Sports Motor-Cycles of the Vintage Era

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A Consideration of the Characteristics, Good Features and Failings of Some Classic Machines

Part II 1926

This series was commenced, last October, for two main reasons, the first being that the vintage motorcycle offers about the most inexpensive means of taking the road in these hard times, and secondly because the increasing membership of the Vintage Motor Cycle Club indicates a real interest in the fascinating pastime of restoring and riding a vintage model, so that some idea of how such machines operated and performed seems not out of place. To ensure the correct atmosphere we quote from road test reports published in Motor Sport, when paper was unrationed and there was room for motor-cycling topics. This presentation may distort to some extent the perspective, praise and criticism being bestowed on contemporary, not on modern standards, but the collective qualities of these sporting models of twenty and more years ago make brave reading and should still further enlarge the virile vintage movement, while assisting, we hope, those who are searching for suitable mounts. — Ed.

Arnold Radclyffe, who was Motor Sport’s tester of two-wheelers in 1926, had as his first Press machine that year a 4.9-h.p. “Super Sports” New Hudson. Early praise was accorded to the forward position of the 79.5 by 100-mm. engine, which enabled the magneto to be safely hidden behind the cylinder, permitted ample space for extra toolbags, generator or accumulator and resulted in excellent stability of the bicycle as a whole. Indeed, aided by heavily-ribbed s.s. Dunlops, this New Hudson never wanted to skid, even on frozen grass and remained fully under control, even on full lock. Such features as the generous size of the roller-bearing o.h.v. rocker gear, the skirted pushrods, excellent rear-brake adjustment, “Flexkas” brake pull-off springs, decent-sized head lug, smart and useful chain guards, front-fork shock-absorbers, steering stop lugs and grease-gun lubrication were admired. The finish, too, was excellent and the Terry Q-spring saddle appreciated. Criticisms concerned an over-strong kick-starter spring, the brake pedal’s location on the left footrest (albeit it came uncannily to heel when wanted and had a very sweet action), lack of any petrol drain tap, unsightly, if well-dipped piping for the mechanical and hand oil pumps, the rather sharp bend necessitated for the exhaust pipes by the engine’s location, rather narrow if stout mudguards, and non-adjustable footrests.

On the road the machine proved docile, almost “four-cylinder,” in traffic, yet very much alive away from towns, although starting was tricky until the two-jet Binks carburetter had been mastered. Unfortunately, this New Hudson was too new for any performance figures to be taken.

We next find our tester out with a 990-c.c. V-twin M.3.S. Matchless sports combination. In spite of the engine’s size it started with a couple of prods on cold mornings, thanks to the efficiency of the Lucas magdyno and a well-placed kick-starter with good return spring. The Matchless was quiet and handy with its re-designed shorter-wheelbase frame, while the sprung front forks functioned well. The new bulbous nickle-cum-black tank held two gallons of petrol and half a gallon of oil. The chain-guards and mud-guards kept down mud and the rear brake worked very well, but the front brake was none too powerful. Comfort was of a high order, saddle and footrests providing a good riding position, to which knee grips contributed, while the sports-type bars with r.h. twist grips and levers for air and spark were very acceptable. The steering damper cut out any steering wobble and the 26 in. by 3-in. Dunlop cord tyres and sports-type Terry saddle completed the comforts offered to the Matchless rider. The Matchless sports sidecar, too, was comfortable and smart. It was remarked that ladies might like the addition of a sidecar step, “unless the fashion of abbreviated skirts is to continue” (which it was but isn’t, so to speak!). On gear-ratios of 7.1, 4.7 and 3.7 to 1 in the Sturmey-Archer box the outfit was thought a trifle too high geared in top, for sidecar work in town, although 2nd was a useful gear. With sidecar occupied, speed was estimated to be 65-68 m.p.h., and 59 could be held all day. Acceleration was good, gearchanging the acme of simplicity and “Mr. Lucas” made night as day, while fuel consumption came out at 50 m.p.g. The price, by the way, was £80 solo, or £97 10s. mit chair.

