The Crucible of Speed

Ninety years ago, George Brough created the world’s first superbike. You’re looking at it.

Brough Superior static side view

Today, we're pretty blasé about speed. An F-22 Raptor goes 1,500 mph. The Hennessey Venom GT, 270 mph. Too pricey? Not to worry. A used $5,000 Hayabusa will still slam into its rev limiter at 186. It's all so easy now. Credit card and ID, please. But 90 years ago, when the Brough Superior SS100 prototype seen here was created in the Brough workshops in Nottingham, England, its 100-mph envelope was an entirely different matter because way back then a decent farm horse might canter up to 30 mph, an Austin Seven family car in good tune could hit 50 mph, and a De Havilland Gipsy Moth biplane cruised at a whirlwind 85. Reaching "The Ton" was a very big deal.

And so this SS100 prototype, nicknamed the “Shop Bike” by George Brough himself, is all about context. When most of the King’s multitudes were sputtering about in carriages, a device like the Brough SS100 was the period equivalent of a time machine for the road. Predating Vincent V-twins by a decade and the hallowed Black Shadow by more than 20 years, it wasn’t merely superior—it was off-the-charts audacious. So was the price. When the production SS100 debuted in 1925, the retail price was 170 pounds (around $850)—about three times the cost of a Model T. The weekly workmen’s wages for the day were purportedly 3 pounds, ensuring that Broughs landed only in wealthy hands.

George Brough really did build “the Rolls-Royce of motorcycles” in his day. Defining engineering features of the SS100 included the latest 998cc J.A. Prestwich (JAP) overhead-valve V-twin engine, a new frame derived from the previous SS80 model, and running gear sourced from top English suppliers. The JAP motor produced a claimed 45 hp. With a stated weight of 340 pounds, the SS100 in 1925 offered about the same power-to-weight ratio of a race-prepared BSA Gold Star of the 1950s.

At the time, the contrast between a typical WWI-era side-valve engine and the SS100’s new overhead-valve mill was about like comparing a Sportster to a Panigale. It was a major advancement that preceded the adoption of overhead valves in most bikes and cars by decades. The 50-degree twin also had a 90-degree valve angle inside hemispherical heads, twin camshafts, and roller rocker arms, extremely racy features for the day.

Logically, the SS100 was named for its promised top speed, a minimum of 100 mph. This wasn't just a hollow claim, as every SS100 model was reportedly tested to achieve that velocity before being released to its new owner. And consider what 100 mph would have been like in 1924. The English roads were narrow, more designed for carriages and lorries rather than such rapid transit. As well, the SS100 chassis featured rigid rear suspension and not much front suspension, this courtesy of a Harley-Davidson fork, modified on the prototype to accept a small front brake (Harleys had no front brake at the time). And just imagine hitting The Ton on primitive roads with only 5-inch-diameter drum brakes to forestall your trip to eternity if something went wrong.

Brough Superior engine close-up

A signature design element of the SS100 is the two-compartment petrol tank, which carried 2.5 gallons of fuel and another quart of oil, necessary since the engine uses a total-loss oiling system, in which oil is simply burned or leaked away, rather than recirculated. Long, low, and sleek, the bull-nose tank was crafted from a half-dozen or more sheet-metal pieces that were individually shaped, flanged, fitted, and then soldered together. Resplendent in elegant nickel plating, the tank has remained indelibly “Brough” for nearly a century.

Still, Broughs were truthfully an amalgam. “Unlike Rudge, which made everything, Brough generally made as little as possible,” explains longtime Shop Bike owner Michael FitzSimons. “Brough bought the best components, starting with the latest JAP engine, Sturmey-Archer heavyweight three-speed gearboxes, in this case Harley forks (later altered and trademarked by Brough as Castle), Royal Enfield hubs, and Brooks saddles. Why do the R&D when someone else did it for you? He had the eye and knew what to buy and put together to make a reliable go-fast machine.” Excepting the H-D fork on this prototype, every component was created in England.

The Shop Bike prototype decodes the SS100 production bikes to their very genesis, and more than some 20 years FitzSimons dug and dug, researching the history of the bike. Along the way, he purchased letters about the bike, between Brough and his chief engineer Harold Karslake that documented its development and usage as a test mule, a record setter, George Brough’s personal transportation, a styling mockup, and its eventual sale to a Brough customer and then a doctor, who kept it until FitzSimons bought it in the mid-1980s.

“Brough used the Shop Bike as a developmental and testbike,” FitzSimons says. “He had a sidecar on it for a time. It was also used to test different pipes, carbs, seats, controls, magnetos, mag/dynos—almost anything you could think of. Brough didn’t build the prototype himself; that job belonged to an employee named Ike Webb. Brough was more of a showman and an entrepreneur, so he also never raced the bike, at least officially.

But he was absolutely a rider."

FitzSimons owned the bike for nearly 30 years before selling it and estimates it has run 40,000 to 50,000 miles since first being assembled in 1924. The current owner preferred it not be ridden for this story, but FitzSimons fills in the blanks somewhat for us. “Its last ride was significant,” he says. “I never shied away from using my Broughs vigorously, as George Brough intended. However, in truth, it’s hard riding that thing. The shifter is under the seat. It’s got a tiny front brake, a lever throttle, and skinny tires. And it has a non-constant air carburetor, an experimental piece that you have to mess around with to get working. It’s a handful.”

The thrill of going 100 mph in 1924 is the same as today. But 90 years ago, the difficulty in getting there was vastly greater—and so was the achievement. Most any old ratbike can do 100 today. But then, it took a ton of money, balls of steel, and a long stretch of scarce smooth, open road to do it. But what a reward. As Brough’s advertising said in the day, “It is very satisfying to know that you are astride a machine, which, if you wish, can leave behind anything on wheels.”

The cost and risk of experiencing such superbike performance 90 years ago were most precious. But aboard the SS100, the rewards were priceless.