The roaring twenties was a boom time for the motorcycle industry. In truth, it was a boom time for most industries.
The war to end all wars was finally over in 1918 and advancements in engineering driven by the war movement were now being transferred into the automotive and aviation industry.
By the start of the 1920’s the consumer demand for the latest motorcycles, cars, kitchen appliances, radios etc. had caused rapid economic and industrial growth throughout Western Europe and North America.
Suddenly, motorcycle brands appeared who weren’t constraining their designers with a mandate to produce something cheap for the masses and the world got its first true super bike that cost more than a decent sized house.
Brough Superior SS100 & SS80
Arguably the worlds first genuine superbike started production in 1924. The SS100 (Super Sports) had a 980cc V twin engine with a 3 speed gearbox.
The SS100 superseded the Brough Superior SS80 which was built from 1920.
Every Brough Superior was hand built and the purchaser was encouraged to provide input into the build. It was said no two Brough Superiors were the same.
Each Brough Superior SS100 came with a certificate guaranteeing it had achieved a speed above 100mph over a quarter mile sprint. The SS80 was guaranteed to reach 80mph, hence the names.
Not surprising then that they became known as the Rolls Royce of motorcycling. Legend has it that after George Brough had been quoted making the claim by a newspaper. A Rolls-Royce senior executive was not impressed and subsequently visited the Nottingham factory to express his disapproval.
On finding the motorcycles being lovingly assembled by staff wearing white gloves he had a change of heart and gave his approval for the slogan to be used.
Brough Superiors had many famous fans and owners but there was no bigger fan than Lawrence of Arabia who owned 8 of them. He was riding an SS100 when he swerved to miss two boys on bicycles, hit a tree and died 6 days later from his head injuries.
The Brough Superior SS100 is one of the most coveted motorcycles in history and there are thought to be just 71 left in existence. In 2019 an unrestored SS100 fetched £425,000 at auction. The purchaser took it home in several boxes.
If you can’t find or afford an original then have a look at the new Brough Superior SS100.
Further recommended reading: Brough Superior The Complete Story by Peter Millar
The first ever BMW motorcycle, the R32 first appeared in 1923. It’s amazing that above all the other 1920’s motorcycles featured here, the R32 is instantly recognisable for what it is, even if you removed the BMW badge.
Before turning to motorcycles BMW had made war plane engines but after WW1 the German airforce was no more so BMW started making engines for land vehicles.
When they decided to design and build their own motorcycle the designer came up with the idea of the Boxer engine. The theory being that both cylinders were sticking out ensuring they were kept cool thanks to the unrestricted air flow. They’ve stuck to that design principle for close to 100 years – amazing!
The BMW R32 engine was 494cc producing 8.5hp and was capable of close to 60mph. The first edition had no front brake but later models were thankfully fitted with a drum brake.
There are thought to be around 60 BMW R32 motorcycles in existence. One sold in a 2019 Vegas motorcycle auction for $220,000
Further recommended reading: BMW Airhead Twins – The Complete Story
The original (and best) Indian Chief made its debut in 1922. It had a four stroke 1000cc V twin engine in a rigid frame.
It was released as the 600cc Indian Scouts more powerful bigger brother but apparently not big enough because in 1923 they released the Big Chief which had a 1200cc engine.
The standard Chief with the 1000cc engine was in production until 1928. The Indian Motorcycle Company continued to produce the Chief until it ceased trading in 1953.
At one time Indian were the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world. In the 1911 Isle of Man TT the Indian Motorcycle Factory team took 1st, 2nd and 3rd place in the Senior TT to the shock of the usually dominant British manufacturers.
Recommended further reading: Indian Motorcycle: America’s First Motorcycle Company
Harley Davidson Model W Sport Twin
The Model W, also known as the Sport Twin was produced from 1919 until 1923.
It was notable as being Harley Davidsons first flat head engine, a twin cylinder with side valves that supposedly ran smoother and cooler than their usual big V twin.
HD pinned their hopes on the Model W Sport Twin attracting new customers to motorcycling but the British Douglas inspired horizontally opposed twin 584cc engine never caught on with the big V twin loving American riders.
It didn’t help when in 1920 Harley Davidsons main rival released the cheaper, more powerful and faster Indian Scout.
In Europe though the Model W did very well for Harley Davidson thanks to its above average handling and a decent turn of speed.
The Model W broke the 3 flags record – Canada to Mexico run – and the New York to Chicago record.
Despite its proven speed achievements and its success in the European market, after 3 years and 9,883 Model W motorcycles had been sold, Harley Davidson finally pulled the plug on the bike.
Bonhams believe only 60 or so are currently registered for road use world wide. A Harley Davidson Model W Sport Twin with original paint can fetch up to $50,000 at auction. Restored options go for upward of $25,000
Recommended further reading: Harley Davidson – The Complete History
The original Indian Scout was introduced late 1919 as a 1920 model and was an instant hit, remaining in production until 1949 when it was replaced by the warrior.
