With the unveiling of the 200+bhp, 1200cc Norton V4 RR and SS at Motorcycle Live at the NEC, arguably the most advanced British superbike in a generation it begs the question: What other ground-breaking British superbikes have there ever been? Here’s Phil's favourite 10…
Arguably the first, and still most desirable, of all British ‘superbikes’. W E Brough's machines in the early 1900s had been innovative and well-engineered and his son, George, continued the tradition but with added style, quality (by using only the very best components) and performance. The first Brough ‘Superior’, in 1919, was the result and the marque soared to prominence in the 1920s following the introduction of the S.S.80 in 1922 when George, as much a publicist as he was a perfectionist, became the first to lap Brooklands at over 100mph on one. Famed also for being known as ‘The Rolls-Royce of motorcycles’ (a use negotiated with the car firm by George himself) and by its association with ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ T.E. Lawrence, who owned several, and died aboard one in 1935. They reached their zenith with the J.A.P. V-twin powered S.S.100 from 1924 which came with a written guarantee that it was capable of over 100mph, in the days when very little else was.
Lighter and faster than the subsequent Matchless-engined version, the J.A.P.-powered S.S.100 has long been regarded as the ultimate Brough. Brough production ceased in 1939 although an all-new, modern V-twin S.S.100 Brough Superior, built by Boxer Bikes in Toulouse, France, under Mark Upham brand ownership, went into production this year priced from £45,000.
HRD was a British motorcycle manufacturer founded in 1924 by racer Howard Raymond Davies but with limited success found itself taken over by designer Paul Vincent in 1928, who renamed it Vincent-HRD. Vincent decided to continue the racing theme but after a poor showing at the 1934 TT decided to start using its own engines. The first, Phil Irving designed, 998cc V-twin powered Rapide, in 1936, was the result. After WWII, Vincent entered the US market, dropping the HRD tag to avoid confusion with Harley-Davidson. A tuned, more performance orientated version of the Rapide followed in 1948 called the Black Shadow while a special lightened version, using magnesium components, was also available to order. Most famously, Rollie Free set a new US speed record of 148.6mph aboard the first example at Bonneville, wearing just his swimming trunks, in September that year. Just 31 Black Lightnings were ever built. The Black Shadow remained as the world’s fastest production motorcycle until Vincent production ceased in 1955. Both remain among the most collectable of all British bikes.
Although ‘only’ a 499cc air-cooled single, the Venom is one of the most revered British performance machines of all. Launched in 1955, at the same time as the 350cc Velocette Viper, it was developed to compete against the new generation of British twins. As such, it featured novel performance-enhancing technology including a high compression piston and light alloy head. The later Sport models, from 1960, also had radical glass fibre side-panels. In 1961, a factory-prepared Clubman version set a 24-hour average world speed record of 100.05mph, the first motorcycle of any size to do so. This bike is today on display at the National Motorcycle Museum. Although this boosted sales, however, the company struggled in the late 1960s. Production ceased in 1970 and the company itself closed in 1971.
Triumph will probably always be best known for its Bonneville, a performance-orientated machine named after the location of Johnny Allen’s 1956 speed record success and based on a 650 Tiger twin but with twin carbs. That first Bonnie’s huge success resulted with the model becoming the cornerstone of the old Meriden concern’s range right until its demise in 1982.
Ironically, Triumph was actually founded in Coventry by a German, ex-pat Siegfried Bettmann, and began making motorcycles in 1902. They later made cars, but that business was sold to Standard in 1936 (and, ironically again, the Triumph car brand is now owned by BMW after it took over Rover in the 1990s). The key development for the Bonneville, however, was, Triumph’s launch of the Edward Turner-designed 500cc, twin cylinder Speed Twin in 1937, which became the basis of all Triumph’s subsequent twins.
Today, under the new, John Bloor-owned regime, the Bonneville lives on and was completely engineered for 2016 although, unfortunately for some, it is now a retro machine rather than an out-and-out superbike.
The limited production Rocket Gold Star was about as close to a road-going superbike that the BSA concern, usually more concerned with utilitarian machines, ever got. Essentially it was a marriage of the end-of-line, pre-unit 650cc A10 twin cylinder engine (which was about to be replaced by the unit construction A65 engine) as presented in tuned, top of the range, Super Rocket form, and the legendary double downtube chassis from BSA’s Gold Star competition machine. Launched in February 1962, total production was just 1584 machines before production turned over in 1963 to the new unit machines. As a result today it’s one of the most collectable of all BSAs.
Norton superbikes are nothing new – whatever the astonishing new V4 suggests – but despite plenty of race success the original concern took a while to create a genuine, road-going superbike.
