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 III – 1927

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 the perspective to some extent, 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.

Nineteen Hundred and Twenty-Seven seems to have been a good year for motorcyclists judging by the interesting and varied assortment of machines which came to Motor Sport for test and the good use which our testers made of them.

First on the list was a 350 c.c. HarleyDavidson. Early apology was made to those who looked askance at the photographs and queried what the Harley was doing in a series of articles headed “Sporting Machines on Test.” But the writer reminded the sceptics that U.S. motor-cycle cops “sat up” at 80 m.p.h., and that Freddie Dixon used footboards. In a nutshell, this little Harley-Davidson was said to be heavy (260 lb.) for its size, yet had such cunning distribution of weight as to handle extremely easily, while rather low gear-ratios resulted in surprising “vim and acceleration.” The engine turned over rather fast, but without fuss or vibration, at maximum speed, which was 59-55 m.p.h.

This Harley had been through the Scottish Two-Days Trial and the Scott Scramble before it reached the Motor Sport offices, then in Victoria Street, and it was next put through two scramble-type events, on successive week-ends, ridden by different people. In the first event it made second fastest time, in the second it won the Premier Award and in both it went through at least one hedge. But not a thing fell off or even rattled, foot-boards and mudguards surviving violent collisions with trees and boulders. True, a tree dented the tank, but the handlebars did not, for the adequate reason that they couldn’t swing round on to it. Moreover, the rather awkwardly-placed American foot-clutch caused no real hardship to the riders, both of whom were accustomed to their native hand-clutch and r.h. gear change.

Nothing in this world is perfect and criticisms concerned the limited steering lock due to the long bars fouling the rider’s knees, to the customary American lack of a front brake and to a not entirely effective hand brake. The foot brake was reported to be smooth and powerful. There was also a spell of “non-startitis,” traced to a stuck contact-breaker arm after negotiation of a long water-splash at the camera-man’s request.

Fuel consumption was excellent, 100 m.p.g. being “by no means an exaggerated claim,” and the capacity of the tank was enormous. The Wheeler-Schebler carburetter, operated by a single twist-grip, was provided with adjustable pilot and main jets and an air strangler, which were found very useful in cold weather. Oil feed was by an unobtrusive mechanical pump and consumption very low. The exhaust system, with its not-very-obvious silencer, kept the single-cylinder engine quiet at all speeds and comfort, aided by the pan-saddle, Harley forks and large tyres, was one of the most-emphasised features of this “350.”

Next, please! Why, a four-valve sports Rudge-Whitworth. This machine looked more old-fashioned, with its non-saddle tank, rim brakes and old-style silencer, than the Harley and was tested over several weeks. In those now-faraway days it cost £56 with an efficient electric lighting set. The tester found steering satisfactory, yet two experienced riders suffered lock-to-lock wobbles and both were thrown heavily, one from 80 the other from 50 m.p.h. In the latter instance the Rudge rolled and slid for 60 yards, yet nothing beyond lamp stays, footrests and front number plate suffered damage, and steering was unaffected, so presumably remained as vicious as before! Actually it was decided that the bars had to be held fairly firmly, when the steering was very reasonable. The dropped bars militated against full control.

The engine, even with its compression-plate in place, disliked straight petrol but was happy on “Power” [Note for present-day readers: this was an alcohol mixture obtainable from a Power pump without need of coupons!] and almost as happy on benzole mixture. At times the engine would tick-over splendidly and pull nicely at low speeds in top gear, but on other occasions, for no apparent reason, it misfired and knocked painfully at small throttle openings.

Economy was one of the Rudge’s strong points, for it averaged 90 m.p.g. on Power or benzole mixture when driven fairly hard all the time and the mechanical lubrication worked adequately at the rate of 800 m.p.g. The machine was also outstandingly safe on greasy roads, either under the brakes or when cornering. The foot-rests, moreover, set a limit to how far it could be banked over for fast deviations from straight-ahead, yet the Rudge was always under full control. Its brakes, too, were extremely powerful, although the patent inter-connecting system made the front one rather too weak. The two long exhaust pipes were adequately silenced and mechanical sound was that of a slight noise from the valve gear and a worse noise when the chains became slack, the lack of any positive method of moving the gearbox to adjust the primary chain being an irritating shortcoming. Speed appeared to be about 70 m.p.h. in standard tune, mit compression-plate, and was thought to be restricted by a high top gear, as the Rudge revelled in third-gear work, doing nearly 60 m.p.h. on that ratio. Average speed capabilities were nicely demonstrated by a 98-mile run embracing the winding roads of the Fen country on a day of grease and a strong headwind, when the average came out at 38 m.p.h., including sedate passage through at least ten towns and villages. The Senspray carburetter worked well, even if its throttle lever was extremely difficult to close from the all-out position! Starting was at the second prod, but called for considerable leg-muscle, as the exhaust-lifter was inclined to stick and even on full retard the engine tended to back-fire savagely.

