Saturday, April 28, 2012


In 1926, an intrepid motorcyclist/filmmaker, Lothar Rübelt, decided to film the stunning peaks of the Dolomites as a travelogue, with a few friends along for the ride.  The original film title was 'Mit dem Motorrad zu Wolken' (With Motorcycles to the Clouds), and this Italian re-titled print has recently been made available on the internet.  According to a former curator of the Vienna Technisches Museum, "Lothar Rübelt was a world-class photographer, and a motorcyclist, owning a 350 Douglas, 750 Super X, and no less than 3 Brough Superior 680s.  He was a friend of Robert Eberan Eberhorst (designer of the Auto Union 16 cylinder GP winner).  The Brough SS80 in this film belonged to Lother's brother Ekkehardt Rübelt, who was later killed [1926] in a road accident (not his fault, and not on the Brough).  Lothar told me the problem was not riding uphill, but coming down with your bones intact!  You don't see in the film that their bikes were lowered [off the steepest grades] by rope, inch by inch.  There is a very good copy of this film at the Vienna Science Museum." Rübelt gave up film after his brother's death, in favor of still photography, and gained worldwide acclaim as a sports photographer.
An Excelsior 'Super X' 750cc and an Ariel 550cc sidevalve
'Riding to the clouds'; from their home in Vienna, the various motorcyclists on this film trek 600km each way, on dirt, gravel, or rock roads to reach the mountains (Monte Cristallo, Monte Piano, 'le tre cime de Lavoredo'). When they do climb into the mountains, the roads rapidly become mere footpaths, then goat tracks, and in places, no road at all!  At the final, very rocky stages, the riders wrap chains around their rear wheels for traction up the extremely steep climbs.  Lucky for them 1920s bikes are light and narrow, so a fall represented no great hazard.  Still, with 'clincher' tires pumped up to 60psi, rocky tracks were a very bumpy trial.  And as mentioned above, there was still the matter of coming back down on motorcycles with virtually no brakes...
The lads examine a rare overhead-camshaft Matchless
Their machines were various, but include a super-rare Matchless with shaft-and-bevel overhead camshaft gear and a nickel plated tank - very Brough Superior in fact, one of which (an SS80) shows up at about the 7 minute mark.

A Brough-Superior SS80 gets the 'glamour focus' on camera; the riding group stops in their tracks to lure the BS owner out to say hello.
Also included are an American Excelsior 'Super X' 750cc twin, and a pair of sidevalve singles, one of which is an Ariel 550.  The scenery of the film is absolutely spectacular, and I admit to a deep jealousy of riding solitary and unmolested deep into the rocky footpaths of these amazing mountains.
I'm not convinced paved roads are an improvement, as there's a particular intimacy with one's environment on slow rides over narrow dirt roads, which is still possible to experience in remote places, even on a 'street' bike.  Riders took their chances on totally 'unsuitable' and un-sprung machines in the 1920s, as in this film, and found it worth their discomfort to make the trek.  It's still worth it today.
Dirt roads were the rule, barring the cobblestones of Vienna, which made very shaky camera work from the sidecar!
The number and groupings of riders change through the film; in the end, only two riders make the peak, and the end of the trail.
Incredible vistas, then and now
Squeezing the Brough Superior's horn to get the owner's attention.  A good detail shot of a mid-20s Brough cockpit; Cowie speedometer, hand oil pump, valve lifter lever, magneto advance lever
'Wow!  It's a Brough Superior!'
Wrapping chains around the rear wheel for traction in the rocky goat paths...the Ariel 550 pictured has an open primary case, and was ridden by Mr. Pospischil, who was apparently the filmaker's girlfriend's brother...
The Super X gets the same chain-up treatment
Filling up from tins, high in the mountains.  1920s motorcycles got great gas mileage; 60-80mpg was common.
One of the wider mountain paths, but as the ride continues, things get rough
While these machines weigh less than 300lbs, the 'clincher' tires were inflated to 60psi; a rough ride!
One of the steepest gradients; by this time, there was no path at all
A good citizen mountain hiker, who later gets a ride
Laying out the path through the peaks
Riding where there is no road
Mountain fog; the film includes extensive shots of swirling updrafts and rapidly shifting clouds - beautiful stuff
'A new sea of fog'
At a high-altitude refuge cottage/guest house
Twisting the throttle on the Super X; 60,70...100kph
The rocky Dolomites, on a trail fit for goats
Where shall we go?


