Sunday, January 12, 2014


A Short History of the World Motorcycle Speed Records, Part 2 1930 - 1940
(Originally published in the excellent French magazine Café Racer 'Speed' special issue)

Joe Wright, many time World Speed Record holder, beside the supercharged OEC-JAP at the Olympia Motorcycle Show in 1930.  Note his less-than-enthusiastic smile... (Aldo Carrer collection)
As noted in Part 1, it typically took two years for a team of English enthusiasts to build up a Speed Record machine in their off-hours, while keeping a small factory busy building road machines. The face-slap of the BMW record at the very onset of the Depression made for interesting bed-fellows among former rivals.  Freddie Barnes had spent perhaps too much time in his race shop building Gold Star winners, and not enough making a profit, and the kidney-kick of the '29 Crash had sent Zenith into bankruptcy.  Their ace rider Joe Wright acquired the big Zenith-JAP speed machine, which by now had a supercharger, but was contracted in a hurry by Claude Temple to attack the record again in 1930, to snatch the laurels from upstart BMW.
Joe Wright on the OEC-Temple-JAP in its successful Arpajon speed record guise.  Note the lack of streamlining on the frame and forks, and Joe's helmet!
The FIM Speed Record book notes that on 6th November, 1930, Joseph S. Wright was successful in his attempt, supposedly riding a Temple-OEC-JAP with supercharged 994cc engine to 150.7mph (242.59kph) down the rod-straight concrete pavé at Cork, Ireland. The 1930 record was a significant advance on the Ernst Henne-BMW record of 137.58mph (221.54kph), achieved only weeks before.
Joe Wright aboard the Temple-OEC-JAP record-breaker, which failed to take a record that day.  Just behind it is Wright's personal supercharged Zenith-JAP, which took the actual record run.
But a pair of machines was present at Cork that day; the OEC which had been prepared by Claude Temple, and a 'reserve' machine in case of problems.  The second-string machine was Joe Wright's personal Zenith-JAP.  At that date, Zenith was technically out of business, so no valuable publicity could be gained for the factory from a record run, nor bonuses paid.  While Zenith would be rescued from the trashbin of the Depression in a few months, and carry on making motorcycles until 1948, the reorganized company, with its star-making General Manager Freddie Barnes, never sponsored another racer at Brooklands or built more of their illustrious special 'one off' singles and V-twins which did so well at speed events around the world - from England to Argentina.
A beautiful shot of Joe Wright aboard the Zenith at Brooklands, before the supercharger was added
Joe Wright had already taken the Motorcycle Land Speed Record with the OEC, back on August 31st at Arpajon, France, at 137.32mph, but Henne and his BMW had the cheek to snatch the Record by a mere .3mph, on Septermber 20th. That November day in Cork was unlucky for Wright  and Temple, as the Woodruff key which fixed the crankshaft sprocket sheared off, and the OEC was unable to complete the required two-direction timed runs. With the OEC out of action, and FIM timekeepers being paid by the day, as well as arrangements with the city of Cork to close their road (and police the area), a World Speed Record was an expensive proposition, and the luxury of a 'second machine' was very practical...although the 1930 Cork attempt by Wright/Temple may be the only instance where a second machine was of a completely different make.  Imagine Ernst Henne bringing a supercharged DKW as a backup for his BMW; simply unthinkable!

