Monday, January 28, 2008


I love coming across photographs which tell a hidden story about the motorcycle industry. I found these two photos at the Netley Marsh Autojumble a few years ago, and they tell a tale of pre-digital factory press photography and catalog production.

You might have seen this prototype B.S.A. 500cc OHC twin in Roy Bacon's 'Illustrated History of BSA Motorcycles' (1995, Ramboro)... but this photo is much better, as every published shot shows the 'after' image. This is the 'before' shot, and the hands you see on the left are using the old photographer's trick of gently shaking the large sheet behind the bike. This creates an indistinct white background, which greatly aided the re-toucher's job of making all the space surrounding the motorcycle completely white, for a catalog or for the press. As they had to paint all shadows, supports, benches, and people out of the photo, the big white backdrop saved a lot of time, especially around the spokes!

The BSA is an intriguing prototype from 1938, and was reputedly capable of 100mph, just like their Gold Star. The design is very clean, especially on the cylinder head, and reminds me of the post-war Jawa 500cc ohc twin. A pity they didn't make it, and the same goes for it's grandchild, the BSA Fury, a 350cc dohc twin from 1970. All the best designs from the big companies never made it past the 'teaser' stage (I'm thinking 4-cyl ohc Norton, Velocette model O, etc).

Second photo is a bit more brutal, but it shows the conditions and environment in which motorcycles were made or repaired in England in the 1920's. The bike looks like a Levis 246cc two-stroke ca 1923 (perhaps a Model K), and is set up for some sort of publicity shot. The poor lad (lass?) holding the machine will no doubt be painted out of existence, but look at the dismal back cobblestone alley! Two tea-rooms, a curious shopkeeper, and several workshops are visible, as is the gloomy fog descending in the background (which makes very even light for photographs, by the way - no shadows). The Levis has been upgraded with what looks like a Cowie speedometer, very unusual for a lightweight machine, but Levis made a good product - they won the Lighweight TT in 1922, with a machine very similar to this one. It used a typical dummy-rim rear brake, useless stirrup brake up front, but a very nice 3-speed Sturmey-Archer gearbox, which would have placed this little machine on the expensive end of the market.

You can stand up now, lad, my back is killing me!

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