When it came to his best-known brand of motorcycle, George Brough did not beat about the bush. ‘Superior’ pretty much said it all! And, to be fair to him, it was – as compared with most of its two-wheeled rivals, at any rate. Saying that, Brough – and his small team of Nottingham-based engineers – were responsible only for the frame. The engine and cycle parts were outsourced. Initially, JAP – and later Matchless – provided the power. All the parts, though, still had to be coaxed to work as one. Brough and the boys clearly made a good job of it – since the SS100 was widely considered to be the best bike in the world at the time. The Superior range as a whole was produced from 1919 to 1940.
George Brough was among a group of riders, who, time and again, proved the Superior’s worth. Both at circuits – and in land speed record attempts – the bike was a regular sight, in the ’20s and ’30s. As usual, racing ‘improved the breed’. In time, track-side tweaks trickled down into mainstream SS100 production.
TE Lawrence – better known as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ – was in love with Brough Superiors. He owned a succession of them … all topped off with his trademark stainless steel tank. Sadly, he was to be fatally injured, whilst riding one of them. Of course, his best-known mode of transport was the cantankerous camel. But, for many, no ‘ship of the desert’ could ever match a Brough Superior SS100 steaming along at full chat!
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!
It has doubtless been discussed – in refreshment rooms around the world – which is the greatest café racer ever made. Dave Degens could be forgiven for making the case for the Dresda Triton. His company – Dresda Autos – was based in west London. As well as a race engineer, Degens was a rider of high repute. It followed, then, that he would be on the lookout for high-performance tips and techniques. A logical way to go, in that regard, would be to take a well-sorted motor – and install it in an equally well-sorted chassis. Which is exactly what Degens did. Indeed, since the mid-’50s, two-wheeled tech-heads had been bolting Triumph engines into Norton frames. The hybrid fruits of their labour were dubbed Tritons. Triumph’s powerplants were the most potent around, at the time. And Norton’s Featherbed frame rewrote the rulebook when it came to firm, but flexible geometry.
In the mid-’60s, Triumph’s parallel-twin engine layout was cutting edge. The 650 unit was kicking out 50bhp – at 6,500rpm. Top speed was 120mph. Do the caff racer math, and that exceeded ‘ton-up boy’ requirements – to the tune of 20%! And all from an air-cooled four-valve twin. But – as Dave Degens knew only too well – horsepower is only half the equation. Handling, too, needs to be factored in. Cometh the hour, cometh the Featherbed! Norton’s steel twin-cradle frame had excelled on both road and track. Norton’s TT rivals could vouch for that! Put it all together – and Triumph engine, plus Norton frame – equalled fast and fluid motorcyling.
By the end of the Sixties, the Triton ‘brand’ had gone beyond its geeky beginnings. The dream ticket – courtesy of Triumph and Norton – now ate a substantial slice of the Brit bike pie. But, ‘mass-production’ for the Triton held a sting in its tail. Downmarket, if not dodgy deals increased – both in parts and build quality. Of course, Dresda Autos – with Dave Degens at the helm – never lowered its standards. Even now – decades later – they provide bespoke bikes to discerning buyers. A legend in the specialist motorcycle world, then, the Dresda Triton took on – and beat – all comers!
Royal Enfield may not be quite so celebrated as some of its ‘Brit bike’ brethren. Its logo, though, adorned a long line of sturdy, but stylish motorcycles. A perfect example was the Interceptor 750.
Power output for the Interceptor was 53bhp. Revs rose smoothly to 6,000rpm. Those stats no doubt impressed American – as well as British – buyers. Which was good, because the bike – and its 750cc capacity – were largely targeted at the US market. Indeed, the excellence of the Interceptor’s engine made up for ‘deficiencies’ in other departments. The front brake, for example, was not the most reassuring ever made. And the forks could have been firmer.
Eventually, Royal Enfield suffered a financial meltdown. Sadly, it was one from which it never recovered. The Interceptor range had been in production throughout the Sixties. It might not have been at the cutting edge of Harold Wilson’s ‘white heat of technology’, but the 750 certainly showcased some of the best of British innovation. After the collapse, the rights to Royal Enfield were licensed to India. In time, the marque became part of the ‘retro revival’ marketing boom. For sure, the Interceptor 750 helped inspire it. Royal Enfield now has the kudos of being the oldest motorcycle manufacturer still shipping product. Long may that continue!
A swift glance at the Panther M100 showed up its most striking asset. Compared with your average engine design, the M100’s looked distinctly skewed. Enter the 598cc Sloper motor. It was tilted forward 45°. If that caused technically-minded riders to be concerned about oil circulation, no worries. The M100 was eminently reliable.
The Sloper’s cylinder block was blessed with a long stroke. 100mm, to be precise. Hence an abundance of neck-twisting torque. In a good way! That was handy – since many M100s had side-cars attached. This was before automobiles were two a penny, after all. The M100’s top speed was 68mph. And if you were the one wedged in the Watsonian ‘chair’, that was probably quite quick enough!
