It is impossible to consider Brough Superior cars, which celebrate their golden jubilee this year, without taking account of their builder, George Brough. As well as being an engineer and, I think, a lesser engineer than he is usually described as being, Brough was also a shrewd businessman and a showman. I think “publicist” is too weak a word for he had a showman’s cavalier attitude to exactitude of terminology. To give an example, when asked how many cars he produced, he would modestly admit to a thousand or so and you will find a production run of 1,200 quoted in “authoritive” books) whereas the reality was a little over 80. The exact figure will never be known for all his company’s records were destroyed in the war. In 1937, Motor Sport quoted him as saying that his Alpine Grand Sports model was “finding a ready market in the USA”. In fact, only three examples were ever built.
To give another example, when he launched his cars, ohv was all the rage and sv engines were considered passe. To counteract customer resistance to his sv Hudson engines, George had a fake cam cover put over the top of the flat head engine. I do not know if anyone was fooled into buying a Brough Superior car as a result of the fake cam-cover, or if Brough ever suggested to a potential buyer that he might be buying an ohv-engined car, but I do wonder why Brough went to the trouble of making a hollow “cam cover”. He made precious little else on the cars which bore his name.
Brough’s advertisements for his 1936 cars, written largely in the first person, make the claim that “George Brough announces his new 3-litre car. A brilliant addition to the Brough Superior Range. The 6-cylinder, 31/2-litre Brough Superior is individually built throughout. The main components are specially manufactured by THE HUDSON CAR COMPANY and their adaptation and modification is the EXCLUSIVE RIGHT OF BROUGH SUPERIOR CARS Ltd.”
If we examine the advertising copy critically we find a different picture. In the first place, the 6-cylinder cars were not additions to a range, they were the range. The previous year, Railton had stopped Hudson supplying the 8-cylinder chassis to Brough, so the “range” had ceased to exist. The major components were not “specially manufactured”, they were standard Hudson chassis sold off cheaply to Brough at the end of the model-year. Brough paid £85 each for them, delivered to Southampton docks.
They were then taken to the coach builders, Messrs WC Atcherley of Birmingham, who supplied the bodywork at £100 a time. The cars were then trimmed and sold with a clear profit to Brough of well over 100%. It seems the cars never saw the Brough works until a customer arrived to drive one away.
The body may have been designed by Atcherley’s but the more likely explanation is that George had his own draughtsman draw his ideas, he was no draughtsman himself, and he worried away at them until he was satisfied. Certainly in the sixties, he planned to build a coupe body on a Rolls-Royce chassis and he proceeded in that way on that occasion. Typically, he scrapped the idea when it was announced that Rolls-Royce was to supply engines for the Austin Princess, he wanted nothing to do with a firm which would sink so low and so, after spending quite a lot of money on the project the Rolls-Brough died.
In mechanical terms, Brough’s contribution to the cars was neglible. He designed the fake cam cover and the remote gear linkage but apart from that, the chassis simply had Koni front shock absorbers fitted, perhaps only to some cars, proprietary built-in jacking and automatic lubricating systems, and the electrics were up-rated from 6v to 12v. Hudson did not anyway supply the electrics but did fit 12v starter motors and dynamoes before shipping. The cars were really re-bodied standard Hudsons with a minimal amount of “adaption and modification” and as for the 6-cylinder engine being for his “exclusive use”, it was exclusivity by default for nobody wanted it when they could obtain the eight and George’s own car was an eight.
The most popular model of the range was the drophead coupe which George described fulsomely as a “revolutionary dual-purpose car” (aren’t all convertibles “dual purpose”?) while claiming that the hood could be raised in two seconds! He later modestly changed that to five seconds. It’s actually a beautifully constructed hood and a tall man might just be able to lift and fit it in five seconds, provided the tonneau was already removed.
Earlier in this piece, I doubted Brough’s ability as an engineer and when we come to examine his one original car design, it will be clear why I commit the heresy. It is also fair to recall that while William Brough, his father, made his own production engines, George never achieved that even though he built a long line of prototypes, many of radical design, but none appear to have worked well. Brough must have spent a lot of his profits in pursuing his ideas, he really did take the idea of engineering seriously but, as I’ve said, I feel his was a far lesser talent than most claims made for it for none of his original designs ever went into production.
