech, swelled to ‘70s avoirdupois and hard suspension.  Despite Shinya’s lightweight bodywork, the 750S breaks the bathroom scale at over 540lbs, and the upper-cylinder complexity of that gear-driven DOHC engine mean the center-of-gravity cross-hairs aim right at your knees.

With stock power output about 66hp at a modest (today) 8000rpm, that kind of weight won’t be setting quarter-mile records.  If the MV is to be ridden quickly, you need to employ the old single-cylinder racing trick of ‘maintaining momentum’, ie, fast into corners, hard over, don’t brake unless you’ve seriously underestimated the turn…or overestimated your gumption.  Easy on a 350lb hotrod Velocette Thruxton, not so natural on a quarter-ton Latin legend with masterpiece bodywork.  

The original MV Agusta badge set into the hand-beaten aluminum tank fits perfectly [Paul d'Orléans]
Firing up the MV is easy with its electric boot, although the starter mechanism, and subsequent whirring racket from the engine, make noises we don’t hear out of bikes anymore.  Fifties GP technology means straight-cut gear-driven twin camshafts with wide valve clearances; the whole spinning, meshing, and lashing machinery resonates through massive aluminum castings, with a high note of air-sucking open carbs and those lovely curved Arturo Magni pipes barking a macho basso profundo.

Fins in every direction! They add strength as well as cooling, and visual appeal when arranged beautifully [Paul d'Orléans]
Shinya’s Chabott Engineering test track is conveniently located just out the back door; past a few blocks of SoCal suburbs and you’re into god’s playground, a big canyon winding upwards to Crystal Lake and Angeles Crest Highway.  There’s little traffic, and after Shinya herds me in the right direction, we swap positions; it’s time to see how Count Agusta’s creation feels in proper terrain.   I’ve got every kind of machinery under my belt or in my garage, and I’m as easy on a 1915 Harley as a 2012 Diavel, but it takes time to figure out the MV.  I bypassed the four-cylinder craze of the 70s and 80s, so never learned to throw top-heavy flying bricks around swervery, but as miles and a few awkward corners pass, I begin to understand the MV’s dialect.  There’s a sweet spot around 4200rpm, when the power comes up quickly, the engine smooths out (yes, it vibrates a bit), and begins to sing a melodious, deep-throated aria.  Ok, so the fat boy can sing, but can he dance?  

Not easy to slow down long enough for a photo! The MV wanted to go, go, go. [Ayu Yamashita]
Keeping up corner speed on a bike whose physics would prefer to blast straight through the Armco is a matter of Will.  Not just ‘will it or won’t it’, because it most assuredly tracks true when cranked over, with no attitude changes on a varying throttle hand.  It’s rock solid, but getting that rock to roll over is a mind game, and the MV won’t suffer willy-nilly riders… any hesitation in corners screams ‘wimp aboard!’   That’s a painful sight; a careful MV rider looking utterly foolish, like some gawky nebbish with Sophia Loren on Dancing with the Stars.  It takes willpower, decisiveness, and a bit of force to get the best from the beast, and probably more physical effort than you’ve ever needed for a sports bike (unless you own a ‘70s Laverda).

The master himself, Shinya Kimura, with his masterpiece [Paul d'Orléans]
The reward, once you sort out who’s boss, is a beautifully smooth, almost lyrical, luke-hot canyon ride.  With enough bottle (and forgetting you’re on a unique work of art), the MV can be cranked right over with the throttle open, and rocked to the opposite sidewall smoothly before the next corner, with grace and little effort, once you find the sweet spot in both power and weight slinging.  Just stay off the brakes, as it takes a while for the mighty MV to build up speed.  When needed, that big 4-leading shoe Yamaha TZ brake doesn’t grab, and quickly throws out anchors to stop the big boat.  I never noticed any ‘shaft drive’ torque effects as one might on a hard-driven BMW, probably due to the transverse power plant and lack of mass rotating around the direction of travel – there’s just the mass of the bevel gears and shaft, a mere breeze against this brick house.  The period-correct Ceriani road race forks aren’t as hard as we used to think best ‘in the day’ (I once even tried 20-50W in mine!), and the Marzocchi shocks never announced themselves; overall it was a solid but not jarring ride, all fillings and kidneys intact after 50 fast miles on the eternally maintenance-deferred Cali backroads.

Out on the road, a thing of beauty streaking along, and a moment of rest, to ponder the beast [Paul d'Orléans]
To be honest I could ride rings around this gorgeous fattie on a hot Norton Commando, but the Count didn’t make his roadsters anything like his GP bikes, which dominated the World Championships from the 50s thru 70s.  He so loved his begotten racers that MV race-neutered their road bikes with high weight, large capacity, and shaft drive; no way were his customers going to compete on the track with the factory team!  But the MV is a thoroughbred, and can be hammered through canyonland as fast as you dare.

The gorgeous aluminum landscape of the cockpit, reminiscent of an aircraft. [Paul d'Orléans]
The Chabott Engineering MV Agusta exists in its own universe, a stunning mashup of Shinya Kimura’s brilliant artistry and Count Agusta’s nearer-to-thee-oh-lord engine. In the automotive world, the best ‘coachbuilders’ - Pininfarina or Saoutchik or Fleetwood - are hailed as megabuck masterpieces, but lop two wheels off, and the best of the best will rarely fetch six figures. Fifteen years after the ‘Art of the Motorcycle’ exhibit hit the Guggenheim in NYC, and mere weeks after the death of art critic Robert Hughes, who championed custom motorcycles in Time magazine as pure expressions of ‘folk art’, bikes still occupy the lowliest of spots in the highbrow world of art collecting.  The finest hand-built expressions of two-wheeled genius metaphorically languish in the parking lot.  There’s never been a major museum show of hand-built motorcycles, but when it comes, Shinya Kimura will be crowned one of the finest moto-artisans of all time.  Best of all, these are Rembrandts you can Ride.

Happy to ride it? Hell yes! [Ayu Yamashita]

 

Paul d'Orléans is the founder of TheVintagent.com. He is an author, photographer, filmmaker, museum curator, event organizer, and public speaker. Check out his Author Page, Instagram, and Facebook.

John Surtees

Written by Paul d'Orleans for Cycle World magazine, reproduced with permission.

He wasn’t a showman with movie star looks, like many World Champions; John Surtees had a sparrow’s physique, with a modest but intense demeanor, who suffered autograph hounds with a friendly noblesse oblige. No doubt he treated his rivals the same, giving very little away, his attention seemingly elsewhere…like memorizing every braking point at the Nurbrurgring or Isle of Man circuits. If you were close enough to observe his expression on the track, it meant you were about to lose your race to the most stylish and disciplined rider of the 1950s.

John Surtees on the MV Agusta 4 on which he won his World Championship in - I believe - 1958, which is owned by the Barber Museum. From the Barber's display at Pebble Beach in 2011, where I met Surtees for the first time. [Paul d'Orleans]
Norton team manager Joe Craig was notoriously hard, and squeezed several years of life from the single-cylinder, DOHC Norton Manx racers John rode. They were past their sell-by date, as sophisticated multi-cylinder machines from Italy and Germany had been flying past them on straightaways since the 1930s. During the War, a fortuitous meeting between Craig and Leo Kuzmicki, a Polish refugee with a degree in combustion theory, kept Nortons plenty fast, but foreign factories inevitably dusted off their prewar designs for post-war racing once they’d rebuilt their factories. John Surtees reached a pinnacle of British ambition in 1955 by joining the Norton team, and bit hard at the heels of Geoff Duke, who had defected to Italian machines just like his predecessor Stanley Woods had done in the ‘30s. As those men had found, a single-cylinder racer was no match for an Italian thoroughbred multi.

Surtees on a 250cc MV Agusta Bialbero in 1957, at a Crystal Palace meeting. [From the book 'John Surtees: World Champion' - 1991]
Duke’s elegant, lightning fast, and good-handling Gilera Quattro was designed by Piero Remor, and had won six 500cc World Championship between 1950-57, and for good measure held the World Land Speed Record in supercharged form before WW2.John Surtees’ father Jack was a south London motorcycle dealer, with strong connections to the Vincent factory. John’s very first race, as the monkey in his father’s Rapide sidecar outfit, was duly won, but as he was only 14, they were afterwards disqualified. It was better publicity than the win, and John’s canny father pushed his talented son into the spotlight early and often, sponsoring him in grass track races from age 15.

Surtees with his first Vincent Grey Flash racer, which made the media notice his riding style for the first time, as he'd really pushed Geoff Duke on the factory Norton! [From the book 'John Surtees: World Champion' - 1991]
John took his apprenticeship at the Vincent factory at 16, which gave him access to race shop, and the opportunity to race a Vincent Grey Flash 500cc single to good effect. By 17 he was harassing World Champion Geoff Duke on British circuits, and making headlines while riding a variety of interesting machines, including an NSU 250cc Sportmax, and the inevitable Norton Manx in the 350cc and 500cc classes. In 1954, for Unlimited class racing, he slotted a 1000cc Vincent Black Lightning motor into a Norton Manx chassis, which could have been a world-beater, but he was tapped to join the Norton factory race team before his creation was anything but the world’s first NorVin.

1960, Bickley, Kent, England, UK --- Motorcyclist Surtees With His Bike --- [© Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS]
Count Domenico Agusta had watched Surtees take his Manx to the limit in pursuit of Duke, and admired his style. He offered an astronomical sum (by Norton standards) to jump the British ship, and join the MV Agusta team for 1956. Agusta’s business was primarily aeronautic, but he loved motorcycles, and no doubt expended all the profits from his street motorcycle manufacture into making his race them the best in the world. He’d already secured the 125cc World Championship in 1952, but wanted the big prize, so had lured Piero Remor away from Gilera to design a new DOHC 4-cylinder racer. The MV four still needed development, and Surtees struggled against the better-handling Gilera Quattros in ’55, taking 3rd in the World Championship. In 1956, Geoff Duke was punished by the FIM for supporting a riders’ strike against dangerous conditions (and more start money) that year, halving his season, and Surtees snatched his first World Championship.

The Ferrari 158 in which Surtees became World Champion on four wheels in 1964 [From the book 'John Surtees: World Champion' - 1991]
At the end of the 1957 season, on another ‘day the music died’, Gilera, MV Agusta, Moto Guzzi, BMW, NSU, and Mondial all bowed out of GP racing, citing increasing expense and falling motorcycle sales. Count Agusta, the sly fox, changed his mind when he realized the benefit of greatly diminished competition; MV Agusta racked up a string of 37 World Championships, until formerly obscure Japanese companies like Honda and Yamaha demonstrated what a corporate budget and a simple two-stroke engine (respectively), could do.

