One thousand eight hundred glorious miles on a Brough Superior.
The Brough Club very kindly lent me a Brough Superior SS80 so that I could experince riding one - I wrote an article for the club on my experiences and here it is.
At the end of June 2013 I collected the Brough Superior Clubs Tate SS80 from its custodian Dave Clark and for the next two months it came to live with me.
I could have spent many happy hours looking at all of the superb engineering that is progressing in Dave's sheds and house, but Dave is a busy man and I have a Brough Superior to ride! Whatever tinkering I may get up to in my garage is clearly at the primitive end of the scale compared to Dave who is clearly a highly skilled and very proper engineer. After being shown some of the fine engineering and machines that Dave has, it is time for me to take the Tate away.
After pre-flight checks and an explanation of Brough Superior riding and care I finally get to sit on the Brough and then full of excitement and not a little trepidation I have my first ride as I leave Dave's and head off to the joys of the M25 motorway and home.
I expected its long wheelbase to make it slow to turn and cumbersome, but it steers very nicely. I had wondered how it would fair with no rear suspension and girder forks, but again this is a pleasant surprise and it rides nicely over the less than smooth tarmac now favoured in this country. After a few minutes we join the M25 for a few junctions to bypass some of the urban sprawl and settle down to a steady indicated 50/55mph on a surprisingly traffic free motorway. The engine feels lovely as it sort of hums and thumps away below and is surprisingly quiet. We soon leave the M25 and take to some nicer roads for our inaugural flight. A few minutes after the bike splutters and cuts and a switch to reserve petrol brings the motor back to life a moment later. The small reserve tap falls perfectly to hand, even for a novice wearing bike gloves and operates with a lovely silky action. On other older machines I have ridden, operating the reserve tap can be a contorted process as it is daftly barely accessible and usually has the fluidity of a rusty padlock. On a Brough Superior it is well positioned and works perfectly. We stop at the next petrol station and add a few gallons and a quick look over the bike shows all is well. We continue for home via an extra long route as I have waited decades to ride a Brough Superior and I am in no hurry to get off it now. The more I ride it the more I appreciate its charms. A few hours later we trundle up the driveway and park up outside. A few minutes more and I have moved a garden chair next to it and with a mug of tea for company just sit and look at it and take in how everything fits together. Even after many weeks of having it to stay I kept finding myself popping into the garage to look at it and often sitting with a mug of tea and just appreciating it. I couldn't quite believe I had a Brough Superior sitting in my garage and that I could ride it whenever I wanted and ride it I did, taking it out for a spin almost every day.
For most people reading this, the sight of a Brough Superior will be a regular occurrence, but for me and most other people it is still a rare sight. Indeed before I joined the club I had only ever seen one on the road and all the rest were trapped in museums.
Perhaps I should begin at the beginning and explain how I came to be interested in Broughs.
On September 3rd 1939 my father was just 18 years old when he listened to the 11.15am radio broadcast which announced we were at war with Germany. He had a cup of tea and then rode his Excelsior JAP into town and volunteered for the RAF. After the Battle of Britain he spent the rest of the war in Egypt. When he returned to the UK he needed transport and soon he had an SS100 fitted with a fuel in the loop sidecar -that's what he called it. An SS100 proved to be the perfect antidote to five years away at war and what better way to blow away the cobwebs than with a big fast motorcycle. It has been over 60 years since my father sold his SS100 GAU 856 and when I arrived in 1965 all that remained was an album of pictures and my fathers enthusiasm for how wonderful it was. When I turned 17 my father was very much on my side with my choice of my first proper motorcycle, it was a second hand V twin Ducati and I spent all of my many years of paper round money and other savings to get it. I have had a Ducati ever since, but sadly a Brough has so far proven out of my price range.
My grandfather Thomas had been riding motorcycles since they first appeared and greatly approved of the SS100 and enjoyed trips out in the sidecar. It was the only outfit my dad ever owned and I suspect one reason for buying it was so he could take his elderly father out for a blast. My dad eventually succumbed to the lure of a new Triumph Speedtwin, then a Thunderbird and finally a T110 and the Brough passed to his pal Morris and then onto new keepers. It was featured in last Decembers supplement on its 1953 European Tour.
