Not every motorcyclist is a historian, but most of the lifers are. To those children of the 50s and 60s still splitting the wind, a unique perspective is earned. Still recalling the how and why of yesterday in the midst of the modernized process, the contrast isn’t always pleasant. Nobody said growing old is easy. Looking for a consensus on where the phrase originated but not finding one, many simply bestow the ‘First Superbike!’ moniker on whatever they wish, but what does history say? Be it editor, owner or market insider, there’s considerable debate on where this crowning term should be applied first – or maybe just for those who don’t see Honda’s Four as the industry’s first. Let’s be clear: there is undeniable brilliance in these tuned old timers, but nothing that happened before can detract from the CB750’s unprecedented impact.
Previewing the opening chapter of my book detailing Europe’s response to the Japanese inlines, this writing will focus on important models from each era or decade, but it isn’t a complete list. Making a point, the information and images displayed here serve to demonstrate the competitive spirit among motorcycling’s founders and the superbikes made to claim these exclusive bragging rights. Several factors must be considered. For example: not every factory was guaranteed electricity even by the 1930s, while advances in tooling, technique and method progressed from foundry to finish. Credit where it’s due. That’s the motivation.
Making things that never existed before and reaching astonishing speeds, motorcycle application surged just before WW II began. That considerable interruption of manpower, finances and policy meant many 1950s bikes were cloned from designs 20-years old, or older. Pinning 1955 as a turning point (at least for US imports like BMW) the world’s makers resumed their deliberate shift from the transport base to more specialized models. Save for open-class twins and fours from Brough, Vincent, Harley, Indian and others, displacement was generally capped at 500 to 650cc until late in the 1960s. Standing alone as the most severe causality in motorcycle history, the demise of the British motorcycle market at this time is somewhat softened by England’s unforgettable contributions to the sport.
1900 – 1930
Accurately tracing motorcycling’s beginnings back to the late 1800s, public acceptance and interest blossomed a decade into the new century. Cataloging fundamentals such as fuel refinement and pressure oiling, fast progress was made in the Teens and Twenties, due (but not limited) to eastern USA aircraft and railroad engineers, chemists, and parallel techniques developed in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Quite honestly, my toe-dipping research into these earliest production bikes quickly evolved into a study of both crude refinement and casting methods – both centuries old. Transforming dreams into reality with hammers and fire, design advancement flowed down to improve or invent new tooling, cycle parts, electrical components, lights, stamping, rubber, plastic, forging and more. Seemingly insurmountable at times, the challenges those fabricators faced weren’t just met, but accomplished during wars and great financial cost. Casting the ultimate mold, these mechanical patriarchs risked life and limb speed testing prototype designs on dark, unpaved roads, Often said but rarely done, these founders truly changed the world.
Photos: (top) Brothers Tom and William were founded Henderson in 1912, selling to Excelsior owner Ignar Schwinn a few years later. Remembered as their trademark design, reports claim most of the early flathead fours were 965cc with a forged crank running on three main bearings. Not having any confirmed information, this Indian racer (bottom left) might be a variation of the firm’s Powerplus twin, which were among the fastest of the era. ACE inline four (center) was produced by the William Henderson after leaving Schwinn, with advancements, but keeping the original longitudinal placement. Illinois-based Thor (bottom right) once produced engines for Indian. Displacement reached 1224cc, and Thor produced its ‘Aurora’ twin is various guises for other builders. This example belongs to Doobie Brother’s guitarist Patrick Simmons.
First Superbike? Curtiss V8
Built in 1906 for a 137-mph blast across the sand at Daytona Beach, Glenn Curtiss was a aviation pioneer, test pilot, and motorcycle enthusiast. Taking an order to build two V8s for dirigible use, Curtiss constructed an extra for himself and built the rest around it for speed trials. This was accomplished and more – as Curtiss rightfully earned the title of ‘Fastest Man on Earth”. Specifications: Air-cooled, 4397cc, 90-degree F-head V-8. Iron crankcase, cylinders and heads. Twin carburetors feed each side of the engine, battery ignition, jump-spark. Direct (90-degree transfer) to the rear wheel. Making 40 hp, the Curtiss produces twice the power of a Model T Ford. For more, read this report on the Curtiss V8 at Hagerty.
1930 – 1940
As time moved into the 1930s technology for motorcycling – and everything else – advanced in worldwide motion. Usually cheaper, motorcycles were big business in the 1930s as enthusiasm and brand loyalties grew. By this point, nearly every major country hosted at least one bike manufacturer, or more. Moto Guzzi, Benelli and various scooter makers drove the Italian market, while BMW, Indian and Harley Davidson all gained global popularity. Again looking to give due credit, Britain’s role as an engineering melting pot mixed risk and reward. Establishing iconic Velocette, Royal Enfield, Triumph, Norton, BSA and a few I’m missing, the mainstay singles and 500cc parallel twins were offset by the open class roadsters from Brough Superior and Vincent. In different ways (some worse than others) each of motorcycling’s early giants were leaned down for war duty. Those that contributed heavily were either richly rewarded (BSA) or smashed to ruin (BMW) as WWII changed the landscape.
Photos: Defining the era, Brough Superior produced high end roadsters with proprietary engines. Selling speed and prestige beginning in the mid-20s, the S.S. 100 (top, from 1933) features an OHV, 988cc, J.A.P. manufactured pushrod twin with three-speed transmission and friction dampener fork. 350-lb, and guaranteed good for 100-mph. Not as fast but just as fancy, Germany’s DKW produced the K-800 opposed-four (far left). Claiming a top speed of 75-mph, it was among the most elegant and powerful models in 1934. Yet another open-class British roadster, the Matchless 1000cc Model X (center) loaned its engine to Brough for the S.S. 80…the Matchless running with slightly softer tuning. Living again under a new moniker, William Henderson’s inline powered the Indian Four (right). Substantially refined for longer life and smooth running, the 1265cc I.O.E. tourer was good for 100-mph. One of about 1200 made, this 1940 Springfield four was released just before the US entered WWII
Feature – 1939 Brough Superior S.S. 80 (TJ Jackson)
Dispatched on 7 December 1938 and sent by rail to Snells Motor House in Plymouth, Devon, factory records held by the Brough Superior owner’s club show BDR 303 was titled immediately, and quite possibly for municipal use. Using the same basic components as the more popular SS100, its solid black ‘all weather finish’ is rare, and somehow the lack of polish or plating adds to its irresistible, look-at-me presence. Celebrating sixty-years of existence when my friend and advisor TJ Jackson took possession from a Florida auction house, the Matchless powered roadster arrived as a clean, unmolested example having an older restoration and not running. “I paid too much, or so I thought,” says TJ. “Now I wish they’d had two.”
Presenting well, the 990cc side valve v-twin was used on some Matchless/AJS models. Down below, an aluminum crankcase holds iron cylinders with tappet access at the base. Squared with a 85.5mm bore x stroke, extra thrust came from shaved flywheels, knife-n-fork conrods, more aggressive cam timing and increased compression with lightweight pistons under a milled cylinder cap. BDR 303’s factory build card indicates a 1-1/4” Amal carb and a 6-volt Lucas magneto. Club officials report its 23-tooth counter-sprocket indicates the bike was intended for solo use, and per 1939 specification, the four-speed (foot shift) transmission is from Norton. For composed travel, the well braced, double cradle Brough frame is a signature in-house component, fitting a Druid girder with aftermarket dampener, polished links. Enfield hubs, 19” wheels and 8” brakes. Quite possibly the world’s most handsome motorcycle, Jackson’s two-wheeled jewel is a road ready rider. Nolan Woodbury