Sunday, May 29, 2016

'NORTON' GEORGE COHEN

Dr. George Cohen at the Brooklands Centenary in 2007
One of my favorite characters in the old bike scene has left the saddle, and the world is poorer for his absence. Dr. George Cohen, otherwise known as 'Norton George' for his devotion to single-cylinder Nortons (plus a certain Rem Fowler's Peugeot-engined TT racer), fought well against an aggressive cancer diagnosed late last year, but knew the jig was up, that swarf had fouled his mains and blocked the oil lines.  What he leaves behind for those lucky enough to have called him friend, is a ton of wry memories, and his distinctive voice echoing through our heads, with some crack about our terrible workshops, ill-prepared machinery, or silly ideas.  He was mad as a hatter for sure, but a hell of a lot of fun to be around.
A favorite image of George Cohen blasting along on his 1927 Norton Model 18 TT racer on the Isle of Man
George was also a devotee of using his vintage machinery to the hilt, blasting his favorite 1927 Model 18 Norton racer on the Isle of Man, and the roads around his 'Somerset Shed'.  Arriving by train for a visit to George's sprawling country estate was an exercise in bravery, as he'd likely pick you up in his 1926 Norton Model 44 racer with alloy 'zeppelin' sidecar. Strapping your luggage on the back, and no helmet required, meant you experienced the full terror of an ancient, poorly braked but surprisingly quick big single in flight along the ultra-narrow, deeply dug-in Roman roads of the area. The mighty Bonk of the Norton's empty Brooklands 'can' reverberated along the 8' deep earthen walls, as we tore around blind corners of these unique Somerset roads like Mr Toad and Co., headed for home the fastest way possible.  Unforgettable!
George and myself in 2008, with my Velocette KTT and Sunbeam TT90 - sorry no Nortons that day!
George visited the USA a few times, and we were fellow judges at the Legends of the Motorcycle Concours in 2008, at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Half Moon Bay.  I'd brought two bikes for us to swap on the Sunday morning Legends Ride - neither a Norton, although I had a 1925 Model 18 racer at the time (it was hors de combat from my own relentless flogging).   So George got to experience a vintage Sunbeam for the first time, as the photos show, which he quite liked ('My Norton is faster', of course he said), but preferred a spin on 'The Mule', my 1933 Velocette KTT mk4, which shared his favorite Norton's camshaft up top.  Well actually it was the other way 'round, as Norton copied the Velocette design!  Which he grudgingly admitted with a half-smile as he hand-rolled another cig.
George on his only Sunbeam outing, in 2008
A few days prior, we'd picked up a pair of racing Nortons from California collector Paul Adams, which were entered into the Concours, and it would be hard to imagine two more dissimilar characters, who both loved Nortons with passion.  Paul Adams is an ex-Navy pilot of many years' experience, with the unflappable reserve of a military man, and George, well, flapped.  Those two were chalk and cheese, and barely kept from breaking into open argument! Still, George later admitted Paul had a very nice collection, and that his workshop was really clean.
George with one of his many 'specials' built for customers like Dunhill.
Something else he left behind; his incredible self-published love poem to Norton, created from his personal archive of early factory press materials, photos, and documents - 'Flat Tank Norton'. If you're a fan of early Nortons, it's essential reading, and an entertaining mix - some of the early photos of James Landsdowne Norton himself can be found nowhere else.  'Flat Tank Norton' is the kind of book only a devoted enthusiast can produce, as a publisher would have squeezed out the quirks to increase 'general interest', but they would have taken out the George factor, which is what give the book its tremendous charm.  It needs a reprint, as copies run on Amazon for nearly $1000!
Another memorable moment with George came not on a bike, but in one of his select few cars, at the 2013 Vintage Revival Montlhéry meeting.  He'd brought his c.1908 Brasier Voiture de Course after breaking down somewhere in France, while driving the all-chain drive monster all the way from his Somerset home.  He'd sorted the brakeless beast, and was enjoying flying laps around the banking, and offered me a ride, which I accepted with something like fear.  George drove like he rode, and the Brasier had no seat belts, roll bars, suspension to speak of, or front brakes, but it did have an enormous 12 Liter Hispano-Suiza V-8 OHC aeroplane engine with 220hp on tap!  I put myself in the hands of Fate, and George.  I climbed aboard, clinging to the scuttle, and filmed the ordeal with one hand, laughing 100% of the time, as he slid the rear end on the short corners, and got as high up the banking as he could, while the behemoth shuddered, roared, bucked, and squealed.  Unforgettable, just like the man.
With George in his epic 1908 Brasier de Course, with its 12 liter OHC Hispano-suiza aero engine, with 220hp!  Insane for a car with no brakes, and all-chain drive...
George with the re-created Rem Fowler Norton, winner of the very first Isle of Man TT in 1907.  He rebuilt the machine entirely after the disastrous National Motorcycle Museum fire. 
Thumbs up George!  I hate to say it, but goodbye friend.

