Sunday, June 24, 2007


I just returned from England, and will be posting pix of the Brooklands Centenary and Banbury Run later.
When I make my annual visit to my friend Ken Boulter in the charming East Sussex village of Chiddingly (home to the infamous Six Bells pub), I make a point of stopping by Verrall's, which is probably the oldest Vintage motorcycle dealership in the world, now pushing 50 years. I've been popping my head through their doors since about 1984, when they were located in the Tooting Bec area of London. Now they're in the little village of Handcross, which is not far from London and Gatwick airport. Brian Verrall (pic 2) has recently decided to retire, and has handed the keys to the business to Ian , whom I met when he was about 19, wrenching on a Brough Superior 11-50 (which I considered horrifically ugly) in their London workshop.

It's exciting to see the variety of machines on the floor, ranging from Pioneers to 60's hotrods, all tempting, depending on your inclination and pocketbook. You'll probably first meet Gordon Button when you enter the shop (third pic), who will happily explain anything you'd like to know about the machines, and probably give you a cup of tea and biscuits.

They currently stock a nice Excelsior Manxman 500cc racer(pic 4), also a 1909 Triumph with 1911 Watsonian sidecar (the oldest known Watsonian chair - pic 5). The Triumph was recently traded-in by my friend Frank Mace, who collects Sunbeams. I believe he used to ride the ancient outfit to the Continent for rallies - the sidecar looks like a wooden Dutch shoe! A bit confining perhaps, with no windscreen fitted, but I

doubt the combo has ever seen the far side of 40mph. Note the serious lack of brakes, so a modest top speed is a good thing. It has an interesting 2-speed epicyclic rear hub of unusual make - sorry can't remember the name but it wasn't the usual Sturmey-Archer or Armstrong hub. It's actually a pretty neat bike, but Frank fell in love with a Clyno combination, which has quite a bit more power than the Triumph; apparently he's riding it to Moscow sometime soon. Good luck Frank!

An interesting vintage 'special' had just been sold for 12k pounds (pic 6); a 1930 Norton chassis with '26 JAP 1000cc v-twin side-valve engine, single camshaft model. Apparently a real flier; Ian reckons doing 80mph down the road with no problem, with a lovely smooth power delivery. I liked the look of the bike; a well-constructed machine which could have come from a factory, and the bulbous saddle tank looked great. I would have had the tank nickeled or chromed though, to set off that blue paint (why aren't more bikes blue?). Nowadays a 1930 Norton rolling chassis (frame/forks/wheels) is a rare item to have laying around, waiting for a stray engine! I've been looking everywhere for an early Norton frame - they just don't come up for sale very often. On the other hand, I've been able to find several vintage Velocette frames, so perhaps it's just a matter of connections.

Verrall's also occasionally sell bicycles with pedigree, such as penny farthings, and this 1911 Sunbeam Lady's bicycle, being demonstrated by my daughter Zoe (with one of Gordon's biscuits in her mouth! pic 7). Original paint and gold leaf pinstriping - actually I've seen many original-paint Sunbeams, and the quality of that paint is amazing, as is the hand-lined gold leaf detailing. 'Little Oil Bath' patented chaincase, to keep the chain out of the muck and dirt of the road, and off the Lady's skirt.

Out in back, Ian can usually be found wrenching on something fantastic, such as the HRD-Vincent Series A Meteor on the workbench. Note accessibility of an infinity of useful spares lining the walls and ceiling! (pic 8).

On this visit, I was allowed, for the first time, into the Sanctus Sanctorum, which is Brian's personal collection of machines, at an undisclosed location. The pic shows a row of Brough Superior SS100's, but his bikes include several Pioneer and Veteran machines (pre-14), and Vintage thoroughbreds such as works AJS and Zenith racers.

I fell for an 1898 Crescent, which is an American bike, more of a motorcycle-engine attachment for a bicycle (the donor bicycle is a Cleveland Ladie's Model). It has amazing brass details everywhere, like a 19th century coach, all polished brass casting and gold leaf pinstripes. Definitely pre-Bauhaus, with all that filigree, and very handsome in black, gold, and polished wood (fenders, wheel rims, handgrips, and battery boxes). Not too many motorcycles with wood ANYTHING since the early part of the last century - now there's a thought.


flowbench said...

On occasional visits to London from the North in the 80's I too used to stop & gawp at the ancient exotica on show at Verralls in Tooting. I could not have afforded to buy anything though!
However, in 2000 3 of us "classic riders" were about to set off from Portsmouth to Spain when an obscure & tiny gear selector pawl spring broke on my girlfriends rigid '49 Bsa B32. Chances of getting one in time were less than zero until we recalled that Verralls had moved from London to Sussex. A panic call to the shop on late Saturday afternoon resulted in a flat out ride to Handcross. Brian Verrall waited until well after closing time & on my arrival offered tea & sympathy & after a tour of the showroom sent me on my way with a free spring. His kindness is not forgotten.

Joel said...

first time poster. i enjoy your blog very much and am going through it from the start. this picture of and the information regarding the 1898 Crescent engine/motorcycle intrigues me and i am having a rough time finding more info about it online. might you know anything more about it?

The Vintagent said...

Hi Joel,
the Crescent is a bit of a mystery, and it is possibly a made-up machine from period components. It was sold for twice what Verrall's offered it to me a year earlier, after Brian's death.