The T.T. P. & M. Panther came up for test next, in 84 by 90 mm., 499-cc. form. This engine took the place of the front down tube and had fully automatic sump lubrication. The P. & M. gearbox normally possessed ratios of 8.4, 7.0, 5.4 and 4.5 to 1, but the test machine had a 12 to 1 bottom gear, the saddle tank accommodated 2 1/4 gallons of petrol and the sump 3 1/2 pints of oil and the Webb forks gave remarkable road-holding and stability at really high speeds. What speed? Alas, no speedometer was fitted, but “Paul Sadler,” now doing the tests, estimated it at about 80 m.p.h. Yet there was docility in traffic and enormous acceleration. A faulty decompressor spoilt easy starting and an odd engine vibration intruded when “all-out.” The gear-change needed practice, but was snappy and the brakes were “exceptionally good” (by 1926 standards, of course), although the r.h. pedal could easily be mistaken for the decompressor. A sporting small car good for some 70 m.p.h. was easily disposed of by very moderate throttle in the P. & M.’s top gear; 50/50 mixture was used and an oiled plug experienced because there had been too much u.c. lubricant in the tank. At about 50 m.p.h. the machine became happy in top gear and was really sweet at about 65, keeping that up all day with no sign of overheating, causing the photographer’s 3 h.p. twin to eat its tappet rods and lose an exhaust pipe and still fail to keep anywhere near the “Panther.” Snags? Well, a spanner was needed to undo the oil filler and the magneto was very far advanced. Otherwise, full marks, notably to the good finish. The price in 1926 was £85, or £92 10s. with a Brooklands’ Certificate for 85 m.p.h.

Two 3 1/2-h.p. o.h.v. Nortons were put through their paces, one a 1925 O’Donovan racing job with Druid forks, the other a 1926 model with Webb forks. Summed-up the Druids gave heavy steering and great sense of security, the Webbs light steering, not quite the same feeling of security, but a more pleasant action for turning in a road or on sharp corners, albeit without the rock-steady, self-centring action of the Druids. As to the bicycle itself, the frame tended to be to whippy when cornering, well over, at 50 and taking a hump-bridge too fast gave rise to a slight steering wobble. The 1925 job did approximately 80 m.p.h., the newer Norton just over 70. The latter had slightly lower and wider ratios and had better standing-start acceleration. Both machines were completely vibrationless and had bags of reserve-power. The older one had a noisy gearbox, but, curiously, the quieter valve gear. The 1925 gear-change possessed the snag of tending to stick in bottom, this being in the centre of the quadrant and calling for a voyage through it when changing from second to top. The 1926 box was free from this bother, but tended to stick in second gear. The brakes were not too good, inasmuch as adjustment became necessary during a short test, the pedal brakes being very powerful but fierce. The front brake had insufficient leverage of the handlebar lever to be effective. When out of adjustment the pedal fouled the exhaust pipe. Comfort, troublefree lubrication by the Best and Lloyd mechanical pump and cleanliness were of a high order.

There followed a 346-c.c. o.h.v. Royal Enfield, having a single-port J.A.P. engine adapted to Enfield mechanical pump lubrication with but one external oil pipe. Providing the B. & B. carburetter was flooded the engine started easily and ticked-over at an incredibly slow speed. Semi-T.T. bars, Terry saddle and adjustable footrests gave a comfortable riding position, but the gear-lever controlling the three-speed Sturmey-Archer gearbox was badly placed, necessitating bending forward to reach it. Steering was delightfully light, road-holding excellent and in town, fine acceleration notwithstanding, this Royal Enfield was notably unobtrusive. Yet it would do 45 m.p.h. in 2nd gear and 60-65 m.p.h. in top. A sweet, smooth clutch and the Enfield rubber-block cush-drive transmission, coupled with excellent balance, made feet-up manoeuvring easy at a snail’s pace. Both the internal expanding brakes worked really well, although care was needed for a smooth stop from the rear one and the pedal was rather too high above the footrest. At first excessive oil supply caused plug oiling, but this was cured by cutting down the supply, while petrol consumption was approximately 90-100 m.p.g., riding fairly fast. Altogether this £50 sports model created a very good impression, although frequent oiling of the push-rod cups was required and the rockers relied on grease cups.