If you care to send a note to his wife Sarah and his family, I'll gladly forward George's address - shoot me an email.

Friday, May 13, 2016

MOTORCYCLE SPECIALS #1 - GRINDLAY-PEERLESS 'HUNDRED MODEL'

[This is the first of a new series featuring artist Martin Squires' fantastic illustrations!] 

I was overjoyed to see this machine at Stafford Showground on 26th April 2015. I had seen the Original Bill Lacey Grindlay Peerless at Brooklands, but this original condition "Hundred Model" bought a true smile to my face. This particular machine is one of 2 known survivors. The Grindlay Peerless factory produced the “Hundred Model" to celebrate C W G 'Bill' Lacey becoming the first man to cover 100 miles in an hour on British soil in August 1928 on a sub 500cc machine. It’s Believed that the Coventry mark only sold 5 to 6 machines, possibly due to the lack of demand for such a specialist machine. Bill achieved 103.3 miles in that hour on the Grindlay Peerless JAP, an incredible feet of endurance riding on such an early machine. Eariler in the 1920’s the 100 miles in 60 minutes was the ultimate goal for motorcycle manufacturers and their riders. Claude Temple was the first man to do so, averaging almost 102mph at Montlhéry in 1925 on his 996cc OEC-Temple-JAP. The following year at Monthlery Norton rider Bert Denly broke 100mph on a '500' for the first time.


In order to encourage such riding in England The Motor Cycle offered a silver trophy to the first person to break the 100mph mark. Brooklands was the only circuit for such an attempt, an unforgiving course with it’s renowned bumpy surface that launched its riders into the air at any given opportunity. On 1st August 1928 Bill Lacey raised the record to 103.3mph, hitting a top speed of over 105mph which in turn broke the 750cc and 1000cc records. Bill went on to dominate at Brooklands throughout 1928 finishing on the podium at every meeting.

In 1929 Bill increased his distance to 105.25mph setting yet another record. After this continued success Grindlay Peerles produced the “Hundred Model” these machines were essentially the same as the original record breaking machine, complete with nickel plated frame. The replicas were assembled at the Coventry works and then shipped to Lacey’s workshop at Brooklands where Wal Phillips, Lacey’s assistant, would tune the machines to enable them to reach the record speed. Lacey himself would then test each machine to above 100mph on the outer circuit in order to issue an official certificate.

J.D. Potts raced this particular Hundred Model at Brooklands in 1929, in September of the same year he went on to win the Amateur Isle of Man TT. Unfortunately he was disqualified after it was thought he had received factory support, were Grindlay Peerless trying to sell more of these replicas off the back of this, who knows.

In the 1930’s Cyril Norris acquired the Hundred Model. In 1934 Norris had E.C.E. Baragwanath a renowned Brough Superior rider and tuner fit a single port head as this got some more out of the JAP than the twin port the replica was originally fitted with. In order to compete in the 1936 Senior Manx Grand Prix an Albion 4 speed gearbox and an uprated front brake were fitted expressly for the race. These are still present on the machine today. Norris finished 23rd, with a best lap of 33 minutes 37 seconds, averaging 66.9mph.

