Monday, January 11, 2010

What Kind of Bike Would T.E. Lawrence Ride?

The Brough Superior is one of the greatest legends in motorcycling. It was called "The Rolls Royce" of motorcycles, admittedly, by its own advertising staff. But apparently they didn't get sued by Rolls Royce, so that gave them a certain cachet. It was also owned and driven by "Lawrence of Arabia", who had several. And it was the bike he crashed when he died.

What kind of bike would T.E. Lawrence a have picked today that would be the equal of the Brough Superior of the thirties?

A few years ago, at the height of the custom bike craze, Jay Leno, was given a bike by the Teutle family. They had their own reality show on TV, which I used to watch sometimes, and in each episode, they built a custom chopper. A chopper is a unique one-off custom bike that has a cruiser style, with feet forward, low seat, long fork and handlebars. Lots of fancy paint and chrome.

They asked Jay what he wanted, and as a bike collector, he asked for something like a Brough Superior. They produced a chopper and unveiled it in front of Jay on TV. Jay's expression was priceless. Whatever he was expecting, I don't think it was a chopper, but he should have known better. A chopper is the exact opposite of a Brough Superior, and understanding that helps to understand a what it takes to be a modern successor.

The Brough Superior was a very expensive bike. That's because it was made with the best of everything, engine, frame, brakes, seat, instruments, suspension. All the best stuff available at the time. That's why it could easily do over 100 miles per hour, a feat that was rare in the 1930's.

The second characteristic was high speed capability, and the Brough would not sacrifice speed for mere comfort. The Brough treated the rider with enough respect that he (in those days, I guess it was always a he) would be comfortable, but he was expected to be in good shape physically. The Brough's main objective was not to coddle the rider in every luxury. Although it was a bike built for an officer and a gentleman, he was expected to drive the thing himself, possibly at very high speed, and enjoy doing it.

Rider comfort was somewhere between not being coddled and not being tortured. For the equivalent of a Brough today, we are probably looking at some kind of expensive, fast, sport touring bike. Pure sport bikes are far too uncomfortable and impractical to be a Brough, while luxury bikes are too heavy and comfortable.

The reason I don't think any of the current sport touring bikes can fill the Brough Superior's shoes right now is that none of them stand out from the pack. All of them are developed by marketing people who say you can't cost too much or do anything really different. I'm not saying that modern sport touring bikes are no good, because any one of today's sport touring machines is a hundred times better and faster than a 1933 Brough Superior. What's missing is the quality that elevates the bike into a unique position where everyone agrees it is simply the best sport touring bike in the world, and everybody else gives up.

So this is why I think the predicted new BMW inline six sport touring bike might be the one, even though it is not yet built. BMW is after all, the original sport touring bike, and BMW is still leading the way in redefining the type. The others are the followers. BMW has promised the first bike with the inline six will be a luxury touring model. Well, that one is probably just going to be another luxo-barge designed to coddle the rider, and surround them with every gadget the mind has conceived. But inevitably BMW will come out with a six cylinder sport touring model. I hope it will be worthy of the comparison to the Brough Superior. Jay Leno would probably have one. And so would Lawrence of Arabia, if he was still around.

Picture of T.E. Lawrence talking to George Brough.

Second Picture: My hi-res photoshop conception of the inline six BMW sport touring bike. Click on the picture to see it in a larger size.


  1. I recall watching a TV program where one of the motorcycle mag writers got to try out a Brough.

    His reaction was reasonably favourable, given the vintage of the machine.

    However, his final observation was, 'Now I know why the great man died ... this machine has no brakes!'

    In the spirit of accuracy, Lawrence actually died when he lost control of his machine while swerving to miss a couple of cyclists in the middle of the road. Even contemporary disk brakes and high performance tyres likely would not have saved him.

    Interestingly enough, sales of his Seven Pillars of Wisdom have recently seen a resurgence, with increasing international interest in the Arab nations.

    It's also interesting to compare Lawrence's book with David Lean's screen adaptation in Lawrence of Arabia (clip from the only section of the film where a motorcycle appears - but: is it a Brough?!)

    As this writer notes of that film, 'There are inaccuracies and plot holes large enough to march the 11th Hussars through..

  2. When you have no brakes, almost every situation is a life or death emergency. When you have good (or any) brakes, about 99% of those emergencies are downgraded to distant observation. I don't like riding without brakes any more.

    That's a good clip form the movie. The engine might have been the same as a Brough Superior, as they didn't make their own engines (I think) but the upswept mufflers don't look right.

  3. You're right ... Brough bought his engines from JAP and Matchless. The SS100 used the JAP 976 cc 'Vee-Twin'.

    Lawrence actually owned a succession of seven Brough bikes!

  4. Please forgive me here, but I would think that whatever bike he did ride, he would want to be able to work on it himself.

    It's just my two cents, but I do believe that. So, the BMW is perfect in every respect, but he might also keep a few 'resto-mod' (some newer components) Broughs which he would ride as well. Those machines, much like the Vincent models - also made with JAP engines, are still rideable machines today. The build quality was second to none for the time.

    I think he would love that inline-six on the BMW as it will be bullet-proof - BMW knows how to make a good 6-pot engine. I do, though, expect he would tear it down just to look at how it works.


  5. I have got to admit that I never thought about whether T.E. would want to maintain the machine himself. Although he wrote about the feelings he got riding the bike, I don't remember him writing about doing any maintenance. But of course there had to be some, it was the '20s and '30s.

    Anyhow, I know I like to work on a bike myself, but if the bike is perfect what can you do?

  6. Sometime bask I was watching a TV show about Lawrence and it displayed some old photo with him near his Brough with what looked like a valve spring in his hand, but that was a long time ago. The voioce-over mentioned something about him working on the machine. If I ever find it, I will post it.

    I agree with you, though. The bike's made by Brough were very close to perfect...and very reliable.