In telling the story of the Borough Superior car, we must first completely disregard much of the body of published literature about George Brough. In almost every case, it has been written by people who are so blinded by the man’s charisma that they are unreliable. In trying to write an objective account. I know I will get letters written in spluttering rage from disciples but I would like to say one thing and that is that when I saw my first Brough Superior motorcyle, it was love at first sight and it is an affection which has never diminished (this is a fact which will be ignored by outraged correspondents).
George was born in 1890, the son of Williams Brough, an early builder of motorcycles, cars and cyclecars, so he more or less arrived with a con-rod in his mouth. When he was 16 he persuaded his father to allow him the use of a 2.5 hp Zenith-powered Brough, with a single gear, which he entered in his first classic trial, the 1906 Land’s End to John O’Groats, and he pedalled most of the way! In 1910, 11 and 12. he won the London to Edinburgh Trial outright and kept the trophy. Since the London-Edinburgh Trial was a reliability run, this indicates a remarkable sensitivity for machinery and there is no question about Brough’s ability as a rider, though he apparently was no great shakes behind the wheel of a car.
From 24 Land’s End Trials entered, he scored 23 First Class awards. From 52 sprints entered, he achieved 51 ftds and, indeed, his machine was the fastest through the traps in the 52nd, at Clipstone. but unfortunately George was no longer on the ‘bike! His front tyre had come off the rim and George was quite badly injured. Thereafter family pressure made him curtail his competition riding. It should surprise nobody that Brough was so successful in sprints, for he approached a largely amateur occupation in a thoroughly professional way and his machines always had much larger engines than the bulk of the opposition (a 500 cc-engined model was the smallest ‘bike he ever made and then made only nine). After the Brough team arrived at a few sprints, with gleaming machinery on the back of trailers, the local lads who had ridden to the venue and who were comprehensively blown off, began to mutter among themselves.
During WW1, Brough worked as an engineer at White and Poppe’s engine works or Coventry and this work allowed him a petrol allowance. Brough bought, analysed, and sold, a succession of motorcycles, 34 in all, to give him a reservoir of experience against the day when he would build his own machines. A Harley-Davidson seems to have particularly impressed him for his own products later used a form of the Harley-Davidson front forks. Brough’s successful ideas were always borrowed.
The name “Brough Superior” came about, as do so many good ideas, over a few pints of ale shared with friends. An announcement that Brough was to produce his own machines had brought 20 immediate enquiries, which says a great deal for his reputation as a rider, but the question remained, what was the machine to be called? One of the drinking party, Bob Blay, suggested “Brough Superior” and it was one of those names which instantly clicked. William Brough was not a little miffed for the implication was that his own “Broughs” were “Brough Inferiors’ and George always remained sensitive when the subject was raised but it was typical of the showman in him that he embraced the name regardless of family relationships. In fact, George seems to have been very fond of his father.
Production of Brough Superior motorcycles began in 1920 and around 3,000 were built by 1939. Brough was not, however, a complete manufacturer, he always used proprietary parts, typically JAP or Matchless engines and Sturmey Archer gearboxes. What he did do was to impose strict quality control standards on his bought-in components, even demanding higher standards from his suppliers, hanging out in front of them the carrot that they would benefit by being associated with so prestigious a motorcycle. He basically allowed others to do the tricky bits, bought in the best of their efforts, assembled them and gave the component parts an individual style.
Every Brough Superior motorcycle is instantly recognisable by its tear-drop petrol tank which was made up from a mosaic of small parts and soldered together. Nobody else ever managed to reproduce the shape, and several tried, and it was itself so distinctive that Brough had no need to inscribe his name on the side, the style said it all. It’s not going too far to say that the fuel tank was Brough’s greatest achievement as a designer.
Brough’s motorcycles were not thoroughbred sports models. Many were built for application as combination outfits. Their distinctive qualities were style, poor brakes, large engines and excellent stability due partly to the Harley-Davidson-based suspension, and partly to a very low centre of gravity. They were, in fact, well-made„ refined, high-speed tourers. What competition success they enjoyed was largely in minor events.