In the early 50’s Norris used the machine on the road complete with close ratio gearbox and no kickstart! Norris kept the machine until his death in 2000 when it was bought form the family by it’s current owner. Seeing motorcycles like this is such a great experience as you can see the history not only in it's original condition but by the changes from the original factory specification.

Illustration and Words by Martin Squires
Special thanks to Peter Lancaster for his help researching this article.


Thursday, May 05, 2016

2016 QUAIL MOTORCYCLE GATHERING

Buy your tickets HERE for the Quail Motorcycle Gathering on May 14th, 2016
It's Quail time again!  What's become the best moto-Concours show in America has its 8th edition next week, with the Quail Ride (an instant sellout - fehgeddaboutit) on Friday May 13th, and the Quail Motorcycle Gathering on Saturday May 15th.  The show gained real traction about 3 years ago, with participants and machines coming from all over the US and abroad, as word spread about the superb facilities and organization of the Quail Lodge event.  This year there's a Cycle World tour on Saturday morning - click here for details - for those not quick enough to snatch Quail Ride tickets, and the roads around Carmel Valley are fantastic.
Cycle World will lead a ride through the winding roads of Carmel Valley on Saturday morning
There aren't many motorcycle shows where you can rub elbows with World Champion GP racers (Kenny Roberts, Wayne Rainey, and Eddie Lawson are regulars) and superstars like Mert Lawill, while strolling in a beautiful spot, eating fantastic food (and drinks!) and looking at a world-class selection of motorcycles.  The Quail is top-class, as anyone who's attended knows, and why more folks show up every year.  Still, it never feels crowded, as the facility simply expands as necessary, and more vendor/exhibit/food/champagne tents line the field. The Quail put together a terrific video of last year's event, check it out:
As usual, I'll be your emcee for the event, and if I can duck out of Concours judging duty this year, might have time for a chat if you collar me on the field.  I definitely prefer offers of a ride on your groovy bike!
The cool mix of machines typical of the Quail's field display
Taking care of emcee duties with the captain of the ship, Gordon McCall
Fringe benefits; riding the rare and unique!  In this case, a 1930 HRD-Vincent Python
Be there!
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Monday, May 02, 2016

