GRR

Is this Brough Superior the first ever superbike?

30th June 2017
Andrew Willis

It’s not the biggest or the quickest bike which caught our eye during the Festival of Speed presented by Mastercard weekend. Nor is it a bike with a long and illustrious list of race wins to its name. It’s a bike that could, in all honesty, be easily missed when walking through the paddocks amongst the hustle and bustle. 

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The bike in question? The 1925 British-built Brough Superior SS100 Pendine Racer, known as the ‘Rolls-Royce’ of the bike world, and hailed as the first superbike, it’s a piece of engineering which deserves celebrating.

It was a created by George Brough, the second son of a British motorcycle engineer William Edward Brough who had been pioneering motorcycle manufacturing from his Nottingham-based factory since the 1890s.

George, the young and ambitious son, wanted to start developing high-performance bikes, pushing the limits of technology to propel his machines and their riders to greater and greater speeds. His father, completely unconvinced, did not share the same vision for the future of motorcycling; forcing George to open his own factory in Nottingham.

It was seminal moment in the development of motorcycles, and one that led to the design, development and eventual production of the Brough Superior – a name which, somewhat understandably, irked Brough senior.

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The unassuming presentation of this game-changing machine within the paddocks makes more sense when we notice the bike has been supplied by Sammy Miller MBE and the Sammy Miller Museum Trust. He’s a living legend of motorcycling and one of the most humble, charming men you’ll ever have the pleasure of talking to.

Like the Brough Superior he owns, he needn’t be so modest.

Mr Miller is a holder of 11 British Trials Championships, two European titles, 1,300 career wins, along with a run of podiums in the 125cc and 250cc categories between 1955 and 1958, finishing third overall in 1957 250cc World Championship, all finished off as a three-time winner of the North West 200. Like we said, a legend.

“It’s a wonderful bike”, begins Sammy, as he talks us over the machine he’s just taken up the Hill. Powered by a 1000cc OHV V-Twin Jap engine and 3-speed gearbox, the Pendine requires constant rider management via a manual oiling system –  found on the beautiful nickel tank – which needs pumping, by hand, while motoring down the road.

Vintage bikes were and are complicated things. It’s the muddle of multi-tasking across levers, pumps and pedals which makes the speeds of this bike all the more remarkable. George Brough confidently stated that every Superior sold would make 100mph. Not worth a sniff by today’s standards, but remember, this was 1924. Later the bike would go on to break speed records of 130mph in 1927 along with a gaggle of other speed and lap records. 

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We asked Sammy whether he’s ever tested the bike’s spritely capabilities himself. A silly question perhaps for a bike-handler of his pedigree. “Oh I’ve had it tanked-up pretty good you know?” replies the 84-year-old through a charmed smile with more than a hint of modesty.

“We had it at a grand prix circuit last year, so I could really get it stacked-up and topped”.

One of the Superior’s most famous admirers, and perhaps one of the main reasons the bike is such an icon, was a certain British Army Officer by the name of TE Lawrence, who reportedly owned up to eight Superiors during his life.

He viewed the bike and the freedom it offered him as an escape from the pressures of his career and the man was gushing in his appreciation of the bike’s capabilities: “Yesterday I completed 100,000 miles on Brough Superiors… thank you for the road pleasure I got out of them… your present machines are as fast and reliable as express trains, and the greatest fun in the world.”

A Brough Superior would later bite back and claim Lawrence’s life, as he veered around a pair of cyclists on a rain-soaked road near his home in Wareham. It was yet another seminal moment for the Brough.

Lawrences’s coroner would later lead the research of crash helmets for military and public dispatch riders, once he noticed an increasing number of unnecessary motorcycling fatalities. A development which would completely alter the civilian and professional motorcycling ecosystem. 

Sammy is clear on the vulnerabilities associated with pushing the SS100 to its limits when questioned how it handles at speed: “It’s quite stable, but as you can see, the tires a very, very narrow. You’ve got to have respect, because if you flung it down the road or wrecked an engine, it would be a serious bill!”

A 1928 Brough Superior recently sold for a £589,000. A record for a British-built bike, and yet further proof that this wonderful example of engineering has continued to change the game throughout its life.

Photography by James Lynch

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