My father continued riding bikes until he was 87 years old and then he decided he was getting too old for them and bought a sports car instead, he still enjoyed speed as he put a strip of tape on the cars speedo to remind himself not to go over 100mph. He passed away in 2009 and on the second anniversary of his death in 2011 I was looking through one of his photo albums from the 1950's and I decided to put some of his biking pictures on the internet to share with some motorcycling friends. I thought a few people might be interested in the pictures but within a week the webpage had gone "viral" and over one million people had visited the page, much to my surprise. I had sent a couple of pictures of GAU to the Brough club for their archive and was very surprised to hear that not only did GAU still exist but that it was still in the UK and in fine fettle. Shortly after this GAU's keeper very kindly rode it over to my home and I got to see and hear my first running Brough and not just any Brough, but the SS100 my father had last ridden more than 60 years ago.
After a very pleasant few hours talking bikes and admiring the SS100 from every angle, its keeper very generously gave me a lift in the sidecar up to our local pub - my first ride with a Brough Superior and what a gorgeous sound. I have always found sidecars to be uncomfortable and something you are keen to get out of as soon as possible, but the Broughs was as comfortable as sitting in an old Jaguar, with the added bonus of an SS100 engine thumping away just a few inches away - very fine.
Shuffling past a Brough Superior in a museum doesn't really give you the opportunity to appreciate it, but sitting in a sidecar whilst an SS100 is given a good gallop certainly does.
Before I joined the club my only source of knowledge about them was the headline grabbing auction results and seeing very shiny but obviously unused ones in museums and magazines. I had assumed that almost nobody still rode them. I was wrong as GAU's keeper has been regularly using it in the spirited fashion it was designed for, for many decades. Heartened by the knowledge that owners still used them I took little persuading to join the club and soon discovered the Tate loan scheme and that surprisingly the bike was not booked up.
I live in rural West Sussex so most of my trips on the Tate Brough were gentle early evening rides around the local lanes over roads that had probably changed little since the bike first took to the road. Before each ride I would give it a check over looking for anything loose or untoward and generally all it needed was a little air in the tyres and a perhaps a slight top up of its engine oil. Then it was just a matter of turning on the petrol and then tickling the carburettor until a little petrol trickled out and then with a stout swinging prod it almost always started first kick. The final ritual I developed was to say a thank you to Mr Peter Henry Tate as I put the bike into gear and rode his bike down the drive and off out for a canter.
A few days after collecting it I rode it to our local Midhurst Motorcycle club gathering and as they were having an evening run, I decided to join in. As many were on modern bikes, I set of a little ahead of them so I did not slow anyone up and headed cross country to a well known biking cafe outside Alton station. Outside the cafe was a good mix of bikes ranging from 60's Triumphs to the latest 190mph superbikes and I parked up in a safe spot on the pavement by the station where I could keep an eye on the bike. Within a couple of minutes I was to start a conversation that I would repeat many times in the next two months as people wandered over to have a look at the bike. For almost everyone I spoke to, this was the first Brough Superior they had seen on the road and accordingly wanted a good look and were full of questions. Most people seemed to make a reference to Lawrence and Broughs, its value, how nice it was to see one being used and everyone was pleasantly surprised that it was loaned out by the club. One chap on a Goldstar made me laugh when I told him it was loaned to me by the club and he said "our club doesn't even have a bl**dy Bantam loan bike!".
Just as I was about to set off a familiar face appeared in the shape of Mike Smith who was heading off to work and had spied the Brough parked up and came over to say hello.
After the Alton cafe I headed over to another local biking cafe at West Meon, which is mostly more modern bikes. Even amongst a newer generation of riders, everyone seemed to know what it was and many people took pictures and the usual questions continued.