Like Triumph, the original Norton concern began making motorcycles in the West Midlands in 1902, at first using proprietary French and Swiss engines, and from the outset put an emphasis on racing and performance – indeed a Peugeot-engined Norton won the very first TT in 1907, beginning a relationship with the Isle of Man it continues to this day.
After plenty more TT success in the 1930s and 1950s, its first twin, designed to rival Triumph’s successful Speed Twin, came in 1949. This bike, the Dominator, grew from 500 to 600cc (and adopted the legendary Featherbed frame) in 1957, to 650cc in 1960 then to 750cc, as the Atlas model for the US market, in 1962. The Atlas, however, was blighted by engine vibration, a problem finally fixed with the introduction of the 750 Commando in 1969 (though the bike was unveiled in late 1967 production was delayed until 1969) with its ‘Isolastic’ frame. The Commando was not only much smoother it was the most powerful and best handling British bike of its day, enough for it to be voted MCN Machine of the Year for five successive years, from 1968 to 1972.
The BSA Rocket 3/Triumph Trident was the last major motorcycle developed by the old Meriden Triumph concern in the late 1960s and, although not the commercial success hoped for, remains a hugely significant machine. A 750cc air-cooled triple, it was sold as both the Triumph Trident and BSA Rocket 3 and was introduced to critical acclaim in the summer of 1968… before being immediately eclipsed just four weeks later by Honda’s all-new CB750 four.
Even so, it wasn’t without its successes. The company's US sales team launched it by setting a series speed records at Daytona (which were only broken years later by the Kawasaki Z1), while, in 1971, with the help of frame expert Rob North, a series of Formula 750 racing machines were produced. At that year’s Daytona 200 the British bikes took the first three places, Dick Mann won on a BSA Rocket 3 with Don Emde third on another and them both split by Gene Romero on a Trident. Best of all, though, was another bike, which became known as Slippery Sam and which won 750cc production races at the Isle of Man TT for five consecutive years. A mooted production version, unfortunately, never happened, although road going replicas are being built to this day.
With Norton merged with Triumph and BSA, the last 750 Commandos were produced in 1973 and replaced that same year with an updated and smoother (although no more powerful) 850c version which powered the Roadster, Hi Rider and Interstate models.
Despite the company’s commercial problems, during the early 1970s Norton had achieved significant on track racing success. After receiving sponsorship from Imperial Tobacco, the ‘John Player Norton’ team was set up in November 1971 to contest the Formula 750 series with bikes designed by racer/engineer Peter Williams based on the 750 Commando. Williams knew other teams had more engine power, so he concentrated on achieving superior handling and aerodynamics. With lead rider Phil Read, the blue machine was fourth at Daytona, and second overall in the Transatlantic. Redesigned by Williams for 1973 with a revolutionary, stainless steel monocoque frame, radical aerodynamics and a now iconic white livery, Williams himself won that year’s Formula 750 TT and was partnered by Dave Croxford for the British series. To celebrate that success, in 1974 Norton produced 200 Norton JPS 850 Commandos, which replicated the fairing and livery if not the frame. Today it remains one of the first ‘racer-replicas’ and one of the most collectable. Interestingly, Peter Williams recently announced he was going to build a limited run of replicas of the monocoque for a princely £74,000 each.
Rickman Motorcycles was a British, independent motorcycle chassis builder founded by brothers Derek and Don Rickman. Initially, in the 1960s, its designs and frame kits were for scramblers using the likes of Triumph and Villiers engines. But in the mid-1970s they also began selling chassis kits for Japanese superbikes, which had notoriously poor handling at the time – most famously for the Honda CB750 (which became the Rickman CR750) and Kawasaki Z1 900 (Rickman CR900). With the most potent engines of the day, fine-handling, chrome-moly tubular steel chassis, the best cycle parts of the era (Rickmans were the first road machines to use disc brakes both front and rear) all wrapped up in gorgeous and sultry fiberglass bodywork, Rickmans were among the most desirable superbikes of the mid-1970s and today are among the most collectable of all British bikes.
After the old Norton’s demise in the late 1970s, the company stumbled from pillar to post developing a radical rotary engine motorcycle, which emerged in a variety of forms during the 1980s. On the road, these ranged from the air-cooled, police-spec Interpol 2, followed by the Classic roadster in 1987 and a water-cooled tourer called the Commander in 1988. All had very limited success. A spin-off racer developed by Brian Crighton was a very different matter, however, and in black and gold JPS livery it was a sensation in British championship racing in 1989 and 1990. Bowing to public pressure, a ‘replica’ of this bike was finally produced in 1990 with a Spondon frame and Seymour-Powell styling however, priced at £12,000, with just 95bhp and questionable reliability, though exciting, it wasn’t a success. This was followed up in 1992 with the restyled, more affordable F1 Sport, but again to only very limited success.