Updated: May 5
At a time back in 2016 when a collection of ‘barn find’ Brough Superiors comprising little more than a lorry load of rusty parts was fetching a record £700,000+ at a Bonhams UK auction, one of the most famous examples of the marque re-surfaced as the centrepiece motorcycle exhibit at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, California.
That bike was none other than George Brough’s own Brough Superior racer, the side-valve JAP-engined machine that he affectionately christened ‘Old Bill’ after a cartoon character from the years of World War One that remained hugely popular even up until the second World War more than twenty years later.
The “Old Bill’ cartoon took a wry look at life in the World War One trenches
Bruce Bairnsfeather’s cartoon creation was a cynical and long suffering old soldier who maintained a doggedly humorous and ironic outlook on life in the trenches and who truly helped keep up the morale of both servicemen and the general public in the toughest of times and situations. George Brough obviously saw a parallel between the ‘Old Bill’ character and the toughness and reliability of the bike that won him no less than 51 sprint events in a row!
Brough’s personal competition career began in the first decade of the 20th century. More than ten years before he began to build his own motorcycles in 1919, George was winning trials and sprint races on bikes built by his father William Brough. These also carried the Brough name, but without the 'Superior' tag.
In fact, many people consider the father's engineering superior to his son's, as he built his own engines - something George never did successfully. Small wonder that, once George had trademarked his own bikes as Brough Superior, William is said to have sarcastically remarked “Then I suppose mine are to be known as Brough Inferior!”
George, however, did eventually establish his bikes as ‘superior’ – at least in terms of public perception. Essentially he did so by dint of his salesmanship, his ability to write persuasive advertising copy and his even more impressive ability to generally choose the best available components to be assembled into motorcycles that as a whole were perceived by the public to be better than the sum of their parts.
In fact, that was not the case with the Mark One Brough Superior which George rode in competition during the first years that his company was in operation. The pre-WW1 type engine in the Mk1 had not proved fast enough in sprints and hill climbs and the bike was also clumsy to handle.
So, for 1922 George built a lighter, lower model with a highly tuned 976cc side-valve JAP vee-twin that was nicknamed ‘Spit and Polish’ due to the clinically clean state in which it was maintained.
The frame of the new bike was so light that it needed additional strengthening struts from the bottom of the front down tube back to the rear wheel spindle to keep it from twisting in the middle as a torque reaction to hard acceleration off the start line! And the engine that produced this kind of power was developed by none other than Bert le Vack, the famous JAP tuner, Brooklands rider and record breaker, who was known as the “Wizard of Brooklands”.
After a brief spell with Indian, Le Vack moved to J.A. Prestwich in Tottenham in North London. He was responsible for development of their high powered JAP V-twin engines and, on the 6th of July 1924 he used the power of one of these to good effect and set a new World Motorcycle Speed Record at on the long, arrow-straight highway at Arpajon in north-western France at 119.05 mph.
That engine powered a Brough Superior motorcycle and he returned five years later, again with a Brough, to raise the record to 129.00mph. Forming the association with Le Vack was another example of George Brough’s unerring eye for making use of whatever, or in this case whoever, was needed to make his bikes ‘Superior’.
J.A. Prestwich closed down their racing department in 1930 and Le Vack moved on, first to New Hudson and then to Motosacoche in Switzerland. He was tragically killed testing one of the Swiss company’s machines in 1931.
In its Le Vack tuned form, with lightened crankshaft and flywheel assembly plus specially modified valve gear and ports, the rebuilt ‘Spit and Polish’ Brough was re-named ‘Old Bill’ and George Brough himself set out to prove its capabilities around the banked track at Brooklands.
He did so, but his track racing career was short and sweet. He won a five lap experts scratch race around the Surrey speedbowl’s bankings and in a subsequent outing there is reputed to have lapped at over 100mph before the beaded-edge front tyre left the wheel rim at full chat and Brough ended the race without his machine – but, also thankfully, without serious injury.
That crash wrote off the front end, so the bike was rebuilt with new Webb girder forks and a drum brake and re-named ‘Old Bill’. George Brough and ‘Old Bill’ carried on racing in sprints rather than repeat his experience on the Brooklands banking. And throughout 1922 and 1923 that combination of bike and rider scored an amazing 51 wins in succession before the pair once again parted company as they crossed the line separately at the end of a sprint course! This time ‘Old Bill’ fared better than George, who spent several weeks getting over some severe ‘gravel rash’.
George Brough on ‘Old Bill’ back in the day
'Old Bill' itself was stripped of its racing bits such as the lightweight crankshaft, the specially ported cylinders and the extra frame struts. It was rebuilt as a road bike and kept as the factory ‘workhorse’ rather than racehorse it had once been.
During World War Two, the bike was somehow damaged and was purchased in that state post-war by Brough Superior enthusiast (and later the founder of the Vintage Motorcycle Club), ‘Titch’ Allen. With the help and advice of George Brough himself and the Brough plant manager Ike Webb, Titch restored ‘Old Bill’ into a machine that closely resembled the one in its famous 1922/23 racing trim.
On Titch’s death, ownership of 'Old Bill' passed on to his son Roger, who sadly lost his life in a motorcycle accident at the Isle of Man in 1992. Roger's widow then allowed the bike to be put on display at the Nottingham Industrial Museum until it went to auction by H&H and sold for £291,200 on October 4th, 2012 – at that time a world record price for a Brough Superior. It surpassed the previous mark of £280,000 set by the sale of an SS100 two years earlier and an indication of the rocketing interest in George Brough’s ‘Superiors’ is the fact that only two years prior to that, in 2008, the highest sale price achieved for a Brough (another overhead valve SS100) had been £166,500!
Now the selling price of ‘Old Bill’ has also been surpassed. An SS100 Alpine Grand Sport sold for £315,000 at the Bonhams Stafford Show auction in November 2014 and in April this year (2016) even that mark was eclipsed by the £331,000 paid by a German collector at another Bonhams Stafford Show auction for a Brough 800cc four-cylinder (it used an Austin Seven car engine) sidecar hauler with twin rear wheels. The final one to be tracked down out of only eight ever made, this Model BS4 ‘barn find’ was obviously rare in the extreme. But it was also incomplete, rusty and desperately in need of renovation.
So what would the now pristine ‘Old Bill’ fetch if offered for auction today? Who knows? For now, just be thankful that the American collector who bought it in that 2012 auction still owned it in 2016 and was prepared to loan it to one of the world’s most-visited auto museums so that it could still be admired by motorcycle enthusiasts who made the trip there to see it.