Another early evening ride around the lanes that snake around the South Downs had been very enjoyable until heading for home, where I had got stuck in the traffic that pours out of Goodwood and clogs up the neighbourhood. The clogging could be worse though as most of the traffic consists of fine old cars and bikes and modern exotics so plenty to take in as we both get hot in the traffic. As we arrive back in Midhurst where I live, I pull over to put in a couple of gallons of petrol ready for the next ride. So far I have started it first kick since I collected it and I thought I had the hang of it but maybe because its hot it slightly kicks back when I try and start it and when I try again, the kick starter moves down without engaging. The kick starter still swings down sweetly and springs back up again but does not engage. I investigate but can see nothing external amiss. Assuming that something has "stuck" or moved out of alignment I try various gentle wiggling and tapping the case gently, but all to no avail. I put my jacket and helmet back on and see if it will bump start which is does surprisingly easily and we are soon out of the traffic and home. A further inspection at home reveals no clues and so I call the Club to see what I should do as the loan conditions understandably restrict you from taking anything apart. A couple of days later I take it over to Mike Smiths as he has kindly offered to have a look and help remedy the problem. In summary the kick starter has an engagement pawl that is pushed into engagement by a spring loaded pin. This pin has become stuck down in its blind hole and hence does not engage and none of it is protruding so it cannot be gripped and pulled out. Mike has a look through his extensive stock of parts but we can't find the exact part we need and so we return to the original part with the pin still stuck in it. We decide to apply a little gentle heat to see if it will release the pin. As the oil around the pin starts to sizzle we realise that if the blind hole has oil in it then heating will expand the oil and push the pin out. As this thought occurs the pin does indeed come out with a "pop" and fires itself down Mike's driveway. We had created a tiny Brough Superior cannon and just inadvertently test fired it! After a fruitless five minute search amongst the gravel, Mike gets a new pin and spring from his stocks and it all goes back together very sweetly. Many thanks to Mike for giving up his time to fix it.
Most of my riding consisted of late afternoon canters around the local lanes, but it did also take it to a few VMCC gatherings where its appearance seemed to be appreciated. One of these was in East Sussex and I had a very enjoyable ride heading home westward towards the setting sun with the South Downs on my left and the roads almost devoid of other traffic. For one brief moment I sort of achieved another great ambition that I am sure most motorcyclists have dreamed of since Brough Superiors enabled it with the first SS100's. I doubt if I will ever do a genuine 100mph on a Brough Superior, but on my ride home at a steady 50/55 the speedo had a few seconds of misbehaviour and the needle jumped around to 100 and stayed twitching at the magic number for a couple of seconds before recovering itself and dropping back to 55. I wonder how long it has been since a Brough Superior topped a 100mph in the UK?
At the end of July we attended Piers Ottey's West Sussex Ride Out, which was especially enjoyable as it was the first time I had ridden in the company of other Brough Superiors. I had not seen a Black Alpine style bike before and Piers bike is beautiful and immediately I became a fan of this style - very striking. Terry's SS100 is an iconic masterpiece that I could have happily spent hours looking at and what a fine noise it makes. Terry has already written about this event so I will just say that it was a well done run over some lovely lanes. If you ever go on a run that has Brian Walker on his 1924 SS80, then make sure you get to follow it as the noise from its exhausts is extraordinarily. From behind it sounds like some sort of huge aero engine from the Great War, especially when accelerating yet when standing alongside it, it is quite quiet.
Another outing was the Graham Walker Run at Beaulieu , which is always a good day out as it is a great venue and always has a good turnout of interesting bikes. We take a mix of A and B roads down into the New Forest and park up awaiting the start. After an hour of looking at a fine mix of veteran and vintage machines, and a chat with a fellow Brough rider, it's time to start the run. I have been chatting with a fellow entrant who is on another example of 1930's exotica - a Series A HRD Vincent Rapide and he decides to follow me around the course. I wonder how long it has been since two such iconic 30's superbikes were ridden in company. The New Forest has quite low speed limits so we just gently chuff around the route and take in the sights and sounds. I suspect that if a Brough Superior and a Vincent Rapide rider had encountered each other on the same road in the 1930's then speeds would have been a bit higher!
