Want to get bikers up in arms? Revive a hallowed brand. Established manufacturers get a pass when producing ugly or ill-considered motorcycles, and nobody questions their right to exist, but a new manufacturer using an old name fights steep resistance, no matter how committed it is to the old name. Brough Superior owner Mark Upham is doing his best to honor the spirit of the late George Brough, which is probably impossible in the 21st Century, because Brough invented a genre—the luxury motorcycle—that was bombed out of existence in World War II.
First-generation Brough Superiors were built between 1919 and 1940, and immediately earned a reputation for quality, innovation, handling, speed, and beauty. They were the most expensive and fastest motorcycles in the world, and their lustrous finish earned them the nickname “The Rolls-Royce of Motorcycles.” Rolls didn’t object. Above all, George Brough was a PR genius, crafting an image via selected competitions (ones he was likely to win), flamboyant personal style, a gift for turning a phrase, and the regular patronage of celebrities like T.E. Lawrence, otherwise known as Lawrence of Arabia. It isn’t likely for a motorcycle to be all those things today, as “fastest” seems irrelevant, most expensive is a matter of adding zeros, and today’s heroes are tomorrow’s targets for scandal. Just imagine a T.E. Lawrence cell phone hack, with his leather bed sheets and masochistic inclinations…
Since we live in a different world today, what remains to link old Brough and new is aesthetics, innovation, and quality; the 2016 Brough Superior SS100 makes a strong pitch for all these. One of George’s innovations, and a hallmark of the brand, was the industry’s first saddle tank, which was nickeled up and shapely, with a rounded nose and pleasing proportions. The new Brough Superior lifts its tank design directly from a 1920s Pendine racing model, which used triple straps to bind tank to frame; it’s the visual DNA of a Brough Superior, and a feature Mark Upham insisted on. Underneath that old-school tank (built in polished aluminum) we leave the past behind and enter the 21st Century, with a unique motor and innovative chassis.
The heart of the beast is a V-twin of course, but set at 88 degrees, which provides perfect balance a lá Ducati and Moto Guzzi, but looks wide to a traditionalist. It’s a bespoke motor from the firm Boxer Design of Toulouse, France, a water-cooled 8-valve DOHC unit of 997cc that produces 120 horsepower. That wide vee concurs with one of George’s last experimental Broughs, using an AMC-built (Matchless/AJS) 90-degree V-twin OHV engine, which was never serially produced. It thus bears a thread of a connection with the past, which turns out to have both lovely castings and contemporary performance, and most importantly isn’t an H-D clone. The Boxer Design engine is built and developed by Akira Engineering of Bayonne, which certainly has the chops—its Kawasaki ZX-10R engines currently dominate WSB racing.
The chassis is both innovative and expensive, with a mix of titanium, aluminum, and magnesium for the frame and swingarm, carbon-fiber wheels, aluminum bodywork, and a double-wishbone front fork. Front and rear suspension use Öhlins units, and that fork is a gift from Claude Fior, who never patented his design from the 1980s. It’s still avant-garde, but very well developed, with lots of track time; BMW’s Duolever fork is also Fior-based. While blade-type forks normally have zero brake dive, the Brough’s fork has a small amount engineered in to feel “normal” when the anchors are out. The small-diameter Behringer brakes, sourced from the aircraft industry, are incredibly powerful, with quad rotors on the front wheel; we featured them in Cycle World when Uwe Ehinger used a pair on his Kraftrad Speedster. Actual braking ability is the most radical departure from old Broughs, whose stopping power never equaled their 100 mph potential, in the days when traffic was sparse.
The specifications of the new Brough Superior have been discussed before, since the debut of the prototypes four years ago, but few road reports have made it to American shores, principally because Brough won’t be marketed here for a year or so (testing + regulations = $$$), and none are currently in the US. We’re a low priority, but that didn’t stop Boxer Design principal Thierry Henriette, the man who’s building the new Broughs, from allowing a test ride last June at the Wheels&Waves festival in Biarritz. The Pyrenees are legendary for motorcycling, with lightly traveled mountain roads and 1000-year-old stone villages for scenery. My test was over the slightly more traveled coastal roads of the Corniche, which attracts a few tourists eager to photograph the Cote Basque, and get off the ubiquitous toll highways. Luckily, access to this fantastic stretch of road between France and Spain is very poorly marked, so risky passing maneuvers were minimal.
The SS100 is probably the lightest-looking literbike on the market, with lots of empty space around the engine and beneath the saddle. The dry weight is just under 400 lb., excellent for a 120-hp machine, and throwing the bike around corners is easy. It’s not razor sharp like a racer; it feels like a fast street machine, and real-world handling is totally intuitive. I stepped off a 1974 Norton Commando and onto the SS100, and the feeling was familiar at all speeds, except flat-out. At speeds over 100 mph, the Brough was still charging hard, and pushing the bike through the Corniche’s bends felt completely stable, predictable, and modern. The power is yeehaw-level good, but not insane—let’s just say passing traffic wasn’t even a thought, and clear roads offered breathtakingly fun motorcycling, with super secure handling, a great noise, and the stunning looks of the bike. Even a good squeeze on those crazy Behringer brakes in mid-corner felt perfectly safe; there’s no ABS yet, so it’s best to keep your right hand supple. An hour’s ride back and forth on the coast road left me with a big smile, and a desire to own an SS100—the “cheap” one that is. At £45,000 (about $60,000), the new SS100 is 10 percent the price of a 1920s model, and therefore a bargain! Well, any other bike is cheap by that metric.
The Boxer engine is a bit reminiscent in feel of a mid-1920s JAP 990cc OHV racing motor, which was the heart of the original SS100. It wasn’t meant for the street, and had a nervous disposition, which the new motor shares. There’s a slight harshness to the primary and camshaft drive of the Boxer motor; you can feel the sharp edges of gears whirring around, with not much cushioning effect present. It isn’t bad, and it runs dead smooth, but that slight harshness is the sort of thing a few years’ development will probably eliminate. For a small producer’s wholly new engine, it’s something of a miracle it works so damn well. The gearchange is firm and accurate, the clutch is progressive and strong, and the Öhlins suspension does its job unobtrusively. And the looks; love ’em or hate ’em, they’re distinctive, and telegraph the quality of the machine’s construction. My favorite model is all black, but my well used test bike harvested eyeballs everywhere it went—I haven’t attracted this much attention on two wheels since testing a Confederate Wraith. Everyone wants to know what it is, and non-bikers seem to love the design.
I’ve spent more saddle time on vintage Brough Superiors than new sportbikes, having ridden a 1933 B-S across the States in the 2014 Cannonball. I’ve also been a B-S owner’s club member since the 1980s, having owned four models, back when they were semi-affordable to 99 percenters. Therefore, I’m the most likely candidate to make mouth-frothing accusations of “blasphemy!” for use of the Brough name, but I’ve known Mark Upham for years, and he’s also an arch enthusiast of the marque. That doesn’t mean he’ll make a decent new motorcycle, but when journalist Alan Cathcart introduced Upham to Boxer boss Thierry Henriette, he landed in the right hands. Henriette was excited by the project’s challenges, and has made an intriguing motorcycle that is totally up to date with terrific performance, a retro, classy vibe, and a totally unique look. It actually fills the vacant niche of the Gentleman’s Motorcycle. Would George have approved? I do believe he would.