Surtees demonstrating how to bump start an MV Agusta - a slightly easier affair than a Manx Norton, due to its 125cc pistons! [From the pamphlet 'John Surtees On Racing', Illife & Sons, 1960]
John Surtees won his 7 World Championships in 4 years with MV Agusta between 1956-1960, in both 350cc and 500cc categories. The Italians loved his riding style, naming him ‘ figlio del vento, - son of the wind. He was eel-slippery and one with his machine in the years before ‘hanging off’ was the norm, and simply tucked in behind his screen, making it all look natural. During a Sportsman of the Year banquet in 1959 he met F1 legend Mike Hawthorne, who suggested Surtees ‘try a car sometime; they stand up easier.’ He did try a car, in spite of the fact he’d never even seen an F1 race or watched one on TV! His natural talent was instantly recognized by Lotus boss Colin Chapman after a few practice laps, and in his first F1 race (the 1960 Monaco GP) he caused quite a stir. On his second F1 race, at the British Grand Prix, he came 2nd, and nearly won his third race at Estoril. Another Italian racing legend, Enzo Ferrari, noticed his talent, and offered a spot on his team. It proved a prescient move, and he won the World F1 Championship for Ferrari in 1964. While Surtees was cool, he also spoke his mind, and his relationship with the Ferrari team was never easy. Tensions with team manager Eugenio Dragoni blew up in 1966, while Surtees was en route to a second World Championship; he quit Ferrari, and refused even Enzo’s entreaties to return.

Fantastic photos of John with his parents at his first motorcycle dealership in 1958, in West Wickham. Note the two MV Agusta racers, and an AJS Porcupine! [From the book 'John Surtees: World Champion' - 1991]
He carried on F1 racing through 1972, but his 1964 championship remained his, and the world’s, only World Championship Formula 1 title from a motorcycle World Champion. In the 1980s, Surtees inspired a new generation of riders, restorers, and builders with the revival of his interest in the track for vintage racing. He rebuilt his old Vincent Grey Flash, and put that 1955 Black Lightning-based NorVin back together, with remarkably gorgeous brutality. He also collected the crème de la crème of vintage racing machinery, and was happy to demonstrate George Meier’s 1938 TT-winning BMW RS255 kompressor, or Ray Amm’s Norton streamliner, at events across Europe.

John Surtees at Pebble Beach in 2011 with George Barber, who owns Surtees' winning machines, including this 1964 Ferrari Type 158 in which he won his first World Championship on four wheels. [Paul d'Orleans]
He encouraged his son Henry in the racing game as well, until tragically he was killed in an F2 race in 2009, when a competitor’s tire struck him. In remembrance, he established the Henry Surtees foundation to help people with brain injuries. I was lucky enough to meet John Surtees at the Pebble Beach Concours in 2011, where his World Championship Ferrari and MV Agusta were on display, and he obliged a few photographs on his old ‘Gallarate fire engine’. His heyday was over before I could watch him race in anger, but one needn’t have seen it to understand the monumental talent it took to assume the World Champion mantle in two very different sports. It’s unlikely we’ll see that achievement matched anytime soon, and we will never see his like again.

 

Paul d'Orléans is the founder of TheVintagent.com. He is an author, photographer, filmmaker, museum curator, event organizer, and public speaker. Check out his Author Page, Instagram, and Facebook.

Jay Leno and the White Collection

It's not typical to auction a major classic vehicle auction for charity, but that's what the late Robert White stipulated in his will.  Jay Leno purchased his collection of 17 Brough Superiors last year, with the funds headed entirely to the hospital Mr. White wanted to support; a cancer treatment center in an area of Britain not well served.   Jay's video is a testament to a friend, and a plug for the upcoming Bonhams auction of the remainder of Robert White's motorcycles, cars, Leicas, etc.  It's worth a look!

The variety of machines is impressive, including this 1920 1220cc Ace four in beautiful condition. Eligible for the 2020 Cannonball!

 

What looks like an entirely original 1974 Ducati 750SS, with known history from at least 1985...

 

...and a gorgeous 1953 MV Agusta monoalbero 125cc raeer, which I looked over at the Banbury Run this year. An amazing, drool-worthy machine.

Rara Avis: The Unique Lynton Racer

Colin Lyster isn’t a household name, unless you’re a hardcore café racer fan, in which case, he’s a demigod on par with Dave Degens and the Rickman brothers. A former Rhodesian road racer, Lyster moved to Britain in the early 1960s, and set about re-framing Triumphs and Hondas to reduce weight and improve chassis stiffness.  His frames were ultra-rigid and half as heavy as comparable Norton item; he typically discarded the lower frame rails, using the engine as a stressed member, and thinwall tubing of smaller diameter than considered prudent for a street machine.

The halved Hillman motor, with Lynton's own DOHC, 8-valve cylinder head and geometric sump.  (From Cycle World)

Still, hotshot riders can’t resist a road racer with lights, and a few Lyster-framed roadsters can be found in books on the café racer craze.  Lyster’s frame output was low, but his impact on the industry was outsized.  He developed the first triple-hydraulic disc braking systems for motorcycle racing teams in the mid-1960s, using specially adapted Ceriani road race forks and his own fabricated swingarms, with his own cast iron discs.  Triple juice discs became a must-have item on winning road racers; Lyster began selling kits to the public in 1971.  After failing to interest the British motorcycle industry in his product, he sold his patents to AP Lockheed.  Ironically, it was Honda who first used hydraulic discs on production motorcycles, in 1968.  Still, it was Lyster’s patent, and he changed motorcycling forever.

Paul Brothers and Colin Lyster, whose partnership created the Lynton racer.  The pair display their ultralight frame and Hillman Imp-based motor in 1968

By the mid-1960s, the British motorcycle industry had given up on Grand Prix racing, but enterprising builders hadn’t.  Colin Lyster thought a reasonably-priced, competitive engine could be built from automotive parts, and he cut a water-cooled 1000cc Hillman Imp 4-cylinder car motor in half, and built a DOHC, 8-valve cylinder head for it.  Interestingly, the Imp motor was designed by Leo Kuzmicki, the Polish ‘janitor’ who was ‘discovered’ by Joe Craig, race chief of Norton, as having been a research scientist in combustion theory before becoming a WW2 refugee.  It was Kuzmicki who kept the Norton Manx engine competitive a decade after its sell-by date, extracting ever more power from the aging single-cylinder design. After leaving Norton, he moved to the Rootes Group, and designed the extremely reliable and very fast Imp motor.

The chain-driven DOHC cylinder head, with central spark plugs and 4 valves per cylinder (Cycle World)

As reported in Cycle World in July 1968, Lyster’s Imp-engined ‘Lynton’ racer was a collaboration with Paul Brothers, and used an ultralight Lyster full-cradle frame, with his own triple disc setup. The cylinder head is a chunk, and the side-draft Weber DCOE carb doesn’t inspire confidence that the watercooled engine is light.  The builders claimed 60hp from the motor, which used a 180-degree crankshaft, a modified Hillman part, as were the rods.  Slipper pistons from Mahle and cams by Tom Somerton painted a picture of speed, and the projected price of £300 undercut a Matchless G50 single-cylinder SOHC motor by £75.  Orders were not forthcoming, though, as the project needed more development, and it remained yet another British ‘what if?’  It seems only the prototype motorcycle was built, although Lynton offered a full four-cylinder version of its special cylinder head to Imp rally drivers; a few of these are floating around, including rumors on one cut in half for a motorcycle!

1971 magazine ad for Colin Lyster's double-disc front brake kit

Britain’s H&H Auctions turned up the sole Lynton racing motorcycle; it’s an uncompromised beast with a pur sang pedigree, and a lot of near-forgotten stories surrounding its build.  Colin Lyster moved to the USA in the early ‘70s, and worked with Canadian national champion road racer Ed Labelle to build Lyster-Labelle racers, using Triumph Bonneville motors in lowboy frames with triple discs. Only a few were built before Lyster moved on to New Zealand, where he carried on with other projects until his death in 2003.

The sole surviving Lynton racer; note the Weber DCOE side-draft carb, racing AMC gearbox, and triple discs - in 1968!

 

A man full of ideas!  This wing was an air brake for a racing motorcycle!  It proved, as you can imagine, frighteningly destabilizing

 

The cafe racers' dream; a Kennedy-Lyster, with a Norton Atlas motor in a Lyster frame, with a double-disc front end.  I reckon this is pre-1970...what a beauty!

 

 


Road Test: the New Brough Superior SS100

Want to get bikers up in arms?  Revive a hallowed brand.  Established manufacturers get a pass when producing ugly or ill-considered motorcycles, and nobody questions their right to exist, but a new manufacturer using an old name fights steep resistance, no matter how committed it is to the old name.  Brough Superior owner Mark Upham is doing his best to honor the spirit of the late George Brough, which is probably impossiblein the 21st Century, because Brough invented a genre – the luxury motorcycle – that was bombed out of existence in World War II.

Perched on the Coriche, on the Cote Basque, between Biarritz France, and San Sebastien, Spain.

First-generation Brough Superiors were built between 1919 and 1940, and immediately earned a reputation for quality, innovation, handling, speed, and beauty. They were the most expensive and fastest motorcycles in the world, and their lustrous finish earned them the nickname ‘The Rolls-Royce of Motorcycles.”and Rolls didn’t object.  Above all, George Brough was a PR genius, crafting an image via selected competitions (ones he was likely to win), flamboyant personal style, a gift for turning a phrase, and the regular patronage of celebrities like T.E. Lawrence, other wise known as Lawrence of Arabia. It isn’t likely for a motorcycle to be all those things today, as “fastest” seems irrelevant, most expensive is a matter of adding zeros, and today’s heroes are tomorrow’s targets for scandal.   Just imagine a T.E. Lawrence cell phone hack, with his leather bedsheets and masochistic inclinations…

A thoroughly modern machine with antique visual cues

Since we live in a different world today, what remains to link old Brough and new is aesthetics, innovation, and quality; the 2016 Brough Superior SS100 makes a strong pitch for all these. One of George’s innovations, and a hallmark of the brand, was the industry’s first saddle tank, which was nickeled up and shapely, with a rounded nose and pleasing proportions.

First-generation Brough Superiors were built between 1919 and 1940, and immediately earned a reputation for quality, innovation, handling, speed, and beauty.

The new Brough Superior lifts itstank design directly from a 1920s Pendine racing model, which usedtriple straps to bind tank to frame; it’s the visual DNA of a Brough Superior, and a feature Mark Upham insisted on.  Underneath that old-school tank (built in polished aluminum) we leave the past behind and enter the 21st Century, with a unique motor and innovative chassis.

The Brough was ridden to the ArtRide exhibition in San Sebastien, Spain, where it attracted considerable attention, as did my crazy one-off suit embroidered by Cody McElroy of Dirty Needle Embroidery

The heart of the beast is a V-twin of course, but set at 88-degrees, which provides perfect balance alá Ducati and Moto Guzzi, but looks wide to a traditionalist.  It’s a bespoke motor from the firm Boxer Design of Toulouse, France, a water-cooled, 8-valve DOHC unit of 997cc, produces 120horsepowe.  That wide vee concurs with one of George’s last experimental Broughs, using an AMC-built (Matchless / AJS) 90-degree V-twin OHV engine, which was never serially produced.  It thus bears a thread of a connection with the past, which turns out to have both lovely castings and contemporary performance, and most importantly isn’t an H-D clone.  The Boxer Design engine is built and developed by Akira Engineering of Bayonne,which certainly has the chops – its Kawasaki ZX-10R engines currently dominate WSB racing.

The Brough was right at home in the swervery, and could be pushed as hard as one liked. Fast and fun!