Wright was successful, and set a new Motorcycle Land Speed Record with his trusty Zenith at 150.7mph (242.59kph), although the press photographs and film crews of the time were solely focused on the magnificent but ill-fated OEC, as Zenith was out of business, and OEC paying the bills.  Scandalously, everyone present played along with the misdirection that the OEC had been the machine burning up the timing strips, and the Zenith was quickly hidden away from history, a situation which still exists in the FIM record books.
Joe Wright's supercharged Zenith-JAP at the 1930 Cork World Record attempt
Photographs from the actual event show the Zenith lurking in the background while Joe Wright poses on the OEC, preparing himself for a blast of 150mph wind by taping his leather gloves to his heavy knit woolen sweater, and wrapping more tape around his turtleneck and ankles to stop the wind from dragging down his top speed.  His custom-made teardrop aluminum helmet is well-documented, but the protective abilities of his wool trousers and sweater at such a speed are dubious at best...but there were no safety requirements in those days, you risked your neck and that was that.  Nowadays, when any 'squid' can hit 150mph exactly 8 seconds after parting with cash for a new motorcycle, Wright's efforts might seem quaint, but he was exploring the outer boundaries of motorcycling at the time, and was a brave man indeed.
A screen capture from the British Pathe film of the 150mph record shows clearly the bike is Wright's Zenith!
The record-breaking Joe Wright Zenith was a rumor for decades, becoming a documented story only in the 1980s via the classic motorcycling magazines and the VMCC journal.  The whereabouts of the Actual machine was known only to very few.  I've had the great pleasure of making the Zenith's acquaintance, it does still exist, and is currently undergoing restoration; ironically, it now lives in Germany, having been in safe hands with arch-enthusiasts for decades.

Ernst Henne with his supercharged BMW WR750 in 1936
For the next 7 years, as England struggled with economic calamity, the World Speed Record became a BMW benefit, as speed-man Ernst Henne piloted increasingly sophisticated, and increasingly streamlined, supercharged flat-twins to higher speeds.  The Ingolstadt road proved troublesome, so the hunt was continued for a very long, flat, and straight road, somewhere in Europe.  The plains near Tat, in Hungary, were the next speedway, with the Hungarian officials happy to sponsor such a publicity coup.  In 1932 Henne upped the Zenith record by a hair, reaching 244.40kph on a slightly better-shaped WR750.  BMW of course shouted the achievement through posters and catalogs, and spent the next 5 years raising their own record.  A few more tweaks to their bodywork in 1934, and a move to Gyon, Hungary, raised their own record slightly to  246.07kph.
Ernst Henne and his 'Egg'
By 1934, Hitler and his propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels were eager to use all aspects of international sporting activity in service of their fascist state, which included car and motorcycle racing.  BMW and DKW benefitted from wheelbarrows of cash supplied by the Nazi government, and both factories used the money boost to make radical technical changes to their cars and motorcycles.  DKW was part of Auto Union by 1932, a huge conglomerate of car and motorcycle manufacture, with DKW by then the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world.  The story of their Auto Union racing cars, the most powerful and exotic GP cars ever, and their competition with the likes of Mercedes-Benz and Alfa Romeo, is a direct parallel to our motorcycle story.  BMW at the same time developed their 328 sports-racer, an incredibly competent and beautifully designed car, considered an all-time classic.
A very rare photograph of Adolf Hitler inspecting the DKW factory. (Aldo Carrer collection)

In accepting Hitler's cash, the racing and record-breaking teams of both factories came under the scrutiny and supervision of the Ministry of Sport (DRL), and suddenly, their drivers and riders wore swastika armbands over their racing coveralls and leathers, and raised their arms in the fascist salute while 'Deutschland Uber Alles' played for the crowd.  This has unfortunately given the impression that all German competitors were Nazis, which is certainly not the truth; they were racers in Germany in the mid-30s, and some were fascist supporters no doubt, but many private stories from the pre-war period depict legendary motorcycle racers like Georg Meier pooh-poohing their Nazi handlers.  Not all Germans were fascists, and plenty of Englishmen, Americans, and Frenchmen supported fascism...but that's another story.
Looking like a letter to the future, the DKW record-breaker without its canopy, which badly affected handling
There seems to have been a gentleman's agreement between DKW and BMW to stay off each other's racing turf, as DKW focussed on 250cc and 350cc GP racing and record-breaking, while BMW concentrated on 500cc racing and the absolute World Speed Record.  While BMW is perhaps better known for their speed record bikes, DKW as equally at the forefront of the new science of streamlining and engine development, having pioneered the Schnurle-loop scavenge system on their two-stroke engines, and the use of superchargers with twin-piston combustion chambers, so the blowers didn't simply push the fuel mix straight out the exhaust pipe!
The DKW record-breaker with its full bodywork
The photographs with this article show 250cc and 350cc racers of stunning speed and sophistication, with fabulously compelling bodwork, developed in wind tunnels (something they could afford with Nazi cash) alonside their Auto Union GP cars. BMW's experiments with supercharged 500cc GP bikes bore fruit with an entirely new design, which was never intended to have a 'street' version.

