Tuesday, May 26, 2009

VINTAGENT ROAD TEST; BROUGH SUPERIOR 'BS4'

Impressive, beautiful, and certainly unusual.  The Brough Superior Austin '4'
A large collection of old motorcycles is often a depressing sight; the usual scenario is rows of desirable machines, which could best give pleasure if taken out on the road, yet are left to gather dust like a Chinese warrior army, holed up in someone's barn or warehouse, waiting for Godot...
But some collectors are different, and we're lucky (as in 'we' who care about how our favored cultural treasures are cared for) to find those who not only share their treasures via museum shows and track days, but can be seen near their homes on fair days, stretching ancient chains or belts through their favorite bends, a tell-tale grin on their faces. At the top of the heap are connoiseurs who allow guests to ride their machines as well! And these the Vintagent holds dear in his heart, for they allow him to experience in the metal the rarest and most intriguing of machinery ever produced for a rider to sit astride, to explore the exquisite countryside.
An elegant beast from every angle, even with the doubled-up wheels!
I think I'm having a good time, excuse the lofty prose, but you'll see why, as on this fair day in southern Germany, I've been allowed an extensive sampling of not one but THREE rare beasts, two of which are simply among the most unusual motorcycles ever produced. Imagine the scenario; the doors of a great barn (climate controlled and with a good alarm!) are thrown open, and your host says with a smile, 'It's an excellent Spring day, let's go for a ride. Which would you like to try first?' This is, of course, an unanswerable question... kind of like the day I took my daughter to the toy store and said, 'you can have anything you want, just choose', and she burst out crying. So, I allowed my generous benefactor to choose for me, as frankly any of his machines would be a scoop in the pages of the Vintagent.

The BS-Austin '4'; the perfect thing for a winding country road...
The Brough Superior-Austin is well known to motorcycle afficianados as the 'three wheel motorcycle', as clearly it has two rear wheels, which are driven by a shaft between them to a final drive box, shared by both wheels, with no differential, just a bevel and crownwheel. Ridden solo (which I've done, a long time ago), the bike has an odd yawing feel, as the weight shifts from one wheel to the other... it's never dangerous, just strange, and the bike can be ridden 'normally'.
The twin Amal carbs make a beautiful music for the passenger's ears, being only a foot away!
After several prior attempts to build a four-cylinder motorcycle (inline and a v-four), George Brough made a deal in 1930 with the Austin Motor Company to purchase a bored out 'sports' version of their infamous Austin 7 car engine; water-cooled, with a car-type gearbox (including reverse!), and driveshaft. The overbore only produces 800cc, not in SS80/100 territory, but the 'sports' aluminum cylinder head with better gas porting and twin carbs is a significant improvement over the car's anemic output. Priced new in 1932 at £188, for which you could have bought a nice house in the country, with a few acres of apple trees. Ten were made, perhaps 7 survive. This particular machine has been close to me for near 25 years, as it lived in Oakland in the collection of notorious drug lord Ben Kalka at his shop 'Goode Olde Days'. When Ben moved into San Quentin, the BS4 was sold to a Swiss collector...
Not a bad ride for the passenger, either!
I had read reports that the BS-Austin outfit was seriously underpowered, especially compared to the hotrod reputation attached to the Brough name. When I expressed this to my host, he raised an eyebrow and suggested we start our tutorial with me in the chair, for an exemplary ride.
As mentioned, the carbs are close to the passenger's ears!
The outfit starts with a push of the button (another legacy of automtive ancestry), and shortly settles down to a muted purr...but there's a hint of a rasp in the note too, a hint that this pussycat may have a little tiger in her. The gearchange is strictly pre-war car; no synchromesh in the gears (3 forward, 1 reverse), so timing and engine speed are crucial for a quiet gearchange, and even then, changes can't be rushed.
The Austin engine is uprated with a 'sports' cylinder head in aluminum, and twin carbs.
A note about the sidecar; this is the cataloged BS 'Sports' chair (I used to have one on my 11-50), a no-frills model, but extremely comfortable, as are all buggy-sprung chairs. It was a retrograde step for sidecars ever to gain a sprung wheel, for there is no imaginable comfort to be gained over floating above the bumps on gently flexing springs. No kidding; really relaxing.