THE ENGLISH DIRIGIBLES

A 1930 BSA S30 Sloper Deluxe captured in 1930 in St. Hubert, Quebec, during the R100's cross-Atlantic tour that year - evidence of damage on the lower tailfin, incurred while crossing the Atlantic, give the clue, as does the Canadian registration of the bike!
A picture proverbially equals a thousand words, but if those words are lost to popular history, they bear repeating. A pair of images posted by Jim 'Buster' Culling on Instagram piqued my interest; their superficial charm lays with the old bike/dirigible mashup, but there's a terrific tale behind these images, pinpointing exactly where and when they were taken, and what was happening with British aviation.  The photos show a couple of friends posing aboard a 1930 BSA 'Sloper' S30 Deluxe (the model # changed by year from 1927-35), with its chrome tank and fishtail muffler, which was designed by Harold Briggs (who'd left Daimler) for BSA in 1926, for the '27 season.  It used a wet-sump design, and proved a very quiet and fast machine, and a big seller for BSA. The gents in the photo are enjoying their triple good fortune on that day, with clear bluebird skies, a lovely BSA to ride, and the added interest of Britain's fantastic new dirigible, the R100, moored on a special mast which allowed 360deg of movement in case of shifts in the wind. The photos are shot in St. Hubert, Quebec, the only dirigible mooring in Canada, where the R100 arrived on August 1st, 1930, and stayed until August 11th, after which it traveled to Toronto.  The lower failfin had been damaged on the Atlantic crossing, as shown in the top (higher resolution) photo.  Photos of the R100 over Toronto on Aug. 12/13 show the lower tailfin had been repaired, so these photos must have been shot the first week of August, 1930.
Likely a friend of the BSA's owner with the new 1930 BSA Sloper and the R100 moored in St Huber, Canada.
The origins of lighter-than-air craft is documented as far back as the AD200s in China, when floating lanterns were used for signaling - 'Kongming lanterns'. The first Europeans saw of aerial lanterns was during the invasion of the Khans in the 1200s, as the Mongols studied captured Chinese signal-lanterns, and replicated them... which is exactly how Europeans were introduced to gunpowder,too. It took another 500 years for the first documented human flight in a hot-air balloon, in 1709, when Bartolomeu de Gusmao demonstrated the principle to the King of Portugal. Balloons grew in popularity through the 1700s and into the 1800s, for both popular and military/surveillance uses. Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin witnessed observation balloons on a visit to the US during the Civil War, and was keenly interested in their potential.  A lecture on lighter-than-air craft for postal and commercial travel in 1874 inspired Zeppelin to sketch out his first dirigible that year, a rigid-framed airship using bags of hydrogen to lift the craft, and engines slung beneath for direction and power. Zeppelin patented his design in Germany and the US, and his first, privately-funded airship, the LZ-1, flew over the beguiling waters of the Bodensee on July 2, 1900.  Experiments, crashes, and a huge public interest in the project meant by 1914 the new Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmbH factory (still in business!) had built 24 ever more capable dirigibles, with over 1500 flights and 10,000 paying passengers under its belt. They proved unreliable and dangerous for anything but observation during WW1, and most bombers-dirigibles were destroyed by weather or enemy bullets, as giant hydrogen bas bags are easy, and spectacularly flammable targets.
The R100 on its mooring mast in Cardington, the HQ of the British Dirigible Project, looking very much like the landscape in our BSA Sloper photos
Post-war, the dream of regular dirigible airline service was realized by the Zeppelin company, who circumvented postwar restrictions on large aircraft by building Zeppelins for American companies!  And while they knew helium was the safer lighter-than-air medium, American patent holders on helium production refused to license rights, so the rest of the world carried on with hydrogen dirigibles, with occasionally spectacular failures. While Britain experimented with its own dirigibles in the 'Teens, they weren't particularly successful.  Still, it galled the British Air Ministry that Zeppelins were making great strides in Arctic exploration, global circumnavigation, and a popular passenger service.  In 1924, the Air Ministry launched the Imperial Airship Scheme to connect its far-flung empire with dirigibles. Two teams competed for a new design; the R100 by Vickers-Armstrongs, and the R101 by the Air Ministry itself. The R100 was built using 'conventional' Zeppelin practice, headed by Barnes Wallis who had experience with dirigible design (and who later used the truss dirigible frame design for the structure of Wellington bombers), which proved an exceptionally air-worthy craft, while the R101 was more experimental, terribly overweight, and unstable.  The R100 successfully crossed the Atlantic, made numerous test flights, and garnered excellent press. Politics within the Air Ministry meant the R101 was pushed into service.  In October 1930, the R101, on its first overseas flight, crashed in France, killing its design team and the Air Minister himself, Lord Thomson. That was the end of the British Dirigible project; the R100 was immediately grounded, and destroyed the following year. The story of the R100 is fascinating, and told brilliantly by engineer Nevil Shute in his book 'Slide Rule'.  Shute was Deputy Engineer on the R100 project under Barnes Wallis, and took over as Chief Engineer in 1929.  'Slide Rule' was recommended to me by Dennis Quinlan, and I'm passing the favor along to you; like books by Phil Irving, or Kevin Cameron's Cycle World columns, Shute manages to wrest very technical matters into an entertaining read.
The majesty of an enormous Zeppelin is undeniable, and when the LZ-26 was flown over the White House in 1926, president Calvin Coolidge called it 'an angel of peace.' After Count von Zeppelin died in 1917, the company was taken over by Dr Hugo Eckener, who was adamant the airship be used for peaceful purposes.  He was a vocal anti-nazi, and made an official 'non-person' during WW2, and only intervention by Hindenburg prevented his arrest.

