We humans have always adored speed and have craved to go faster. Heck, the old grape-popping and wine guzzling (image courtesy a childhood spent reading the adventures of Asterix and Obelix) Romans even had a God for it. Today, his namesake urges you to just do it. Quite frankly we don’t know what he means by that, but we suspect it has something to do with tying up those laces.
Almost as soon as automobiles were created, the racing bug was already flowing through people’s veins. The advent of motorcycles fuelled these fires and by the early 1900s, motorcycle racing was already on full throttle. With the first ever international cup race held in France back in 1904, by the late fifties, motorcycle racing was gunning forward at a heady pace.
Not all of us today who ride motorcycles fast are track day addicts and the very same thing applied then. Although outlawed now, street racing was popular among motorcyclists back in the fifties and sixties. The famed cafe racers made their appearance; motorcycles that were stripped of everything to reduce weight. Clip-on bars, rear-set pegs and megaphone exhausts completed these motorbikes, and astride with lads high on caffeine and perhaps on the sugar rush from er, muffins, they fiercely competed against each other.
Street-side cafes sprung up beside the newly built roadways that Britain was frantically constructing all across her countryside and these places became popular hangouts for the tonne-up boys and their fantastic array of machinery. Interesting iterations of street racing emerged and one of them was record racing. The rules, sorry, the rule was simple. A song was chosen on the cafe jukebox and a set course was decided upon. The bloke who made it back to the cafe before the song ended, won. These races were informal and held on traffic filled roads, adding to the danger. Just about anyone with a bike and a will (or some distorted form of wit) to risk breaking some bones (or worse), could be a part of these street brawls. And yes, there were plenty of takers. Maybe the appreciation from all those smiling midi clad beauties had a hand to play as well.
This summer of speed, we pay homage to four of these motorcycles that were popular crotch rockets back in the day and we’ve dragged them as hard as we possibly could have, without disregarding their age. That’s because at the end of the day, they are much older than most of us anyway. Sure, they aren’t even in the same room as the 200 bhp giants of today that eat tarmac for breakfast, but you must realise that these were some of the fastest production machines of their era. And a motorcycle that hit the tonne was considered pretty darn special all right.Yes, we have featured a few of these machines earlier. But never have these greats been pitted together in these pages, until now.
Although a 40 bhp motorcycle now might seem like a pussy cat, back in 1954, it was the number of horses made by the latest and fastest BSA ever built – the Road Rocket. The Rocket had very humble beginnings. Its genes can be traced back to a couple of machines – the A10 Super Flash and the A10 Golden Flash. The Super Flash was brought into production for a very brief period of time but was put down even before you could say ‘Jumping Jackflash’ out aloud. The Golden Flash, at the other end, was a longer running model that was quite capable in its own right but was more suited to be ridden by genial old chaps off to the local Lotto game.
Initially launched in the US of A where size always matters, the Road Rocket got the newly designed swingarm frame sprung on a pair of shock absorbers. This rig was initially designed as a replacement for the ageing plunger setup on the A10. The engine was a hotted-up Super Flash unit, which was also designed for the US market. The BSA engine had nearly everything needed to boost its performance from a sidecar lugger to a true pedigreed sports machine.
Starting with an exotic aluminium top end, fuel was fed in through a high performance Amal TT9 carb and into the combustion chamber through better valves. These were actuated by a sportier tuned camshaft and the pistons were high compression spec units that bumped up the power output considerably. Due to the added stresses of the high compression pistons, the crank had to be beefed up to keep from shredding itself into pieces. The result of all these upgrades were as clear as day. With a power output of a whole 40 bhp, this bike truly meant business.
One look at the Road Rocket and you know that its true calling is brisk runs on the super slab. This machine was a classic clubman machine, one that was built for speed and truly nothing else. The low swept bars encourage you to tuck in and give it as much stick as you can muster. The Smiths tacho moves almost as rapidly as the speedo, as the pace increases, till the only thing you can hear is the high pitched splatter of the engine and the heavy pounding within your ribcage.
