Harley-Davidson can lay claim to manufacturing the world’s best-known motorcycles. Well, American ones, at any rate. But, Harley has always had a rival. The mere mention of ‘Indians’ has long instilled panic in the suited and booted, in Harley’s Milwaukee marketing department!
In the ’20s, Indian’s Springfield factory was high up the motorcycle heap. The Chief was its biggest asset. The 1200cc engine, in the 1947 model, was good for 85mph. Tuning took it to the ‘ton’. An Indian, though, was not about death-defying numbers. Rather, it evoked the spirit of adventure. A bit like that firm from Milwaukee, in fact!
Indian motorcycles were extravagantly styled. Nowhere more so than the finely-fettled fenders. Their trademark curvature was unmistakable. Harley front mudguards are sometimes skimpy affairs. Those which adorn an Indian are heraldic. Almost as if the front wheel were wearing a headdress! Indian, then, was a company which liked to cut a dash. Sadly, the ‘Roaring Twenties’ glory days faded for Indian – while Harley went on to world domination! But, as in the childhood game … while most kids grow up wanting to be a cowboy – there is always that one who would really far rather be an Indian!
The Matchless G50 had a lot to live up to. To name your new company ‘Matchless’ means confidence in its products – to put it mildly! That was something Charlie and Harry Collier clearly had, when they opened for business in 1899. They were located in Plumstead, south-east London. Both brothers were racers – of some repute. In 1907, Charlie rode a Matchless to victory at the first TT – in the single-cylinder category. Harry performed the same feat two years later. At the time, then, the Matchless moniker was pretty much justified.
Fast-forward to the Sixties – and Matchless were dominant again. Now, it was the turn of the G50 to hold all-comers at bay. First unveiled in the late ’50s, the Matchless G50 was – to all intents and purposes – an AJS 7R, re-badged. Matchless had acquired AJS, in 1931.
More proof of confidence within Matchless can be found in its logo. It takes some hutzpah to rely on a single letter to get your marketing message across. Charlie and Harry, though, clearly felt that a winged ‘M’ was more than enough to identify a motorcycle as a Matchless. There is a fine line, of course, between self-belief and hubris. The former is a prerequisite for success – the latter, an almost cast-iron guarantee of failure. However, it would seem that the two young Londoners got the balance spot-on. After all, Matchless motorcycles began winning races at the turn of the 20th century. And – at classic bike events, at least – they are still there or thereabouts in a new millennium!
NSU began by knocking out knitting machines. Then it branched into bicycles. It built its first motorcycle in 1901. The German firm went on to release a steady stream of successful motorbikes – including, of course, the Supermax. It carried on doing so until the early Sixties. On both road and track, NSU was at the forefront of bike design and development. Cars, too, were added to its catalogue. NSU, then, deserves its berth in motoring history every bit as much as its illustrious compatriot, BMW. Well, almost!
NSU hit pay dirt when – in ’29 – it recruited Walter Moore. Previously, he had worked for Norton. Moore helped shape NSU’s first bike to be fitted with an overhead-camshaft engine. No doubt partly due to his past employment, the result was not entirely dissimilar to the Norton CS1. Indeed, wags at the British firm went so far as to suggest NSU was short for ‘Norton Spares Used’! Rightly ignoring such ribaldry, Moore pressed on regardless. He must have done something right. By the time of the Second World War, NSU was one of the world’s biggest bike manufacturers.
A decade after the end of the war came NSU’s finest hour. The 250cc Supermax was launched in ’55. Thankfully, the bike lived up to its grandiose billing. To wit, the Supermax did pretty much everything well. Acceleration and braking were equally impressive. Handling-wise, too, it excelled. The mix of its single-overhead-cam motor, pressed-steel frame and leading-link forks was bang on the money. The Supermax sailed to a top speed of 75mph. Said performance, though, came at a price. Sadly, one which most motorcyclists were not prepared to pay. As a result, the ’60s saw NSU switch to car production. But not before it had secured its place in the annals of bike racing. In ’53 – on NSUs – Werner Haas won both 125 and 250cc World Championships. He was the first German rider to achieve such a feat. In ’54, Haas took the 250 title again. ’55 found NSU taking the 250 crown for the third time in as many years. So, BMW’s bike division always had a rival. NSU, too, produced a panoply of sublime motorcycles. None more so than the Supermax!
