1927 Douglas EW

Before man bit the apple of convenience, there was the 1927 Douglas EW

Aside from the obvious disadvantages of being made into soup, it might not be such a bad idea to be an octopus. Certainly, a gentleman-octopus, top hat, tailcoat and all, would have been completely at ease riding a chuffing 1927 Douglas EW down cobbled Baker Street. 

But as I desperately squeeze (with my right ring and little fingers) and stomp (left heel) on the completely useless brakes of a bike as old as television, awkwardly jog the ‘throttle’ lever (base of right thumb) and tug at an inverted clutch lever to prevent a stall (left hand fingers), contemplate a downshift on the tank-mounted gearshift if need be (right hand), oh and vigorously pumping oil on the other side of the tank (choice of hand), this seems like a completely daft device for two-armed human beings to ride. And imagine, in the Roaring Twenties, tens of thousands of people did this on a daily basis.

No time to think about that now; I’m too busy trying to manoeuvre the Douglas to avoid a wall that has sneaked up in front of me. A hansom cab would’ve moved for a toot of the bulb horn (left hand) had there been either horn or hansom, but walls tend to be a bit uncooperative. Ashdeen Jamshedji, the young garage owner and classic car enthusiast who owns this Duggie, is probably a very nervous man as he watches his one-of-a-kind motorcycle being wobbled down the road by a completely foxed journalist. Thankfully, said journo’s survival instincts manage to work the right muscles in the right sequence; I live to tell the tale, and so does the EW.

Even at standstill, the skeletal 90 kg Douglas is enough to jangle your soft modern biker-nerves. There’s a substantial 348 CC four-stroke in-line boxer twin, fed by a single Amal carb, in a simple single-downtube rigid frame. That’s more or less it. The rest of the bike is as basic as a kindergarten-kid’s drawing, with a long, wide handlebar, narrow rectangular tank, drum brakes (surprisingly, one at the front too), 19-inch wheels, thin sprung saddle and carbide headlamp. End of list.

Of course, there are some period details that trigger a reflexive smile, like the racing bicycle-style derailleur clutch, the three-speed crash-mesh gearbox that sounds like molars on scrap-iron when you shift, the open tappets that jabber enthusiastically when your heave on the non-return kickstart finally works, the spillover fuel gauger, the clip-to-fasten mainstand, the detachable headlamp you can carry up a dark driveway into your home... features not uncommon up to and in the Twenties, when something like 600 ‘manufacturers’ in Ol’ Blighty combined all manner of outsourced parts to churn out motorised-cycles. 

One such was the Bristol-based Light Motors Company, which made the Fee (Fairy) motorcycle with a 200 CC in-line boxer designed by Joseph Barter. When it floundered in 1907, Barter moved to the Douglas Foundry Company, which used to supply castings for the Fee, and set up a motorcycle department for them. The boxer-engined motorcycles gained mindshare when they won the 1912 TT and then the Six-Day Trial, and a shot in the arm with a 25,000-unit order of 3.5-hp military bikes for World War I.

Competing in motorsports saw Douglas develop innovations like friction (rudimentary disc) brakes, on their 6 hp racer in 1922. Light and with a low centre of gravity, Douglases especially had success in Speedway – or more properly, dirt-track as it was known then. The Aussies had used Douglas RA-based machines, and in 1928 the company came up with the purpose-built DT5. It made a very respectable 27 bhp, but this long-and-low 500 CC machine did well for just about three years before the competition raced ahead.

Through the Thirties, Douglas continued collapsing, resurrecting and  manufacturing their in-line boxers in a vast range of capacities. Breaking tradition, they launched the transverse-engined Endeavour in 1935, but it was short-lived. The Second World War didn’t help either; unlike 25 years previously, Douglas reeeived no military orders. From 1945, they launched a flurry of transverse-engined bikes with torsion-bar suspension at both ends, including the 130 kph Mk III, the fastest 350 then going, and in 1950 (after another takeover), the neat 28 bhp 90 Plus sportsbike. The next year, they started building Vespa scooters under licence, a move that stoked the fires of corporate life for a few more years. 1955 saw the launch of their last model, the Dragonfly; two years later Douglas went belly-up for good.

This crude, complicated EW, then, represented Douglas’ golden years. I bent down and pulled the decomp lever to kill the engine, telling my heart to ease up. While evolution may have robbed us of six arms, it did at least give us a chance to grow some chest-hair.This Douglas is up for sale. Interested? Call Ashdeen at 022-24974286