Brough Superiors were advertised as “The Rolls-Royce Of Motor Cycles” and, as most readers will know, it is the only occasion on which another firm has been allowed to use the name “Rolls-Royce”. What happened was that a journalist with The Motor Cycle, stumped for adequate praise for the Brough Superior he had tested, coined the phrase. Brough seized on it eagerly and used it in his advertising, though always being careful to attribute it as a quotation. Rolls-Royce was not impressed and sent a high-level representative to the works in Haydn Road, Nottingham, to inform Brough that he was in breach of copyright. George responded by showing his visitor around the works, pointing out the group of men in white coats, wearing white cotton gloves, who were lovingly assembling a motor cycle. His visitor was impressed and left after giving Brough permission to continue to use the Rolls-Royce name, a unique concession. What Brough was too modest to mention was that the group which had been drawn to his visitor’s attention was a special “show” bike, the standard machines, though beautifully made, were not afforded the same attention. Brough’s succession of spectacular show bikes, always immaculate, often fitted with radical engines, added greatly to his reputation for they were the stuff which dreams are made on.
He appears to have been a volatile man. Colin Ball, who worked for him and who now manages Brough Superior Motors in Nottingham, which was once the service depot for the factory, describes him like the ‘little girl with the little curl”. When he was good, he was very, very, good and when he was bad he was horrid. Numerous stories are told about him, some perhaps apocryphal. There was the time when he heard a rumour about Brough Superior copies being made in Japan. When two Japanese visitors stopped to examine his stand at the Motor Cycle Show, he physically removed them from the building. When a friend was put in prison for being drunk and disorderly, Brough smuggled him in smoked salmon and champagne. In the Fifties, a commemorative run of the London-Edinburgh Trial was held and Brough borrowed a BS combination for the event and won a gold medal. When the owner came to pick up his machine he walked right by it for, before the Trial, Brough had it taken apart and reassembled as new. When he drove anywhere on an important engagement, he took cloths with him so, a short distance shy of his destination, his car could be polished so it would be immaculate on his arrival. He was simply a one-off, a larger than life character. One can understand why he attracted such committed devotion among so many people and, too, why accurate history has become embellished.
Since George died in 1970, we cannot know precisely why Brough turned car maker. One reason must be that it is in the nature of things for buyers of motorcycles to become buyers of cars. George himself was into his forties when he started his first car and, he himself must have been looking towards life’s little comforts. Then. he had scaled the heights of the motorcycling world and was probably looking for new peaks to conquer. There might have been in the back of his mind that his father, William, had attempted car production and not been a success and therefore it was something which the son, the maker of the “Superior” had to attempt.
Though George’s eventual products were, like the contemporary Railtons, little more than re-bodied Hudsons, it is clear that he did not start with that solution in mind. Nobody knows how many prototypes were built, or on what chassis they were based. It was perhaps only one which was first fitted with a 11/2-litre Meadows engine and, typically, given the registration plate GB 1933 (being made in 1933) and later a 21/2-litre Meadows-engined car was made. Neither car (or neither engine in the same car) provided the power he required so he looked elsewhere. The “authorities” all claim that Brough consulted experts like Freddie Dixon in his quest for the perfect motor car. If so, the conversations must have been short for the end-result was hardly innovative.
Having said that, let us not deride the car as a vehicle, for it would do everything which a contemporary Bentley would do, and do it better and smoother, at a third of the price. Brough’s own eight cylinder car, which was used as a demonstrator, had a high back axle which enabled it to do over 100 mph. Customer cars had a lower back axle ratio and the “magic ton” was perhaps not achievable, though that little matter was not mentioned in the advertising material.
I recently went to visit Peter Beynon at his home in South Wales and Peter’s collection includes four Brough Superior cars which includes George Brough’s personal eight cylinder car and the perhaps unique V-12 model. Peter is one of those enthusiasts with his head screwed on. In other words, he loves his cars but is not blind to their faults, and since he has owned, and owns, an interesting variety of vehicles, is in a good position to judge his Brough Superiors. He kindly allowed me to drive two of his cars and I am indebted to him for some of the information in this article.
Brough introduced his eight cylinder car to the press at Hatfield aerodrome in May, 1935 and by October had sold most of what was probably a run of 25. Hudson built a wonderfully balanced, torquey, 4.2-litre sv engine which was mated to a small, rather weak, three speed gearbox. The 1935 Broughs (which were 1934 Hudsons, had cable brakes and a crude form of ifs known as the “axleflex” system in which the beam front axle had two articulated joints. Atcherley’s had bodied this chassis with neat coachwork with an almost flat scuttle, a regular line to the back with the hood of the “dual-purpose”, ie convertible, car lying in the same plane as the bonnet when folded. The joy of the car is, however, the engine. It is so smooth that Rolls-Royce wondered how it could be mass-produced and, indeed, fitted it to a 20/25 chassis and found it smoother than the original engine.