What next? Why a 350-c.c. o.h.c. Chater-Lea combination. The sidecar was of sports pattern, but decidedly heavy and a windscreen and spare wheel were carried, while 3-in. tyres and a full acetylene lighting set were fitted. In addition, wide trials ratios and a rather high-top top were in use, so a speed of over 55 m.p.h. was consideted extremely creditable. In more sporting trim over 65 m.p.h., or 80 m.p.h. solo, was anticipated without tuning. Stanmore Hill was tackled at about 25 m.p.h. in top gear and on 3/4-throttle after the bottom corner the Chater-Lea accelerated steadily, still in top, and went over the summit at about 35 m.p.h. Later a 53-mile run from one of the University towns was accomplished in 80 minutes with the sidecar heavily-loaded, and no overheating, rattles or discolouration of the exhaust-pipe were evoked. The wide ratios ruined the performance, but 35 m.p.h. was possible in 2nd gear. The riding position was low and comfortable, the front suspension worked perfectly and steering was at all times light and steady sans damper. Both brakes were really good, but the universal dislike of hand-lever operation of the front one was registered. Absolutely the only criticism of this thoroughbred was that the rear wheel spent rather a lot of its time off the road. The price of the solo was £80.

A £130 996-c.c. British Vulpine-engined o.h.v. V-twin solo McEvoy provided our tester with lots of excitement. It had no speedometer, wasn’t actually timed but, paced by other motor-cycles, did something like 70 m.p.h. in second gear and 80 to 85 m.p.h. on half-throttle in the highest ratio. The machine was new, yet was untroubled at a cruising 60 m.p.h., and the absolute maximum was estimated to be an easy 95 m.p.h. As it was, the McEvoy was used to follow a trial and, after starting competitors at one-minute intervals over a 40-mile course, it overtook them all, going feet-up up the test hills and, in spite of a five-minutes’ conversation with the marshals en route, arrived at the finish a quarter-of-an-hour ahead of the first arrival!

Tunnel Slide was a slow second gear ascent, using quarter-throttle. Roadholding, cornering and braking, by 8-in. Enfield internal-expanding brakes, were all impeccable. A good steering damper was fitted and on decent roads was “only a sort of Coué device to inspire the nervous rider with greater confidence,” but over rough-going, when the 3-in. tyres caused considerable bouncing and pitching, it effectively steadied the steering. The Terry saddle and positioning of bars and footrests made for great comfort, while the immense round-tube Druid forks, with friction dampers, worked nicely. The engine needed frequent tappet adjustment to keep it silent but embodied the excellent feature of rockers operating below the valve springs, thus isolating the latter from the hot cylinder head. The Sturmey-Archer gearbox had the lever arranged for foot-change and functioned splendidly. Starting was a first-kick affair, hot or cold, flood or no flood, thanks to the two-jet Binks carburetter, the Pilgrim oil pump did its job faultlessly, and good features were the finish, the cast aluminium chain guards, quick-action filler caps and John Bull knee-grips. Shortcomings? Well, an ugly silencer, like a “Brooklands” “can” yet not any use for B.M.C.R.C. racing, that didn’t do its stuff and the fan-tail end of which fouled on left-hand corners and broke up, and a light cranked-rod between brake pedal and brake cam-lever that allowed too much flexibility. Otherwise, full marks to a machine not many of you, on two wheels or four, would pass today, were its rider really trying.

A rider unaccustomed to acting as a motor-cycle critic dealt with the next machine, the No. 1 3.49-h.p. o.h.v. “Super Sports” B.S.A. The photographs show a machine looking anything but sporting. The B.S.A. was used for hectic dispatch-riding duties during the General Strike, and first impressions were of a stable, well-mudguarded job with good sprung-forks and Terry saddle — although the h.t. lead did short against the rider’s wet coat.

