The Appeal of the Vintage Motor-cycle

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[In March, 1940, we asked Cecil Glutton to outline the appeal of the vintage sports car, realising that war would inflate car prices and that many of our readers would have to turn to the older types. Now that peace has further sent up the cost of living, the only way in which many enthusiasts can enjoy any degree of motoring performance is to acquire a vintage sports motor-cycle. Accordingly, we have asked C. E. Allen, founder and Secretary of the Vintage Motor Cycle Club, which has over 109 members, to tell us something of the better vintage types. — Ed.]

Time was when a young man’s fancy turned to thoughts of a tenth-hand Austin Seven and he by-passed the apprenticeship of two wheels which served so many of our famous drivers so well. Today, when everything with four wheels has a market value quite unrelated to its performance, the man with the right idea but the wrong purse is less tempted to overlook the possibilities of the vintage motor-cycle. And great possibilities they are if one looks a little further than big tanks and chromium plate.

Of course, the modern motor-cycle is nothing like so retrograde as is suggested of modern cars, but concessions to fashion have regrettably been made in the last fifteen years, and weight has piled up without a corresponding increase in performance. While all-round performance has not improved considerably, good work has been done on gearboxes, brakes and steering, while fashion’s latest decree, the telescopic fork, is undoubtedly an important milestone in the progress of the motor-cycle.

Because road-holding has a more marked bearing on usable performance with two wheels than it has with four, consideration of breeding is important.

A machine with Isle-of-Man breeding is a sine qua non if the rider has sporting pretentions and intends to have an occasional “dice” with the moderns. Even then one is sometimes forced to conclude that the T.T. stars of the 1920’s were fearless men with muscles of fencing wire!

Actually, with the exception of a few utility, types, the only vintage models in circulation today in any numbers are of the Isle-of-Man breed; the conclusion being that the ill-bred ones have long since been wrapped around lampposts.

Capacity classes have remained unchanged and as the backbone of the industry has always been the 500-c.c. machine, let us first look around the vintage types of this size. By reason of its ancestry and the overwhelming successes of its younger brothers, the Norton takes pride of place amongst those who would ride far and fast. Way back in 1924 that rugged 79 by 100-mm. o.h.v. engine was a monumental piece of machinery, every bit as classic as the “30.98.”

In the belief that readers are more familiar with four-wheeled types, I may occasionally use car similes in this article and trust the motor-cycle men will forgive me.

The Norton would do the 75-80 m.p.h. of its modern namesake and often 100 m.p.g., which the modern one will not. It had a sound Sturmey-Archer gearbox — you could have four speeds if you liked, but in those days of hit-and-miss foot changes the wise man preferred three speeds — and with something like 20 b.h.p., an all-up weight of around 250 lb. and an engine which pulled like a mule, one could storm up main-road hills in top when others groped for gears. The steering and roadholding were typical of the period. It was a man’s machine and its rider had to be tough. I rather think the torque reactions of the big single have something to do with the steering peculiarities of this and other makes. Certainly, the cradle frame ES.2 always seems to steer better than the diamond frame Model 18, and it may be that in many cases an improvement could be effected by stiffening up the rear chain stays to take care of the one-sided chain pull. This suspicion is supportedby the plu-perfect steering of the Scott. Only since telescopic forks have been the “wear” has the legendary steering of the Scott been entirely credited to the fork design. Before that it. was believed that the rock-steady steering was partly due to the unusually stiff “Forth Bridge” frame and the unique provision of an outrigger to take the pull of the final chain drive. Similarly, the Cotton, always bracketed with the Scott for good steering, had unusual rigidity by reason of its triangulated design.

In 1927 the Norton had graduated to wellbase rims with powerful brakes and was on top of its form. Its successes in the Isle-of-Man and abroad were its recommendation then, but the years have proved that, as type, it had unusually good wearing-qualities. Constant loss lubrication was employed — except for “works” racing models — and without digressing into a lubrication controversy there is evidence that it was completely satisfactory. As for the upper works much depends upon the owner. Everything is exposed and you can watch pushrods, rockers and valves at work and decide what lubrication is necessary. Considering how well these exposed parts last it is surprising that modern flood-lubricated, boxed-in valve gear wears out at all! Generally speaking, and assuming no flagrant abuse, the owner will find with all these vintage types that the replacement of valve guides and springs, and perhaps attention to rocker bearings, will restore the original urge. A certain amount of tuning is possible with this Norton and other o.h.v. singles to be mentioned later, but the limitations are much the same.

