Past Perfect: The 1937 Brough Superior SS100

A collector's Brough Superior SS100 in original condition was once also owned by one of our writers and by George Brough himself.

Brough Superior SS100

1937 Brough Superior SS100

Photo by Jeff Barger

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1937 Brough Superior SS100
Top speed:
105mph (observed)
Engine:
990cc air-cooled OHV 50-degree V-twin, 85.5mm x 85.5mm bore and stroke, 6.5:1 compression ratio, 48hp @ 4,200rpm
Weight:
440lb (200kg)
Fuel capacity:
4gal (15ltr)
Price then/now:
$692 (£140)/$150,000-$225,000

As any rider can tell you, motorcycling is a pursuit that can cause chapped lips because your lips are regularly exposed to weather and wind, especially riding with an open-faced helmet.

To protect one’s lips, many is the rider who leaves home with a stick of Carmex lip balm tucked into a pocket of his or her jeans or tank bag. Paul Woelbing of Franklin, Wisconsin, will certainly never be without a stick. That’s because he’s the grandson of Alfred Woelbing, who just happens to have invented Carmex medicated lip balm. In 1937, Woelbing developed a concoction to help alleviate cold sores. Working in his kitchen, he mixed and poured the remedy by hand. Twenty years later, he was turning out Carmex in volume in a new factory. Today, Paul and brother Eric run the company, and both are enthusiastic motorcyclists.

While Eric was intrigued by powered two-wheelers from an early age, Paul came to motorcycles later in life — his first was a 1992 Harley-Davidson Sportster, followed by a 1992 H-D Springer. “I decided I wanted to make that bike look like a 1948 Harley, which was the first year for the Panhead and last year of the Springer front end,” Paul says. “I managed to make that happen, but then I realized that rather than riding a fake old motorcycle, I could ride the real thing, and bought a 1948 Indian Chief.”

That opened the floodgates to other vintage machines, and Paul now has several in his collection. He’ll prepare two or three each riding season and add miles to them all. Paul prefers original, unrestored machines, and more than a decade ago began searching for a Brough Superior in just such condition. Paul connected with Brough Superior specialist Victor Olson of Vermont, and asked if he knew of any original Brough Superiors for sale. He did, and in 2005 Victor brokered a deal for the 1937 Brough Superior SS100 featured here.

Strikingly original, it’s a machine with an interesting back story, because it turns out that our very own contributor Alan Cathcart once owned Paul’s SS100. But then again, so too did the mastermind behind Brough Superior itself, company namesake George Brough.

Brough Superior

In 1902, George Brough’s father, William Edward (W.E.) Brough, built his first motorcycle. Production of Brough machines didn’t begin in earnest until 1908, however, and by then young George was 18 years old. Riding Brough motorcycles, which were equipped with bought-in single cylinder and V-twin engines, George Brough placed first in the 1910, 1911 and 1912 London to Edinburgh reliability trials. By the end of the decade, William Brough was producing his own fore-and-aft flat twin engines, similar to the Douglas powerplant, and the motorcycles were considered some of the best being manufactured by any of the English factories.

By then, George Brough was working in partnership with his father. He had aspirations to build an even better machine, but the senior Brough didn’t want to risk his steady motorcycle trade, and in 1919 George Brough took his one-third share in the family company and set up his own factory in Nottinghamshire. Prior to his departure, George Brough had crafted four or five motorcycles, and full production began at the Haydn Road workshop in 1920. The first production Brough Superior (Superior was added to differentiate the machines from his father’s products) was the Mk I, with a 1,000cc V-twin engine produced by J.A. Prestwich, or J.A.P. The engine was installed in Brough’s own solidly constructed diamond frame.

Power was transferred through a Sturmey-Archer 3-speed transmission, and the brakes were rather rudimentary bicycle-style components. At a time when many companies were still employing belt rear drives, Brough Superiors used chains for both primary and final drive. But what really set the Brough Superior apart from everything else was the streamlined, nickel-plated “saddle” gas tank — George Brough, a man who had no trouble with words, described his motorcycle as an “atmosphere disturber.”

Better and faster Brough Superior models were built, and Brough was often at the controls as he chased speed records. On one particular race model he lapped the Brooklands track at over 100mph. This race bike became the basis for the SS80 machine, but Brough wasn’t satisfied. He worked with engineer Bert le Vack of J.A.P., and with a highly tuned V-twin engine in a stronger and lighter chassis he managed to set several world speed records. This model became the basis for the SS100, which was announced late in 1924.