AJS – Albert John Stevens – set up shop in 1909, in Wolverhampton, England. Though the firm bore Albert’s initials, it was in fact a Stevens family concern. In its own right, it lasted until ’31. After that, the AJS brand-name went through several changes of ownership. Please pay attention, as this gets a little complicated. First off, AJS was subsumed into Matchless – based in Plumstead, London. Then, in ’38, the AJS marque merged into AMC – Associated Motor Cycles. In ’67, AMC were taken over by Norton Villiers – along with AJS. Two years later – in ’69 – the ‘classic’ period of the AJS timeline came to an end. So – in the sixty years since its founding – AJS lived through a substantial chunk of modern British history. Because of its connections to several other big British brands, it can be seen as something of a hybrid. The Model 30 was released in ’56. As a result of all the marque-mixing, it was in many ways the exact same machine as the Matchless G11! Well, apart from the AJS livery and exhaust set-up. Matchless were keen to keep AJS devotees onside. So, the ‘two’ bikes were effectively twinned. In like manner – following the AMC takeover – some ‘AJS’ stock had Norton parts fitted. Classic bike nerds never had it so good!
At the circuits, though, things were much simpler. AJS won a lot of races! In 1914, its race team took the Junior TT title. Finer feats were to follow. In ’49, AJS made racing history by winning the first 500cc World Championship. Les Graham rode a Porcupine twin to the title. Was that painful? He had previously been an RAF pilot – in World War II. One cannot help but wonder which was the more exciting! Arguably the most iconic AJS competition bike, however, was the ‘Boy Racer’. A single-cylinder machine, the 350cc 7R hit the grid in ’48. The 7R’s motor was subsequently enlarged to 500cc – to power the Matchless G50 racer. So, it was not just AJS roadsters which mixed and matched with sibling marques, so to speak.
The Model 30’s 593cc engine powered it to a top speed of 95mph. The bike handled well, into the bargain. It was also comfortable, reliable and economical. In other words, the Model 30 was a paragon of motorcycling virtue. Entirely fitting, then, that a company of the calibre of AJS was the source of its two-wheeled excellence. Saying that, AJS did make cars as well. Though not, perhaps, to the same standard. In the opinion of Model 30 owners, that is!
Even in England’s ‘Black Country’, the sun does still shine. Aptly, then, Sunbeam’s factory was located there – in Wolverhampton, West Midlands. From the outset – in 1912 – the company gained a name for classy, reliable motorcycles. They were renowned as “gentlemen’s machines”. The S8 was certainly one of them. It was made between ’49 and ’56. Innovation was thrown in, too, for good measure. The first Sunbeam, for example, featured a fully-enclosed chain – keeping both bike and rider clean. Assuming the owner had oiled his chain, that is!
It is fair to say that the S8’s predecessor – the Sunbeam S7 – did not exactly smother itself in glory. It was comfortable, certainly – but that was about it. The S7 was overweight, lacked manoeuvrability – and its brakes were not the best. Those deficiencies were redressed – to some extent, at least – by the S7 De Luxe version. It fell to the S8, though, to get the good ship Sunbeam fully seaworthy again.
The S8 was a sports bike. That was only to be expected. After all, development engineer George Dance set speed records on Sunbeams. And, in the early Twenties, Sunbeam won the Senior TT – twice. As far back as 1913, a single-cylinder 3.5bhp Sunbeam raced to success. The twin-cylinder S8, then, was the latest in a string of performance-based Sunbeams. Plainly, S8 stylist Erling Poppe had been inspired by BMW’s R75. Indeed, rights to the German-built bike had been passed to BSA – as part of war reparations. Then, in ’43, BSA acquired Sunbeam – from AMC. Under Poppe’s design aegis, the S8 shed the portliness of the S7. Plus, it now sported a solid set of front forks. Even the exhaust note had been modified for the S8 – to something more sonorous. Top speed was a heady 85mph. Handling had come on leaps and bounds … not literally, of course! So, all things considered, the Sunbeam S8 shone a warm ray of light on its Black Country roots.
The Harley-Davidson Sportster is a motorcycle institution. It first hit American highways in ’57. There has been many a model since – and the Sportster line still shows no sign of stopping. Throughout its venerable run, it has given many a new rider a first taste of the biker brotherhood. The Sportster has long held pride of place as the entry-level Harley. Pared down to bare biking bones, it has always cut straight to the chase. By ’62, the Sportster was dishing up 55bhp – at 5,000rpm. That was thanks to its iconic V-twin engine layout. The motor’s stroke, at that point, was a tall 96.8mm. That translated into hefty dollops of acceleration-laden torque. Top speed for the Sportster, in the early Sixties, was 110mph.
The XLCH Sportster weighed in at 485lb. That was light enough for a skilled rider to cruise through corners with relative ease. While hardly a sports bike, by modern standards – back in the day, it was a lithe and agile ride. Before the Sportster, British-built bikes had been the only way to go – at any sort of speed, anyway. So, the Sportster was a welcome addition to the roster of quick and capable roadsters on offer.
