Tuesday, January 22, 2008


My friend Josiah Leet sent me two pix of a motorcycle memorial he found on the internet (from Vintagebike.co.uk). 'Not to be Goth or anything..' he says. It depicts, in the manner of a classic 'Conversion of St. Paul' painting (except he's on a bike, not a horse), the assumption of a motorcyclists to heaven, presumably, and is a very nice work of Expressionist sculpture. While the figure is rendered in a stylized, post-Rodin blockiness, there is no mistaking the motorcycle - a BD from Czechoslovakia, the first series-built double-overhead-cam motorcycle, ca 1928. I don't know the identity of the sculptor, but the BD was designed by J.F. Koch, and had a unit-construction 500cc engine (ie gearbox within the crankcase). The Praga concern bought out BD in 1929, to add a line of motorcycles to the automobiles they had been making since the 'teens. This is a very rare machine (they made perhaps 2500 total), so the sculptor either had one, or the deceased did. I reckon the grave would be found in Prague?

Another incredible motorcyclist's memorial is in the middle of Reading, England, and was introduced to me by my friend Dai Gibbison (who is a Velocette web/tech guru). It depicts Bernard Hieatt, who died aged 21 years in May of 1930. Bernard packed a lot of life into those 21 years, having set two world records in a 200-mile race at Brooklands (solo and sidecar), and was an accomplished pilot with his own biplane, as well. Apparently he died while leading a race at Brooklands on his Rex-Acme sidecar outfit, after hitting the fence while dropping down from the Byfleet Banking, onto the straightaway. It was raining heavily during the race, and he complained at his last pit-stop of poor visibility on the track. I imagine his speed coming down from the steep banking must have been in the 80+mph range. His passenger wasn't seriously injured. Bernard won a Gold Star (for a 100mph lap at Brooklands during a race) on October 19th, 1929 on his Zenith-Blackburne - lapping at 104.85mph. He won another 100-mile race at the track on a 350cc Cotton-Blackburne, at over 91mph (1928). One suspects he had contacts with Blackburnes, or at least his mechanic did? Surely his Rex-Acme employed a Blackburne as well, as this was their most successful engine. (A topic for another post - there's almost nothing on the web about the Blackburne company.)

His family must have been well-off (who can afford an airplane at 20?), and the quality of the marble carving on his memorial is amazing. The top photo shows clearly the laces of his puttees, and the second pic shows the details of his double-breasted leather racing jacket; note the threads through the buttonholes! The bottom pic is a detail on the plinth, showing a motorcycle, but not as specific as the BD/Praga - it's probably the sculptor's own lowly sidevalve ride-to-work machine, not a Brooklands racer (no Brooklands 'can' - the regulation fishtail silencer required for racing at the track for both cars and motorcycles). There is a plane which looks like a Gypsy Moth carved on the other side, and each corner of the burial plot has a full size winged helmet with goggles. Note that his fingers are parted in the middle photo - the man was a smoker!

Both of these statues are private memorials, not sitting in a public park or at the side of a race track. It really begs the question - what bike on your gravestone?

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