The Indian Motorcycle Company had been putting all their efforts into lucrative government contracts during the WW1 and it is generally accepted that the Indian Scout put them back on the map as it appealed to the every day rider.
The new Indian Scouts were notable for having the transmission fixed to the engine crankcase. This allowed for a geared primary drive and a lighter frame. It was the only American V twin produced at the time to have this.
The Scout was also the first motorcycle the company released to have an Indian name.
First editions were 606cc engines and this was increased in 1927 to 745cc.
An 1920 Indian Scout can fetch around $30,000 at auction.
Recommended further reading: Indian Scout in Color 1920 thru 1949
The Megola Motorcycle
This is the answer to an engineering question that nobody asked.Jay Leno talking about the Megola in the above video.
The Megola was a German motorcycle manufactured in Munich. It was unique in the fact that the 5 cylinder engine was mounted within the front wheel and actually spun around the axle 600 times faster than the wheel. Hence the Jay Leno quote.
With the engine doing 3600rpm the front wheel was turning at 600rpm pulling the Megola along at around 60mph.
The name Megola is a combination of the first 2 letters of each of the 3 designers, Hans Meixner, Fritz Cockerell and Otto Landgraf.
Wouldn’t that mean it should have been called the Mecola you ask? Cockerell apparently was using an alias at the time, going by the name of Gockerall.
As you can imagine, having an engine that spins within the front wheel created endless problems that needed to be overcome. Germany in the 1920’s though was full of aircraft engineers that were unable to build airplane engines due to the Treaty of Versailles after WW1.
Watch the Jay Leno video above to see the Megola motorcycle running.
2000 of these were sold until production ended in 1925. There are only 15 original Megola motorcycles left, 1 of which is in Mr. Leno’s collection.
In 2016 Bonhams in London sold a replica Megola that had an original engine at auction for £82,140
Matchless Model X
The Matchless Model X was a 990cc big V twin aimed at the side car market. Speed freaks though would purchase them without a sidecar and get an exceptionally well performing motorcycle for its time capable of 80 mph.
It first appeared in 1929 and was in production (with almost yearly updates) until the war broke out in 1939.
The 1937 Model X shown in the above image had the same engine as the Brough Superior SS80 after Brough swapped engine suppliers from JAP to Matchless.
The overhead cam version of the engine would also become the power house for the Brough Superior SS100.
Recommended further reading: Matchless – Once The Largest British Motorcycle Manufacturer
Produced from 1921 until 1928 ‘the Riccy’ as it was known to its fans was a single cylinder 499cc 4 stroke engine with a 4 valve overhead cam and was named after its designer Sir Harry Ricardo.
Triumph were desperate to keep up with their competitors and needed a sports bike that could at least match other bikes of the day.
They turned to Harry Ricardo, one of the leading engine designers of the early combustion engine.
Using the older Triumph Model R engine he converted it into an overhead valve design.
Ricardo’s engine design smashed all records for a 500cc single cylinder engine. It produced over 20hp and was capable of more than 70mph.
Sir Harry Ricardo’s engine was so good that Triumph used it for all subsequent models until production ceased in 1939 at the outbreak of WWII.
Recommended further reading: Tales of Triumph & the Meridian Factory
Norton Motorcycles released the ES2 motorcycle in 1927 and it remained – with various upgrades and improvements along the way – in production until 1964.
This was Norton’s first motorcycle to have a saddle style petrol tank. It was launched as a sports roadster and was powered by the MII version of Norton’s 490cc single cylinder OHV engine. It produced 33bhp and could top 80mph.
The Walter Moore designed overhead camshaft engine retained the classic Norton dimensions of 79 by 100mm but the similarity ended there. The drive from the crankshaft was taken through a set of bevels, thence by an enclosed vertical shaft to the cambox via another bevel set. The cambox was bolted to the cylinder head and the valves returned by coil springs.
A new frame was also introduced, a cradle type with single top and front down tubes. The exhaust pipe was to the left of the machine, the Norton practice at the time. In 1928 the new frame was also used to house the pushrod engine with the model designation of ES2 being used. There has been some speculation in recent years as to what the ES stood for, but ‘Enclosed Springs” is perhaps the most likely.The Norton Owners Club
It became known as the Easy Two due to its reliability.
Recommended further reading: Norton Singles OHV & SV 1931 thru 1966
The Scott Flying Squirrel
In 1922 Scott launched its first sports motorcycle, the Squirrel. After showing some promise they followed it up with the Flying Squirrel in 1926.
The Flying Squirrel was an expensive bike but had several unique features that made it stand out from the crowd. A 2 stroke, water cooled 596cc engine capable of 70mph meant it had plenty of fans. It also came with a kick start, absolute luxury for its day.
