Triumph and Tribulations – Exploring the UK, Day 11

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June 27th, 2017 – Birmingham, England to London, England: ~130 miles

Missed Day 10? June 26th, 2017 – Carlisle, England to Birmingham, England: ~230 miles

Today is going to be a good day. I’m about to see more bikes in the next three hours than I’ve seen in the last few months combined. The National Motorcycle Museum in Solihull contains the world’s largest collection of British bikes. There are five halls with more than 170 manufacturers represented and 1,000 motorcycles. Here’s a few of my highlights but you’ll really need to spend a full day here.

The NMM hosts 250,000 visitors a year.

As you enter, the free-to-access lobby gives you a taste of what you can look forward to, like this Silk 700S.

This is powered by a 660cc two-stroke twin that was good for 45 horsepower. With a weight of just 310 lbs and a Spondon racing frame, this was a fun ride that was just too expensive to be commercially successful.

A 1912 Wilkinson TMC Series V.

TMC stands for Touring Motor Cycle. A left foot pedal works the clutch while two separate pedals on the right side independently control the two rear brake shoes. But that’s not all…there’s no throttle like you’re used to, you manage engine speed by working air and fuel levels on the right handlebar!

A large chunk of the foyer’s real estate is consumed by a raffle for a BSA Goldie.

The Gold Star name is traced back to the BMCRC – they used to give a ‘gold star’ to any rider who lapped the Brooklands bowl at >100 mph during a club race. A racer named Wal Handley did it on a BSA Empire Star, so BSA commemorated the achievement with the now-legendary bike.

I buy a ticket for the museum but not for the raffle and head into the exhibits. Hall 1 is the older stuff, built between 1898-1960. The bikes are on display in chronological order, and I start with a 1898 Beeston Humber trike.

This was a licensed copy of the De Dion trike and it featured a 400cc motor with enough power to flirt with the UK’s national speed limit of 12 mph at the time.

At first glance, they all look very similar. But closer inspection reveals some interesting design choices that companies experimented with before bikes became relatively standardized. That’s one of the many reasons why historians like The Vintagent are so fascinating.

A 1953 Wooler 500. The distinctive drivetrain features a flat four with shaft drive, just like the Honda Gold Wing that would come out 20+ years later. Unlike the Gold Wing, only five of these are believed to have been built.

1921 Autoglider scooter – the museum’s informational plaque says this was advertised as being “the perfect machine for either sex.”

Halls 2-4 are sorted alphabetically by manufacturer name. Hall 2 simply runs from A-C, though BSA is omitted. There are some special displays for military bikes, “working” bikes (police/ambulance), a photo studio that is dedicated to a special machine, and 22 prototypes.

The “working” bikes. All the way on the left is a London Ambulance Norton Commander, 4th from the left is a Rickman Metisse police bike, and the 5th from the left is a Triumph Thunderbird 6TP. The Triumph would eventually become officially known as the SAINT, and the folk tale is that it stood for “Stop Anything In No Time.”

This might be my favorite bike in the entire collection – a 1939 Brough Superior “Golden Dream”. This was to be Brough’s halo bike but World War II got in the way after just five examples were built. The drivetrain was an opposed-four with shaft drive. Are you sensing a theme here?

During my visit, the photo studio displays a 1963 Marsh MR4. It’s got a great history – a shipyard worker in Southampton named Fred Marsh decided he was sick of the Italians beating the English in 50s Grand Prix racing, so he did something about it.⠀

The motor uses some pieces from a Triumph Terrier and a MV Agusta 125, but the majority of the motor was built from scratch on a lathe.

Obviously, not much came from this, but Motor Cycle News tested it in 1966 and was able to wring out 9,000 rpm from the motor, a 500cc in-line four. Per the museum, Marsh ended up moving on to a V8 project before he really finished this bike.

Marsh passed away in 1978, and his friend John Miell fixed it up with newer carbs and some modifications to address valve gear issues. Because of the lack of spare parts, Miell never raced it, but he said that while parading the bike he hit 9,500 rpm in 3rd gear – that works out to 130 mph.