The compression ratio can be raised a little when decent fuel is available, but the cast-iron head will not dissipate heat and permit increased performance to be obtained on “pool” as will modern alloy heads. Alcohol is necessary for really high speeds and then the limiting factor will, perhaps, be the connecting rod. Three things stand out in the vintage Norton — the long graceful sweep of its single exhaust pipe, its characteristic bark, and the unchanging glory of its black-and-silver tank. Before leaving the Norton, do not overlook its more humble brother, the side-valve model 16H — as fast a side-valve as has ever been produced, with real “guts” and unfailing reliability.

Challenging the Norton in its hey-day and still challenging it in durability is the Sunbeam. It always contrived a little more refinement than its rivals. The discreet black-and-gold finish, of an excellence that has never been equalled, was typical of a manufacturer who always strived to provide not only performance, but the silence and smoothness the others lacked. That they frequently succeeded is evidenced by Charlie Dodson’s Senior T.T. “double” and the fact that vintage Sunbeams are still among the quietest machines on the road. Quite how such mechanical silence was obtained is difficult to see. The engine design is traditional and although dry-sump lubrication was introduced early in the development, the circulation was not copious.

Very clever “snake charmers” were obviously employed at the Sunbeam works, for the exhaust pipes were always tucked in very closely and kinked to avoid engine and gearbox projections. On the Model 90 and the “T.T. Replica” model, the twin pipes passed inside the rear stand. Sunbeams used a cross-over drive gearbox of their own design and struck a new note by incorporating a clutch stop lever; even this did not make the gear-change a very slick one. Two features pioneered by Sunbeams are now recognised as the best practice — oil-bath chain cases, and hairpin valve springs. If you value refinement, mechanical silence, and the silkiness of fine mechanism you can hardly beat a vintage Sunbeam — and there are more on the books of the Vintage Motor Cycle Club than any other make, save, perhaps, the Scott.

With the exception of the A.J.S., a scaled-up version of the famous “350,” the other 500-c.c. machines of merit are the nudge and the various assembled models using J.A.P. engines. The latter engines appear to vary in quality and tune, but the genuine racing models were terrifically fast and used to hold most of the Brooklands’ records. An outstanding 500-c.c. bicycle was the H.R.D., which always had a highly tuned J.A.P. engine. The Rudge began modestly in 1925 as a powerful touring machine, but the four-valve pent-roof head and four-speed gearbox had such possibilities that by 1928 the design was a world-beater.

The “Ulster” Model of 1928-30 is a very fine sports model that, today, is neither outdated in performance nor appearance. In sports form it was capable of over the 80 m.p.h. mark, had probably the best four-speed gearbox on the market, and quite the biggest and most powerful brakes fitted to a motor-cycle. The more excitingly-titled “Special” is the touring version and the “Ulster” is the model for sheer speed. The four-valve head, square bore-stroke ratio, and general ruggedness of the design, are firm foundations on which the tuner can work and 100 m.p.h. has been obtained by private effort. Steering and road-holding is better than average. The snag for everyday purposes is rather rapid wear of the valve gear and the consequent noise.

Already a large and never silent section of the vintage motor-cycle movement must be restless as they read of four-strokes; but the Scott cannot he dealt with in the same paragraph as anything else and really not in the same article. The Scott, a twin side-by-side two-stroke in 1911 and substantially the same in 1947, is the most unique machine ever. It was designed and built by a most unusual man, whose original conception of a motor-cycle was not at all related to traditional pedal-cycle design, and no one has since had the temerity to drastically modify his design. The Scott has charm.