The following week the Vincent's owner very generously lets me have a ride on it and so I can compare the Brough with what was probably its main competition. The Vincent is obviously more powerful than the side valve SS80, but other than that I think much falls in favour of the Brough. Even though the Vincent is a super rare TT spec machine with TT spec brakes, both the front and rear brakes on the SS80 give more feel and power than the Vincent's. The riding positions are different with the HRD putting the rider further forward and hence a slightly more sporting and cramped stance. The Brough would be more comfortable over a long distance. Both bikes handle very nicely and the Vincent rides very much like a modern bike. The engine of the HRD is quite busy and certainly you can see why it was called "the plumbers nightmare" and the Brough looks simple and purposeful. The Vincent was noticeably quicker than the SS80, but then I suspect an SS100 would produce as much power and be just as rapid. Hopefully one day I may get to sample an SS100 and find out.
One of the obligations of borrowing the Tate Brough is that you should bring it to any club events that occur whilst you have it. Luckily for me my loan period coincides with the Annual Rally and so I have the pleasure of more Brough Superior miles heading up to Oxfordshire. I plan a route to suit the Brough and set off early on the Saturday morning. We head west along the A272 through Sussex and Hampshire and after Winchester take a short section of the A34 before peeling off onto small roads more suited to the Broughs pace. If I had carried on along the A34 a few more miles there is an almost hidden stone memorial to Geoffrey de Havilland's first flight in 1910 at this spot. Imagine designing and building your own aeroplane and then deciding to teach yourself to fly it by trying to fly it! Not surprisingly his first flight ended with a prang, but he was not put off and continued on to be one of our great aeronautical engineers.
I like roads that run through valleys and follow rivers as the tarmac tends to meander pleasantly through fine turns and scenery. The Bourne river (more of a stream now that water companies have pinched most of its water) has the B3048 for company and takes us through quintessential English countryside as we head north ish. These small roads are enjoyable places to ride the Brough, they are about 1 to 1½ cars wide, mostly empty and pass through countryside untroubled by modern developments. The only downside is an occasional scattering of gravel where small streams wash out onto the roads in heavy rains. We leave the valley at Hurstbourne Tarrant and skirt north up to higher ground and pass through Faccombe and stop on the top of Inkpen Hill to take in the splendid views and quickly check the bike over. All is well so we descend down into the valley and through Kintbury and cross the River Kennet and the Kennet and Avon Canal that runs nearby. As the little roads crosses over the water a few times in quick succession it creates a series of little humpback bridges. When I was a teenager I was overcome with an irresistible urge to jump them all one after another on my Ducati. Today I am a grown up and we gently roll over each in turn. We cross the A4 and a few more lanes later we are on the A338 heading north. This is another fine piece of tarmac that takes us through Wantage and on up towards the west of Oxford where we stop for petrol and then continue on to Middle Aston. When I arrive a couple of Broughs are stopped at the entrance so I am definitely at the right place and I stop to have a chat before riding up to the main house. It is a fine spot for the Rally and to have a stretch after 110 miles on a Brough Superior. It is not long before a small herd of Broughs appear and I join them and follow them off down the local lanes as we head for the lunch time pub. I friend has suggested to me that the correct term for Broughs plural is not a herd, but an affluence of Broughs. I have never seen so many Broughs before and I am trying to appreciate them in flight and take in the scenery without becoming part of it. At the pub I have a dilemma as outside are more Broughs of all types than I have ever seen and inside is beer and food. The bikes win and I spend my time looking at them all in turn and talking with a few owners that have not been lured inside. Eventually a sausage sandwich tempts me in and soon after we all set off again to the next destination. I expect that most members of the club are quite familiar with seeing so many Broughs on the road, but for me it is quite surreal and causes a wide grin inside my helmet. After tea and cake at the next stop we head back to Middle Aston. Broughs are plentifull at the annual gathering, a selection below.
I have booked in for dinner but I am greatly enjoying riding the fine machine and as I will only have it for a couple more weeks decide to skip dinner in favour of more riding.
