Thursday, August 09, 2012


'Old Bill' as she sits today
HandH Classics in England have secured the rights to sell 'Old Bill', the second most famous Brough Superior of all (the first being, of course, the bike on which TE Lawrence was killed).

Before we go on, a correction; their press release claims HandH Classics have sold the most expensive motorcycle at auction, which is simply not true by any calculus. That spot goes to MidAmerica Auctions, whose sale of a Cyclone in July 2008 hit $551,200; as the English Pound has never achieved a 2:1 ratio with the US Dollar, the £280,000 ($465,350 on the day) sale of a Brough SS100 in 2011 is hardly the greater sum. Let's get the facts straight, HandH; to keep abreast of the most expensive bikes sold at auction, follow my 'Top 20' here.
George Brough on 'Spit and Polish' with 'KTC' JAP engine, Druid forks, and 'dummy rim' brakes fore and aft.  1922
Back to the story!  'Old Bill' started life as 'Spit and Polish' (vernacular from the military 'spit shine' on boots), a specially built Brooklands racer noted for its ultra-clean appearance, starting a trend (Bill Lacey usurped George Brough's spot for the cleanest racers, with his entirely nickel-plated, immaculate machines).  While 'Spit and Polish' won success at the track with its specially tuned JAP 'KTC' 976cc sidevalve engine, from the talented hands of Bert LeVack (development engineer for JAP at the time, and rider of tremendous talent).  The bird really sang, though, when LeVack offered GB the prototype JAP 'KTR' racing sidevalve engine, which would become the basis for the Bough Superior 'SS80' model.  The crankshaft was radically lightened until a single 'spoke' connected the big end, mainshaft, and an outer flywheel rim, which gave the ultra-light machine the acceleration of a scalded cat.   The fully developed machine was reborn as a sprinter, and re-christened 'Old Bill', a character in Bruce Bairnsfather's WW1 comic book.
George Brough aboard the transformed 'Old Bill', and note the changes - new twin-camshaft KTR engine, a lower frame with extra struts, a drum front brake, and new Webb forks
While George Brough is best known as the manufacturer of Brough Superior motorcycles, and his prowess as a salesman and spinner of enduring ad copy has overshadowed his considerable skill as a rider.  Long before he built his own motorcycles (starting in 1919), George was winning trials and races on his father William Brough's machinery (Broughs, too, but not 'Superior'...although many consider his father's engineering superior to his son's, as he built his own engines - something George never did successfully).
A period postcard showing a young George Brough aboard a Brough motorcycle, after winning three London-Edinburgh trials in 1910-1912 (from the Brough Superior photo archives - worth a visit!)
'Old Bill' was George Brough's ultimate sprint weapon, and he bested the most famous sprinter of the day - George Dance on his Sunbeams - many times, winning 51 sprints in a row in 1922/23.  'Old Bill' crossed the finish line on race #52 in first as well, but George was elsewhere, busy scrubbing the flesh off his buttocks 100mph on gravel, 'Bill' having bucked him a few yards before the experience which ended his racing career, and meant several months of painful skin grafts in those pre-penicillin days...
Rider A.Greenwood aboard 'Old Bill' at the 1924 Doncaster Speed Trials
As the Brough Superior factory was hardly flush with cash, 'Old Bill' was stripped of its racing bits (ie, that crankshaft and those specially ported cylinders, plus the added frame struts), and rebuilt as a road bike...not exactly a 'race horse to cart horse' transformation, as it was still a Brough after all.  During WW2, the bike was damaged, but VMCC founder and arch BS enthusiast 'Titch' Allen purchased and restored the machine, with the help of GB himself and plant manager Ike Webb, to resemble its famous ca.1922 racing trim.  While GB gave up official motorcycle production during WW2 (he did assemble a few during the conflict, from leftover stock and bent machines) the precision engineering business he'd pursued during the War continued for many years, the business changing hands twice since then, first to the Card family, and now to the Mark Upham equipe, who are building brand new 'to 1927 spec' Brough Superior 'SS110's.
1962; the restored Brough, back to 'Old Bill' spec, with 'Titch' Allen aboard, George Brough behind  (smiling, with cap and goggles) and Ike Webb at far right
'Old Bill' passed from 'Titch' Allen to his son Roger, who sadly lost his life racing at the Isle of Man.  Roger's widow has displayed the machine at the Nottingham Industrial Museum since, and is now coming for auction on October 4th, at the Imperial War Museum in Duxford, along with the rest of the Roger Allen collection.
George Brough in 1962 having one last 'go' on 'Old Bill' at the very Clipstone 'track' (really the driveway to a private estate, paved in gravel!) where he last raced the machine in 1923.


Richard Worsham said...

"Old Bill" has to be one of my very favorite motorcycles of all time, and a constant influence on my taste in design. What a perfect paring of form and function. Undoubtedly, very close to the "ideal" motorcycle. Always love reading your well researched background story.

Conchscooter said...

That picture of Brought grinning on his last go is priceless. I had no idea I was alive and sharing the planet briefly with that extraordinary man.