On the street, the Beesa has its power spread across a large, nearly limitless rpm range. You tend to feel invincible, because the engine offers as much grunt as you want, nearly whenever you want it. Extremely tractable right from the start, the Road Rocket left the rest gasping in its exhaust wake and that too, quite rapidly. The speedo peaked at about 105 mph (168 kph) and that very fact alone instantly won it many avid fans. Although not as refined as Norton’s Featherbed, the Road Rocket’s frame lends it plenty of agility. On the quarter mile, it was the undisputed winner and I don’t think anything could touch it on the twisties either, unless the bloke on the Dommie rode like the devil was after him.
The Tiger 100 was the model that earned Triumph its reputation as a manufacturer of high performance motorcycles in the post-war years. But this motorcycle has its beginnings in the more placid Speed Twin. Edward Turner, the renowned father of the twins, as I like to refer to him, churned out the 5T Speed Twin in 1938, a year before the big, bad Second World War. The 5T had six studs that kept the 500cc engine together and was good enough for a top whack of about 95 mph (152 kph) from the motor’s output of 27 bhp. But then, things started hotting up in the motorcycle scene and something more powerful was needed, a motorcycle that could break the tonne.
The engine was beefed up with hotter cams and higher compression pistons pushed up the compression to 7.8:1 from 7:1 of the 5T. With all this tweaking, and to keep the engine intact, an additional two studs were used to bolt everything down. Thus was born the venerable Tiger 100, in 1939. It had a 100 to its name because of its claimed top speed, but the reality is that it struggled to get there.
If the blokes at Triumph were making merry on their success, the Jerries with their love for blowing things up, crashed the party and bombed the factory to smithereens in 1940. Talk about being a spoilsport. The production of the Tiger was halted throughout the war and then in 1946, the T100 was woken up again. But this time around, the original girders were dropped in favour of the more modern telescopic forks.
The engine remained virtually unchanged till about 1951, when the cast iron top end was replaced with a better performing alloy head. The Tiger sharpened its claws even more in 1954, when the swingarm suspension was introduced and the hub suspension was shown the door. These old hub suspensions deserve special mention here as they were notorious for the fact that the springs in the hub would fly out of their housing, knocking out unsuspecting spanner-wielders as they tried to dismantle the unit! In 1960, the old-school pre-unit constructed Tigers were put down, to give way to the unit constructed models, the first of which was sold as the T100A. The 100A went on to become the T100SS and various other iterations followed, but none of them were as iconic as their predecessor.
TIGER BY THE TAIL
The first thing that you realise about the T100 is the sound. It’s pretty akin to the growl of a tiger (yes, that big yellow, striped cat) and there’s no doubt left in your head about the reason for its name. Give the Tiger its throttle, and you realise that its performance belies its elegant lines. This motorcycle is far from graceful in the manner that it likes to stretch its legs. It gets to the point that it’s almost obscene. Unlike the sudden catapult like motion of the Norton, the Tiger appears to make power right from the word go.
Drag a Tiger through the gears and you will realise that the Dommie can’t put up much of a fight. But then, what the Tiger gains with its motor, it loses to its lack of agility. Apparently, reports claim that letting go of the throttle in the middle of a turn would induce a wobble in the frame. I didn’t experience anything of the sort but then again, we weren’t pushing these beautiful relics that hard anyway.
As far as the aesthetics go, I love the classic shape of the bike. The valenced mudguards, contoured headlight nacelle and the peashooter pipes all exude a timeless charm. Even the engine, with its triangular shaped timing cover, with the chromed rocker boxes seem like they are straight out of the Flying Scotsman. Of the four, I am of the opinion that if the Norton is the most macho looking, the Tiger is definitely the most graceful of the lot.
The Matchless G80 was launched some time in 1935, along with its smaller sibling, the 350cc G3. The G3 became the G3L and gave sterling duty during the Second World War. The ‘L’ suffix denoted the famous ‘Teledraulic’ front oil damped forks instead of the old girders and this applied to the G80L as well. The G3L and the G80L shared the same stroke length as the War Department’s G3L. The main difference between the 350cc G3L and the G80 was the size of the bore, lending it a larger displacement of 500cc.
Production went on till the mid sixties and various upgrades cropped in during the course of its lifetime. The stroke length of the engine was played around with and the ignition system kept improving till the magneto was ditched altogether. The pre-war rigid rear gave place to the ‘candlestick’ shocks. These however were notorious for bottoming out and were later replaced by the ‘jampots’. These too were phased out ultimately and the G80 got Girling units which were to stay till the end of its production run.