The chassis is both innovative and expensive, with a mix of titanium, aluminum and magnesium for the frame and swingarm, carbon-fiber wheels, aluminum bodywork, and a double-wishbone front fork.  Front and rear suspension use Öhlins units, and that fork is a gift from Claude Fior, who never patented his design from the 1980s.  It’s still avant-garde, but very well developed, with lots of track time; BMW’s Duolever fork is also Fior-based. While blade-type forks normally have zero brakedive, the Brough’s fork has a small amount engineered in to feel “normal” when the anchors are out.  The small-diameter Behringer brakes, sourced from the aircraft industry, are incredibly powerful, with quad rotors on the front wheel; we featured them in Cycle World when UweEhinger used a pair on his Kraftrad Speedster. Actual braking ability is the most radical departure from oldBroughs, whose stopping powernever equaled their 100mph potential, in the days when traffic was sparse.

Posey-poseur… but if you can’t pose on a Brough Superior…

The specifications of the new Brough Superior have been discussed before, since the debut of the prototypes four years ago, but few road reports have made it to American shores, principally because Brough won’t be marketed here for a year or so (testing + regulations = $$$), and none are currently in the US.  We’re a low priority, but that didn’t stop Boxer Design principal Thierry Henriette, the man who’s building the new Broughs, from allowing a test ride last June at the Wheels and Waves festival in Biarritz.  The Pyrenees are legendary for motorcycling, with lightly-traveled mountain roads and 1000-year-old stone villages for scenery.  My test was over the slightly more traveled coastal roads of the Corniche, which attracts a few tourists eager to photograph the Cote Basque, and get off ubiquitous toll highways.  Luckily, access to this fantastic stretch of road between France and Spain is very poorly marked, so risky passing maneuvers were minimal.

The Brough looks good even in an industrial void

The SS100 is probably the lightest-looking literbike on the market, with lots of empty space around the engine and beneath the saddle.  The dry weight is just under 400 lb., excellent for a 120-hp machine, and throwing the bike around corners is easy-breezy.  It’s not razor sharp like a racer; it feels like a fast street machine, and real-world handling is totally intuitive.  I stepped off a 1974 Norton Commando, and onto the SS100, and the feeling was familiar at all speeds, except flat-out.  At speeds over 100mph, the Brough was still charging hard, and pushing the bike through the Corniche’s bends felt completely stable, predictable, and modern.  The power is yeehaw-level good, but not insane – let’s just say passing traffic wasn’t even a thought, and clear roads offered breathtakingly fun motorcycling, with super secure handling, a great noise, and the stunning looks of the bike. Even a good squeeze on those crazy Behringer brakes in mid-corner felt perfectly safe; there’s no ABS yet, so it’s best to keep your right hand supple.  An hour’s ride back and forth on the coast road left me with a big smile, and a desire to own an SS100 – the “cheap” one that is.  At £45,000 (about $60,000), the new SS100 is 10 percent the price of a 1920s model, and therefore a bargain!  Well, any other bike is cheap by that metric.

Drawing a crowd everywhere it lands

The Boxer engine is a bit reminiscent in feel of a mid-1920s JAP 990cc OHV racing motor, which was the heart of the original SS100.  It wasn’t meant for the street, and had a nervous disposition, which the new motor shares.  There’s a slight harshness to the primary and camshaft drive of the Boxer motor; you can feel the sharp edges of gears whirring around, with not much cushioning effect present.  It isn’t bad, and it runs dead smooth, but that slight harshness is the sort of thing a few years’ development will probably eliminate. For a small producer’s wholly new engine, it’s something of a miracle it works so damn well. The gearchange is firm and accurate, the clutch is progressive and strong, and the Öhlins suspension does its job unobtrusively.   And the looks; love ‘em or hate ‘em, they’re distinctive, and telegraph the quality of the machine’s construction.  My favorite model is all black, but my well used test bike harvested eyeballs everywhere it went – I haven’t attracted this much attention on two wheels since testing a Confederate Wraith. Everyone wants to know what it is, and non-bikers seem to love the design.

Ready for a blast down the B-roads…

I’ve spent more saddle time on vintage Brough Superiors than new sportbikes, having ridden a 1933 B-S across the States in the 2014 Cannonball. I’ve also been a B-S owner’s club member since the 1980s, having owned four models, back when they were semi-affordable to 99 percenters. Therefore, I’m the most likely candidate to make mouth-frothing accusations of “blasphemy!” for use of the Brough name, but I’ve known Mark Upham for years, and he’s also an arch enthusiast of the marque.  That doesn’t mean he’ll make a decent new motorcycle, but when journalist Alan Cathcart introduced Upham to Boxer boss Thierry Henriette, he landed in the right hands.  Henriette was excited by the project’s challenges, and has made an intriguing motorcycle that is totally up to date with terrific performance, a retro, classy vibe, and a totally unique look.  It actually fills the vacant niche of the Gentleman’s Motorcycle. Would George have approved?  I do believe he would.

Photography Credit to Bill Phelps

The First 'Triton' - A Prewar Cafe Racer

Back in 2008, I wrote about the McCandless brothers' invention of the first modern swingarm motorcycle frame in 1944. Norton race chief Joe Craig took note of this radical new chassis, leading Norton to purchase the rights to the McCandless design in 1949. Geoff Duke debuted the McCandless-framed Norton in 1950 housing a factory Grand Prix racer, and sweet-handling design became known as the 'Featherbed'.

The world's first Triton, built by Rex McCandless during WW2 - a racing Triumph Tiger 100 motor in a Norton International racing chassis. Note headlamp mask - required during wartime blackouts. (photo courtesy Dennis Quinlan, via VMCC Library)

Rex McCandless and his brother Cromie were an interesting pair, devoted to motorcycle engineering and racing, and changed the motorcycle industry forever without the need for an engineering degree.  Rex famously wrote,  "I never had any formal training. I came to believe that it stops people from thinking for themselves. I read many books on technical subjects, but always regarded that as second-hand knowledge. I did my best working in my own way."  It slipped my attention then, but it seems the McCandless brothers also seem to have invented the most iconic custom motorcycle of the cafe racer era - the Triton, a Norton/Triumph hybrid.

Rex McCandless (left) and Artie Bell, both on racing Triumph Tiger 100s in 1940. Note swanky race transport behind them!

Rex McCandless tuned and raced his own motorcycles before WW2, first turning his attention to a new twin-cylinder Triumph Triumph Tiger 100 in 1940.  His home-tuned Tiger was was faster than the factory-tuned bronze-head Tiger 100 of his friend, Artie Bell (future Norton Works racer), and Rex won the Irish 500cc Road Race and Hillclimb championships that year.  While the motor was fast, the Triumph chassis made 'unreasonable demands of its rider'.  The story goes that McCandless began experimenting with weight distribution on the Triumph, and eventually designed his own frame, which became the Featherbed.  But it seems he tried a known better-handling chassis first for his Triumph motor, and installed the Tiger engine in a racing Norton International chassis.  He'd already proven his T100 engine faster than a racing Norton, but their chassis was the gold standard for handling.   Thus the first Triton was born during WW2, as evidenced by photos in the VMCC Library, passed along to me by Dennis Quinlan.

The 'Benial', McCandless' first chassis of his own design, a full cradle, double-loop, all-welded swingarm frame, with vertical rear dampers from a Citroen car

Thankfully for us, the Norton also didn't live up to McCandless' idea of what a frame could be!  He carried on experimenting;  "I had noticed that when I removed weight in the shape of a heavy steel mudguard and a headlight, that the bike steered a lot better. It made me think about things which swiveled when steering. I was in an area about which I knew nothing, but set-to to find out. It seemed obvious to me that the rigidity of the frame was of paramount importance. That the wheels would stay in line, in the direction the rider pointed the bicycle, regardless of whether it was cranked over for a corner, and to resist the bumps on the road attempting to deflect it. Of equal importance was that the wheels would stay in contact with the road. That may seem obvious, but fast motor cycles then bounced all over the place. I decided that soft springing, properly and consistently damped, was required."

Geoff Duke winning the first of many races on the Norton 'Featherbed' factory Manx racer, in 1950, on a frame hand-built by Rex McCandless. [Photo from 'In Pursuit of Perfection', Geoff Duke's wonderful moto-biography!]
The first test-bed for Rex's ideas, built in 1944, was named the 'Benial' (Irish for 'beast'). It looked much like the double-loop, lugless frame used on the Gilera-Rondine watercooled dohc 4-cyl racer of the 1930's, but it had a proper swingarm at the back with vertical hydraulic shock absorbers (from a Citroen car). "The Benial was the best-handling bicycle I ever made." Using the ideas garnered from his experiments, McCandless first designed a bolt-on rear suspension kit for rigid-frame motorcycles,  which was tested publicly by the Irish grass-track racing team at Brands Hatch in 1946. Prior to the race, other riders looked askance at the rear suspension kits, but after the race, they clamored for them. Rex had no ambition to go into manufacturing, and sold the rights to the kit to Feridax, a well-known accessory maker.

A McCandless swingarm conversion on a 1937 Velocette Mk7 KTT - new life for an old racer!

McCandless knew his Benial had the best-handling frame in the industry, and approached Norton with a challenge, and the intention to sell his design. Norton's 'plunger' Garden Gate frame had a tendency to break, and handled like a camel.  Joe Craig made the frames heavier, to stop the breakages, but in McCandless' view, this showed an insufficient understanding of the stresses involved on the chassis, "...all they did was to fix together bits of tube and some lugs.." In 1949, he told Gilbert Smith, the Managing Director of Norton, "You are not Unapproachable, and you are not the World's Best Roadholder. I have a bicycle which is miles better!" The Norton brass set up a test on the Isle of Man, where a relative of Cromie McCandless' wife was Chief of Police. They closed the roads, "Artie Bell was on my bike, ultimately christened the Featherbed by Harold Daniell. Geoff Duke was on a Garden Gate and both had Works engines. Gilbert Smith, Joe Craig and I stood on the outside of the corner at Kate's Cottage. We could hear them coming from about the 33rd [milestone]. When Geoff came through Kate's he was needing all the road. Artie rode around the outside of him on full bore, miles an hour faster, and in total control. That night Gilbert Smith and I had a good skinful."

The prototype Featherbed Manx, built in late 1949, still with vertical rear shocks, likely sourced from an automobile

Further testing took place at Montlhery, with four riders (Artie Bell, Geoff Duke, Harold Daniell, and Johnny Lockett) going flat-out for two days. "We went through two engines, then the snow came on. The frame hadn't broken so we all went home." The debut of the new frame came at Blandford Camp, Dorset, in April 1950, with Geoff Duke aboard (below, winning that race). The string of successes which followed gave a new lease on life to a 20-year-old engine design, and Norton won 1-2-3 in the Senior and Junior TT's that year. Norton didn't have the facility to produce the Featherbed frame themselves, nor could Reynolds (the tubing manufacturer), so Rex brought his own jigs over from Ireland, and personally built the Works Norton frames from 1950-53.  The original jigs still exist - what a historic piece of scrap iron!

A mid-30's Norton International rigid frame was the gold standard of pre-War handling
The immortal Rex McCandless

Cannonballs Deep: In The Thick Of It

After the debacle of Day 1, a reckoning was made by quite a few riders.  If their machine had failed so utterly, or burned to a crisp, was there a point in carrying on?   Normal humans have jobs and responsibilities, and blocking out 3 weeks of motorcycle time requires considerable planning.  If your motorcycle went bust, is the remainder of the event a ride of shame, a holiday spent watching your friends achieve glory, or an opportunity for an unexpected holiday?  Folks took each path, some trucking their broken bikes home, spending a week on a different vacation, and returning to meet us at the finish.  Some simply disappeared.  A few were already part of a team, and carried on as support for those still rolling.