The Sportster has long been a mainstay of tidy, uncluttered design. As with any bike, the focal point was its small – but perfectly-formed – fuel-tank. Alongside it were a diminutive headlamp and relatively low-set ‘bars. At least, as compared with many a custom-style machine. A single seat – and slender fenders – were in keeping with the Sportster’s minimalist approach. In many ways, then, the Harley-Davidson Sportster has been the bedrock of this most prestigious of two-wheeled marques. Long may it continue!
The BSA A10 Golden Flash first appeared in 1950. In terms of engine layout, it was a classic British parallel twin. BSA were based in Birmingham – at the Small Heath factory. ’71 saw the iconic marque hit the financial buffers. Mercifully, it was bailed out by the Norton Villiers Triumph conglomerate. By that point, though, BSA’s best days were behind it. As if to clarify that, the last BSAs off the production line wore the Triumph logo!
The Golden Flash wrote the book on practical. British-built bikes had been known to deposit the occasional oil leak, back in the day. Not so, the A10! Economical and efficient, it was eminently reliable. Its 35bhp engine delivered user-friendly power. The A10’s top speed was just a tad shy of the ‘ton’. As far as handling went, the ’54 model A10 sported a shiny new swing-arm. That was a big step up from its plunger-suspended predecessor.
On the visual side, the Golden Flash was a good-looking bike. Its BSA motor alone was a metallurgical masterpiece. Exiting it, sweetly-shaped down-pipes splayed around an intricate semi-frame. In both engineering and styling, then, the BSA A10 Golden Flash displayed the best of British design. Flash, by name, yes … but certainly not by nature!
The Ariel Square Four was designed by Edward Turner. His finest hour was yet to come. He would go on to oversee Triumph – in its Sixties glory days. The first version of the Square Four, though, was released in ’28 – back when Bonnevilles and Tridents were but blurs on the ‘Brit bikes’ horizon. Square Four referenced the bike’s 1,000cc motor. It was, in effect, two sets of parallel twins – one in front of the other. The exhaust port was shared. The downside of that layout was that – while the front brace of cylinders enjoyed lots of cooling air – the rear two did not. That could make them a tad recalcitrant – especially on hot days!
The ’58 model Square Four was good for 105mph. Warp-factor speed for a road-bike, at the time. And – by definition – more than enough to keep ‘ton-up boys’ entertained. They were the 100mph Rockers – who had the occasional contretemps with Mods. Turner – and Triumph – would do brisk business with them, in the coming years. What made the Square Four’s top whack stat still more impressive, was its weight. 465lb needed careful coaxing through corners.
As its name suggested, the Square Four was a solid-looking motorcycle. In the sense of impressively robust, that is. Its telescopic front – and plunger rear – suspension units complemented each other nicely. The four-header exhaust set-up sat neatly between the two. The ‘Squariel’ – as it was affectionately dubbed – soon took its place in the rapidly-growing roster of popular British bikes. All in all, then, the Ariel Square Four can hold its head high. Even in the company of the mythical machines toward which Edward Turner was moving!
The Douglas Dragonfly broke the motorcycle mould. BMW is now almost synonymous with the flat-twin layout. Other marques, too, though, have used that venerable engine configuration. Not least, Douglas. The firm was based in Bristol, England. Its early models saw the motor fitted inline with the frame. The two pistons went at it hammer and tongs – ‘punching’ fore and aft. The Dragonfly, though, saw them slung transversely across the frame – à la BMW ‘Boxer’. In any case, the Dragonfly made good progress – cruising at around 60mph. Beyond that optimal speed, however, performance tailed off dramatically. Ultimately, that would lead to the Dragonfly’s decline.
Design-wise, the Dragonfly was on solid ground. If anything, slightly too ‘solid’, perhaps. Is it just me. or does the way in which the headlamp nacelle flows into the fuel tank look a bit like the front end of a dragonfly? Certainly, the Earles forks – and robust rear shocks – visually complemented each other. And – above them – the bike’s logo was elegantly scripted. The Dragonfly’s flat-twin powerplant was itself impressively wrought.
In ’23, Douglas won at the TT. It was in the sidecar category. Freddie Dixon did the driving. Again, that historic outfit’s boxer motor was installed inline. The year before, on the Island, a Douglas solo racer had been fitted with a delicate-looking little disc brake. Douglas, then, were innovating – technically and stylistically. And – when it comes to nomenclature – the Douglas Dragonfly must be one of the most poetically titled bikes ever. Buzzin’, basically!