It was clear from the get-go that Lord Austin's product had been breathed upon, for the BS has life and strength, and rapidly reaches a 50mph cruising speed, at which point the valves are singing merrily, the intakes making a pleasant whistle, the gearbox an unobtrusive whine, and the outfit as a whole feels solid as a rock and indefatigable. And remarkably calm. Here's the view from the chair; enjoy the ride:

So, now it's my turn. First, familiarize self with gearchange, which is a car shift turned to face forward - a strange pattern, but it makes sense once the beast is underway. Second, familiarize myself the the brakes... and I know from experience that the front is no 'stopper' - totally useless. The rear brake with 'BS' cast into the pedal is more reassuring, and hauls the heavy (700lbs?) four-wheeler down rapidly. Third, where the hell is the throttle? Indian-style, it's on the left 'bar, which will take a moment of getting used to, especially as the clutch lever is next to it. Luckily, there's a foot clutch as well, which becomes my preferred device - too akward to feather the clutch and open the throttle with one hand.

And suddenly, all the disparate parts come together and we're underway, the smooth purr of the engine pushing the plot forward rapidly. Not fast mind you, but rapid, and I for one have never trusted 'fast' outfits... they seem like a good way to finish upside-down in a ditch! How do I know that, you ask... well don't.

Curious about the ride? Take a spin yourself:


I can say, hand on heart, that this is the nicest motorcycle pulling a sidecar that I've ever ridden, and I've ridden all manner of outfits; German, English, Yank, Jap. There is a feeling of tireless solidity about the machine, the engine just feels very right, the handling is, well, Superior. George Brough was a great advocate and rider of sidecar machines, and all of his bikes work well pulling a mate, but this one is better. I'm not sure one can pinpoint exactly what makes it so good, but it is, for all of the novelty and rarity, an incredibly relaxing motorcycle to ride. There's no point in hurrying, as the ride itself is the point, and I think I just called this Brough Superior a Zen motorcycle. My expectations were completely overturned... unlike the outfit...

And what's better than a B-S Austin outfit? Two!

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9 comments:

Frank Sider said...

Hi Paul how life can be better ... ?
happy to see you're having a great time in Germany
F

YJH said...

oh oh_I see serious competition with the French_but we havn't said our last word yet_cheers & hello Austria

Anonymous said...

Pablo,

Keep making me grin! Glad to see you're enjoying Europe - you deserve it - while educating simpletons like me.

Cheers,

JZ

Anonymous said...

its a austin ruby engine i learned to drive on one in a 30, something austin ruby dave

Anonymous said...

lord Austin of Longbridge to use his official was bert austin to his friends , used the same enginge in japan under the datsun banner , in germany with BMW under the dixi banner and the us of a under the bantam banner , is that enuff banners ? dave

Anonymous said...

Nice blog.I remember it sitting forlornly at Kalka's shop in Oakland. Really looks nice now.
I may have a little blog for you soon on a ride we did in the Smoky Mountains.
Somer

Anonymous said...

Hi Paul,

I was checking your site and was reading about the Brough. I was amazed at seeing one restored since I saw one in restoration in 90 or 91. As I kept reading, I noticed it was the same one in Oakland. At the time, Kalka had 4 or 5 Series A Twins. Wished I would have purchased one, but they disappeared quickly when he got in trouble again. My 42 Indian Four I purchased was parked in the same room as the A Twins.

When he had the Auction in Sam Mateo, I bid against Somer Hooker and won a 1935 A Single for $6500.00. Ran across the current owner at the Clubman show last year and he told me it's one of the very early ones. Proabaly should have kept it.

Enjoy reading your site.

Dan

Anonymous said...

Paul:

I don’t remember you by name, but might by face.

Nice story about the Austin Brough, even though you feel it necessary to drag me through the mud. Well, it’s a free press.

Yours,

Ben Kalka

Paul Koski said...

I am Building a replica of a BS4 using original parts from 1933 where possible