An h.c. piston and strong valve springs did not preclude crawling in top gear, although the more normal tune would have been happier in towns. However, the reward for a little non-docility was grand acceleration and speeds of 35 to 37 m,p.h. in bottom gear, 60 m.p.h. in second, in spite of a touring engine sprocket, and 75 m.p.h. in top with more to come. It was thought that with the magdyno replaced by a magneto, 80 m.p.h. would have been possible — from a touring looking “350”! And, even under National Emergency traffic conditions in London, the T.T. Amac carburetter gave a good tick-over and there was no sign of overheating. The “Super Sports” B.S.A. made a very marked impression and short comings were confined to a carburetter fire when the magneto timing slipped, one side of the Lucas accumulator blowing out with a loud bang one dark night; a stiff clutch action; a tendency for the oiling system to gum-up the clutch, and a tendency for oil to leak from the engine chain cases on to the vicar’s drive. But in impromptu dusts-up with Panthers, Squirrels and the like, along the Strand and similar thoroughfares during the strike, the B.S.A. was absolutely in its element.

A racing “G.10” 500-c.c. o.h.v. A.J.S., privately owned by a member of Motor Sport’s staff, was featured next. High spots were the strengthened but 350 c.c.-size frame, ball and roller-bearing engine with duralumin rockers, close-ratio gearbox, both brakes foot-operated, a 3 1/2-gallon T.T. tank, twist grip and steering damper. As this A.J.S. was used for track racing, the figures for performance were rather out of the common rut. It was mentioned that 90 m.p.h. was possible for short distances and that 75 m.p.h. was averaged for 200 miles on Brookland.s. Steering, roadholding and braking, given plenty of weight on the pedals, were truly outstanding, although the front brake alone seemed ineffective. The very large tanks made the machine feel a little awkward at low speeds and it was necessary to remain awake when racing over indifferent roads, but as a road machine the “G.10’s” steering and stability equalled those of any other, and were considerably better than many.

The clutch gave no trouble, the finish was excellent and as to noise, with standard silencer it was no worse than expected, with a Derrington “Brooklands” “can” quiet at all speeds, with a long pipe and fishtail silent at low, indescribable at high speeds. The gearchange was easy and positive and the gate not too close to the rider’s right knee. Troubles experienced were attributable to competition work and the fact that this was one of the first “G.10s” produced. It cost about £80 solo, but came with a T.T. A.J.S. sidecar having an effective sidecar-wheel brake and being quite comfortable for all but very long passengers. In this guise, with 10-stone sidecarist, the Cannons on Alms Hill were crossed at approximately 30 to 35 m.p.h., still using the close-ratio box and going up the famous hill!

The last test of 1926 embraced a “250,” in the form of the o.h.v. New Imperial. The machine had been in use for six months and, after an additional oil supply had cured rapid wear of the tappet feet, the only replacements needed were two valve-guides, one overhead rocker-bush and a back spindle. The normal footrest position resulted in fouling, so they were moved to the T.T. New Imperial position at the front of the chain stays, and at the same time the rear of the tank was padded. The kickstarter was now unusable, but the engine was so easy to start this didn’t matter. Steering, whether mud-plugging or all-out, proved excellent. Several premier awards in trials (1926 trials, of course!), first place in the 250-c.c. class of a North London speed trial and a Devon tour came with equal facility to this machine (YN 8472, by the way), and it also scored a victory over, or up, Alms Hill. Using the fairly close-ratio but not the optional speed-work gearbox, 40 m.p.h. was obtainable in second gear, and in top over 60 m.p.h. was possible. The gear-lever had rather too long a travel, making the first to second change rather awkward, but the change was fairly easy and the clutch control light. The gearbox was there to be used, for the compression-ratio was 6 1/2 to 1. Oil consumption was excessively modest, 380 miles on 1 1/2 pints of “R” with fast riding, when petrol consumption came out at approximately 70 m.p.g. In view of the tiny size of the brakes they were surprisingly powerful, front even more so than back, nor did rapid wear occur. Although its price, in 1926, was a mere £43, this New Imperial was fast, pleasant to ride and reasonably silent, and it stood up to varied competition work, even to motor-cycle football and gymkhanas very well indeed. (To be continued as and when space permits.)