The gear change was gateless, with the positions indicated by numbers on the tank, and changing up was facilitated by leaving the, throttle open. The two intermediate gears changed delightfully easily, but the two extreme ratios demanded a little more care. Comfort was good, the clutch light and the brake controls accessible. Finally, after a month’s hard usage, never sparing it and never cleaning or adjusting anything, the two crashes also included, the only things found wanting were two small bolts lost from mudguard stay and silencer, a slack front chain and very slight excess clearance in the tappets. Fair enough?

Next a 350-c.c. “E.W.” Douglas came along. The “E.W.” had been introduced in 1925 and mainly followed the original Douglas specification of 1912. It created a favourable impression from the very commencement and seemed to have inherited its fine tick-over from the then-obsolete 4-h.p. model, for 2 3/4-h.p. Douglases never numbered this amongst their strong points. The “E.W.” handled well, was quiet both from its exhaust and mechanically, and in 300 miles, in spite of being put through a Colmore Cup Trial in that distance, the only attention required was adjustment of the exhaust tappet of the front cylinder.

The 80-mile run from London to Stratford to the start of the trial was accomplished at a 27-m.p.h. average in spite of thick fog for the last twenty miles, and the P. & H. headlamp required only one fill of carbide and provided perfectly adequate illumination. Fuel consumption came out at about 90 m.p.g., 60 m.p.h. was obtainable under good conditions and comfort was of such an order that the rider felt no soreness or aches after going through the “Colmore” as already recounted and immediately riding the 80 miles home, again in the dark. The hills mostly proved easy, although the Hutchison semi-balloon tyres tended to promote spin unless small throttle openings were imposed. Snags were that it was impossible to make a snap-change from second to top gear and that the front brake was entirely inoperative even when wheeling the bicycle! But on the score of lightness, sturdy build, low price and comfort the “E.W.” Douglas got full marks.

The next machine which came up was a very attractive-looking T.T.-model Triumph, with a 500-c.c. 80 by 99 mm. engine based on those so successfully raced by Victor Horsman and having a detachable hemispherical head, tulip o.h. valves operated by parallel enclosed push-rods and roller-bearing rockers, and an aluminium piston. The frame, typically Triumph, was altered where required and the gearbox had ratios of 4.89, 6.52 and 10.19 to 1.

In spite of its avoirdupois, under way the T.T. Triumph handled like any good lightweight, while the engine ran quietly, ticked-over without mechanical chatter, and was beautifully smooth, vibration, and then only a trace, intruding only at over 80 m.p.h. in the lowest ratio. Starting was normally “two-prod,” unless the forgetful rider did not turn off the oil, allowing an excess to syphon into the engine.

Like many other makers, Triumphs fitted excessively large (wired-on 26 by 8.25) Dunlops, and failed to provide a ribbed tyre on the front wheel, while the rear wheel seemed to have a distinct aversion to staying on the ground, particularly when the rear brake, which seemed to be out of truth, was applied. The front brake, operated by the right hand, was smooth and powerful, the clutch and gear-change delightful and the Triumph never gave signs of great exertion no matter how hard it was ridden. The riding position, location of adjustable bars and footrests and brake pedal, and the supple Brooks saddle were all highly praised, while the Triumph could be put over at tremendous angles for cornering without the footrests fouling. Roadholding was dismissed as “distinctly good,” the report including a lurid account of hitting an arch-pothole at 40 m.p.h., both stands clattering down, but the Triumph immediately repressing the resultant lurch. Even on a good surface, standing starts in a 10 to 1 gear produced wheelspin and gear-changing produced a satisfying sideways twitch of the rear wheel. The makers claimed 75 m.p.h., which was considered a modest estimate and the tester liked this Triumph as having all the essentials of a fast roadster, unimpeded by the separate oil tanks, large petrol tank and ponderous silencers of the I.O.M. or Brooklands model or the large mudguards, legshields and carrier of the touring machine. It looked a decent model and the 1927 price was £66.