Friday, April 15, 2016

MALICK SIDIBE - 'THE EYE OF BAMAKO'

1962 - a well-off Malian couple shows off their Honda CA72 Dream.  (c.Malick Sidibé)
Malian photographer Malick Sidibé died today at 80 years old...ish - he could never remember whether he was born in 1935 or '36.  Born into a shepherding family in Soloba, he showed an early talent for art, but it wasn't until he was 10 years old that he began an education - when the family could release him from watching goats, presumably because a younger sibling could to take his place!  His home was colonial French Sudan, and by 16 he'd earned a spot at the École des Artisans Soudanaise in Bamako, the capital.  By the late 1950s, he apprenticed with society portrait photographer Gérard Guillat (in his Photo Service Boutique), bicycling between night clubs and hot spots in the evenings with a Kodak Brownie camera.  Such was his gift, by 1962 he'd set up his own photographic studio, gaining the nickname 'the eye of Bamako' for his compelling portraits of Malian hipster nightlife.  The dandies, the discos, the families with their treasured motorcycles, brimmed with life after Mali gained independence from France in 1960, and Sidibé captured the vibe.
A young couple dancing at a nightclub in Bamako, Mali, c.1962.  (c.Malick Sidibé)
His work was 'discovered' by the Anglo/European gallery and museum cabal in the late 1990s, and a flood of solo exhibitions and retrospectives quickly followed; first at the Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago -  1996), then the Centre d'Art Contemporain (Geneva- 2000), Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna (Rome - 2001), etc.  In the 20 years since that first Chicago exhibit, at least 9 books were published on his decades of photography, and his work can be found on postcards and Pinterest sites. The exposure doesn't detract from the magic of his work, which sympathetically captures the vibrant energy and aesthetic genius of the Malian people.  It was the mopeds, motorcycles, and scooters that caught my eye of course - "there's always a motorcycle" should be my website footer - but it's the two wheels in context that matters, with snappy young gents, courting lovers, or families posing with this important, treasured possession, the real and symbolic statement of Mobility, as Africa took over the reins to its own future.
A recent photo of Malick Sidibé.  (c.Jennifer Morgan Davis)
In 2010, Sidibé told London's Guardian that a good photographer required “talent to observe, and to know what you want,” but equally to be approachable and friendly. “I believe with my heart and soul in the power of the image, but you also have to be sociable. I’m lucky. It’s in my nature. It’s a world, someone’s face. When I capture it, I see the future of the world.”   Vale, Malick.
Three Malian 'sapeurs' (fashionable young gents) with their chic late-'50s Motobecane Mobylette mopeds, c.1962 (c.Malick Sidibé)
The fabrics!  Three youngsters with an East German Simson SR-2 'Star' 50cc motorcycle (c.Malick Sidibé)
The quality isn't great, but the bike is - because I have this exact machine!  An MZ TS250, ca.1974 (c.Malick Sidibé)
As the '60s moved into the '70s, you bet those flares got wider, and I see platform shoes peeking out...(c.Malick Sidibé)
A 1962 shot from a disco - 'Regardez-Mois?' (look at me!). (c.Malick Sidibé)
An early 1970s Vespa with a familiar backdrop of locally-produced cloth.  While these shots are in black/white, no doubt the fabric included the vibrant oranges, blues, and greens typical of Mali. (c.Malick Sidibé)
One of my favorites; traditional garb and the all-important 1980s boom box...(c.Malick Sidibé)
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Saturday, April 09, 2016

'HOLES IN THE MEMORY'