Don't try this at home! John Pfeifer's 1916 Harley-Davidson, with the leaky fuel tank. Could he fix it as a patina ride?  No.

There's also the expense: in addition to 3 weeks of hotels etc, the Cannonball has skewed prices for pre-1917 motorcycles, in total contrast to the automotive market.  A year ago, when this 'century ride' was announced, it was intended to be both a motorcycle AND automotive event, with a staggered start for the cars, the bikes following a day behind, and a shared day off in Dodge City, Kansas.  With almost no publicity, there were a dozen entries for the automotive class within a week, and both Lonnie Isam Jr and Jason Sims, the Cannonball organizers, purchased c.1916 Dodge sedans in excellent condition, each costing roughly $15,000.  For even the humblest of Cannonball motorcycle entries (say, the 1914 Shaw motor bicycle), you'd double that price, and for most, you'd need an extra zero.  That's because there are plenty of old American cars sitting idle, and zero demand for them.  There's hardly any events in which to use them.  In the end, it was decided the Cannonball would remain all-bike.  And the auction companies had a field day: Mecum auctions is now a major sponsor of the Cannonball, and Jason Sims mentioned they were pressing him to reveal the cutoff year for the 2018 Cannonball, so they could cultivate a new herd of eligible bikes for the big Las Vegas auctions.

The road as big as the sky

Day 2, September 11th, was my 54th birthday; it was my 3rd birthday on the road with the Cannonball, and the best so far.  York PA is not far from Gettysburg National Military Park, and I'd never been to a Civil War battlefield.  The town is charming, and when we discovered the best donut in the world (Treat Yo' Self), we asked which direction was the battlefield, to be told 'you're in it.'  True enough, war is messy, to be cleaned up later by historians and those with an agenda.   We were lucky to encounter a group of gents whose hobby was period correct camping, comprising a regiment of blue-coated regulars in a field with their tents - the 53rd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry.  They were delighted to work with us, posing for wet plate photographs - they'd done so previously, but never on the scale Susan and I attempted. The resulting wet plate images are real time-benders, in the very spot which stuck the wet plate photograph in the world's consciousness, via the work of Matthew Brady, who posed his corpses and cannonballs as keenly as we did our living subjects.

Posing our regiment in Gettysburg.  Thanks boys!

My birthday dinner was our 2nd excellent meal of our 21-day adventure, at Tin 202 in Morgantown, West Virginia.  Thus encouraged, we had high hopes for a trail of good meals, but the next 3-star dinner was 2400 miles away.

I asked for it as a birthday present, but this lovely '46 Indian Chief and sidecar needed to be ridden home that morning... Shiloh, Pennsylvania

Day 3 on the relentless schedule West found us at lunch in Williamstown, WV, at SandP Harley-Davidson.  All but 3 of our scheduled lunches were hosted at Harley dealerships, and our organizers must have sent out a memo for 'no pulled pork', as that was the ubiquitous fare in 2014.  Cannonball rules stipulate you MUST stay at a hosted lunch or dinner stop, as the quid pro quo for a meal - the venues advertise a display of our old bikes, and draw healthy crowds. Not so painful, unless you're a vegetarian, or prefer a different sort of lunch experience than foldup plastic tables in a charmless and makeshift storage room at a bike dealer.  We're thankful for the food, of course, but I much preferred when the local Elks clubs made us lunch in a city park - that seemed more an act of generosity and goodwill than the commercial opportunity afforded by our presence at a place of business.  Your mileage may vary.  Susan and I were busy jumping in and out of our wet plate van, taking photos at the lunch stops, and didn't explore the food until the riders had thundered off, and we were starving. 75% of the time we simply turned around to find a local, non-chain diner, which was work in itself. Susan's daily goal was a good grilled cheese sandwich, something not offered by Subway or MickeyD.

Does a Henderson handle? See for yourself - a looong wheelbase and decently rigid chassis equals a stable ride.  Near Clarksville, Ohio

And then there are the hotels, motels, Holiday Inns.  The quality of accommodation was way up over 2012, but the succession of Quality, Hampton, Comfort and Fairfield Inns became a blur.  We'd learned from 2012 that excellent coffee sets the tone for our day, so a French press, a few pounds of our favorite grand, and a teakettle are essential for our mood.  I pity other addicts who suffered through hotel coffee for 3 weeks.  Susan takes hers black (she's tough like that), but I carried cream in our cooler, preferring 'kitty coffee', as a balm for the assaults of the coming day.

Zika eradication squad! Architect Ryan Allen smokes away on his 1916 Indian Powerplus in Williamstown, West Virginia

Which came mostly in the form of rain; after the muggy heat of our first 1200 miles, relief came in torrents from the sky, and we were pissed upon suddenly and relentlessly.  The timing was treacherous, as in a twisted bit of humor, we undertook a series of unmarked rural roads to cross the 'Cannonball Bridge' near Vincennes, Indiana.  Its construction was unique in my experience, being a converted railway bridge with the usual gapped sleepers, with a pair of tire paths made from lengthwise boards of various thickness, laid down like a threat before the riders.  It felt pretty damn wonky in my truck, but was hellishly slippery for the riders crossing in a downpour.  Cannonball bridge indeed.

A foggy morning in Dodge City.  We all ride alone.

As our caravan of 300 souls and all their support vehicles sped relentlessly Westward, we passed through Chillicothe Ohio, Bloomington Indiana, Cape Girardeau and Springfield Missouri, and Wichita Kansas.  Just outside Wichita, in the suburb of Augusta, fellow Cannonballer Kelly Modlin has recently opened the Twisted Oz Motorcycle Museum, with a terrific display of restored and original-paint motorcycles, most of which could have been on one or more Cannonballs.  It's a terrific display, and Kelly's family put on a welcome meal under the framework of the museum's next expansion, which will double its size already, within a year of its opening.   We all got too many bikes, and not enough willing asses for their saddles!

Rick Salisbury on his 1915 Excelsior

Saturday September 17th we arrived in Dodge City, Kansas, grateful for our day off on Sunday, where riders could wash clothes and catch up on maintenance and rest.  For Susan and I, that meant double the work, as riders were available all day for portrait sessions, and we set to, taking a record 24 tintypes on Sunday in a variety of spots, including at the site of old Dodge City board track, where H-D Museum archivist Bill Rodencal was determined to get a tintype of his machine.  His 1915 Harley-Davidson racer had won Dodge City a century before, and he wore period gear to be immortalized on the very spot, which we were honored to do.   The photos came out great, including one Bill caught of us!

Thanks Bill Rodencal for working the lens cap of our 4x5" camera!  Bill's 1915 Harley-Davidson racer...
...which he rode over 2300 miles.  The bike has NO suspension at all, an uncompromising riding position, and a single speed!  'America is my Board Track'
Michael Norwood and his 1916 Harley-Davidson at the big train on Boot Hill, Dodge City, KS
The solitary Reading-Standard to attempt the Cannonball, a single-cylinder belt drive model, with Norm Nelson piloting.  1744 miles covered.
Niimi!  On his shared Team 80 1915 Indian, with Shinya Kimura.  Caught in the rain in Ohio.
Kelly Modlin with his grandson at his Twisted Oz Museum in Augusta, Kansas
Team 80 takes a gander at the Hillclimber selection at Twisted Oz
Dawn and Doc, and the 1916 Harley-Davidson with wicker sidecar with which they covered every single mile of the Cannonball - a truly impressive achievement.
A one-block town with one brick building, and a nice red frame for the 1916 Indian Powerplus of Kevin Naser.  Neodesha, Kansas...pronounced 'Nay oh du Shay', we were instructed
Halfway already?  Halfway drowned too; the second half of the day's ride, after a sponsored lunch stop, was cancelled, although a few riders did every mile anyway, to ensure they could claim they did.  Jasper, Kansas.
Storm's a brewin in Kansas...
Kevin Naser stopped in Grant, Missouri, for a change of gear.
Brent Hansen and his 1914 Shaw, popping along the plains of America's vast middle
Quonset huts are rare today, but tailor made for a retro cafe, as in Springfield Missouri
What becomes Europe's largest Harley-Davidson dealer best? Americana ink.
Miss Route 66, Sara Vega, poses with Alex Trepanier and his 1912 Indian single.  Alex covered nearly every mile of the United States, an epic achievement.
The future rolls out before you on the Missouri/Kansas border
The Powerplus team of the Rinker family, father Steve (here) and twin sons Justin and Jared
Missouri
A small-town radio station in Cabool, Missouri
The heartland is full of great motorcycles; this is Powderkeg Harley-Davidson in Mason, Ohio
Powderkeg H-D was named for a nearby gunpowder factory, now being converted to condos.  Swords to plowshares?
South African Hans Coertse, on the only Matchless to compete in the Cannonball to date, a robust 1914 t-twin
With so many Centurions on the road, it was easy to overlook the everyday cool bikes which tagged along, including this neat BMW R60/2 that also crossed the country
As Team 80 is unlikely to attempt a 5th Cannonball in 2018, I regret not witnessing the nighttime poetry of their plein-air workshop, conducted in silence, with hand-held lights.

Cannonballs Deep: The Beginning

It was history to be made, and 94 riders grasped the gauntlet; to be the first 100-year old vehicles of any sort to cross the United States.  Cars, planes, bicycles, rollers skates, whatever - the 2016 Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Rally, this year called the Race of the Century, would the be the first attempt to my knowledge for any Centurion vehicle to cross the country.

Shinya Kimura on his 1915 Indian twin, on a test run before its 4th Cannonball, as seen from the back of our 'wet plate van', my Sprinter with red 'safety' film on the window for our mobile darkroom.

That claim was staked at the starter's banquet in the Golden Nugget hotel on September 9th in Atlantic City, New Jersey, during an oppressively hot and muggy late Summer week - 95 degrees and 90% humidity - the hotel having chiseled off it's 'Trump' name some years ago during a bankruptcy proceeding.

Trying to get a decent shot of the assembled 94 motorcycles on the Atlantic City boardwalk, just before the 10am start of the Cannonball.

The Motorcycle Cannonball was initiated by Lonnie Isam Jr, as both an homage to the achievement of Erwin 'Cannonball' Baker's cross-country record breaking sprees in the early part of the 20th Century, and a challenge to the many owners of early motorcycles who didn't ride them all that much. Lonnie believed early machines were just as capable of crossing the country today - on paved roads rather than dirt tracks - as they were when new, and the first Cannonball was held in 2010, with a small cadre of riders on pre-1916 machines accepting the challenge.  That first year was notoriously difficult, and an admirably bonding experience.

...and the shot I was able to take, from the opposite direction from the official panorama of the start.

Nobody had tried such an incredibly long ride - 3500 miles - on such old machinery, and nobody really knew what to expect, or how the bikes would hold up to riding and average 250 miles/day on a rigorous schedule.It wasn't the only evidence of Trump, or bankruptcy, we'd encounter on our third trip over backroads America.  Three Cannonballs, this one likely to be my last, and for once totally bikeless, as my partner (with the bike) couldn't take the 3 weeks off this year.   My artistic and life partner Susan, after a crisis huddle, decided our MotoTintype project was too important to abandon, so we chose to follow the Cannonball as photographers, taking as many 'wet plate' photos as we could, and round out the hundreds of images we'd already shot on the prior 2 events, in order to make a book of the best images. Susan's brother Scott drove my Sprinter to NYC, and thus began another epic road trip.