After digesting a photograph of a saloon Morgan three-wheeler in the Land’s End Trial and another of the pipework on the engine of Riddoch’s V-twin Zenith-Blackburne, we found that there was no test-report in the May issue. However, the following month Motor Sport got another machine out of a manufacturer. It was an 8-h.p. Royal Enfield and sidecar, looking very “vintage.” It proved a great top-gear runner, pulling away smoothly and accelerating briskly from low speeds in its highest ratio. The brakes were another feature — enormous drums on both wheels, pedal-operated, so that either wheel could be locked even on a dry road, whereupon the Enfield upended, putting all retardation on the front wheel. Normally used, these were admirably smooth brakes. <.p>

This Enfield was the side-valve sports model, not the older 8-h.p. V-twin with touring bars and handle-starting that was sold only as a sidecar outfit, although foot-boards still figured in the specification, likewise, balloon tyres were standard wear. Hill-climbing was another strong feature of the Enfield, Kop, in really rough condition, being topped at about 80 m.p.h. in second gear in spite of a baulk on the first steep pitch. However, nothing mechanical is completely perfect and this combination used oil at the rate of 200 m.p.g., no ready adjustment of the mechanical pump being provided, yet, in spite of ample lubricant, two momentary seizures were experienced. Moreover, speed wouldn’t rise above 55 m.p.h., the gearing seeming on the low side, although a small carburetter jet may have caused the sluggishness and over-heating, as fuel consumption worked out at some 60 m.p.g. Comfort was good in spite of a rather high saddle position, the front fork action admirable and the sidecar, so low and racy as to be rather unsociable, aided stability on l.h. corners. Indeed, with passenger, the tyres could be screamed on such corners before the sidecar wheel lifted. The sidecar was very comfortable, had ample leg-room and an efficient screen, and a locker that would accommodate a tool-kit and a two-gallon petrol tin or, as the tester pre ferred it, two one-gallon oil tins! Right hand corners gave rise to a rather wilting feeling and the front wheel tried to go straight-on if the surface was loose. However, the tester was decent enough to say that he was apt, “imbued with the spirit embodied in the title of this journal, to drive all test vehicles in a distinctly hectic manner as though life were one great race.” Through ordinary hands the Enfield would have passed with flying colours. He even rode the machine solo in a hectic grass track affair and made fastest time in the s.v. class. Moreover a mild crash, due to a locked front wheel, failed to damage the Enfield in any way. It proved capable of high averages, largely by reason of its excellent brakes, and sold for £84.

In spite of the rather frank admission of testing-methods contained in the Enfield test, another bicycle duly came along, in the form of a 350-c.c. o.h.v. Humber. Such factors as car-style mudguards, a sensible lifting handle and substantial build and excellent finish were apparent at first sight. The gearbox gave ratios of 5.65, 7.75 and 11.59 to 1, and in spite of a weight of 260 lb. the Humber steered exceedingly well and cornered really fast. The 75 by 79-mm. engine used an M.L. magneto and a B. and B. carburetter, and equipment included knee-grips and a comfortable saddle; the price was £60. The Bonniksen speedometer showed 68 m.p.h. as the best registered, but it was felt that 75 m.p.h. should be possible under good conditions; 40-45 m.p.h. could be kept up with no sign of overheating and the only criticism was a vibration at 35 m.p.h., the only trouble in a week’s riding a broken outer inlet-valve spring. Both brakes were smooth and powerful. The easy gear-change was a most notable feature; incidentally, the throttle lever opened inwards.

A Model V Matchless, with a light sporting sidecar, came up for test next and the tester confessed to early prejudice because the only previous machine of this make he had ridden was an ancient 5-h.p. single-geared model. The Model V was different! It turned out to be a “works ” hack in good condition and had already won “golds” in the “Land’s End” and “Edinburgh.” Before handing it over, Plumstead demonstrated how this particular example of its handiwork would go up a 1-in-6 hill, drop to 20 m.p.h. for a corner, and accelerate to 35 m.p.h. at the summit, all in top gear with no suggestion of distress. This implied a fluffy, low-compression engine pulling a low gear. Wrong again — the Matchless had a 6.6-to-1 compression-ratio and a 5.4-to-1 top gear.

