Even today’s biggest names in motorcycling started small. Harley-Davidson made its reputation on simple, reliable machines for everyday people. Ducati’s first motorcycle was little more than a bicycle with a tiny engine. In the early days of the automobile, motorcycles represented an affordable way of getting around. But early bikes’ low weight meant that even the comparatively low-powered engines of the 1920s could let motorcycles out-speed cars and even keep up with planes. And there was one brand that did that better than anyone else: Brough Superior.
Brough Superior’s history
As Motorcyclist reports, George Brough was the son of William Brough, an already-established British motorcycle maker. William had been building his eponymous bikes since the 1890s. But George wanted more: more power, more speed. According to Silodrome, he’d already been racing bikes since 1906 and had already racked up quite a winning streak in various British races.
So, George set out on his own, and in 1919 started his own company: Brough Superior. By the time the company folded in 1939, it would produce just over 3000 bikes. It’s important to note that Brough Superior didn’t actually manufacture anything in the traditional sense. As with Janus Motorcycles today, Brough Superior contracted work out to the best names in the business, then assembled the bikes at its shop. And each one was a true custom work, arguably the first custom bikes ever made, designed around each buyer’s physical dimensions.
At the time, British roads were mostly unpaved goat paths, built more for horses than motorcycles or cars. This made riding any bike an extremely hair prospect. Which made, as Popular Mechanics explained, Brough Superior’s bikes all the more impressive.
Why Brough Superior is ‘the Rolls-Royce of motorcycles’
Although the company produced a variety of bikes, like the 1150 with a sidecar that Jay Leno recently acquired, Brough Superior’s most famous bike is the SS100.
This used a 1.0-liter V-twin engine made by famed British engine producer J.A.Preswick, though Brough Superior later switched to a 1.0-liter Matchless V-twin. And, at a time when the roads weren’t potholed so much as made of potholes when even the fastest car in the world topped out at 85 mph, each SS100 was guaranteed to do at least 100 mph.
Weighing just over 100 lbs more than a Grom, the SS100 is considered by some to be the world’s first superbike. Although, as Cycle World explains, the bike’s Harley-Davidson-inspired front suspension meant braking was rather poor.
Adding to the SS100’s mystique was one of its most famous, and most enthusiastic owners: T.E. Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia. He owned 7 SS100s, all named ‘George’. He had an 8th on order when he crashed trying to avoid two young boys in the road, according to Cycle World. As BBC Timeshift and Jay Leno explain, Lawrence sought the solitude and focus that high-speed riding produced and required. And for that, he sought out Brough Superior, which by then had become known as ‘the Rolls-Royce of motorcycles.’
The appellation came about following one journalist’s review of an SS100. Even by modern standards, Motorcyclist reports the bike is amazingly stable at speed. George Brough was so taken by the turn of phrase, he started using it in his ads. Rolls-Royce, mirroring one of Ferrari’s recent actions, wanted to send over a cease-and-desist to protect its brand image.
But Brough invited a company rep to come and visit the shop. He had his workers dress in all-white suits, complete with white gloves. So, when the Rolls-Royce rep came by, he saw what looked like a pristine operation. The rep was so impressed, Rolls-Royce let Brough Superior continue using ‘the Rolls-Royce of motorcycles’ tag-line.
Significance and collectability today
Being fully-custom, no two Brough Superiors are exactly the same. The bikes also evolved over the decades. The early ones were essentially racing bikes, while later ones were more like high-speed tourers. The first few were hand-shifted, but later bikes had conventional foot-operated shifters. But each one is extremely collectible.
But Brough Superior’s influence on the motorcycling world can still be seen. It was the SS100 that inspired the Vincent Black Shadow, which held the production motorcycle speed record for almost 30 years. The SS100’s fuel tank is widely considered to be the design precursor to modern bikes’ tanks. And the SS100 even appears in a modern anime series, Kino’s Journey.
Brough Superior’s bikes are still quick enough to be ridden on modern roads. Admittedly, their controls are significantly more complex than those on a modern fuel-injected bike. There are numerous valves to open and monitor, the rider has to manually adjust the ignition, and early SS100s had total-loss oil lubrication. But how many other 100-year-old vehicles can still keep up with traffic?
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