Kurt Klokkenga, one of the 'motorcycle sweep' staff of the Cannonball, who were allowed to help repair machines en route without penalty. I'm sure many stranded riders were grateful of their help! Love his patina Panhead.

Not surprisingly, the tales of woe and late nights spent making repairs, every single night, made that 2010 event legendary.  Most of the original 45 riders vowed never to do it again, and kept their promise!  Some returned in 2012 though, especially as the rules were relaxed to include bikes up to 1930.  That allowed me to naively enter the 2012 Cannonball with my 1928-framed Velocette Mk4 KTT.  'The Mule' had been my reliable rally machine for 12 years, taking in 7 week-long Velocette rallies, covering 250-mile days with aplomb.  I'd already effectively double the Cannonball mileage on a similar daily schedule, so it seemed a plausible effort.

Beauty among the beasts! Alyson DeCosa and Buck Carson of Carson Classic Motors was happy to pose on the 1913 Warwick delivery tricycle ridden by his father Mike.

With no motorbike to concern us this year, Susan and I had an all-Sprinter Cannonball rally, and embraced the experience.  Following the same route as the riders, we were blessed with the endlessly beautiful and fascinating landscape of the United States.  The natural beauty of the East Coast forests, with their winding hills and hollows, lovely climbs were perfect motorcycle roads, dotted regularly with podunk villages and oddball eateries, brought a mix of awe at Nature and concern at Nurture.   Signs supporting a blustering demagogue were inevitably mixed with Confederate flags in Pennsylvania, a clear repudiation of both the policies and race of our current president, in parts of the country left far behind the technology-based prosperity of my native California.

German engineering! Thomas Trapp and Paul Jung found the front fender of this 1915 Harley-Davidson too long, and fouling the front wheel at speed, so they bobbed it! Thomas is Europe's largest H-D dealer, from Frankfurt.

September 10th was a short ride of 158 miles through an endless series of New Jersey stoplights. The heat, and the constant stop-start, took a heavy toll on machinery and riders, and by the end of the day in York, Pennsylvania, 23 machines were hors de combat.  Some refused to start in the heat, some broke parts, some seized, and one burned to the ground. John Pfeifer had built an extra-capacity fuel tank for his 1916 Harley-Davidson, and the weight of a full tank pressed down onto the rear cylinder's rocker arm (atop the cylinder head on an F-head motor).  It only took 80 miles or so for the rocker to wear through the metal, fuel to spill onto the magneto, and a great ball of flame to erupt.  John watched his machine burn for 20 minutes before a fire truck arrived with a decent extinguisher.  The first day was the worst day overall, culling the field quickly, and serving notice this wasn't going to be an easy run.

We had plenty of visitor and day-trippers along for the ride, including Cannonball veteran and publisher Buzz Kanter of American Iron mag.

On a bright note, Susan and I had a terrific meal at the Left Bank in York, the first of 3 excellent meals on our 17-day trip.  We tried our hardest to eat well, searching daily for the 'best restaurant in X', and finding lists online which invariably included chains like Jack in the Box. It's not difficult to draw conclusions about rural American culinary habits from this, and you'd be correct - America grows food for the world, but eats poorly in the very regions that food is grown.  But we'd discovered that a couple of times already, and brought a sufficient stock of coffee and wine from home!

Our 'wet plate' photo of 'Round the World' Doug Wothke's 1917 Douglas twin, brought along for spares, since it was too new for the Cannonball.

Readers of my2012 Cannonball reports on TheVintagent.com know I had terrible problems with two replacement camshafts I installed, the first lasting about 20 miles total, and the second, installed after many hours modification at a machine shop, lasted only a further 1000 miles.  Those were blissful miles over the Rockies, I'll confess, but the truth was, the Cannonball defeated my preparation.  The Mule remains the only overhead-camshaft motorcycle to run the Cannonball, and several H-D riders suggested that a machine which couldn't be fixed with a hammer had no place on a run like the Cannonball.  Perhaps they're correct.


Cris Sommer Simmons has ridden 'Effie', her 1915 Harley-Davidson, on 2 Cannonballs now, and it acquitted itself very well.
In 2014, I partnered with Revival Cycles to ride Bryan Bossier's 1933 Brough Superior 1150, which proved an absolutely remarkable machine, showing its heels daily to every other Cannonball machine, and cruising at a steady 65-70mph, even ridden two-up, with Susan on the back.  Our only 'competition' was the 1936 H-D Knuckleheads squeaking into the pre-1937 rules, but a day-long ride on a Knuck over the 11,000' Independence Pass in Colorado, with its endless hairpin turns, revealed there was no comparison between the pride of American engineering, and a cobbled-up masterpiece of British engineering.  Sorry dudes. (Read my 2014 ride report here)The start of this year's rally was hot and oppressive, with daily 95deg temps and 90% humidity.  Jumping in an out of the Sprinter to develop photographs was an experience in hydration management, a subject which became increasingly critical as the days rolled forward, regardless of our 'ride nurse' Vicki 'Spitfire' Sanfelipo handing out electrolite tablets like candy.  Make friends with Gatorade, she said, so we did, and wrung out our sweat-soaked clothing at night (I'll cover our wet plate adventure in a separate post).
Our wet plate of Brent Hansen and his 1913 Shaw motor bicycle, with a very long road before him.
A visit from the locals! Atlantic city crew - the neighborhood '12 O'Clock Boys', although they sheepishly admitted they were 1 or 2 O'Clockers in reality, as a fully vertical wheelie is hard!
Rural Pennsylvania is a lovely place to ride through. We stopped in Collinsville, PA, for some ice cream
Day 1: carnage. The cylinder head on Dave Volnek's 1915 Indian blew out, but he had spares, and the bike was back on the road the next day.
Part of a strong German contingent, Andreas Kaindl rode his 1915 Henderson single-speeder, which he purchased from the Hockenheim Museum, and added a convincing faux-patina paint job. This was Andy's 3rd Cannonball.
Frank Westfall on his 1912 Henderson, and Buck Carson on his 1914 BSA single belt-driver.
A gentleman's mount! Kevin Waters has 'Beamed across America twice now, having ridden a '33 Sunbeam Model 9 the full distance in 2014. His 1915 Sunbeam single was a lovely, and very early, example of the marque.
Trouble begins before the beginning! The 1913 Douglas of Steve Alexander gets a flat in the first 6 miles, at the staging area...
Doug Feinsod, a Cannonball veteran, and one of the 'Thor Losers', a 5-rider team of rare Thor v-twins
Many kind words and thoughts were directed to our friend Bill Buckingham, who was tragically killed 2 weeks before the Cannonball. His usual #40 number plate was carried by a string of other riders, and '40' stickers adorned many bikes. Godspeed, Bill

Wheels & Waves Cayucos

[A co-production of the Southsiders MC and TheVintagent.com]

 

The Southsiders MC have been organizing rides in Biarritz/the Pyrenees/Spain since 2009, when we made up a baker's dozen for a few days riding on vintage machines.  I'd met Vincent Prat at the Legend of the Motorcycle Concours in Half Moon Bay in 2008, and he'd invited me to come ride with his friends in France. With exceptional riding roads, little traffic, and terrific Basque food, our merry band of vintagents had found a perfect combination of company and environment. 

Brian Bent and his magnificent Hot Rod Church of Sinners mascot car...

The event was repeated the next year, and the next, growing with each iteration; by 2011, the Southsiders added a party in Toulouse to the ride, with an art exhibit and music, which was the prototype for Wheels&Waves, which began in June 2012 in Biarritz.  That little ride with a dozen of us is now an event with 15,000 attendees, still with the ride in the mountains, and other fun in the region, like the Punk's Peak hillclimb/sprint, and now a flattrack race in Spain, along with the ArtRide exhibit, and music at the central 'village' at the Cité de l'Ocean in Biarritz.  It's a terrific mix of moto-centric fun, and a unique mix of the vintage, custom, chopper, surf, race, and skate scenes.

Go Takamine's Indian Chout - a Chief motor in a Scout chassis.  He said it took him 4 months of 'no sleep' to built it...

What does this have to do with The Vintagent?  It's a strategy: one-make vintage motorcycle clubs, and groups like the VMCC and AMCA, have an aging membership, and their members/boards lament and fret on how to interest younger riders in old machines.  Younger riders are in fact already interested in old machines - alt.custom sites like Pipeburn and BikeExif feature plenty - but aren't interested in hanging around a boring bike club.    A mix of old an new machines is happening organically at events like the BikeShed and Wheels&Waves; what better place to fan the interest of younger riders than to bring old bikes, and ride them in the mix at cool events?

Scotty Topnik's Shovelhead chopper at the Cayucos Skate Park; a natural combination, give how many recent chopper converts are/were serious skaters...

To support this concept, TheVintagent partnered with the Southsiders MC last month to host Wheels&Waves Cayucos, a low-key flag-planting on American soil of a great event.  A few friends were invited to the Swallow Creek Ranch for 2 days of riding through the Central Coast hills, and an opportunity to hang out without distraction.  Our mascot for the event was Richard Vincent, who raced Velocettes and Triumphs in Santa Barbara in the early 1960s, and surfed in the area too.  Richard brought his vintage surfboards, Velocette dirt racers, and a bunch of photographs from his racing/surfing days.  Susan and I shot MotoTintypes with our Wet Plate Van, and portraits of a few friends, which I'm sharing here, along with a few of my iPhone shots.  Stay tuned for next year's event!

The 'Hardley' from Revival Cycles beside an astounding grain elevator in Templeton, built entirely of stacked 2x6" boards!
Jalika and Alp Sungurtekin relax with their pup.  Alp brought his 172mph pre-unit Triumph land speed record bike
Jeanette Mekdara and her Triumph Bonneville
A few of the ladies chill out by Swallow Creek barn
Yours truly with my 1960 Velocette Clubman, and the very brave Suzie Heartbreak
Revival Cycle's fantastic Velocette-Rickman custom
Photographer Polo Garat, a Southsider over from France, on a borrowed Velo...
Choppers play nice with the customs and vintage bikes…
Wayne Dyer brought his funky hotrod
Ana Llorente rode her Honda CB450 Black Bomber  (MotoTintype)
Birds of prey circled the skies...even a rare Falcon was sighted.  It was great to see Ian Barry on the road again.  (MotoTintype)
Dean Micetich  of DiCE Magazine making it all look easy on his Panhead chopper  (MotoTintype)
Conrad Leach and (the late and much lamented) Matt Davis hanging around Brian Bent's hot rod... (MotoTintype)
Roland Sands brought his cool Servi-Car based flat track racer  (MotoTintype)
The ladies of the Southsiders MC are not to be messed with  (MotoTintype)
Photographer Travis Shinn with Roland's H-D.  (MotoTintype)
There were waves, there were wheels.  These vintage surfboards belong to Richard Vincent, who displayed them along with his racing Velocettes, and photos from his racing/surfing days in the early 1960s.   The Southsiders MC - Julien Azé, Jérome Allé, and Vincent Prat - were happy to pose with them...  (MotoTintype)

The Old School at Bonneville

Digging through the bins at my local flea market, I unearthed a gem; a 1952 copy of Cycle magazine.  The cover photo was tremendous; Blackie Bernal's Triumph Thunderbird record-breaker, ready to be foot-shoved off the starting line at the Bonneville Salt Flats.  The pusher's foot sneaks into the photo, but most dramatically, Blackie is wearing nothing that might be called safety equipment, barring a 1930s era 'pudding basin' helmet.  As Rollie Free proved in his 1950 Vincent 150mph 'bathing suit' speed record, less clothing means less drag, and no doubt less heat under the Utah sun.  While the Salt Flats sit at 4200', and temperatures are rarely above 90degrees, the blinding white salt and utter lack of shade on the dry lake bed can be punishing.