Taking the saddle, our tester found considerable restraint necessary on left-hand corners, until a passenger was found for the narrow and light sidecar, after which steering was light and certain. In those days Motor Sport believed in having its fill of any machine submitted to it (we thought we must be getting old, until we remembered that in those days no fiddling scraps of paper governed the extent of one’s motoring) and the Matchless was entered for the South Midlands Championship Trial on the Saturday, another machine was ridden in a grasstrack race on the Sunday afternoon, and the Matchless was then loaded-up and ridden hard to Liverpool in order to catch the 1 a.m. boat to Douglas for the T.T.

In the trial, every hill was climbed clean and the Model V survived some terrible bumps and crashes over bad going in the Chilterns, and it was one of four sidecar machines to qualify for a second-class award, having stopped, momentarily, in a long water-splash when the rear wheel spun and sprayed the carburetter — the engine did not actually stop. Out of 180 entries, only six sidecars gained awards and both the first-class award winners were the subject of protests, while over 60 finishers failed to gain any award.

On the 190-mile run to Liverpool, three persons and their luggage were put on it after one accompanying machine had broken down after 60 miles. The distance was covered in eight hours (about 24 m.p.h. average) and the boat caught with three minutes to spare. In spite of the load, 60 m.p.h. was held for hour after hour with no overheating. Unfortunately, until the taper needle in the B. & B. carburetter was lowered, fuel consumption was as heavy as 35 m.p.g., thereafter improved to approximately 60 m.p.g.

Some hectic riding over the T.T. course was a feature of the I.O.M. holiday, the Matchless holding a steady 40 m.p.h. up the Mountain, in top or second gear according to the gradient, while down the other side over 70 m.p.h. was achieved, between Craig-ny-Baa and Hilberry, using most of the road after striking the bumps! After this performance a match placed on the exhaust port refused to ignite; 65 m.p.h. was judged to be the flat-out level-road speed.

On the homeward journey, still with passenger and luggage, the 37 miles of by no means smooth, straight or level going from Atherstone to Weedon occupied exactly 50 minutes. A new heavy cord back tyre was completely worn out in a week.

The engine certainly gave plenty of power — 22 1/2 b.h.p. was claimed at 4,800 r.p.m. — and a 7.6-to-1 piston was available for those who desired it. Reliability, mechanical silence and the Sturmey-Archer gearbox all earned full marks; oil consumption was low and the brakes were excellent, save that they required far too much adjustment — the foot-brake went back one whole serration (45 deg.) after a week’s riding. The back wheel suffered a few broken spokes. This combination was priced at £77 and the solo weighed only 260 lb. and cost £62 10s.

In September the two-stroke enthusiasts got a look-in, a Model 9 172-c.c. Super Sports Francis-Barnett being tested. This little motor-cycle came equipped with really efficient leg-shields, which called forth high praise, yet which could be removed in three minutes when required. An adequate metal toolbox was carried beneath the tank, but the petrol pipe rather impeded withdrawal of the simple tool-roll.

The engine seized-up twice in the early stages, fusing over the rings on the induction side, but when fully run-in, and using “Mixtrol” as well as ordinary lubricant in the fuel, no further trouble was experienced. Indeed, mit leg-shields, lamps and 11-stone rider, the Francis-Barnett lapped Brooklands at over 50 m.p.h., upholding the maker’s speed claim of 55 m.p.h. And at a grass-track meeting 22 miles were covered all-out in second and bottom gears, the machine whining the 250-c.c. class and finishing fourth out of 14 in a 9-mile “Grand Prix” which attracted o.h.v. “500s.” The handling on wet grass was excellent, and the gear-ratios pleasantly close, while ratio-changes could be effected by hand or foot as the mood dictated. The engine pulled hard at low speeds, so that middle-gear sufficed for main or secondary-road hills. Both brakes worked on a dummy belt-rim on the rear wheel and both were extremely powerful and smooth, adhesion being aided by large balloon tyres and correct weight distribution. The handle brake operated via Bowden cable, easily adjusted, but adjustment of the foot-brake, by three different holes to accommodate the brake-rod, was badly blanked by the flywheel-magneto and the frame. The plug, too, was a brute to remove. On the credit side, the Francis-Barnett earned full marks for comfort, riding position, excellent carburetter levers, and good steering, with or without damper. Fuel consumption was excellent and the frame very strong, surviving “long jumps,” being run into from behind by a car and crashing with sufficient violence to break the rider’s collarbone. Remarkable as it seems in 1949, this 1927 machine cost only £38 10s., new.