The three-speed ‘box is largely redundant, one uses the first two gears to get the car moving and then, provided the wheels are in motion, one forgets about the gear lever and drives only in top, else one might damage the gearbox. The car will even take gradients in top gear with the engine ticking over at idling speed and 0-60 mph used to come in around 15 seconds. For a cast iron engine of 4.2-litres, its weight of around 400 lb is remarkably low, and this is thanks to Hudson’s superb casting techniques (Rolls-Royce memos of the time more or less say that the engine is not possible. but it’s true). The weight is centred near the front wheels and this makes the steering extremely heavy. Used to modern cars, I felt there were times when the car would not turn into corners, but a stab at the throttle, and the marvellous response of the long-stroke (3″ x 5’) engine, always brought the car around. I was warned to change down a gear for the gearbox is fragile and, besides, there is no need to. Hudson had made what was, in effect, an automatic gearbox.
The interior of the car is comfortable and well-appointed, with the oddly positioned dashboard (an oval jutting out at an angle from the centre of the facia) dominated by a large (5″) speedo with “Brough Superior” written discreetly at the top. Proprietary parts are evident in the windscreen-mounted mirror with a clock in the centre, which is from Ford, as are the rear lights. There is no oil pressure gauge for there is no oil pressure, lubrication being achieved by trays in the sump and little scoops at the bottom of each big end journal.
What is particularly remarkable about this individual car is the fact that it is close to having covered 500,000 miles, yet is still taut and smooth. Indeed, the engine had 378,000 miles on it before it had its first major mechanical overhaul. The car was, in fact, George Brough’s personal transport and Peter, who was interviewed by George’s Widow before having his bid accepted (there were much higher bids which were rejected) is only the second owner of WH 7238.
I have to say that it is a wonderful machine and still a thoroughly practical motor car for everyday use (leaving aside the 15 mpg fuel consumption), though Hudson should take most of the credit. It is not embarrassed by modern traffic and, indeed, is more than a match for a large proportion of it. It is, moreover, an elegant car and one can understand why Brough had no difficulty in selling his initial batch of 25 (we think) cars within the space of six months and why Railton became so anxious at the interloper’s success.
It was at the 1935 Motor Show that Hudson told Brough that it could no longer supply him with the 8-cylinder chassis but could supply him with its 6-cylinder cars. These had Lockheed hydraulic brakes and, dropped the “axleflex” system. The engine retained most of the virtues of the eight, indeed it was basically an eight with two cylinders removed, but, of course, it had nothing like the power or the flexibility, even though it was still one of the outstanding 3.5-litre units of the day.
It must have been bitter gall to Brough to have to accept defeat by an upstart like Railton (Reid Railton, incidentally, had little to do with the cars which bore his name, apart to approve them and allow his name to be used on them) but, as has already been stated, Brough’s advertising copy put on a brave front. Early in 1936, Brough announced his “additional” (ie only) range which consisted of two versions of the “dual purpose car” which could be yours for £665 for the basic version or £755 for a supercharged variant which perhaps found no takers, certainly none survive. There was the De Luxe Saloon (offered with only the standard engine) at £695 and since only three are known to survive, it seems likely that very few were made. Finally there was the Alpine Grand Sports (a name also used for a motorcycle model) which was a stripped-down, supercharged, four-seater which was claimed to do 110 mph and 0-60 mph in under 10 sec and which cost £845. While the acceleration claim was independently verified, when the works tester, Ron Storey, attempted a 100 mph lap at Brooklands, he was unable to better 98 mph, so the claimed 110 mph looks a little dubious. Each of the three Alpine Grand Sports made was tuned under the personal supervision of Freddie Dixon, or so the advertisements claimed. One only is thought to survive, and that is in poor condition.
Although Brough is reported to have said that he believed that the 6-cylinder car could be developed to be the equal of the 8cylinder Railtons, he certainly did not do so, even though the Alpine Grand Sports model seemed to be promising. Production plummeted to less than half the rate he’d enjoyed when allowed the use of the Hudson eight, probably 50-60 cars over a three-year period.
