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Column: Simply the best

2010-07-09 08:26

Dave Fall

Why would anyone be willing to spend R1.1million for a motorcycle created by a brand that closed its doors in 1940? Dave Fall sheds some light

Wheels24 last week reported on a Brough Superior motorcycle that was sold for R1,1 million in London. If you’ve never heard of the brand before (it closed its doors in 1940), perhaps you’d like to know more about the marque known as the “Rolls-Royce of Motorcycles”.

The world’s capital of the motorcycle industry was once Birmingham, deep in the heart of the Midlands in England, but George Brough built his eponymous machine much further away in Nottingham, between 1921 and 1940.  Here was a man who was an absolute perfectionist, of that there is little doubt as racing, and testing, records were to show.

Win races on the Saturday (at the capable hands of Bert le Vack, E. C. E. Baragwanath (no South African connection), and Eric Fernihough, for example), sell loads of bikes on the Monday was the ploy.

Large capacity 998cc J.A.P. vee-twin engines powered up the Brough Superior flagship SS models and the machines were tested at the Brooklands banked circuit in Weybridge, Surrey. They had to achieve 100 mph (161 km/h) before they were sold to customers.

Brough produced about 3 000 machines over a 19-year period, including the “baby” 680cc machine that made well over a million rands when it came up for auction at Bonhams about a fortnight ago.

Legend has it that a Rolls-Royce director personally called on the motorcycle factory between the wars threatening to sue — but soon changed his mind when he saw the quality of workmanship performed by artisans that wore white gloves while assembling the bikes!

Yet it was a peculiar little chap called T. E. Lawrence who was probably the marque’s greatest advert.

Two legends

Better known as Lawrence of Arabia, he was a military-trained tough guy (all five feet four inches of him) who would think nothing of riding 500 miles (805 km) in a day on his SS100 Brough Superior that cost just £170 back then. Very few machines could withstand the pounding dished out on those second-rate roads of the time … unless you happened to own one of the “Superior” models that offered such a turn of pace as to easily sustain 90 - 100 mph (145 – 161 km/h) — if you were brave enough.

Perhaps the buyer of the 680cc machine was secretly hoping the bike had belonged to Lawrence, but a trait since found with all his bigger and more powerful bikes was to solder a half-crown piece under the fuel cap ... just in case he ran out of fuel. At a shilling and threepence a gallon in the early 1930s, he was still assured of 100 miles (160 km) of rapid motorcycling on Boanerges (son of thunder), his favourite Brough.

Lawrence owned seven Broughs down the years, nicknaming them George I through to VIII (in acknowledgement to George Brough). Alas, number eight was never delivered due to a fatal accident on “Boa” in 1935. Was Lawrence, who had just been promoted by none other than Winston Churchill to director-designate overseeing the entire MI5 secret security services, assassinated? You’ll need to see the movie starring Peter O’Toole to decide for yourself, methinks!


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