MEETING ITS MATCH
Why on earth is there a 500cc single in the fray, you might ask. The reason is simple. Just like today, where not everybody can afford expensive imports, but still manage to push their more common bikes as hard as they can possibly go, the sixties saw plenty of folk smacking their ordinary (by comparison) motorcycles to the limits. Although not all of the cafe racing folk had deep pockets, they more than made up with ingenuity.
Motorcycles like the G80 were made to go faster with home-made stuff like clip-on bars and rear-set foot pegs, in addition to trashing the unnecessary bits like the mudguards and tool boxes. Heads were shaved, carbs were swapped and exhausts were sawed off till desirable results were obtained. Most of this was by trial-and-error and kept the learning curve steep for the wannabe tuners as they went along to become disciples of the God of Speed.
The G80 is the most docile from amongst the four, with a very gentle mannerism to its way of going about things. The relatively lower compression makes it the easiest to start and even at ridiculously low speeds, it simply chugs along in top gear. On the run, however, the Matchless isn’t as boisterous as the twins and takes its time getting up to speed. The thumper couldn’t quite keep up with the other bikes when flogged, but the engine of the bike I rode was bone stock original and with a bit of playing around, there is great potential to squeeze some more juice out of it. This should easily enliven it up a bit.
The four-speed gearbox was as smooth as grease-coated butter and shifting through the cogs was a cinch. These big singles are easier to live with as compared to the twins, simply because of the relatively lesser complexity of their design. Twins obviously have more moving parts and that can be loosely translated as more wear and tear.
Throwing the Matchless around curves is a pleasant experience. It goes around the twisties with a relaxed air about it and it doesn’t threaten to make your acquaintance with the tarmac at all. That doesn’t mean you can’t scratch the footpegs because the G80 can be leaned to a degree that will surprise you. After a couple of years of its launch in 1956 in its home market, Britain, the Road Rocket ultimately passed on the baton to the Super Rocket, an even hotter iteration with a higher compression ratio and other upgrades. During the course of its lifetime, the prodigious Road Rocket made it clear to the world that if the people at BSA put their minds on it, they could create motorcycles that genuinely made grown men wet their pants with delight.
The Dommie, as it was popularly known, had its beginnings as Norton’s first parallel twin back in 1949 and was labelled as the Model 7 Dominator with a displacement of 500cc. In 1952, the Dommie, now called the Model 88, retained its 500cc twin motor but first got its famous ‘Featherbed’ frame. This peculiar arrangement of tubes, designed by the McCandless brothers and manufactured by the Reynolds Company, earned its nickname because of the splendid ride and handling it offered – like a down-stuffed mattress, apparently.
In the meantime, Triumph and BSA began producing 650cc twins for the increasingly growing number of power-hungry motorheads and it was long overdue for Norton to up their ante. In 1956, they did just that, with the introduction of the Dominator 99. This new twin used the same rolling chassis as the older model 88, but housed a new engine that displaced a larger 596cc.
Four years later, the frame got replaced by a new and improved version. This new frame’s upper tubes were moved inwards to reduce the width of the unit. This tweak made the Dommie accessible to riders that were vertically challenged, so to speak, because the earlier frame made it difficult for their feet to touch the ground. The new frame came to be known as the ‘Slimline’ frame, while its predecessor earned the moniker ‘Wideline’.
Riding the Dommie, all dressed up in spectacular English racing green and chrome, is like swinging your legs over a keg full of gunpowder. Waiting for it to make power is quite akin to seeing the fuse burn. And when the thing lights up, it goes like a bang, with a throaty rumble accompanying the surge of speed. On the roll, the Dommie lagged behind till it caught its breath and then hurled me forward, well past the Matchless. The Tiger kept up very easily with the Norton and the Dommie didn’t quite eat the Beesa, but nearly kept nipping at its heels for a while.
The rigidity of the frame and the wonderful fluidity of the ‘Roadholder’ front forks would certainly keep the Dommie right behind the BSA and the Triumph on the twisties. In fact, if the Norton rider was capable enough to take full advantage of all the tautness that the frame has to offer, there is more than just a good chance of him cutting around the BSA and Triumph, to show them a glimpse of his fast disappearing taillight. In terms of looks alone, my vote goes to the Dommie. It’s got plenty of bulk and the lines are butch enough to keep the Norton good looking.