The History of Brough Superior motorcycles
We're celebrating everything Brough Superior here at Classic Motorcycle Mecca this August: so we've put together a history of the legendary British motorcycle marque. Enjoy!
Motorcycles were in George Brough’s blood.
So, it’s hardly surprising that he is regarded one of the most influential figures in British motorcycling history. His lifetime spanned three crucial phases when it came to the development of motorcycles around the world: from veteran bikes at the turn of the 20th century, to vintage bikes that began arriving in 1914, and then post-vintage motorcycles from 1930 onwards. The bikes he crafted – with their air of perfection, luxury, and exclusivity – have ensured he has gone down in the history books as a legend.
That’s in spite of a mere 3000 or so ever being produced: so impressive were Brough Superior machines, that they made their mark on the world stage even in their very limited numbers.
George Brough was determined to produce the very best motorcycles money could buy: and the price of Brough Superior motorcycles often bested the cost to buy a house.
He never wanted to be second best: and that attitude shines through in George Brough’s favourite snippet of poetry, from Rudyard Kipling’s The Mary Gloster:
“They copied all they could follow
But they couldn’t copy my mind
And I left ’em sweating and a’stealing
A year and a half behind.”
George Brough: a born innovator
Born the second son of pioneering motorcycle entrepreneur William Brough in Nottingham, who had been building motorcycles at his factory since the 1890s, it seemed a foregone conclusion that George and his brother would join the family business. Tradition would have assumed the pair would take their father’s business over eventually, but George’s own idealised vision for the type of bike he wanted to build did not fit with his father’s plans. George wanted to take his father’s business to the next level and produce high-performance motorcycles: William had other ideas.
George himself said he wanted to produce “a type of machine designed from the experienced solo rider’s point of view”, boasting the finest components and built to exceptional quality.
He had begun to plan and build his motorcycles while still on war work in Coventry at the end of WWI. His first attempts featured 1000cc JAP engines in a light frame but there was nothing particularly notable about these early prototypes, with the exception of a beautiful plated saddle tank.
His father William – who, despite being a trend-setter once upon a time (he’d made a rotary-valve single before being sold on the flat twin), was not impressed.
George, in turn, ventured out on his own in 1919 and – boosted by his £1,000 share in the family business – set up his own factory nearby on Haydn Road in Nottingham. There he began to produce a line of motorcycles and motorcars.
(Though he did build a handful of his first motorbikes in his father’s house with the help of a man named Ike Webb, before his own factory building was constructed.)
The name ‘Superior’ was reportedly suggested by an acquaintance of George’s, and by all accounts, his father took the name of his son’s fledgeling marque personally, with the word causing the rift between the pair to deepen.
But the bikes rolling off George Brough’s production line lived up to their title. George’s idea, to construct motorcycles featuring the latest and greatest in technology and engineering, complemented by distinctive styling details with flair, soon found the Brough Superior brand recognised as an industry leader.
The Rolls Royce of motorcycles
The brand’s reputation was helped along by George’s skill for marketing too.
The first advertisement for Brough Superior motorcycles appeared in print in November 1920. This particular ad, written by George himself, cut right to the chase. Peppered with motorcycle slang of the day, it referred to the bike as a ‘bus’, its throttle a ‘tap’, and dubbed the machine an ‘atmosphere disturber’.
The advertisement didn’t mention a price. It didn’t matter. Deposit cheques began flowing in.
George’s own feats on his machines were surely the best advertisement of all. His prowess in races, trials and sprints gave him an opportunity to hoist and wave his own flag.
In 1922, aboard an example of the newly-developed Brough Superior SS80 dubbed Spit and Polish, George managed an unofficial 160kph (100mph) lap at Brooklands racing circuit in Weybridge. The bike was the first side-valve machine to lap the famous Surrey circuit at that speed. With that motorcycle, later known as ‘Old Bill’, George Brough took out more than 200 awards in trials and races, and won 51 out of 52 sprint events – losing only one, because of a puncture.
His motorcycles boasted world-leading innovations like the first prop stand, twin headlamps, crash bars, and – of course – his striking fours.
It was H. D. Teague, then the Midlands Editor for The Motorcycle, who reportedly first used the phrase ‘the Rolls Royce of motorcycles’. The throwaway line, a punchy way to indicate how Brough Superior’s motorcycles were the best of the best, was seized upon by George Brough. Every subsequent advertisement bore the phrase proudly.
The end of an era
Throughout the admittedly short run of Brough Superior motorcycle production, some of the finest motorbikes ever seen at the time were released: from the Mark 1 to the first Super Sports (the SS80, first released in 1923) through to the SS100 model (introduced in 1925), which is oft-regarded as George Brough’s greatest design triumph.
Sadly, though, by the time Brough Superior conceived the idea for its Golden Dream, the era of expensive luxury machines was dwindling – in no small part due to WWII.
(It was estimated that the price of bringing this particular Brough Superior to market would be between £80,000 - £100,000: a staggering amount).
George Brough’s determination to reach the top is quite possibly what led to his decision to close Brough Superior at the end of WWII.
By this time, Vincent had hit the scene and was taking British motorcycling by storm.
George Brough decided to retire, and to cease production on his famed motorcycles, leaving behind a legacy for future generations to admire.
He had achieved what he had wanted. He built the machine he wanted to ride.