[This is my current Cycle World column; this issue (May/June 2016) features the first ever hand-painted cover of the magazine, without a motorcycle photo!  It's an historic issue, and the cover looks great, by Ornamental Conifer - the 'Hand Built Issue'. It will definitely sell out, so find a copy!]
Cycle World editor-in-chief Mark Hoyer and myself at the Handbuilt Show, with the hot-off-the-press new issue.
"When Sylvester H. Roper attached a small steam engine to an iron-frame ‘boneshaker’ near Boston in the late 1860s, he had no idea Louis-GuillamePerreaux was fitting a micro-steamer to a pedal-velocipede at the same time, in Paris.  Kevin Cameron and I disagree on their species; he calls them ‘steam cycles’, but I think any motorized two-wheeler that delivers yeehaw is a motorcycle.  That’s a scientific measure; the all-important Y factor.  It’s what got both you and me and everyone else into bikes, even in the 1860s. Roper regularly rode his ‘self propellers’ around Boston, scorching the road between his home in Roxbury to the Boston Yacht Club, where he’d refuel and (presumably) have a beer. On June 1st, 1896, Roper was invited to demonstrate his steamer at the Charles River Speedway, a banked cement velodrome in Cambridge.  He out-paced a peloton of bicyclists, then steamed away from a top pro racer. Track officials urged him to unleash the hissing beast, and after a few scorching laps timed at over 40mph, Roper wobbled, shut down, and collapsed. He was 72 years old, and had a fatal heart attack during a major yeehaw moment; he was the fastest cyclist in the world, and felt it keenly.
 
'Did Joy kill him?'  Sylvester H. Roper's obituary in the June 2, 1896 Boston Globe
SylvesterRoper invented motorcycling; he was its first speed demon, and its first martyr. He’s our patron saint, and died for the same sin that stains 21st Century bikers - the lust for speed. His steam cycle of 1869 sits in the Smithsonian – their oldest powered vehicle, which they call a motorcycle – and the bike he died on sold for 500grand two years ago.  He’s pretty important to the history of our second favorite pastime, and a hero of mine.  So while visiting Boston last year, I was keen to follow the Roper trail, and asked Dave Roper (the first American to win an Isle of Man TT, and a distant relative) if he knew the address of his namesake?  He recalled 294 Eustis St in Roxbury, but a visit in the company of photographer Bill Burke revealed a parking lot.  I hit the Boston State Library, and found we were darn close – he lived at 299 Eustis St, and the house still stands.  I told every Bostonian I met about this exciting discovery, and admit to crazy fantasies of buying the place, because Roper!  If he’d created a cure for smallpox, or invented the automobile, or written famous novels in his day, you’d find a plaque by the front door, with the house listed in tourist guidebooks.  But this is motorcycles, still a dirty word to some, so the house remains uncelebrated and overlooked, except now you know about it, too.
 
The Google Earth snapshot of 299 Eustis St, Roxbury MA, the former home of the inventor of Motorcycling.

There’s little published on Roper, certainly no proper biography, just a few columns in 1800s magazines, and a lot of ‘web conjecture. The first motorcycle books weren’t published until the early 1900s, and all were ‘how to’ until Victor Pagé wrotea history of motorcycles in 1914.  That might sound like the dawn of the industry, but ‘Early Motorcyclesand Sidecars’, which is still in print, was published 45 years after Roper and Perraux pioneered motoring on two wheels.  Many thousands of books about motorcycles were published in the next 100 years, from ADV travel in the late ‘Teens (it was all adventure then), to tell-alls about 1%er club misadventures, to hundreds of histories of long-dead makes, from Aermacchi to Yamaha.  But there are still big holes in the literature, and a lot of important stuff is missing from moto-history.  I’ve been approached to write books on two brands this year – Zenith and Motosacoche – which in their day held World Land Speed records, won championships, and made a dent in their world.   Researching those stories is hard work, but it feels good, like cementing the foundation of the House of Motorcycles.  Put a plaque on it!"

Friday, April 01, 2016

GENDER UNSPECIFICITY: BECAUSE ITS TRANS-PORTATION

Still the only individual to install a motorcycle in the British Museum, Grayson Perry is the role model for The Vintavagenta.
Starting today, in support of poly-gendered riders globally, TheVintavagenta claims its space as the only bias-free moto-culture website in the world. There's a side of us we've been ignoring, so it's time to get exploring, and let the Vintavagenta magenta flag fly!  As your cis-gendered scribe, my job this year is digging out bias from the previous 900 articles on TheVintavagenta.com, and each corrected piece will be featured first on my Facebook and Instagram accounts, so stay tuned!
There's 100 years of gender-neutral history yet to explore on The Vintavagenta!
But the basic idea is to have fun!

Click here to see more April's Foolery at TheVintavagenta.com!