A feminine charm, if the four-stroke is regarded as of masculine gender, and in the feminine way has endeared itself to countless enthusiasts who, although mortified, exasperated, and infatuated by its various moods, remain constant. The Scott firm has always said that a new customer either sells in disgust or forswears all others. I can think of no car which has such a unique appeal — though Boddy did once suggest Bugatti when I essayed a comparison of motorcycle and car character. Sentiment aside, I feel the Scott appeals because it gives, in vintage form, the smooth multi-cylinder performance now provided by twins and fours. In a world full of hearty, thumping singles and rollicking big-twins, the Scott, with the firing intervals of a four-cylinder four-stroke and much better low speed torque, satisfied the desires of an eloquent minority. Always the design was brilliantly unconventional and functional. Running between the two side-by-side cylinders, the fly-wheel acts as a crankshaft vibration damper and, together with the minute overhang of the crank pins, almost eradicates the couple which occurs with 180 degree crank throws. The connecting rods are more like paper knives than anything else and are absolutely unbreakable, partly because, with a three-port two-stroke, inertia loading does not exceed explosion pressure. Lasting monument to the genius of Alfred Scott is the fact that you can examine the big-end by slacking off one nut.

Furthermore, the “strap, crankcase, door-retaining,” is also a cunning screwdriver, which removes the “screw, bigend, roller retaining.” That indicates the type of man Scott was, and consequently it is no surprise to find that up to 1930 all Scotts had telescopic forks. The performance is the subject of much wild talk. The earlier “Super” models of 1926-1929, and the earlier “Flyers,” were intended as fast-touring machines and had a maximum in the region of 70 m.p.h. Superior pulling and general smoothness, with the absence of vibration periods, enabled them to more than hold their own on the road while giving away several m.p.h. in maximum speed, a phenomena noticeable with cars. A popular misconception is that they are high-revving, whereas, in fact, they pull higher gears than anything in their class. The “Power Plus” engine, distinguishable by a longer stroke and oil feeds to the cylinder walls, was more equal to o.h.v. opposition. Just what could be done with low-speed torque and two speeds was proved in the sidecar T.T., when Langman managed to hold Freddy Dixon on his Douglas with banking sidecar. Heavy petrol consumption is the chief criticism levelled against the Scott. Certainly the consumption tends to be heavy, but this is largely explained by driving methods. The Scott will take full throttle in top gear from crawling speed and will “zoom” away like a “big-six.” Such luxury is bound to be expensive and I fancy the striking economy of the single-cylinder four-stroke is attributable to the more gentle throttle work that is necessary.

Use the throttle carefully and the Scott will register 60 m.p.g., but use all the performance all the time and the consumption will be in the 40’s. If you want the epitome of Scott genius, choose the open-frame, two-speed model, which weighs little over 200 lb. and handles like a high-grade cycle.

There is a wide range of classic machines in the 850-c.c. class, but the really outstanding one to my mind is the O.H.C. Velocette. Years before its time when it appeared in 1926, it is right up to date today. It was sold with a guarantee of 80 m.p.h. in 1928 — you had to remove the silencer to get that — and over the years it has certainly taken more class-wins in private hands than any other model. The engine is virtually unburstable, can be high tuned without mechanical failure, and lives in a frame which has real Isle-of-Man steering. Because the final-drive sprocket is outside the clutch, like the Scott, it is possible to fit a four-inch rear tyre, which brings it in line with present-day competition machines. It was the first machine to offer a positive-stop foot gear-change.

Its chief rival at first was the 350-c.c. A.J.S., usually referred to as the “bigport.” This machine achieved surprising results, by reason of a high power-weight ratio without much power. It was of pedal-cycle simplicity and had accessibility which has never been equalled.

From the point of view of trials-riding it is perhaps the best bet, for the Velocette does not like “slogging” work.

The rest of the 350s, with the exception of the Sunbeams, which closely resemble their larger brothers, are mainly assembled machines with proprietary engines by J.A.P. or Blackburne. Their shapes are legion and their quality variable.

The 250 c.c. choice is not so easy. Two-strokes were the most popular in the early days and excellent as they are for utility purposes none of them can live with modern machines. In the absence of outstanding one-factory designs the choice is confined to a number of J.A.P. and Blackburne-engined jobs.

Right at the other end of the scale comes the “heavy stuff,” led by the Brough-Superior, which was offering 100 m.p.h. to the sportsman as far back as 1927 — wonderful hand-built machines which still command the greatest respect. There were many other big-twins but none were, perhaps, so suitable for solo work as the Brough.

As a final thought, it is as well to remember that if the vintage machine of your choice proves too frightening in solo form it can always be tamed by putting on asidecar — a trick which cannot be played on cars . . .

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