Two Wheel Tuesday: Brough Superior's Insane Pursuit of Speed

I should really label this NSFW – it’s that sexy. Credit: highwaylass on Flickr

Hooniverse, please welcome Harrison Ambs with that warn Hoon greting you’re known for all over the world, especially Poland. Harrison likes bikes. And he curses a lot. And that’s all we really know about him. He is going to be injecting some of his motorcycle passion into Two Wheel Tuesdays. -KK

If you recognize this bike, you probably have goosebumps right now.

The Brough Superior company was created from the toiled efforts of George Brough in 1919, and built masterwork pieces of motorcycle art until 1940. They were expensive, ostentatious, exclusive, and gorgeous. George Bernard Shaw and T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) owned Broughs. They were dubbed the “Rolls-Royce of Motorcycles” and were advertised as such due to the care and craftsmanship put into each model. Rarely were any two alike as each one was built for its owner and assembled twice; once to fit, then again once the pieces had been finished and painted. They were guaranteed from the factory – if the bike did not perform to specification, they were returned to the shop to be reworked until they did. Each one was test ridden before being given to the owner and they were all, every single one of them, certified by George Brough himself.

And they were fucking fast.

When the word ‘superbike’ is thrown around, people picture BMW 1000RRs, Hayabusas, ZX-14s – the monster machines we have today that are capable of absolutely staggering performance. Trace the lineage back and some invariably point to the Vincent Black Shadow as the world’s first superbike – a machine so far ahead of its peers it would remain at the top of the pile from when it was introduced in 1948 until well into the 60’s and even 70’s. But the Black Shadow was not the world’s first superbike. It had a grandfather. And he went around the world making sure everyone knew he was the baddest motherfucker on the planet.

The Brough Superior SS 100 was designed and built by George in 1924. 69 of these magnificent machines were built to spec for each customer and advertised and tested to ensure they were capable of at least 100mph. One of these pieces of artistic insanity would cost between 130-180 British Pounds Sterling which could easily support a family. For two years. They were beyond exclusive. They were what the rich envied of the super rich. A variety of engines were put into this rolling greatness with it culminating in a J.A. Prestwich V-twin churning out 75 bhp on the Alpine Grand Sport model in 1934. The top speed of this monster was 130 mph.

That was faster than most planes.

The SS100 Alpine Grand Sport. There wasn’t much that could out-pace it. Credit: El Caganer on Flickr

World records tumbled as the Brough Superior name was written in over and over again. The Brighton Half-mile. Brooklands’ all-time track record. Wins in over 50 events in the 20’s. As time wore on, the bikes and the company were only getting faster and more powerful. The only thing faster than a Brough Superior was a newer Brough Superior. The future looked bright; but like all things in England, some uppity German who was rejected from art school ruined it all.

When England was under attack by the Nazis in the late 30’s and early 40’s, the Brough Superior factory, like many factories in England at the time, was turned over to the government to produce materials for the war. Even after WWII ended it never went back to making motorcycles. Yet, George Brough was dedicated to his products and continued to ensure parts were still made for the hand-built bikes all the way until 1969.

Brough Superiors were machines devoted to the singular purpose of performance. It was faster and more powerful than anything else at the time, regardless if it had 2 wheels, 4 wheels or in some cases wings. It inspired a generation that went on to fight a war of sky and speed. When they returned to Earth, they craved the thrill and danger that came with defending a nation and gravitated towards the Brough’s progeny: Triumphs, Nortons, and Vincents. They chopped them down and tuned them up; creating the Cafe Racer scene devoted to top speed and liquid handling. This would carry over into Japan when Honda and Yamaha built reliable and easily modified bikes in the late 60’s and introduced them to these experienced speed freaks. Wising up to the needs and desires of their customers, they then began to make bikes that were faster, more nimble; eventually developing the sportbike class which mutated into the super and hyperbikes we see today.

But it all started with a man named George Brough, who wanted to produce something that was faster than anything available at the time.

Since 1969 the Brough Superior name laid dormant. It was now a token of the mega-rich; a 1929 Brough Superior SS100 bike was sold at the Haynes International Motor Museum for a staggering $441,000 in 2010, the most ever paid for a motorcycle at the time. That was the fate of the Brough Superior, it seemed. To be traded and passed around the moneyed class, to sit in a well-kept and dust-free garage; inside a glass case to be preserved for all time. Never to be ridden again. Never to feel the wind swallowed into its carbs and belched from the exhaust as the wheels spun beneath.

Then in 2011 the Salt Flats of Bonneville heard a strange sound. A rising rumble from the pages of history, soaring through the air and thundering along the ground. It was a churning V-twin engine roaring to life, charging down the flats, and chasing the horizon. And on September 1st, 2011, in Category 1250-A-VG, the Brough Superior name was once again etched into the record books with the SS 101, a brand new model carrying the iconic badge. Like Triumph and Norton, a name of heritage and prestige in British motorcycling has once again come back to life. And it did it not with a press release. Not with a showroom model. It did it in a way I like to think George Brough would have approved.

By going out and being the fastest in the world.

Brough Superior’s current designer/mechanic Alastair Gibson with the record-setting SS101. Credit: ljw on Flickr

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