I find Terry and apologise for changing my plans and hope that someone will make use of my supper. I don waterproofs and head back south via the same route. The A338 is almost empty as the rain begins and it fails to dampen my spirits even as the water starts to dampen all sorts of parts of me where icy cold water is generally not welcome.
We leave the A roads and make progress down the lanes and again stop on the top of Inkpen to check the bike and take in the view.
The small roads are wet and unpleasantly scattered with gravel, but the Brough is ideally suited to the terrain. Its long wheelbase makes it very stable in these conditions and yet you can still get it to change direction quickly should the need arise. The brakes also are well suited as the rear brake is very progressive, full of feel and powerful enough when you need it - perfect for these roads and probably exactly like the road conditions that existed when it was made.
When you ride an old bike I think you need to ride it on the type of roads it was designed for to fully appreciate it as its makers intended.
We continue to canter homeward as the daylight starts to give way to darkness and we ride on into the gentle colours of twilight. I always enjoy riding in twilight as the fading light seems to change the feel of the countryside and it always seems more adventurous as you watch the world change from light to dark. The Brough seems to favour the dark as when I turn on the lights nothing happens and I stop shortly after outside an old church to investigate. I can find no flaws in the wiring and nothing loose and so switch to plan B. On my 1914 Triumph motorcycle I always carry a set of modern bright clip on bicycle lights and these are soon attached to the Brough. These modern LED lights produce an impressively bright light and we are soon back in motion and heading home.
I feel very much at home in the saddle as we progress through the counties of Berkshire, Hampshire and into Sussex. After over 300 miles today we arrive home in fine form and park up the bike outside the garage to cool. After I have changed out of my damp riding gear and said hello to Tara my wife (best not to ignore she who must be obeyed) I wheel the bike into the garage to give it a thorough check over. I run a spanner over all the fastening and find nothing lose. The chain is still in tension and pleasantly oily even after its rainwater bath. A thorough check of the wiring reveals no obvious fault and I later learn from Mathew that he had a similar issue and it turned out to be an internal fault in the ammeter, so maybe I had the same issue.
The next morning I am up bright and early with clear skies but mixed weather reports. It takes just a couple of glugs of oil to bring the level back to normal and couple of pumps of air for the tyres. After over 300 miles yesterday it is looking a little travel stained and I am in two minds whether I should clean it for its appearance at Sundays gathering. I decide that it is honest toil that has put a thin streak of dirt and oil over it and perhaps it should stay as it is a working bike and anyway whenever you clean a bike it almost certainly guarantees your next ride will be wet and wash all of the cleaning away.
The Brough is keen to get going and starts first kick and we retrace yesterdays route crossing many fine English counties again. We stop halfway for fuel and a quick check over shows all is well and we continue up to the Rally. I wondered around for hours just admiring the machines and chatting about them and other motorcycling matters. A very fine spot to pass a few hours. I parted a little earlier on Sunday to ensure time allowed a complete journey home in daylight and anyway after the awards everyone seemed to be setting sail for home as well. Unusually it took a couple of kicks to start and I put this down to a natural reluctance to leave so many of its family behind, but once running it was in normal fine fettle and we were both keen to take to the roads of England.
We traced the same route home, though this time in fine warm sunshine and stopped a couple more times to just pause and take in the scenery. When I say the scenery, I really mean mostly admiring the Brough from different angles, parked up in its native habitat on roads that it was designed to scamper along.
A few hours of fine Broughing later we are home. We have ridden over 500 miles this weekend and apart from the lights it has been perfectly reliable and a real pleasure to ride. Riding over 500 miles over a weekend would be a good performance for any bike and especially so for one that is past its 75th birthday.