George Brough famously billed his machines as the “Rolls-Royce of Motorcycles” (a claim Rolls-Royce neither endorsed nor refuted) and the SS100 featured everything Brough wanted in a motorcycle. It was fast, safe and reliable, and it handled better than almost anything else on the market thanks to its quality frame and Brough’s own Castle forks, which were patterned after early Harley-Davidson leading-link-style forks. After 1925, every SS100 sold came with a written guarantee that it had gone 100mph or better over a flying quarter-mile.

Over the years, Brough built many different models, some in limited numbers. Brough only built two examples of the Dream with its unique opposed 4-cylinder engine, and only 10 Brough Superior Straight Four models were built, a machine with twin rear wheels and shaft drive powered by an Austin Seven inline 4-cylinder car engine. By far, the most popular Brough Superior machines were the SS80 and SS100 models, and by the time production ended in 1940, some 3,048 motorcycles had left the Brough Superior workshop.

A new engine

Prior to 1935, J.A.P. V-twin engines powered just about every Brough Superior built. After 1936, however, Brough started using Matchless V-twin engines as well, and Paul’s SS100 is fitted with Matchless engine No. 1008. Only 102 examples of the SS100 were equipped with the Matchless BS/X2 powerplant, a 990cc dry-sump overhead valve engine with enclosed pushrods, hairpin valve springs and an 85.5mm by 85.5mm “square” bore and stroke. Compression is 6.5:1, and a single camshaft with three lobes sees one lobe operate both intake and exhaust valves in the front cylinder head while the other two lobes work intake and exhaust separately for the rear cylinder head. The crankshaft runs in a bronze bush on the timing side with a triple-row roller bearing on the drive side, and like a Harley-Davidson V-twin, the BS/X2 features  knife-and-fork connecting rods.

A Lucas magneto/dynamo provides ignition and replenishes the 6-volt battery that powers the Lucas lights. The carburetor is a single 1-1/16-inch Amal 6/200, feeding gasoline from two remote float chambers. A new 4-speed transmission based on the design of the Norton International was bought in from Burman, with cush drives in the Norton oil-bath clutch and the Enfield rear hub.

The Matchless engine was placed in a rigid single-loop frame with Brough’s Castle leading-link front forks. The hubs and brakes were from Enfield, with a smaller 7-inch drum up front and an 8-inch at the rear.

Tracking owners

As noted earlier, our feature bike was registered in George Brough’s name as a works or factory machine. Apparently, Brough liked to register for himself an example of each new model his company introduced, and this was the eighth SS100 with the Matchless engine. He would test and troubleshoot the various new models, and he kept this one until September 1937, when it was registered EAU 31 and sold to Mr. Wing, a Nottingham Velocette dealer.

Around 1939, EAU 31 was again in Brough’s hands, and he installed a sidecar. Sometime between 1939 and 1946, when the SS100 was sold again, Brough built a new frame and renumbered the chassis. A Mr. Bates of Norwich kept EAU 31 from 1946 to 1969, when it was sold to Mr. Magnus, also of Norwich. In the early 1970s, ownership went to Mr. Haley, and then through two motorcycle dealers.

And that brings us to Alan Cathcart’s connection, because in August 1973, he purchased EAU 31 from Verrall’s, a vintage bike dealer then located in London. Alan wrote up the story for Old Bike Australasia magazine, and in the article he says: “One day in 1973, we [Alan and Jeff Craig] were driving home through South London on our way back from a Brands Hatch practice day, when we passed a truck parked outside a shop in Tooting, with some old bikes being unloaded from it. ‘STOP!!’ shouted Jeff, and even before I’d found space to park the Transit van loaded down with our race bikes, he’d slid back the door and was running back to the shop, named Verrall’s.

“Jeff was immediately deep in conversation with a white-haired man who turned out to be Brian Verrall — then Britain’s leading dealer in vintage motorcycles — about the bike Brian was sitting astride: the Brough Superior SS100 ... Verrall had just bought the bike as part of a collection and it was marked down to £950 [approximately $2,325 U.S.] ... Jeff desperately wanted it, but had no money.”