Blackie Bernal on his reverse-head Triumph Thunderbird, which averaged 144mph at Bonneville in 1952.  Blackie is wearing long underwear, hi-top tennis shoes, gloves, a helmet, and nothing else!

Blackie Bernal is best known for his use of a 'reverse head' on his Triumph, with the carburetors facing forwards, presumably in the interest of free 'supercharging' of the incoming fuel/air mix.  To this end, he fitted huge metal funnels to his carbs to focus the incoming wind, which presumably included a measure of salt spray as well! He ran and re-ran the black-line course for a full 8 days to reach his goal. While the engineering philosophy behind his work is questionable, there's no doubt his machine was very fast; he averaged 144.338mph over two runs, giving him the 40 cubic" Class A American speed record.

Note the large intake funnels - free supercharging?  Also note the significant ding in the tank - that was courtesy Tommy Smith, which led to skin grafts.

That speed was purchased at the expense of a considerable swath of skin from Bernal's rider, Tommy Smith of Turlock, CA.  He'd come off at over 140mph, and according to Cycle, "had a spellbinding spill. When he had finally stopped grinding bodily across the salt, Tommy arose and waved to the crowd that he was all right, before sinking back to the ground."  Racing on the salt was then suspended for 4 hours, while the ambulance was away with Smith, who required several skin grafts.  One shudders to think of a near-naked bodysurf across the surprisingly rough surface of the salt flats - rubbing salt into the wound indeed!

Blackie Bernal being 'footed' by another rider to start his Triumph Thunderbird, at the starter's scaffold.

The fastest time of the meet in 1952 according to the organizers the Southern California Timing Association (then only 3 years old!) was 168mph, achieved by the 80 cubic" Harley-Davidson Knucklehead of CB Clausen and Bud Hood.   The Knuck had no fairing and no supercharger, but probably ran special fuel - a respectable speed in any era!

Lloyd Bulmer is a legendary figure in Velocette circles – he managed a one-way top speed of 125mph from his 350cc KSS…

Cliff Vaughs – Rest Easy

Cliff Vaughs, best known for his creation of the ‘Easy Rider’ choppers, sailed away from this world quietly on July 2nd from his home in Templeton, CA. Had it not been for Jesse James’ ‘History of the Chopper’ TV series, Vaughs would have likely vanished from history, but the question ‘who built the most famous motorcycles in the world?’ needed an answer. That led Jesse to a sailboat in Panama, where he found Cliff, who’d left the USA in 1974. Why he lived alone on a sailboat in the Caribbean, instead of soaking up praise for his work on ‘Easy Rider’, and his filmmaking , photography, and civil rights work, is a long story. I told some of that story in my book ‘The Chopper; the Real Story’, but Cliff’s life was too big to fit into one chapter of a book, and he dismissed 'Easy Rider' as "Three weeks of my life". 

Cliff Vaughs at the Motorcycle Film Festival panel discussion, which I moderated - a film of his visit to NYC is being edited as we speak (photo courtesy the Motorcycle Film Festival).

Cliff Vaughs was born in Boston on April 16th, 1937, to a single mother, and showed great promise as a student. He graduated from Boston Latin School and Boston University, then earned his MA at the University of Mexico in Mexico City – driving from Boston in his Triumph TR2. Moving to LA in 1961, he encountered the budding chopper scene, and soon had a green Knucklehead ‘chopped Hog’, as he called it; that’s where he befriended motorcycle customizer Ben Hardy in Watts, who became his mentor. Cliff was recruited to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1963, and brought his chopper to Arkansas and Alabama, where he drag-raced white policemen, and visited sharecropper farms “looking like slavery had never ended.” He added, “I may have been naïve thinking I could be an example to the black folks who were living in the South, but that’s why I rode my chopper in Alabama. I was never sure if the white landowners would chase me off with a shotgun. But I wanted to be a visible example to them; a free black man on my motorcycle.”

Danny Lyon's photo of Cliff Vaughs at a sit-in in Maryland, 1964.  This photo is currently on exhibit at the Whitney Museum in NYC in Danny Lyon's career retrospective 'Message to the Future.'

Cliff’s chopper adventures in the SNCC was a story never told – he was too radical, too provocative, too free for the group. Casey Hayden (activist/politician Tom Hayden’s first wife) remembered Cliff as “a West Coast motorcyclist, a lot of leather and no shirts. Hip before anyone else was hip. A little scary, and reckless.” Cliff’s ex-wife Wendy Vance added “He was a true adventurer. ... There was just some sort of fearlessness in all situations. It did not occur to him that he was a moving target on this motorcycle. At a march in Selma, the civil rights leader John Lewis refused to stand next to him. ‘You are crazy,’ Lewis said, ‘I will not march next to you.’ The fear was that, somehow, Cliff would make himself a target.” 

Cliff ‘Soney’ Vaughs on his chopper on Malibu beach, 1973, courtesy photographer Eliot Gold.

Cliff was indeed a target of many failed shootings, and his tales of riding his chopper in the South were incorporated into ‘Easy Rider', after he returned to LA in 1965 to make films like 'What Will the Harvest Be?', which explored the nascent Black Power movement. Cliff was Associate Producer on 'Easy Rider', and oversaw the creation of the Captain America and Billy choppers, which became the most famous motorcycles in the world. He didn’t get the recognition he deserved for those bikes, partly because the whole crew was fired when Columbia Pictures took over production, and Cliff’s payout/signoff included a clause keeping him off the film’s credits. Publications like Ed Roth’s ‘Choppers Magazine’ explored Cliff’s role in ‘Easy Rider’ from 1968 onwards, but both Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper at various times claimed credit for building those bikes, and Dan Haggerty took credit too. Hopper acknowledged in his last year the seminal role Cliff Vaughs played, as did Peter Fonda, in 2015. Cliff went on to produce ‘Not So Easy’, a motorcycle safety film, in 1974, but left the US to live on a sailboat in the Caribbean the next 40 years.  He was brought back to the US in 2014, as appreciation spread for his contribution to motorcycle history, and he was celebrated at the Motorcycle Film Festival in Brooklyn last year; a documentary from his time in NYC is being edited as this moment. Godspeed, Cliff.

Cliff on Mulholland Drive in 2014, after he’d flown from Slovenia to reunite (briefly) with ‘Captain America’, shot by me on wet plate (MotoTintype.com)

For my first discovery of the lost black history of 'Easy Rider', click here.

For Cliff's story on his role in 'Easy Rider', click here.

For Peter Fonda's acknowledgement of Cliff's role in 'Easy Rider', click here.

- For the NPR story on Captain America, click here.

- For copies of 'The Chopper; the Real Story', click here.


Gearhead Valhalla

[Text/photos by Paul d'Orléans.  Originally published in The Automobile - the best old-car mag on the planet] 


Lake Como’s leafy sentinel towers over the Villa d’Este’s grand gravel terrace, but the hoary Sycamore is chopped further back every year, its once expansive canopy shrinking to a leafy fat spire, providing shade no longer, yet still the axis of the party. The villa’s Renaissance gardens and pebbled grottoes are intact these 500 years; swapping an elderly companion for younger model may be the habit of the Concorso’s wealthy entrants, but the tide of History demands respect for the old tree, as it does for the automobiles and motorcycles celebrated within the grounds.

Best in Show!  The 1928 Grindlay-Peerless 'Hundred Model' ex-'Boy' Tubb Brooklands racer

Anxiety over the Sycamore’s fate defines the beginning and the end of troubles at the Concorso d’Eleganza di Villa d’Este; as lucky guests and journalists float on the music of clinking glass flutes, the poor tree plays Cassandra for the real world’s troubles - vanishingly absent from the scene otherwise. Burbling Rivas deliver the happily elegant to the hotel’s shores, not the desperate, so we may rightfully celebrate the fabulous treasures of our world on the weekend, and return to reality on Monday.

For BMW's centenary (it was established in 1916, making airplanes), this early BMW-powered monoplane was moved (not flown) from villa to villa.  When fired up, an LED display on the prop made the BMW logo - nifty.

For 2016’s iteration of the most coveted spot in the show-car/show-bike calendar, Nature offered a 3-day gap between torrents; tourist-brochure perfect days, suitable for the otherworldly perfection of 50 cars and 40 motorbikes gleaming with elbow-grease, from helper-hands conjuring prize-granting djinns via yellow microfiber cloths. And that, readers, is serious work, conducted by an unsung and invisible army, never thanked from the podium by the Jereboam-armed, ribbon-draped swells who paid their salaries. The Little People, as tactless Oscar winners once at least acknowledged, whose labors transformed the inert cash of connoisseurs into an invitation to this truly incredible party beside Italy’s most beautiful lake. As tax-haven oligarchs stage dramatic, black Amex duels at fine auctions houses, sending car (and now moto) values to the lofty heights inhabited by the finest of arts – the realm of the gods - rolling sculpture has become the last publicly visible evidence of real wealth, as great art disappears into freeport bunkers, and nested shell companies obscure ownership of part-time mansions. 

This original-paint 1939 Triumph Tiger 100 was originally owned by BMW! They bought it for testing/comparison, and soon blew it up.  It lay undisturbed for years, and was recommissioned recently, with its patina intact.  Fantastic.

Temporary membership to this sunshiney, sweet-smelling tableau grants one – e.g. me – a few days’ overlap with wildly different Venn circles; it only hurts when the bubble protecting wealth and beauty floats off, and the sweaty tang of real work and deadlines returns. My nominal job at the Concorso di Moto (judging the assembled treasures) is difficult only in the weighing, discussing, and choosing, which can only be counted a pleasure in such company as the since-1949 Motociclismo fixture Carlo Perelli, the director of Prague’s Technical Museum – Arnost Nemeskal, the chief of BMW’s motorrad design - Edgar Heinrich, French moto-institution Francois-Marie Dumas, and, god bless our host country, the editor of Italian Cosmopolitan, Sara Fiandri, who scatters Milan’s pedestrians like leaves aboard her racy Honda. 

Fellow moto-judge Sara Fiandri in the driver's seat of the 1911 Magnet Selbstfahrer, a remarkable machine, used as a taxi in Berlin originally!

It must be equally true for our automotive counterparts that Choosing is a profession of thick-skinned devils, as subcurrents of politics, aesthetics, nationality, status, and history swirl around every vehicle, while judges argue – oh yes we do – their views on such matters. We have a day to observe, discuss, ponder, and reassemble before the prizegiving ceremony on Sunday, overseen in the case of motorbikes by the affable and poly-tongued Roberto Rasia dal Polo, while the four-wheeled crowd suffers the inconceivably smooth Simon Kidston, whose puns and light verbal pokes reveal his intimate familiarity with the assembly. 