Commando fans, here’s your chance for a double take. Yes, that says 900.

This prototype was dubbed “Trisolastic” because Norton shoved a Trident triple motor into the famous Isolastic frame.

One of the most absurd bikes at the museum is another Norton prototype – the Nemesis. Conceived in 1998, it featured a 1,500cc V8 that was claimed to put out 235 hp and 111 lb-ft of torque paired with a push-button transmission and F1-inspired active suspension. Claimed top speed? 225 mph. Of course, it was all just a bunch of claims, and the British rag MCN has since called it one of the greatest hoaxes in motorcycling.

My new favorite model name for a motorcycle.

1914 Clyno Sidecar. Built for WWI, this has a legendary reliable Vickers Maxim machine gun.

Don’t get too excited – the mount was just for transportation to a certain spot where the gun would be removed and deployed for use.

Another fascinating military bike is the Welbike, which was designed to be dropped out of planes in parachute-equipped containers that would fall safely to earth. That was the theory – turns out there were plenty of problems that made it impractical for wartime service.

Would you trust your life to a 1.5 horsepower scooter with no suspension?

Hall 3 is for BSA and then for D-N (but not Norton). I can barely keep myself away from the Heskeths, starting with a couple of Vampires. Just 40 were built and two are in front of me. The original V1000 had its flaws, but at least it was good looking. The Vampires (V1000s with a full fairing, if I’m allowed to oversimplify) are so ugly it’s almost charming.

Weirdly, one of Hesketh’s test riders named Mick Broom kept the brand alive by maintaining existing models and building new ones in minuscule numbers. The bike on the left was built in 2004 out of original parts from the 80s.

In 1989, Mick Broom built a prototype called the Vortan. Eight deposits were received, which wasn’t enough to go into production. This bike also illustrates my only real complaint about this museum – there’s not enough room so all the bikes are packed together. There are lots of fascinating details that I want to take a closer look at, but it’s not possible. Woe is me.

It’s an interesting combination of the classic Hesketh V-Twin with modern (for the time) tech like Marvic magnesium wheels and Lockheed race-spec brakes.

Hall 4 is for Norton and the rest of the alphabet. Norman Hyde was a draftsman at Norton Villiers Triumph when it collapsed in 1975. He started his own shop and by ’88 he was producing his own bike, called the Harrier. The idea was that he’d take a inline triple from the Trident 160 and put it in a sport bike frame. 62 horsepower won’t throw your head back but for a select few it is the perfect combination of classic motor and modern handling. Doesn’t hurt that it looks like a ’70s endurance racer, either!

This is one of at least 35 Harriers that have been built, and I’m in love with the shade of blue it is adorned in.

A timeline of Nortons.

Almost 100 years of Norton history are synthesized down into a few square feet.

All that Norton history starts here with their first bike, the Energette.

This is a 1903 model, though the first Energettes were built in 1902. Just three known examples have survived.

Let’s get a closer look at that motor.

It’s a 142cc motor made by a French firm called Clement. This bike doesn’t have it, but Norton offered a two-speed option to make it easier to get up hills.

The Nortons are wonderful but Hall 5 is easily my favorite. This hall is dedicated to race bikes and world record breaking motorcycles.

Welcome to the good stuff!

This is a 1929 Chater-Lea frame that became known as “Copperknob” for obvious reasons.

Over the years it had a variety of engines and a decent amount of racing success.

The tank of a ’36 New Imperial Works Racer. The NMM says it’s arguably “the most handsome machine of the thirties.” It’s definitely one of the most distinctive.⠀

New Imperial’s previous efforts with welded alloy fuel tanks had a nasty habit of splitting so the company decided to incorporate a technique from aircraft manufacturers of the time period. The seams were riveted together and seals were created with interwoven strips of thin rubber.

