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Bike Review - Posted 30th January 2015
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New Imperial 500 Racer

Back in the mid-1930s, an amateur racer you may not know much about was doing remarkable things on a V-twin works racer. His grandson, Steve Kitchen, explains all...

Back in 2013, RC reporter Richard Jones spotted this 1936 New Imperial V-twin works racer, which you’ll normally find on display at the National Motorcycle Museum in Birmingham. Richard commented that racer Ginger Wood was ‘perhaps the only one with sufficient moxy to ride the bike at full throttle,’ referring to the fact that he thrashed the machine around Brooklands for an hour and recorded a 102.2mph average speed in the process.

New Imperial 500 Racer

So we were delighted to hear from Steve Kitchen, who says: ‘I just wanted to point out that my grandfather RJD Burnie from Wales also rode the bike at full throttle. Well, in fact, it was the earlier 1934 version that my grandfather rode. He was evaluating it for New Imperial during the development of the 1936 version, to try and make it handle better. It was very fast on straights but not an easy bike to handle cornering.’

New Imperial 500 Racer

There were a total of four of these machines made; just two in 1934 and then another two in 1936. New Imperial stopped building bikes in 1939, and Steve isn’t sure that either of the 1934 bikes now survives. Newspaper reports from 1935 confirms that RJD Burnie, ‘the well-known Swansea motorcyclist, has been elected to ride the new 500cc New Imperial twin in the British open speed championships… This is a distinct honour for a young rider, as this type of machine has previously been in the hands only of famous TT stars.’

New Imperial 500 Racer

Burnie certainly demonstrated what he could do with the New Imperial. ‘A fine riding feat… enabled him to win one of the most coveted awards of its kind in the sporting world – the Gold Star. To qualify for this he had to average over a hundred miles an hour. The actual speed attained by his New Imperial 492cc cycle was 100.76mph, only exceeded by a super-charged Brough Superior in the 1000cc class. Out of 44 entries, only one other motorcyclist qualified for a gold star.

New Imperial 500 Racer

‘The unequal conditions of the sand surface caused Burnie’s foot change lever to become inoperative on entering the timed section at top speed in third gear, and he was forced to change by hand while steering at about 90mph.’

New Imperial 500 Racer Click to see full newspaper clipping...
'Vintage' bikes on Now...

Riding a girder-forked bike single-handed. On sand. At 90mph. Wow. As we say.

Or as Burnie’s grandson Steve explains; ‘my grandfather could have been quite famous. Well he was at the time, but you don't know his name like you know Ginger Wood, Stanley Woods, Jimmie Guthrie, Bob Foster, etc. Had he been a full time racer I'm sure you would know him, or if he hadn't emigrated to South Africa in 1951. He was chief accountant at Fort Dunlop and just raced for fun, but this didn't stop him being invited to race works bikes for both New Imperial and Norton.’

New Imperial 500 Racer

And indeed, Steve has the photographic evidence to prove his grandfather’s prowess; pictured with Ginger Wood (Ginger on the 1934 works V-twin), and also on Crasher White's works Norton at the start line for the first ever Welsh Grand Prix, held at Pendine Sands. There’s also a shot from the Ulster Grand Prix practise session, with Burnie alongside the likes of Stanley Wood, Guthrie, Frith. Says grandson Steve: ‘he was the only rider to ride his bike to the event, and then race it with his number plate still on!’

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Photos: Steve Kitchen


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