Yours truly aboard the BMW R5 Hommage concept bike, which used original 1935 R5 engine and gearbox castings, with everything else new.  The grotto behind me is original toVilla d'Este from the 1500s.

BMW, owner of the Concorso, litters the grounds of Villa d’Este with new Rolls Royces and prototypes, while neighboring Villa Erba, which hosts the Concorso di Moto, is saddled with drudgeries like a ‘Teens BMW monoplane, a terrific display of concept cars/bikes beside the machines which inspired them, and the public, which has free range on the expansive grasslands of the park. This year’s overall theme was ‘Back to the Future’, which translates from German as ‘retro’ – the concept car unveiled at Friday’s swanky cocktail party claimed parentage from the 40 year old BMW 2002 (though it was hard to see resemblance, it was a sharp effort by Adrian van Hooydonk), while the concept motorcycle was an industry first – no factory to my knowledge has ever used a vintage motor as the basis of a show vehicle. 

A terrific display of rally cars on the grounds, ready to spit some gravel skyward.  A 1972 Ford Escort 1600RS, 1973 Renault Alpine A110, and 1975 Lancia Stratos

The ‘R5 Hommage’ ridden in noisily by Edgar Heinrich (beside designer Ola Stenegard on an original 1936 R5) used the castings of an 80-year old engine as its heart, although the vintage 500cc OHV motor sported a new supercharger, disc brakes, and a discreet swingarm. While seemingly odd for a technophilic team like BMW to dig around its museum for the actual building blocks of a prototype, ‘heritage’ is the most potent design tool in the moto industry today, and the smooth castings of the old flat-twin motor just might point to an upcoming engine redesign? Back to the future, indeed. 

What it looks like in the jury room - not eleganza! But we're in the conference center at Villa Erba, near the motorcycles

Picking winners in the physical context of Lake Como and a pair of grand Villas seems almost gauche – if you’re there, you’ve won, as has your vehicle. But everyone loves the tension of a contest, and so the list: the under-16 public referendum went rightfully to a 1974 Lancia Stratos rally car, while the drinking-agers chose a bottlefly green ’71 Lamborghini Miura P400SV, which only proves the crowd was Italian, and excitable. The gentry strolling the closed party at Villa d’Este preferred a streamlined ’33 Lancia Astura Serie II, while the judges appointed an exquisite ’54 Maserati A6GCS as Best in Show, a title having much to do, I have learned, with what might look best on the cover of next year’s catalog. This was actually discussed amongst the motorcycle jury, and with vehicles of near-equal money-no-object perfect restorations, what Should tip the scales?

Epic; a 1937 HRD-Vincent Rapide 998cc V-twin

But, we are reminded annually that ours is a Concorso di Moto, not an Eleganza, and thus chose the charismatic and oh-so-English 1929 Grindlay-Peerless-JAP ‘Hundred Model’ with illustrious competition heritage from new, multiple Gold Stars from Brooklands, and a fantastically mechanical, and poster unfriendly, all-nickel finish. What bridged a chasm of disagreement among jurors between suavity and pugnacity was a special Jury Award to the very most elegant ’37 Gnome et Rhone Model X with tailfinned Bernardet sidecar, lovely awash in cream and burgundy, which pretty much describes lunch. Wish you were there.

The motorcyclists tour the lake on Saturday, finishing up with a burble across the grounds at Villa d'Este for the entertainment of the hoi polloi.  Several two-stroke bikes guaranteed a Zika-free zone.
Lago di Como

 

Drama, with a 1937 Bugatti 57C Atalante and 1933 Lancia Astura Serie II
At the far end of Villa d'Este, a Bizzarini, Lamborghini Miura S, and early Countach lurk
All bubbly; 1961 Aston Martin DB4GT Zagato and '68 Bizarrini GT Europa
Pushing all that 1925 Böhmerland Reisemodell to the display
The Concorso di Villa d'Este has the best (hardback) event programs in the industry.
Puzzling out the relative simplicity of an early Ferrari V-12 engine
Instructions for Concorso losers
Happiness is Jürg Schmid on his 1938 Gilera VTGS Saturno
Some of the elaborate nickel-ness of the Grindlay-Peerless 'Hundred Model'
The Grindlay-Peerless logo is famously mis-spelled on this tank, and shows up in many books on vintage racers.  When I asked the owner if he'd change it, he said, 'the mistake is too famous now!'
Alberto Soiatti and his peerless restoration of his 1968 Hercules GS
Special Jury Award for the magnificent 1937 Gnome-Rhone Model X- Bernardet outfit of Jean-Claude Conchard
1980 Lamborghini Athon, with body by Bertone - deliciously understated
Timeless design - the Miura is eternal. Bottlefly green, however, comes and goes.
Lovely BMW display of concept vehicles with the originals that inspired them.
Strike a pose, there's nothing to it. Vogue. But dig the pebble mosaic work on this 1500s grotto
Serial #1 'Black Pig', the 1967 MV Agusta 600 of Tobias Aichele

 

Head of BMW's motorcycle design team, Ola Stenegard, aboard an original 1935 BMW R5
Caught mid-flight, borrowing Sebastien Gutsch's BMW R5 racer around the grounds of Villa Erba
A proper view of the R5 Hommage - the rear end is a 'softail', with a vertical monoshock at rear.  Only the engine and gearbox castings are from the '30s, all else was built by Unique Custom Cycles of Sweden
Not all the beauties at Villa d’Este have wheels…although Katerina Kyvalova has several sets as a driver with the Bentley Belles
A study in abstraction courtesy Ferdinand Porsche
Time makes all things possible, like a Rokon on the grounds of Villa Erba.

Additional benefits of Best in Show – hugs from The Vintagent!

 

Paul d'Orléans is the founder of TheVintagent.com. He is an author, photographer, filmmaker, museum curator, event organizer, and public speaker. Check out his Author Page, Instagram, and Facebook.

‘Norton’ George Cohen

One of my favorite characters in the old bike scene has left the saddle, and the world is poorer for his absence. Dr. George Cohen, otherwise known as 'Norton George' for his devotion to single-cylinder Nortons (plus a certain Rem Fowler's Peugeot-engined TT racer), fought well against an aggressive cancer diagnosed late last year, but knew the jig was up, that swarf had fouled his mains and blocked the oil lines.  What he leaves behind for those lucky enough to have called him friend, is a ton of wry memories, and his distinctive voice echoing through our heads, with some crack about our terrible workshops, ill-prepared machinery, or silly ideas.  He was mad as a hatter for sure, but a hell of a lot of fun to be around.

Dr. George Cohen at the Brooklands Centenary in 2007 – ever the stylish figure

George was also a devotee of using his vintage machinery to the hilt, blasting his favorite 1927 Model 18 Norton racer on the Isle of Man, and the roads around his 'Somerset Shed'.  Arriving by train for a visit to George's sprawling country estate was an exercise in bravery, as he'd likely pick you up in his 1926 Norton Model 44 racer with alloy 'zeppelin' sidecar. Strapping your luggage on the back, and no helmet required, meant you experienced the full terror of an ancient, poorly braked but surprisingly quick big single in flight along the ultra-narrow, deeply dug-in Roman roads of the area. The mighty Bonk of the Norton's empty Brooklands 'can' reverberated along the 8' deep earthen walls, as we tore around blind corners of these unique Somerset roads like Mr Toad and Co., headed for home the fastest way possible.  Unforgettable!

A favorite image of George Cohen blasting along on his 1927 Norton Model 18 TT racer on the Isle of Man

George visited the USA a few times, and we were fellow judges at the Legends of the Motorcycle Concours in 2008, at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Half Moon Bay.  I'd brought two bikes for us to swap on the Sunday morning Legends Ride - neither a Norton, although I had a 1925 Model 18 racer at the time (it was hors de combat from my own relentless flogging).   So George got to experience a vintage Sunbeam for the first time, as the photos show, which he quite liked ('My Norton is faster', of course he said), but preferred a spin on 'The Mule', my 1933 Velocette KTT mk4, which shared his favorite Norton's camshaft up top.  Well actually it was the other way 'round, as Norton copied the Velocette design!  Which he grudgingly admitted with a half-smile as he hand-rolled another cig.

George and myself in 2008, with my Velocette KTT and Sunbeam TT90 - sorry no Nortons that day!

A few days prior, we'd picked up a pair of racing Nortons from California collector Paul Adams, which were entered into the Concours, and it would be hard to imagine two more dissimilar characters, who both loved Nortons with passion.  Paul Adams is an ex-Navy pilot of many years' experience, with the unflappable reserve of a military man, and George, well, flapped.  Those two were chalk and cheese, and barely kept from breaking into open argument! Still, George later admitted Paul had a very nice collection, and that his workshop was really clean.

George on his only Sunbeam outing, in 2008, on the Legend of the Motorcycle ride

Something else he left behind; his incredible self-published love poem to Norton, created from his personal archive of early factory press materials, photos, and documents - 'Flat Tank Norton'. If you're a fan of early Nortons, it's essential reading, and an entertaining mix - some of the early photos of James Landsdowne Norton himself can be found nowhere else.  'Flat Tank Norton' is the kind of book only a devoted enthusiast can produce, as a publisher would have squeezed out the quirks to increase 'general interest', but they would have taken out the George factor, which is what give the book its tremendous charm.  It needs a reprint, as copies run on Amazon for nearly $1000!

 Another memorable moment with George came not on a bike, but in one of his select few cars, at the 2013 Vintage Revival Montlhéry meeting.  He'd brought his c.1908 Brasier Voiture de Course after breaking down somewhere in France, while driving the all-chain drive monster all the way from his Somerset home.  He'd sorted the brakeless beast, and was enjoying flying laps around the banking, and offered me a ride, which I accepted with something like fear.  George drove like he rode, and the Brasier had no seat belts, roll bars, suspension to speak of, or front brakes, but it did have an enormous 12 Liter Hispano-Suiza V-8 OHC aeroplane engine with 220hp on tap!  I put myself in the hands of Fate, and George.  I climbed aboard, clinging to the scuttle, and filmed the ordeal with one hand, laughing 100% of the time, as he slid the rear end on the short corners, and got as high up the banking as he could, while the behemoth shuddered, roared, bucked, and squealed.  Unforgettable, just like the man.

George with one of his many 'specials' built for customers like Dunhill.
George with the re-created Rem Fowler Norton, winner of the very first Isle of Man TT in 1907.  He rebuilt the machine entirely after the disastrous National Motorcycle Museum fire.
Thumbs up George!  I hate to say it, but goodbye friend.

'Ton Up!' Exhibit In Cyril Huze Post

This has been an incredibly busy summer for The Vintagent: writing a big chunk of the BikeExif/Gestalten book 'The Ride', organizing the 'Ton Up!' exhibit for Sturgis Bike Week, and writing the 'Ton Up!' book for Motorbooks.  Cyril Huze stopped by the 'Ton Up!' Michael Lichter exhibition hall at the Buffalo Chip in Sturgis, and filed the following report on his mega-popular Cyril Huze Post on Aug. 6th, 2013.  It's worth a click-back to his site, to read the comments attached, which are always an entertaining mix on CHP...