To drive, the 6-cylinder car is very much like driving a modern vehicle. The Hudson engine still gives wonderful torque but it is noticeably less responsive and flexible than the Eight. Top speed is around 85 mph while 0-60 mph was achieved, when new, in 20 sec. The steering, however, is light and one has a better sense of direction for the bonnet is about a foot shorter than the eight’ cylinder car. The lines of the model remain roughly the same but there is less chromework.
The six was nowhere near the car that the eight was, but it still returned respectable performance figures for its size and day. One can understand, however, why buyers tended to opt for the slightly cheaper Railton Eights or, even, standard Hudsons at a fraction of Brough’s asking price for a previous year’s Hudson with a different body.
The little problem over supply of Hudson Eights did not floor Brough and, late in 1936 he began work on his one original design, which had a Lincoln Zephyr V12 engine mated to a Brough chassis. Depending on to whom you speak, either three, or five, chassis were laid down, but only one car was officially completed. This car is currently in Peter Beynon’s collection, but he has heard several rumours, originating from knowlegeable sources, of another V12 car, an open-topped model with the more usual radiator grill and prominent fins at the back. Other attempts at tracking down this other car, which has been sighted but which officially does not exist, have failed. Can any reader shed light on it? The best guess is that if it does indeed exist it was made up during the war from parts lying about the factory.
Brough’s V12 design is reputedly the first car chassis constructed by electric welding. It uses large diameter tubes (the smallest being of four inches) but the stressing is rudimentary and the car is a flexible beast. The original engine seems to have been obtained from a scrap heap but Benyon has replaced it with a brand new unit only 15 engine numbers away from the original which was buried in the ground by the French importer of Lincolns in 1939 or ’40.
Apart from the fact that Brough’s only original chassis design was a floppy affair, he also did not appreciate the problems inherannt in taking a car’s engine from one environment and putting it, without modification into another. Behind the grill sat a small radiator, possibly from a light truck almost certainly from a junk heap, which did not fit the space. The engine was sited a good foot lower (George was keen on low c of g) than in the original Lincoln, with the result that the unmodified fan sucked in air only in the bottom half of the already inadiquate radiator. To make matters worse, two spot lights were placed in front of the bottom part of the radiator and there were no louvres in the bonnet. The car overheated and the engine choked. Brough claimed that the low mounting of the fan was designed to push hot air under the car, an explanation which itself seems to be so much hot air !
Peter Benyon has learned about its faults the hard way and has supplied the development that Brough should have provided. It is noticable that when The Autocar described it in glowing terms, on its announcement in may 1938, the writer of the article gave no indication of having driven the car.
The body, by Charleworth of Coventry, is remarkably handsome and is much sleeker and lower than almost any other car of its size and time. Whether or not Brough designed the body is something I have been unable to discover, but I feel it is likely, for it has the feelof Brough about it and the man undoubtedly had a superb eye for line. When a new motorcycle model was completed it was put under a sheet and unveiled in front of Brough. To be acceptable it had to make an immediate impression on his eye.
The car was to be sold as a roling chassis for £850, £1250 with a replica Charlesworth body. It came complete with picnic tables behind the front seats and the seats adjusted for height. It seemed as though Brough was no longer content with building the “Rolls-Royce of Motorcycles”, he wanted to build the “Brough Superior of cars”. Unfortunately he was either not engineer enough for the task or else he simply lost interest as he did with some other interesting projects.
During the war, the Brough Superior company, which had previously moved from Hadyn Road to William Brough’s old works in Vernon Road, was given over to high precision engineering, including the grinding of crankshafts for Rolls-Royce Merlin engines. The company operated seven days a week, 24 hours a day, and Brough would load five crankshafts (weighing 3/4 ton) into a special cradle in the back of his “eight” and drive to the various R-R establishments, being allowed dispensation from use of blackout headlamp covers at night.
Production of both cars and motocycles ceased in 1939 and never resumed. Goverment contracts existed into the first years of peace, Brough had begun to make big money for the first time in his life, he would never have tolerated the red tape needed to obtain materials and, besides, the natural market for his products had temporarily disappeared. He is also quoted as saying that Jaguar built better cars more cheaply than he could. He was a long time friend of Sir William Lyons, dating back to the time when Lyons made sidecars which frequently appeared on Brough’s machines. George himself owned an early XK120 which he had “Brough-ised” by his works.
In his latter years, George enjoyed the letters and visits he received from owners, and certainly revelled in the lionisation he received from them. He was an interesting man, perhaps not as complete an engineer as his father, and certainly not as good an engineer as his reputation. ML.