In October Motor Sport contented itself with “tearing off some strips” about a variety of machines that constituted its stable, but in November returned to its test-reports, trying a Model 90 Sunbeam. This 493-c.c. solo offered complete controllability, with low, comfortable saddle and compact build for its considerable weight. The machine tested was actually a reserve T.T. job, so that some intractability could be explained away by quoting compression and bottom-gear ratios, about 7-to-1 and 8-to-1, respectively. Moreover, it was reported that “further embarrassment was a twist-grip control, a method we had hitherto never tried”!

However, through London from Euston Station the Sunbeam wasn’t too tricky and down the first available by-pass road it came into its own, piston slap vanishing at over 55 to 60 m.p.h., and half-throttle producing a gentle 70 m.p.h., the bicycle rock-steady. Later, acceleration from 70 m.p.h. onwards was found to be terrific and very soon some 85 m.p.h. was attained, when the Sunbeam shot on to a rough patch of road. Damper and shock absorbers had not been tightened, causing the machine to rock and pitch so that the rider lost the footrests, but never for a moment did the Sunbeam go out of control, or start to wobble. Later still, speeding cross-country in the thick mud and fallen leaves of autumn, never a trace of a skid was provoked. Incidentally, steering damper and shock-absorbers could be adjusted from the saddle, the former with one finger.

At Brooklands rain spoilt the test, but the Test Hill was ascended so fast that the summit was crossed air-borne at 40 m.p.h., after changing from bottom to middle crossing the line at the foot of the Hill. On the outer-circuit the engine was happier at 70 to 80 m.p.h. than at 15 or 20, and the maximum was estimated at an easy 90 m.p.h.

The front brake was the most efficient ever met, milled wheels provided instant adjustment of both brakes, the finish of the machine was superlative and the twin silencers gave a pleasant, very deep, mellow note. Interesting features were “grasshopper” valve springs, dry-sump lubrication, with an auxiliary pump actuated by a handlebar lever, and, on the production job, a front-wheel stand. Snags were confined to heavy fuel consumption and poor slow running from the T.T.-tuned engine, offset by negligible oil consumption, and breakage of a shock-absorber bolt and the float-chamber fuel-line nipple. Very high marks, then, for the Model 90. It cost 100 gns. with 1928 improvements.

The last motor-cycle tested in 1927 was a 348-c.c. o.h.c. Velocette, this being the actual machine on which H. J. Willis finished second, at 64 m.p.h., in the Junior T.T., behind Freddie Dixon. Uncanny mechanical silence and docility at low speeds were, nevertheless, highlights of this thoroughbred roadster. The T.T. job was very similar to the 1928 K.S.S. model, save for the footrest position and lack of a kickstarter. The K.S.S. was guaranteed to do 80 m.p.h., while the T.T. machine could do about 85 m.p.h., so obviously Veloce Ltd. had put much of their racing knowledge into their production sports model.

Over the bumpy I.O.M. course the Velocette steering and roadholding were superlative, even to a rider who had broken a collarbone only a fortnight previous and who couldn’t raise one arm above handlebar level. No trace of dither or wobble intruded at speed and rearwheel bounce was all but absent. With the steering damper hors de combat, Bray Hill could be descended flat-out! Well-placed footrests encouraged fast cornering and the rear brake could be operated without moving the left foot from the rest, the action being good if the toe prodded hard enough. The front brake, operated by a very long inverted lever on the right bar, was even better, and the Velocette water-drain on the brake anchor plate was, of course, fitted. In first and second gear about 45 and 65 m.p.h. were possible and the climb from Ramsey to the Bungalow was accomplished in second at between 50 and 60 m.p.h. The clutch was well-nigh perfect, one finger being sufficient to withdraw it, while it re-engaged so smoothly, progressively, yet positively, that the rather high bottom gear went unnoticed and it was even possible to start in top gear without snatch or “pinking.” The gear-change was equally delightful, by a conventional lever in a very compact quadrant on the tank top.

Altogether a very desirable machine, this K.S.S. Velocette, priced in 1927 at £75. And a good year’s testing, withal. (To be continued when space permits.)

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