The new BMW OHC flat-twin engine, with integral supercharger
Their new OHC flat twin had a supercharger designed with the engine, integral with the crankcase casting, and fast as hell.  While their GP racers used a version of the roadster R5 chassis with a tube frame and rigid rear end, the record-breaker chassi retained a version of the old WR750 tube frame, but was now placed in a better streamlined body.  The new OHC engine was far more powerful than the old pushrod 750cc, even with a 1/3 capacity reduction.
The BMW three-wheel record breaker with its full streamlining, which was more stable than the DKW bodywork
It was no longer necessary to search Europe for a suitable speed venue, as Hitler had ordered new autobahns built across the country, and the A3 was set aside by an eager government to prove the new BMW's speed.  With an engine now half the size of their English competition's JAP V-twins, Ernst Henne might have been expected to incrementally increase the Speed Record, but in 1936 he blistered the new concrete of the Frankfurt-Munich autobahn at 272.01kph, in his fully-streamlined silver projectile with only his helmet visible, giving rise to the nickname 'Henne and his Egg'.
Eric Fernihough aboard the semi-streamlined Brough Superior-JAP record breaker in 1936, at Brooklands, after his successful 163.82mph run
George Brough was many things; a showoff and blowhard, but also a truly gifted motorcycle stylist, and a keen competitor.  Brough Superior remained a tiny factory, producing during its entire 20-year lifepan (around 3200 machines) less than one month's output of rival DKW.  While his roadsters had become chunky Grand Tourers by the mid-30s, the fire of competition and national pride still burned in his heart, and he had been quietly working with veteran racer Eric Fernihough to build a new, supercharged and streamlined, Brough Superior-JAP record-breaker.  Without the benefit of government support or a wind tunnel, their work cladding the Brough in aluminum sheet was instantly old-fashioned compared to developments in GP car racing and aircraft aerodynamics, and the machine relied more on sheer brute horsepower from the big blown V-twin engine.  They must have felt like David with a slingshot against the Goliath of the huge German factories, but their effort worked in 1937, as Eric Fernihough piloted his oil-leaking beast to squeak past the BMW record by 1mph, at 273.24kph.
The spectacular Gilera Rondine, with its laid-down across-the-frame DOHC watercooled, supercharged 4-cylinder engine; the most advanced motorcycle engine in the world, which set the pattern for motorcycle engines through the present day.
Of course, while Alfa Romeo battled Auto Union's GP projectiles, Gilera had also seen the future, and purchased the plans, rights, and tooling for the remarkable water-cooled 4-cylinder DOHC supercharged CNA 'Rondine' (Swallow) in 1935, arguably the most technically advanced motorcycle engine in the world.  The Rondine had its roots back in a 1923 across-the-frame 4-cylinder OHV engine from the OPRA research firm, which was slowly developed by engineer Peiro Remor into an OHC and finally DOHC engine.  OPRA went bankrupt in 1929, but Remor then created the CNA research group, and the engine became DOHC.  Remor moved to Gilera as part of a 'deal' with CNA in Gilera's purchase of this incredible machine and all rights to produce it.  Gilera had the racing history to develop the chassis, and the resources to develop the engine of the Rondine, and by 1937, it was the fastest motorcycle in the world.  Proof was provided on the Brescia-Bergamo A4 autostrada in 1937, as GP racing driver Piero Taruffi (who began his career like most Italian racing legends, on motorcycles) raised the record to 274.18kph, on a poorly-streamlined egg with handling issues.  Outside of a fully-enclosed fairing, the Gilera trounced the BMW in top speed stakes, which pleased Mussolini (see photo), although the watercooled engine was still too heavy for the razor-sharp handling required of GP racing.
Mussolini inspects the Gilera Rondine DOHC 4-cylinder, watercooled racer, the fastest motorcycle in the world for a few months in 1937
While post-war Allied archivists documented Hitler's cash 'donations' to German motorcycle and car factories, I've never seen evidence of a corresponding gift from the Italian government; the Rondine was a home-grown product developed over 15 years to a remarkable state of tune, and lived on postwar as the normally carbureted Gilera 4-cylinder racers which dominated the GP World Championships of the 1950s, while BMW's problems with race handling prevented anyone but the German ex-cop, the super-tough superman Georg Meier, from winning a World Championship or an Isle of Man TT.
Benito Mussolini inspecting the Bianchi factory, from a Bianchi promotional poster (Aldo Carrer collection)
BMW answered the Italian challenge on the morning of 28 November 1937, when Ernst Henne averaged 279.5kmh with his BMW 'Egg'. Henne then retired from record breaking, and his egg-record remained unbroken until 1951.
Ernst Henne and his stunning mid-30s BMW record-breaker, after his retirement 
1938 was a big year for global motorcycle racing, as Ewald Kluge won the Lightweight Isle of Man TT on his supercharged DKW two-stroke, the first time a German rider won the TT on a German machine, and resoundingly so, finishing 11 minutes ahead of his next competitor.  The invasion of sophisticated Italian and German racing bikes on British soil was but a precursor to the coming years of war and misery, although most civilians still crossed their fingers that a war would not come.  George Brough was the lone English factory up to the challenge presented by Gilera and BMW, and returned to Hungary in 1938 with a slightly improved Brough Superior-JAP racer, with Eric Fernihough in the saddle again.  Sadly, the streamlining on the Brough presented a barn door sized target for cross-winds, and Fernihough was killed when his machine ran off the narrow road at over 250kph.  The death of his friend took the wind from George Brough, and he returned to England, gradually transforming the Brough Superior works from motorcycle production to specialized machine work for the military; it was a scene echoed across the small factories which once defined the British motorcycle industry.
Eric Fernihough aboard the streamlined Brough Superior at Gyon, Hungary, shortly before he was blown off he road and killed
1939 was an even more dramatic year in racing, when Georg Meier won the 500cc Isle of Man TT on his kompressor BMW, raising the red-and-swastika flag over the very heart of British racing.  The defeat of Norton and Velocette in this race was a stunning blow, and a huge propaganda coup for Germany, finally victorious in the world's toughest road race.  Germany hoped such victories were a portent of greater success on the world's battlefields, and so it proved to merely a year later. Of course, certain complications like the Royal Air Force and a stubborn Russian populace halted Hitler's seemingly unstoppable expansion across the globe.  The brave lives lost racing for two-wheeled glory were suddenly overshadowed by millions of deaths for national survival, as the symbolic battlefields of speed records and GP success were traded for real battlefields, and the rival countries battled it out directly, thankfully to a very different outcome.

