Wednesday, September 07, 2011


The SS101 'Retro' record-breaker, built for Bonneville
Fully 62 years later, a factory-backed speed record attempt by Brough Superior coalesced on the vast white plain of the Bonneville Salt Flats.  The Brough name has been in continuous usage since George Brough himself last assembled a motorcycle in the late 1940s; GB maintained an engineering works for years, then sold the name to new owners, who each hoped to resume production of the grandest name in motorcycling.  I was standing with Mark Upham the day his own Brough lightbulb lit up; in May 2008 at the Legend of the Motorcycle Concours, Bonhams offered the name and rights for Brough Superior, and Upham, an arch enthusiast of the marque and #1 seller of Broughs in the world at the time (via his shop British Only Austria), decided he would own the name, and resume production himself.
Mark Upham wheeling his SS101 'Pendine'...
Such is the romantic and deeply personal interest of Upham in the marque, that within minutes of deciding to own Brough Superior, his thoughts turned to the World Land Speed Records which held the world's attention before WW2.  'We will have to build a bike for speed and take it to Bonneville', were his very words that May, and within 3 years, he made good on his promise. 
The engine room of the SS101 'TE Lawrence Replica', complete with alloy exhaust muffs
After securing the rights to the Brough Superior name, designs, and goodwill (a substantial investment), Upham immediately set about building brand new examples of a 'Top-10' most beautiful motorcycles ever made; the first series B-S 'SS100' model, powered by a racing J.A. Prestwich 'KTOR' 1000cc ohv v-twin.  In only two years, the first new Brough Superior 'SS101' model stood in the metal, and soon there were six of the world's most expensive production motorcycles, variations of the SS101 series, from an open-pipe 'Pendine' racer, to standard 'Touring' model, and an exact replica of TE Lawrence's 1927 machine, one of 7 he owned, which included a replica of his famous 'swagger stick' clipped to the Castle forks.
Mark Wilsmore of the Ace Café and his 'El Aurance' impression on the TEL Rep
Making a motorcycle from scratch to the high standards befitting a Brough is a tall order in our post-industrial world: finding individuals with that rare combination of skill, knowledge, and reliability has been Upham's struggle for the past 3 years - the right 'fit' for a Brough Superior.  Any number of businesses could provide drawings, raw castings, or whole components, but making them function perfectly as a motorbike has taken as much time as orchestrating the manufacture of the important parts.  Inevitably, there have been bumps, although Upham feels he's finally got a team as capable of developing the bikes, as building them. George Brough had such legendary 'issues' with his suppliers, sending broken gearboxes and crankshafts back to Sturmey-Archer and JAP for 'improvement', until strengthened or redesigned parts appeared at his doorstep.   Eventually, his frustration with JAP engines drove him to more sedate AMC v-twin engines, although any sporting pretensions disappeared with this move towards reliability.
Team captain Alastair Gibson has just discovered how bumpy is the salt...
The Brough Superior SS101 'Retro' which appeared at Bonneville is a mix of old and new components, the whole machine conceived by ex-Honda F1 technician Alastair Gibson, who escaped the rigors of the megabucks F1 racing world to pursue his creation of carbon-fiber sculpture.  Lured out of mechanical retirement by Upham, Gibson (a vintagent of the first order, with an impressive personal collection of 20s and 30s racing bikes - to be covered in a later post) designed the chassis of the 'Retro' for Bonneville, the frame constructed of modern, lightweight T45 tubing, all-welded, lower and 2" longer than the standard Brough item.  New Castle forks were used, and Gibson designed the petrol tank with unique air intakes which duct a cooling breeze to the motor's exhaust ports.  That JAP engine is a 1087cc Bonneville veteran, having taken rider Eric Patterson to 126mph on the salt, housed in a Norton Featherbed chassis; its a modified postwar JAP racing v-twin, as used in Cooper cars or speedway sidecar racing, reputedly able to produce 120hp on methanol, its magnesium crankcases and alloy cylinder barrels and heads painted black for heat dissipation (and a nod to the earlier iron top end of the Brough-JAPs).
Salt cakes the 'Retro' after a test run...the bike had to be cleaned after every salt encounter
The engine was further modified in England, and dyno-tested as capable of 160mph on the road, but the salt of Bonneville is a far cry from sea-level tarmac, as many hopeful speed record contenders have discovered.  Running on 108octane petrol with an 11:1 compression ratio and 40mm Amal mk2 carbs, the 'Retro' was tuned in England for the 4000' altitude of Utah, both Gibson and rider Patterson having previous experience of Bonneville (Gibson having run a Honda F1 car at 400kph in 2006).  The Brough Superior crew assembled first in Los Angeles, with generous host Jay Leno providing workshop space in his capacious Burbank warehouse, then moved en masse to Utah, with a week to see what the 'Retro' would do.
Gibson give rider Eric Patterson some quick notes on rev limits for an early run...
The 1100cc/gas/unstreamlined class record stood at 110mph, and breaking that was the goal of the attempt.  Upham described this first visit to Boneville as a 'Training year...our goal is simply to see what we can do with this machine our first year.  We have no great goals, but do want to break the record."  The first runs of the Retro were taken at around the 100mph mark, with lowered gearing and a rev limit of 4500rpm - 2300rpm shy of the maximum - just to see how she felt on the salt.  With no chassis waggles or steering head shakes, rider Eric Patterson gave the thumbs up to the chassis' rideability, and the team gradually built up speed over their days under the sun, eventually taking the record at an average of 124.98mph, with a peak speed of 127.1mph.  Patterson's substantial experience actually riding at speed on the salt on vintage machinery was an invaluable component of the record attempt, and the entire, sprawling team, under their collection of awnings, tarps, trailers, RVs, and hangers-on, deserve congratulations on their first, successful attempt to bring Brough Superior back to Bonneville.