Panther was based in Cleckheaton, Yorkshire. No surprise, then, that its bikes were solid, rugged and dependable! Panther started out as Phelon and Moore (P&M). The first Sloper-equipped bike appeared in 1904. The single-cylinder push-rod powerplant came with two air-cooled overhead valves. Sporting its dramatically-inclined mill, a parked-up Panther was guaranteed to draw a crowd. It was only made bigger by the way in which the exhausts swooped down from the steeply-banked ports. And this from a bike born and bred in Yorkshire … not a county associated with razzmatazz. As alluded to, this was a time when motorcycles and side-cars were still standard family transport. It followed that a Panther’s top priority was to get from A to B – and back again – with a minimum of fuss. The M100 accomplished that – and with style thrown in, for good measure. Connoisseurs of classic motorcycles, rejoice!
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 Rudge Ulster was based on the Rudge Multi. The latter – launched in 1911 – came with 21 ‘infinitely variable’ gears. ‘Multi’, indeed, then! In theory, there was not a slope in the UK it could not get up. An intricate rear pulley system auto-adjusted the bike’s final drive belt. The ratios were selected via a lengthy gear-lever, located to the left of the fuel-tank. From early on, Rudges sported spring-up stands. Back mudguards were hinged – facilitating wheel removal.
A production racer Multi won the 1914 Senior TT. And – for the Rudge race team – there was more success to come. It was in ’28, though, that the firm secured its place in history. A Rudge won that year’s Ulster GP. A street-legal version duly appeared. It was named after the illustrious Irish road race. The Ulster inherited the engineering subtleties of its Rudge roadster predecessors. Unsurprisingly, it was a serious seller. Graham Walker was Rudge’s sales manager. Fittingly, it had fallen to him to pilot the Ulster to victory.
The Ulster only added to the roll-call of Rudge’s technical innovations. A 500cc single, its engine was fitted with four valves. They helped output 30bhp. That pushed a dry weight of just 290lb. The Ulster featured Rudge’s linked braking system. The foot-pedal retarded both drum brakes – while the hand lever applied added front-end bite. Ahead of the game, to say the least. On the racing front, Rudge carried on winning well into the Thirties. In ’39, however, financial problems came to a head. Rudge folded shortly thereafter. The Ulster, though, had carried the flag for one of the most forward-looking firms in motorcycling history!
When it comes to ‘Brit bikes’, classic Nortons are as iconic as they come. That certainly included the CS1. Norton was based in Bracebridge Street, Birmingham. In 1913, the fledgling firm went bust. In true champion style, however, it got back on its feet, dusted itself down and came out for another round! James Norton teamed up with Bob Shelley and his brother-in-law – ace tuner Dan ‘Wizard’ O’Donovan. The chemistry must have been spot-on, if the Isle of Man TT was anything to go by. Rex Judd was among the riders to win on Nortons in that most illustrious of road races.
The CS1 arrived on ‘the island’ in ’27 – prepped for its first TT outing. The ‘CamShaft 1’ production racer boasted a bevel-driven overhead cam engine. It was a sensation from the second Stanley Woods swung a leg over the saddle. Fast-forward a year – and the CS1 roadster appeared, in supersport mode. Again, rival marques were left reeling in its wake. Sadly, James ‘Pa’ Norton – company founder – died before his bikes saw success.
Before taking on the CS1, ‘Wizard’ O’Donovan had plenty of practice. He had previously built the ‘Brooklands Special’. It was designed specifically for the unique challenges of the legendary English oval. When sold, Brooklands Specials came with a certificate – confirming they had reached 75mph. Detuned Specials were sorted for street use. The roadster’s sale certificate guaranteed 70mph – just 5mph less than the racer. So, the CS1 had a tough act to follow. It did so, though, with aplomb. Stylishly engineered, it sported silver-and-black paint – Norton’s trademark colour scheme. It was a shame ‘Pa’ Norton’s heart could not hold out a little while longer. Never really a businessman, he loved bikes to the core of his being. He would have loved to have seen – and heard – one of his company’s masterpieces, at full chat. Still, at least the Norton CS1 has been exhilarating classic bike fans for many a year since!
When you name a bike after one of the world’s greatest racetracks, it had better be good. If not, you risk a copious amount of egg on your face! No worries for Triumph, though, in that department. The Daytona 650 had a top speed of 160mph. And weighed in at just 363lb dry. Either in a straight line or through corners, then, performance was not an issue.
For all that, the Daytona’s in-line four engine made a modest 110bhp. The power was unleashed, though, with blistering efficiency. Revs peaked at 12,750rpm – courtesy of 16 watercooled valves. Anyway, a wise man knows not to equate strength with size. The Daytona 600 was not as big as some of its superbike rivals – but it packed a potent punch, notwithstanding!
Looks-wise, the Daytona was drop-dead dynamic. Taking in every twist and turn of its bodywork took time. What could have been a jumbled mess was, instead, an intricate interplay of curves and scallops. There is a 3-D depth to the Daytona’s design. So, superior styling – plus tip-top technology – made Triumph’s Daytona 650 a track day dream come true!