From the Cyril Huze Post, Aug 6 2013:

TON UP EXHIBITION: SPEED, STYLE AND CAFE RACER CULTURE EXHIBIT AT THE STURGIS BUFFALO CHIP 

Robert Carter's 'Cafe Racers' sign, exhibit along with the work of over 20 artists at 'Ton Up!' Sturgis. [Cyril Huze]
An exhibition focusing on the origins of the Cafe Racer movement is certain to draw huge crowds. Especially it is organized by internationally renowned photographer Michael Lichter. Mike’s 2013 Sturgis Buffalo Chip exhibition to celebrate motorcycles as art is called “Ton Up – Speed, Style and Cafe Racer Culture.”

Co-curators of the 'Ton Up!' exhibition of cafe racer history at the Michael Lichter Gallery within the Buffalo Chip, at Sturgis. [Cyril Huze]
Co-curators Michael Lichter and historian Paul d’Orléans have assembled a comprehensive display of 35 machines from 12 makes and 6 decades. Included in the show are original or modified machines by BMW, BSA, Ducati, Honda, Harley Davidson, Moto Guzzi, Norton, Rickman, Triumph, Vincent and Yamaha.

The amazing Godet-Egli-Vincent of Mars Webster. [Cyril Huze]
In addition the exhibition features never-published photography from the original café racing scene in 1960s England to the present, paintings by Triumph ‘resident artist’ Conrad Leach, images from the Ace Café Collection, vintage leather ‘Rocker’ jackets from the Lewis Leathers archive, the “One-Show” 21-helmets display of custom painted helmets, paintings by Andrea Chiaravalli and photography by Erick Runyon with other artists to be announced.

The Clock Werks modified Triumph Thunderbird Storm. [Cyril Huze]
Each year, the “Motorcycles as Art” exhibition garners tremendous media coverage from around the globe and last Sunday 4th, a record breaking of over 1000 members of the industry attended a media reception offered by Michael, Paul and their sponsors – Hot Leathers and Keyboard Motorcycle Shipping. This not-to-be missed exhibition is now open for the public to view free of charge until Saturday August 10th at the legendary Sturgis Buffalo Chip.

The Harley-Davidson based 'Sporty TT' by Ford stylist Brad Richards. [Cyril Huze]
This year’s exhibition will get even more recognition as it will live on in the coffee-table book “Ton Up – Speed, Style and Cafe Racer Culture,” published by Motorbooks International. Michael Lichter will photograph all the motorcycles in his Sturgis studio for the book, which will also include the jackets, artwork, and photographs from the exhibit.

Cyril Huze with an exhausted Paul d'Orléans, who oversaw the installation of the exhibition [Cyril Huze]
Paul d’Orléans is writing a comprehensive history of the Café Racer movement for the book; from its deep origins in speed-modified road bikes from the ‘Teens, to the ‘classic’ period in England in the 1950s/60s, through its various resurrections in the 1970s, 80s, and especially, with the advent of Internet motorcycle blogs, TV shows, and ‘Café Racer’ magazines, the explosive popularity of the style in the 21st Century.

Willie G. Davidson loaned his #1 XLCR, and related drawings. [Cyril Huze]
Among the featured builders: Herb Harris (Harris Vincent Gallery), Yoshi Kosaka (Garage Co), Mark Mederski (National Motorcycle Museum), Gordon McCall (Quail Motorsports Gathering), plus Willie G Davidson’s #0001 1977 XLCR, and machines from Alain Bernard, Arlen Ness, Bryan Fuller, Brian Klock, Dustin Kott, Greg Hageman, Jason Michaels, Jay Hart, Jay LaRossa, Kevin Dunworth, Ray Drea (Harley-Davidson design director), Roland Sands, Skeeter Todd, Steve “Brew Dude” Garn, Steve “Carpy” Carpenter, Thor Drake, and Zach Ness. Included in the show are original or modified machines by BMW, BSA, Ducati, Honda, Harley Davidson, Moto Guzzi, Norton, Rickman, Triumph, Vincent and Yamaha."

Champions Moto 'Brighton' Triumph Bonneville [Cyril Huze]
Bryan Fuller of Fuller Motors, who is branching out to motorcycle customization after years in the hot rod scene. [Cyril Huze]


The Best Bike BMW Never Made?

The 1934 BMW ‘R7’ prototype is one of the most talked-about and best-loved motorcycles of the 1930s, yet it never left the factory, and was known only through a single, mysterious photo for over 70 years. The life story of this graceful machine is an untold tale of aesthetic movements, internal factory politics, and harsh commercial realities, in which this lovely motorcycle remained a ghostly ‘might have been’.

First conceived in 1933, the R7 began with a simple brief; create a wholly new motorcycle as ‘range leader’ to replace the R16, introduced in late 1928. The R16 used a chassis built from stamped-steel pressings (sometimes called the ‘Star’ frame), a cost reducer which eliminated the skilled labor necessary to weld or hearth-braze a tube frame. Previous BMW frames had a Bauhaus simplicity, while the pressed-steel ‘Star’ gained a shapely Art Deco flair. The new look begged an aesthetic question too compelling to ignore, given the general industrial trend towards Streamlined shapes on cars, airplanes, trains, and toasters. If the R16 whispered Art Deco, what would a total embrace look like?

The responsibility for this new machine likely fell to Alfred Böning, the designer of BMW motorcycle chassis from the 1930s onwards. While no names were attached to the curved frame and swooping mudguards of the R7, “it is perfectly clear the hand of an artist was involved”, according to Stefan Knittel, author of several books on BMWs. The prototype R7 is elegant, simple, and perfectly balanced – did Böning unleash a hidden flair for styling, or were BMW automotive ‘fender men’ called in for a bit of curvaceous appeal? In the early 1930s, individual designers were rarely celebrated, although a few ‘stars’ in the industrial design world were rising, like Raymond Loewy and Norman Bel Geddes. BMW first gave kudos to their ‘pencils’ with the 1940 Mille Miglia streamlined racing cars…in the 1980s! No surprise then that so little remains of the R7’s genesis.

While the styling was obviously radical for BMW, the engine and gearbox were equally innovative, a fact discovered only during restoration of the dismantled R7, in 2005. Likely drawn up by Leonhard Ischinger, BMW’s ‘engine man’ in the 1930s-50s, the engine bears a superficial resemblance to the rest of BMW range, but the crankcase and gearbox castings are one-offs, as are their internals. The cylinder heads and barrels are a single casting, as per aero-engine practice at the time; one less joint to leak. The unique crankcase was shaped to seamlessly fit the monococque chassis from which it hangs. The front forks are a BMW first in being fully telescopic, leading the rest of the motorcycle industry by several years. Internally, the camshaft is placed atop the crankshaft, and the gearbox uses a primary shaft separate from the gear cluster, which slows down the gear speed and helps reduce the notorious shaft-drive ‘clunk’ when shifting. These last two ideas appeared in BMW bikes in the 1950s, when Böning was finally able to incorporate them on production machines.

The R7 weighed in at 165kg (5kg lighter than the R16) with engine capacity 793cc, producing 35hp @ 5000rpm (2hp more than the R16), breathing through Amal-Fischer carburetors with accelerator pumps (!) and swill-pots to cure any fuel starvation while cornering. Thus the experimental model had seriously hot performance, being capable of over 90mph while looking sensational. Superbike, anyone?

When completed in 1934, the R7 wasn’t exhibited or press-released; it appears to have been shelved immediately.The first the world knew of the ‘Art Deco’ BMW was a magazine article on the new R5 model in 1936, which included a retouched side-view photo captioned “what could have been”. That solitary photo launched decades of mystique around the R7, giving rise to the Question: why on earth didn’t BMW manufacture this beautiful machine?

Complicated forces worked against the R7. While the prototype is a hand-fabricated one-off, actual production would require huge investment in tooling for the metal pressings, new castings for the engine, gearbox, and cylinders, plus setup for all the unique internal parts. With only a few hundred of their excellent R16 sold, recovering the tooling investment was unlikely. Also, BMW were aware that motorcyclists are very conservative consumers, and bikes which read as ‘design exercises’ in sheet metal were never successful: the Mars (Germany), the Ascot-Pullin (England), and the Majestic (France) all trod a similar path to the R7, being ‘ideal’ designs of innovation and great style, yet doomed to commercial failure. Motorcyclists of the Vintage period, dedicated gearheads all, wanted the fiery beating hearts of their mounts visible in all their complication; this remains our enduring delight.

Internal factory politics certainly played a hand as well. Rudolf Schleicher, chief of motorcycling at BMW, was convinced the ‘range leader’ should be a sporting motorcycle, not a luxury machine, and factory notes indicate his plan for a supercharged motorcycle for the public! The prototype of his blown roadster was seen in the BMW ISDT team of 1935, but such an ‘ultimate motorcycle’ was seriously impractical; “Every owner would need his own specialist mechanic, and BMW didn’t want private competition for their factory racing team,” notes Stefan Knittel. As it was, neither Blown nor Deco was produced, but the telescopic forks and curvaceous mudguards of the R7 did find their way onto the R17 model.

The R7 was dismantled, but never destroyed; it remained at the factory, strapped to a wooden palette in the factory basement, well known to BMW employees. It must have been dear to Alfred Böning’s heart, as he kept it close at hand until his retirement in the 1970s. By this time, BMW was re-collecting its history, with their famous ‘bowl’ museum opening in Munich for the 1972 Olympics. While a clamor arose in the 1980s to revive the R7, it wasn’t until 2005 the task was handed to two legendary restorers; Armin Frey undertook the mechanicals, while Hans Keckeisen massaged the sheet metal. The results are sensational.

The 1934 R7 prototype is an unquestioned design success - a graceful and beautiful study of flowing lines, curves, and feminine masses. Almost to a person, especially to non-motorcyclists, it is considered one of the most beautiful motorcycles ever made. As good as it is, the R7 is a total philosophical departure from what is best about BMW during its first 60 years; restraint. The extravagance expressed by the R7 is shockingly French - more Delahaye than Bauhaus.That the R7 was never serially produced makes complete sense, but 75 years on, she’s still a heartbreaker.

This article was written for the 2011 Amelia Island Concours catalog.  Copies of the catalog may be available. Many thanks to Stefan Knittel for his insights and information.

 

Paul d'Orléans is the founder of TheVintagent.com. He is an author, photographer, filmmaker, museum curator, event organizer, and public speaker. Check out his Author Page, Instagram, and Facebook.

 


The Corruption of the Young, and What it Leads To

Dai Gibbison sent this photo of 'uncle Brian' on his BSA Golden Glash, circa 1960, with Dai himself at age 5 on pillion. Brian is renowned for his tearaway riding style, then as now, and the loss of a leg hasn't slowed him down a bit.

Dai Gibbison and his uncle Brian - the start of a lifetime's love of motorcycles! [Dai Gibbison]

Dai has grown up to become the Velocette Tech forum guru, and sprints a '38 Velo MSS to great effect; I have a film of him ascending the Test Hill at Brooklands which is a hoot, literally. His current projects include the renovation of Tommy Wood's Velocette MkIV KTT hill-climber, which was well-nigh inconquerable in TW's hands during the 1940s. Full history and photos will be posted here when the bike is finished. Watch this space!