As you’d expect from a museum in England, there’s a lot of love here for Norton. Here’s the first prototype Norton built to see if their rotary motor had the chops for racing.

It became affectionately known as “Waltzing Walter” because it would shimmy on full throttle. Impressively, this put down 125 hp after some modifications to a production motor that came out of a crashed cop bike. The stock motors were good for 85 hp.

Another one of my favorites is this 1962 Ariel Arrow modified for sprint racing. The work was done by British Sprint champion George Brown and his brother Cliff. Per the museum, George broke seven different British speed records with this bike in one weekend. In 1966, George was able to hit 122.45 mph in a flying start kilometer.⠀

Look at all the speed holes! Nearly everything that could be drilled out to save weight has been – the frame and forks are particularly fascinating.

George Brown also built the “Super Nero”, a supercharged sprint racer using a Vincent 1,000cc motor that was eventually replaced with a built 1,300cc powerplant.

As you saw with the Arrow above, weight savings were key for George and Cliff. That’s why they built their own tube frame for this racer and used the front forks from a Honda 70cc step through scooter!

In Hall 5 I notice a gentleman wearing an Oakland A’s cap, and he’s not speaking with the British accent that I’ve become used to over the last 10 days. He’s got a very interesting job – he builds exhibits at museums like the Exploratorium in San Francisco and he’s currently on vacation with his family, showing them some of the exhibits he’s built at museums in Europe! He just had to stop by this museum for fun, though I think at this point his kids were pretty much ready to go.

The Velocette Venom was famous for being the first bike to average over 100 mph over a 24-hour period. This bike is the actual one that set the record back in March of 1961.

At night, this bike was wired up with 50(!) car headlights to provide enough light for triple digit speeds.

I save the fastest for last. This is the Gilette Mach 3 Challenger, the fastest motorcycle of the 20th century thanks to a 330.639 mph run at the Bonneville Salt Flats.

It’s powered by three rocket motors that produced approximately 6,000 hp. The bike was towed up to 60 mph before the rockets were fired up.

Unfortunately, to set the world record the bike had to run in the opposite direction within an hour and that proved impossible due to tire issues and salt condition. Still, it must have been quite a sight:

The photos above show you a small fraction of what the National Motorcycle Museum has to offer. The most incredible aspect of it all might just be that in 2003, a cigarette started a fire that destroyed 380 bikes and caused over £14 million in damage. The museum responded with a £20m investment and within 15 months they were open again. 150 of the damaged motorcycles were restored for the re-opening. It’s all very impressive, but there’s only so much time I can spend here before Vy will presumably murder me. We head south.

A decade ago, Vy did a semester abroad at Oxford University so we stop by her old stomping grounds.

We stop by Balliol, one of the oldest and largest colleges of the University. This is where Vy studied for a semester 10 years ago. I came to visit for a weekend back then and it was nice for us to have a quick trip down memory lane.

Vy visits the gift shop to see if she can buy a pin that she loved from a decade ago. Turns out, she can’t.

Our tour of Oxford includes some bikes we don’t get in the US, including a Honda Varadero:

Note the “Intel Inside”-inspired sticker.

Baby Jack makes a phone call to confirm our hotel reservation tonight.

Hotel reservation confirmed, we make our way towards London.

It’s bizarre to me that I’m allowed to split lanes between opposing directions of traffic.

Our lucky streak with the weather ends and we are forced to deal with a torrential downpour to make up for the fact that we haven’t had any real rain all trip.

Good gear will get you through a lot.

One of my best friends from high school happens to be in London at the same time, so Vy and I meet her for a drink at her hotel.

Meet my friend Amanda!

Amanda is intrigued by the NUVIZ system that I’m testing.

It’s a little weird when it’s not mounted to a helmet. Hell, it’s still weird even when it is mounted to a helmet.

Our time in England is about to come to a close – tomorrow we return the Explorer to Triumph. But first, we get to have a good night’s rest and actually sleep in for the first time all trip!

Continue on to Day 12!

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