Because Alan had just sold one of his race cars, he had almost exactly £1,000 in the bank. After doing the deal with Brian Verrall, Alan was left with £50. An agreement was made between Alan and Jeff — when Jeff could afford to buy it from Alan, it would be his.

Yet it was Jeff who picked up the bike from Verrall’s. As Jeff recalls: “[Alan was away on a business trip] and I rode the Brough through Friday afternoon rush hour traffic in London. Going through the Wandsworth roundabout it got into a bad wobble, which got worse as I accelerated over Wandsworth bridge. Sitting at a light just off the bridge a cab pulled up and the driver said, ‘Cooor, ain’t that a Brough? Beautiful. Your front tire’s flat,’ and off he sped. I put air in it. Handled great after that, but we put new Dunlops on right away.”

Jeff finally bought the bike from Alan, and it came stateside in 1975. “Frankly, the Brough was the most trouble-free bike I’ve ever owned,” Jeff explains. “My best man took it for a spin right before our wedding and had such a good ride he almost missed the ceremony. My wife still gives him a hard time 39 years later.”

In 1996 Jeff sold the Brough to marque expert Michael FitzSimons, and that’s who had the machine when Victor Olson brokered the sale to Paul in 2005. “I haven’t ridden it yet,” Paul says of the Brough Superior. “I’ve got a few other projects on the go (including building the largest pipe organ in the state of Wisconsin in the Carmex warehouse). I specialize in crazy projects, but I like to encourage smart and talented people to try all kinds of things.

“I hope to run and ride the Brough in the summer of 2016. We’ll change the tires, and go through it and get it up and running. For now, it sits in my office with about 15 other bikes. When truck drivers come in to make deliveries, they get all wide-eyed. I’ll let them sit on any one of them. The more people who get enthusiastic about this stuff the better it is for the hobby.”

Since Paul hasn’t ridden the Brough, we’ll leave it to Alan to describe the performance of EAU 31, as he wrote in Old Bike Australasia. “This is a long-legged, lazy-sounding gentlemen’s express, a two-wheeled vintage equivalent of an Aston Martin DB9, or at least a Bentley Continental,” he said. “Performance is both effortless and honestly impressive by the standards of any era. OK — the Brough won’t accelerate like one of today’s hypersports bikes, but it has a much more flexible power delivery that takes you from 10mph to the ton, all in top gear and surprisingly quickly. And 70-80mph cruising is entirely practical. The engine is extremely smooth and so forgiving, refusing to spit back at you through the carb if you allow the revs to drop, then wind the throttle wide open again. It just — responds.”

Sounds like Paul has plenty to look forward to — it’s a good thing he’s got a ready supply of lip balm when he does get out in the wind. MC


Brough Redux – The new SS100

In 2008, Englishman Mark Upham surprised the vintage motorcycle community when he purchased the rights and trademarks to Brough Superior. At first, Upham focused on building new replicas of the original SS100, but in 2013 he announced plans to build a new SS100. In 2015, production of the first all-new motorcycle to wear the Brough name in 75 years started ramping up.

The new SS100 was designed by and is being built in collaboration with Frenchman Thierry Henriette of Boxere Design. Although the styling is decidedly retro, especially the vintage Brough-inspired gas tank, there’s no mistaking this SS100 for an original. Echoing Broughs of the past, the new SS100’s engine is yet a V-twin, but built to modern standards. The double overhead cam, liquid-cooled 997cc 88-degree V-twin has four valves per cylinder and fuel injection and puts out a claimed 127 horsepower at 7,800rpm, with peak torque of 88lb/ft at 6,400rpm. Final output is through a 6-speed gearbox with chain final drive.

The V-twin hangs from a space frame made of machined titanium, with a fabricated titanium subframe carrying the rear shock and linkage. The front suspension employs a Fior-type cast aluminum wishbone fork with titanium links and an Öhlins monoshock. A cast aluminum swingarm is at the rear, pivoting in the engine case and also equipped with a single Öhlins monoshock. Like the front, it’s adjustable for preload and damping. The twin aluminum-ceramic composite front discs are squeezed by radially mounted 4-piston Beringer calipers and there’s a single disc out back.

All production — including the engine — is in-house, and the 15-strong workforce was scheduled to build 10 bikes before 2015 year’s end, with 125 planned for 2016 and 250 for 2017. It won’t be cheap, but it will be more affordable than an original: The base price is currently set at 50,000 Euros, $57,000 U.S. at press time. — Richard Backus