The immortal Georg Meier aviating the BMW RS255 at the Isle of Man TT in 1939


GreginAdelaide said...

I knew bits and pieces of the quest for speed through those years and this is a good summary, one that has been crying out to be written for some time.

I've always had a keen interest in JAP powered machines in this field and loved your previous story of the OEC/Zenith saga but it is good to see it in context,

Thanks for doing a magnificent and most readable task.


P Delli said...

Paul: Scandalously, everyone present played along with the misdirection that the OEC had been the machine burning up the timing strips, and the Zenith was quickly hidden away from history, a situation which still exists in the FIM record books.

Not quite true, Paul, The French press did talk about the scandal at the time, when the OEC was displayed at the Olympia show later in the year. Pretty sure the English press as well...

I'm guessing there, but I suppose your German collector is the same guy that has the controversial OEC and its later incarnation as the Bob Berry's bike called the JAP Special...(photos:


GuitarSlinger said...

As to the Italian Government not making public their ' donations ' towards the likes of Gilera - Alfa Romeo etc .... thats been the tradition for decades .... the Government funding this that and the other thing while in essence keeping ' silent ' about it as much of it is done under the table ... most of it thru ' Silent ' [ omerta ] partners ( wink wink ) What ? You didn't actually think FIAT SpA [ all of it ] etc etc were capable of existing on their own merits now ... did you ?

AFJ said...

Brough Superior production was about 3,200 motorcycles not 1,000 as stated.

The Vintagent said...

Thanks AFJ, I've clarified my text.