May 20th 2016
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National Motorcycle Museum
Richard Jones takes advantage of his 'Friends of the National Motorcycle Museum' membership to visit the world's largest collection of classic British motorcycles...
Last Christmas one of my two wonderful daughters bought me membership of the National Motorcycle Museum ‘Friends’ scheme. As I was in the Cotswolds the other day, I thought ‘why not?’ So after coffee and carrot cake in Chipping Norton, Tessie the Triumph and I hoofed across to Birmingham to enjoy an hour or so amongst the collection. If you haven’t been to the NMM and have any interest in classic British motorcycles then I’d urge you to go. Apart from more motorcycles than you can imagine – I’m not sure how they pack them all in – there’s a shop with loads of books and other stuff as well as a restaurant. The day I visited there was work going on to move machines around into alphabetic order so you come into Hall 1 with the As, Bs, Cs – you get the idea; that being said there are so many BSAs they need to go into a separate hall.
‘How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is To have a thankless child!’ said King Lear, and William Edward Brough may have said something similar about son George when he started assembling his machines from parts and had the nerve to call the result ‘Superior’. Brough Senior was old school – he designed and then cast and machined his own motorcycles from raw materials in his own small factory. He had started business building a small car in 1898, progressed to a tricycle with a 2½hp De Dion engine and then in 1902 manufactured his first motorcycle. By 1908 he had a model with a 3½hp vertically mounted engine and sprung forks which was then followed by 2½hp and 5hp V-twins which were all made by his firm and not bought in from other manufacturers.
Later Brough became enamoured with the flat-twin engine, and in 1913 Broughs announced the arrival of a 3½hp 497cc OHV flat-twin with Druid forks. Production continued with an all flat-twin range of varying capacities until 1925 when it all came to an end. This example dates from 1911-1912 and is a sidevalve engine with a bore and stroke of 85mm by 88m. It looks like a well-engineered machine, even to a mechanical idiot like me. Incidentally things weren’t all bad between William and George, as the latter won three Gold Medals at the ISDT on his father’s machines.
A handsome bike included here because I just like the name – Chater Lea named after marque founder, William. They started off in 1890 in London making lugs, castings and machined parts but then began building their own one-off machines with proprietary engines in about 1900 for, presumably, discerning customers. The range was then expanded, initially using JAP engines in single cylinder and V-twin form but then adding other alternative engines including a 269cc two-stroke. After WW1 they came back with various models and 1924 saw 348cc sidevalve and OHV Blackburne engines accompanied by a model with a Chater Lea 545cc unit. The same year saw them introducing saddle tanks – one of the first manufacturers to do so – whilst W Douglas Marchant used a 350cc Blackburne-engined Chater Lea to become the first person to break the 100mph for a machine of this capacity at Brooklands.
The company moved to Letchworth in 1927 and production of motorcycles continued until 1936 when the firm returned to its roots of general engineering. The NMM’s example dates from 1930 and is the OHC 348cc Camshaft Super Sports model designed by Arthur Woodman where – and I quote here from Bacon and Hallworth’s excellent ‘British Motorcycle Directory’ – ‘This had a vertical shaft driven by bevel gears from the crankshaft, the shaft with the camtracks mounted at its top, and rockers that followed the cams to lift the valves.’ I hope this means more to you than it does to me (see previous comment re ‘mechanical idiot’).
As I discovered when writing a book about Donington, Grindlay with an ‘a’ should not be confused with Grindley with an ‘e’. The latter marque was named after Bill Grindley, a specials manufacturer from Prees, Shropshire, who was in business from 1922 to 1939. He built to his own taste and he achieved success in local competitions as well as the 1922 Six Days Trial where he rode a 249cc side-valve JAP machine of his design. It featured a two-speed Burman gearbox and an all chain drive and although I have been unable to discover how he fared, replicas of the machine were sold for £75 each.
Between then and WW2 his machines were sought out by serious enthusiasts and the NMM has this one dating from 1923. Based on a side-valve 344cc Blackburne engine, it has lubrication provided by a Best & Lloyd mechanical pump, supplemented with a hand pump for those steep hills, an AMAC carburettor, a BTH magneto and a Burman three-sped gearbox. You may also be able to see the box on the top of the tank – presumably for tools although the NMM believe that sandwiches may have been stored there too.
