Bikes You Should Know: Brough Superior SS100

Brough_Superior_SS_100 George Brough was a paradox. He was a consummate publicity hound, but “…did not allow his vision to be confused by the demands of experts, the trade, or the press. He built the machine HE wanted to ride…” [The Brough Superior Club’s History]. From the time he broke away from his father’s Brough Motorcycle works in 1919 until his company became a part of the unsalvageable wreckage of World War II, George Brough (rhymes with “gruff”) wanted to be known as the man who built the indisputably greatest motorcycles in the world. He accomplished that by actually building the indisputably greatest motorcycles in the world for twenty-one years.


George Brough grew up in his father’s motorcycle factory and, like many motorcyclists, started imagining what configuration the ultimate motorcycle would have. If you set out to build the best bike possible, what would it be? George was not only a bright enough engineer to answer that question, but egotistical confident enough to believe his answer was the most proper one. He thought Brough Motorcycles should produce a range of motorcycles that were “of the highest possible specification and performance, without concern of cost.” His father, a rather practical businessman, predictably disagreed. Like many impetuous and fanciful youngsters, George had little interest in the sort of utilitarian, workaday commuter bikes the family business produced. He cashed out his 1/3rd share of Brough Motorcycles to set off to build his own brand. On the suggestion of a local pub patron, he named his new company Brough Superior, to the understandable displeasure of his father. His father could not have been too upset, however, because the first few Brough Superiors were built in his father’s factory while the Haydn Road works in Nottingham was under construction. Brough Superiors incorporated a number of innovative features, but they were largely of conventional design. Most of the components were sourced from (or copies of) other manufacturers’ catalog parts. Brough Superior never manufactured their own production engines, instead sourcing non-proprietary engines from other manufacturers. This was a fairly common practice in the early 20th century, though not ideal in George’s mind. (More on this later.) The first batch of engines was a surplus lot of good-but-not-great OHV V-twins manufactured by J.A.P. years earlier, prior to World War I. But what would set George Brough’s bikes apart was not the components, but meticulous assembly and attention to detail. For example, each bike was completely assembled “in the white,” test ridden, disassembled for painting and finishing, reassembled, then tested again. The flagship performance model was the SS80. “SS” stood for Super Sport, the 80 was the guaranteed top speed. That’s guaranteed, not just warranted; prior to shipment, every SS80 was taken out onto Haydn Road and ridden to an observed 80 MPH. If the bike couldn’t reach that speed, the engine was re-tuned (up to and including a full teardown) until it could. Such quality and craftsmanship led a leading British journalist to describe Brough Superior as “the Rolls-Royce of motorcycles.” From then on, George Brough actively promoted the phrase at every turn.


Brough Superiors may have used commonly-available parts, but Brough intended every part to be the very best available. In 1924, J.A. Prestwich introduced their new state-of-the-art KTOR 1000cc V-twin and Brough Superior introduced a new frame design derived from the prior year’s works race bikes. The combination became the basis for a new model, the SS100. The new engine’s 45 horsepower was racing-level power at the time, and the SS100 was widely recognized as being the fastest production motorcycle in the world. Even though George Brough continued to build less exotic models including stout but unexciting police and sidecar models, the aura of the SS80 and SS100 permeated the brand.

This rare 1926 "SS80/100" is actually an SS100 fitted with a lower-spec engine due to a shortage of SS100 engines. It sold at auction in
This rare 1926 “SS80/100” is actually an SS100 fitted with a lower-spec engine due to a shortage of SS100 engines.
The SS100 cost 75–80% of the average annual income, or as much as a small home. Only 383 were built, and the SS100 didn’t change substantially over the production run, even though the engine was sourced from Matchless from 1936 until production was halted due to World War II. The buyers of Brough Superiors reads like a who’s-who of ’20s and ’30s celebrities. Most famously, George Bernard Shaw and T.E. Lawrence were huge fans. Lawrence notoriously lost his life when he swerved to avoid two bicyclists aboard a 1932 SS100, his seventh example owned. His fatal crash was immortalized in the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia. So, if Brough Superior was so great, why did they disappear? The answer is two-fold. First, George Brough wanted to build his own engines. He had long held that the truly ultimate motorcycle should have four cylinders, not two. He first created a V-four design in the 20s, but was only able to build one prototype. After that, he tried using an automotive engine without success. Then, in the late ’30s, Brough Superior displayed prototypes of an all-new, twin-crank, vertically-stacked opposed four called the Golden Dream, but lacked the funds to produce it. Development of these “next step” bikes ate up huge sums of capital. Then, World War II brought rationing and the need for production of military goods. After the war, the Golden Dream was too antiquated to warrant its production, and Brough Superior quietly faded away.


This SS100 sold for £280,800 ($472,000) in October of 2012
This SS100 sold for £280,800 ($472,000) in October of 2012
Brough Superior would be an oxymoron today: an almost absurdly refined and luxurious touring motorcycle that also had a remarkable string of speed records and racing successes. They are rare, absurdly expensive, and surrounded by a rabid, cult-like brotherhood of owners that stretches around the world. Jay Leno owns six. Innumerable models have come along since Brough Superior’s demise that are faster, more powerful, better handling and more capable. But the SS100 is still considered by many to be the finest and most beautiful motorcycle ever produced, 74 years after the last one rolled out of the Haydn Road factory. It was that good. Image Sources:

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