Johnny J. McClodden/ said...

Once again , you've done an outstanding job . Even the music is great , very inspiring .

GuitarSlinger said...

Wow ! Our VOC section leader sent this out on Friday and it is one heck of a video !

I thought when I'd got it I'd watch maybe 5 minutes or so and drop it , but by the 4th minute I'd been sucked in and watched it in its entirety .

The only thing more amazing than the ride itself is thinking about the folks having to lug all that heavy camera equipment over al those mountains to film the thing

So my recommendation ? IMHO Put any attention deficit issues you may have aside . Pour yourself your favorite libation and watch it from start to finish .

Better yet . Light up a good cigar to go with that libation ;-)

Cheers !

Anonymous said...

Thanks for making me smile. This is the kind of post that makes the Vintagent what it is in my mind.

While I still haven't found 45 minutes to watch it all, the first half was fantastic.

As for dirt vs. paved, it was tarmac/asphalt that allowed me to travel these very roads in November a few years ago.

If you haven't visited the Dolomites, do it! Regardless of your form of transportation or the time of year, you'll be in awe.


GuitarSlinger said...

@ Paul

Thanks for the added commentary . I'm with you on the dirt road issue .

What keeps coming up in my mind is how much ' Drama ' todays so called Adventure M/Clists try to make claim to .... what with their High Tech wonderbikes specifically built for the terrain they're riding on while this bunch back in the day made due with what they had ( very little ) yet seem to have enjoyed every minute of it . Can't get enough traction ? Hand wire some chains to the rims etc .

Ahhhhh back in the day when almost any trip was a genuine Adventure , making todays serious Overland trips look like a walk in the park

Those guys ( and gals ) had grit . We just Buy stuff !

Anonymous said...

Wonderful, this film reminded me of riding in enduro events - such as the Welsh 3 days !

Matt said...

lovely lovely lovely. i know the film plays faster than real live, but those bikes seem to climb effortlessly. wonderful stuff.

OcchioLungo said...

I didn't like how their player works, but I've found another site for the movie. Here is a link so you can download and save a copy. Then you can play it back at your leisure on your own player. right click and "Save link as"


jmc said...

Just watched the first minute at the office, very hard to turn off. But, I know what I'll be watching at home tonight though! Fantastic!

F.E.S. said...

That is pretty awesome. I thought I'd done well in the 80's touring the highlands of Scotland 2 up on a Honda CG125 with luggage strapped to every concievable part of the bike, but this is something else. A lesson to us all - don't be held back by your own self limiting beliefs! Just get on and do it.

Howard said...

Hi Paul,
Thanks for sharing the film with us - some wonderful scenery and bikes – especially the SS80 cameo! Coincidentally I’ll be travelling most of the route through the Dolomites in early June with a dozen friends on various machines including three Brough Superiors. (Our itinerary will take us to Denmark by ferry before we ride through Germany to Prague then on the Austria where we will pick up the route to Bolzano, the return will be via the French Alps to the English Channel.) The film has given us real inspiration and it will be interesting to spot the landmarks en route.
Regarding Lothar’s Overhead 680’s the BS Club machine registrar has identified two of them. One a 1927 model and the other a 1929 spring framed machine; unfortunately neither machine has survived. However, by another coincidence I own the actual motor from his early model which I have fitted to another ’27 frame. Lothar specified a special frame for this machine with 6 inches of ground clearance. I guess it’s fair to assume that this was to enable him to travel the remote rock strewn tracks in the mountains!
Keep up the good work,