This Coventry Eagle Flying Eight from 1928 is here because it just looks so good and it would be a shame for you not to see it. The 981cc JAP v-twin engine is coupled to the rear wheel via a three-speed Sturmey Archer gearbox and all chain drive with electrics being provided by a Lucas chain-drive magdyno. These are very rare – certainly rarer than the Brough Superior; if you want see one you can either buy one (Bonhams sold one at Stafford this April for just under £164,000) or come to the NMM for a great deal less.
I have included this machine to show that there is nothing new under the sun. Built in 1906 by Imperial, a somewhat obscure London firm which should not be confused with New Imperial or with at least two other manufacturers that shared its name. It features a rare Coronet engine, with trademark side valves in front of the cylinder, and may have been a racing machine. A bar has been fixed across the top of the barrel to prevent it parting company with the crankcase, a problem when tuning an engine, and the outrigging of the seat to give a lower riding position (normally the seat would have been on top of the frame to make it easier to pedal start or go up hills). The really interesting feature is - and you will need to look carefully – that the rear wheel features a mechanically operated disc brake. There is also a more conventional shoe brake on the belt rim.
Of course the NMM has plenty of bikes from after WW2 and this one is here because it shares my mother’s maiden name – DMW is Dawson’s Motors of Wolverhampton. She was very pleased to hear about DMW but a search of the family tree has revealed no link to its founder, William Leslie ‘Smokey’ Dawson who ran a motorcycle business and started making rear suspension units in 1942. He was something of a designer and had patents registered for, amongst other things, the swinging arm suspension concept. Leslie left the company in 1948 – he was another man ahead of his time in what was becoming the moribund UK motorcycle industry – and production of motorcycles under the DMW banner began without him in 1950.
This is the DOHC 125cc Hornet racing model from 1953 featuring an AMC engine – that is Atelier Mecanique du Centre and not Associated Motor Cycles. The Museum also has a rare DMW Typhoon, believed one of two made, from 1965 on display, its 493cc capacity provided by two Royal Enfield GP5 heads and barrels on an Alpha bottom end.
Edward Turner’s final design was for the Triumph Bandit DOHC 350cc twin, to be badged the Fury by BSA; the design was so good (sic) that it had to be extensively re-worked by Doug Hele. Much excitement in the USA arose from 34bhp, optional electric start and a frame similar to Rob North’s iconic design as well as a claimed 103mph from one of the dozen prototypes. So £2m was spent on tooling, advertising started and production ready to roll when the retail price was calculated; $1500 to $1600 when the Honda 350cc twins were selling for $800. Oops – project cancelled but at least NMM has one of them for us to see what might have been.
Another of the prototypes that will appear in Hall 1, this time from Norton and the man who came up with the Commando’s Isolastic suspension, Bernard Hooper. Designed to be a test bed for a new type of two-stroke engine, this 1975 Wulf featured double diameter or stepped pistons. It was light in weight, cheaper to make than four-strokes and had low emissions. Surprise, surprise – no financial backing available due to the state of the motorcycle industry at the time.
Not particularly rare, not innovative nor highly valuable but I like this 1961 249cc B4 Sports model from Ashford’s Norman marque which disappeared from Kent that year and altogether in 1962. So this is one of the last of a production line of lightweight machines that started back in 1939 with an autocycle and a 122cc motorcycle. The B4 has the Villiers 2T two-stroke engine with a high compression ratio, the tank was styled by an Italian and it’s painted red – what more could you want?
The National Motorcycle Museum is open all year round apart from Christmas. See www.nationalmotorcyclemuseum.co.uk
Membership of the NMM Friends offers many benefits including free admission to the Museum and access to exclusive events. See www.nationalmotorcyclemuseum.co.uk/ support-us/friends-of-the-museum/member-benefits-and-joining/
To view more of Richard’s photos from this visit (and shows and other events) see www.flickr.com/photos/cerrig_photography/
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