Mark Upham is already considering the future; "Perhaps we need a supercharger!"
The Brough Superior Bonneville team and supporters
How to pack four Broughs, plus a few other tasty machines, in one trailer; the entire workshop had to be 'rolled up' at night, as regulations prevent overnight camping on the salt...each Brough had its own carry-box; not required at night though...
Big guns, ready to go
After tech inspection, the fuel filler caps are sealed; no nitro allowed!
Out at the 'Long International' staging area, 3 miles from anywhere, waiting to for a run...
Tarpaulins cover the salt to keep a semi-clean work area
Perils of the salt (1): Gibson took a spill after the rear brake pedal jammed at 20mph...
The Long International staging area
Sam Lovegrove, mechanic extraordinaire
Eric Patterson, in his Lewis Leathers-made racing suit, chats with another competitor
Revival motorcycles of Austin, Texas, helped out by bringing an RV (air conditioning!), a full workshop including a lathe and mill, and exotic pit bikes
Engine room of the 'Pendine', a 'dog ear' JAP KTOR engine
The Pendine in a white infinity
Patterson takes the 3 mile journey to his record-run staging area
Jared Zaugg on the Pendine
Men's File magazine's Matt Hind stages a photo shoot on the salt
Japanese journalists fascinated by the Brough
Perils of the salt (2); a chunk of salt lodge under the front mudguard of the Retro, sending rider Patterson tumbling at 20mph...better than 120mph!
Flagged off for his second run
Brough Superior, always the movie star
Retro on the salt; note the KandN air filters - necessary!
The Brough caravanserai, all trailers, tents, and trucks
The salt is a solitary place for a rider
The Pendine and its box
Retro on an early morning photo session; those mountains are 12miles away...
3 Bonhams consultants with the Coventry Eagle 'Flying 8' which sold at Quail for ~$260k; Jared Zaugg, Mike Jackson, Pd'O


George H-Cologne said...

What an amazing article of an amazing adventure!
Paul, I'm really envious that you could be there and could get closely involved in this fascinating project while I had to stay at home waiting for your reports to arrive.
My sincere admiration ought to belong to Mark Upham who had the vision (and funding) to realise the potential of his purchase of B.S. and to the whole team who made it all happen.
Finally, my appreciation how Paul d'Orléans managed to describe the atmosphere, the obstacles and the tension prior to the record run with his words and some fine photos.
Very well done to all of you!

klooz said...

Congratulations to the Brough company. The 1100cc/gas/unstreamlined class record stood at 110mph. What, please, are the particulars of the class?.

macfly said...

As always wonderful coverage of a great story, and what a stunning location.

grant said...

as a nottingham dweller i say well done "me duck"

FOE said...

Great article. It was cool being in the pits next to you all and seeing the bikes in person. Plus, now seeing the photos, we watched you all take so many of those, it brings back the memories even though it was only weeks ago.