On another pleasant sunny afternoon I am heading home and westward along the A272 and as I reach the outskirts of the old town of Petworth the traffic starts to crawl and by the time I reach the narrow centre it is close to static. I am moving so slowly that I am overtaken by an old chap on the pavement on a mobility scooter and he stops alongside me to have a look at the Brough. We exchange appreciative nods and then the car ahead moves a few feet forward and I pull over to the side of the road to let him have a closer look. The old boy turns out to have ridden bikes until his 70's and was very pleased to see a Brough Superior on the road and in fact hadn't seen one since the 1950's. I ask if he ever had one (hoping it still exists in his shed ...) but he only got to admire them and never had a chance to even sit on one. I offer to resolve this oversight and he gets off his scooter with surprising agility and has his first ever sit on a Brough. As he sits on it asking questions he tells me that his wife will never believe that he has been sitting on a Brough Superior so I take a snap with my phone. A few days later I pop in to Mike Smiths to pick up a copy of the Golden Jubilee Rally book - (well worth getting) and Mike kindly gives me a few Brough Club stickers. If you are ever passing through Petworth on a Brough Superior and see an old chap on a mobility scoter, now with a Brough sticker attached - do pull over and let him have a look.
My final social outing on the bike is pleasant ride over to The Flowerpots Inn in Cheriton, a well known gathering spot for older bikes. I am meeting GAU's keeper for lunch and he has ridden over on another SS100 that he owns. It is a Matchless engined machine that he has just restored and returned to the road and it looks simply stunning. It is a sunny English summers day, we are outside a fine pub with good beer with two Brough Superiors parked next to us. He has been riding Broughs longer than I have been alive and he is full of interesting and entertaining stories and tales and in such company time is well spent and passes all too quickly.
My time with the Brough comes to an end all too soon and I take it out for one penultimate ride around the local lanes. I head past the Elsted Inn that hosts a fine annual gathering of two, three and four wheeled classic machines each New Years Day and pass through South Harting and climb up over the South Downs. From 1905 onwards the road here was closed for an annual hill climb and its steepness must have been a real challenge to these early motors. This afternoon the roads are empty and we take a regular route south along the lovely B2146 and then slowly meander home. As the roads are quiet I get to enjoy the sweetest part of the Broughs performance several times over. In top gear (where it spends almost all of its life) I let it run down to around 15mph with the ignition retarded and then balancing the throttle and ignition timing let it pull us gently back up to 50mph. It does this beautifully and effortlessly and the way it does it is will be one of my favourite memories of my time with the bike.
The next ride is my final ride as I sadly have to return it to Dave. When I arrive at his home he is loading his beautiful WE Brough into a van to on its way to a birthday party. I give Mr Tates bike a final pat on the tank and I am Broughless again.
My thanks go to the club and all those involved in the Tate loan scheme especially Terry Hobden and Mike Smith, with special thanks to Dave for restoring it and keeping it in such fine condition. My final thanks must be for Mr Tate without whose great generosity I would have never had the experience of eighteen hundred glorious miles on a Brough Superior.
Perhaps I should touch upon the possibly contentious topic of how many miles is too many miles to ride the Tate bike. Once I knew I was going to be lent it I did ask around to see what members thought about using it and putting some miles on it. As I was a relative new boy to the Club I did not want to blot my copy book by breaking any rules whether written or unwritten. Accordingly I spoke with the members I knew about what would be acceptable mileage. The loan scheme gives no restriction (which is very generous), but I wanted to see what members thought. Everyone I spoke with was keen that it should be ridden as much as possible and this seemed to be borne out at our annual Rally when almost everyone seemed keen to know that it was having some miles put on it. The only negative I picked up was a raised eyebrow from one member when he heard how many miles I had covered. If I have annoyed any members for putting too many miles on it then I can only apologise and for everyone else - I took care of it, it was running as well at the end of the loan as it was at the start. I enjoyed every mile and a great many people got to see it and hear it whilst it was out and about - for most it was the first Brough Superior they had ever seen on the road.
I expect it may be some time before I ride another Brough as my pockets are not deep enough to buy a complete one. I have however made a start and now have a set of SS100 flywheels and I only need a couple of thousand more bits and I will be able to ride it!
You can read my ramblings about my 1914 Triumph on my 1914 Triumph pages.