Tommy Hatch rode A Scott Flying Squirrel to 3rd in the 1928 Isle of Man Senior TT. A TT replica Flying Squirrel was released to mark the achievement.
An early pre-war Scott Flying Squirrel can fetch around £13,000 while those built by Scott after the war can be had for around £8,500.
Scott sold up in 1950 and the company was purchased by Aerco Jig and Tool Company in Birmingham. These later produced a Flying Squirrel which became known as the Birmingham Squirrel and these can be found for around £7500
Recommended further reading: The Scott Motorcycling – The Yowling Two-Stroke
The S-Series was launched in 1927 and continued until 1935. It was known as the BSA Sloper due to the fact the engine was leaning forward rather than the traditional upright or V twins of the day.
It was the first BSA to have the saddle tank so the centre of gravity was lowered and handling improved.
It makes this list of influential motorcycle of the 1920’s because many of BSA’s competitors adopted both the inclined motor and the saddle tank design. The vintage flat tank design had all but disappeared in England by the end of the decade thanks to the BSA Sloper.
At the time of writing there is a 1930 Sloper for sale in Wisconsin that looks in great condition with an asking price of $9,900.
They can still be had for mid 4 figures in reasonable condition making the underrated BSA Sloper an ideal project for the vintage motorcycle hobbyist.
Recommended further reading: BSA Motorcycles – The Final Evolution
1924 Croft-Cameron 996cc Super Eight
If you haven’t heard of the Croft Cameron motorcycle company don’t be too hard on yourself, they were only in business from 1923 to 1926.
Like most of England’s motorcycle industry they were based in Coventry and only built the one motorcycle with a couple of variations available – The Croft-Cameron Super Eight, powered by a 996cc V twin which were built and supplied by British Anzani.
Given that they weren’t around long enough to set any roots not much is known about the Croft-Cameron company.
What we do know is that they produced a very fine motorcycle. The Super Eight was in the same price range as the Brough Superior and was definitely a rival. Why Brough succeeded and Croft-Cameron failed is a mystery.
There were two options of the the Croft-Cameron Super Eight motorcycle for sale. £120 got you 2 valves per cylinder or if you were feeling flush you could opt for the 4 valve per cylinder air cooled V-twin for £140.
The standard model came with a 3 speed gear box that was operated via a lever or you could add a Jardine 4 speed box as an optional extra.
Where the Croft-Cameron 996cc Super Eight stood out from their competitors was the advanced duplex loop frame design that circled the engine. This stiffened up the frame and made for a much more stable motorcycle.
Also note the leaf-sprung front forks which were unusual for a British motorcycle of that era.
The Croft-Cameron Super Eight in the photo above was a 1924 model. It was sold by Bonhams of London in 2016 for a massive £203,100
As HRD Motorcycles were so short lived rather than select just 1 of their motorcycles this covers their brief 3 year history with info on all their bikes.
HRD Motorcycles was formed in 1924 and was in business until January 1928 when, due to financial difficulties the name was purchased by Mr. Phillip Vincent and the company became HRD Vincent Motorcycles.
HRD Motorcycles was started with just £3000 in the bank by Howard Raymond Davies, hence the HRD name, with E J Massey as managing director.
Davies was quite a character and was well known in the industry thanks to his successes as a motorcycle racer at the Isle of Man TT.
He had also been first a dispatch rider in France and then later a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps during WW1 as an artillery spotter. He was shot down down twice, escaping the first time back across enemy lines. The second time he wasn’t so lucky.
He was captured and ended the war in a POW camp where it is said when he wasn’t working on escape plans (he tried several times) he spent his time thinking how he would build the worlds most perfect motorcycle.
His IOM TT exploits included a second in the 1914 Senior race on a Sunbeam, a second in the 1921 Junior followed by a win a few days later in the Senior. Both 1921 successes were on an AJS.
HRD Motorcycles planned to build high end motorcycles targeting racers and connoisseurs. Like Brough Superior and others, engines and other major parts would be sourced from quality manufacturers and put together and finished at the HRD factory.
In that first year of 1924 Davies was desperate to get some motorcycles put together for the Olympia show held at the beginning of November.
Massey had his first motorcycle design finished in May and Davies put together a small team, sourced the top available major components and somehow had 4 motorcycles built in time for the Olympia show.
- The HD90 with 500cc JAP racing engine
- The HD80 with 350cc JAP OHV double port engine
- The HD70 with 350cc JAP OHV engine
- The HD70 S with a JAP sports engine
The numbers in the name represented the top speed of the motorcycle as well as the cost ie. The HD90 was capable of 90mph and cost 90 guineas.
The motorcycles received good press coverage and were well received by the racing fraternity as well as the motorcycle crowd in general.
It would be sometime though before the first sold HRD motorcycle rolled out of the Heath Street building.
In 1925 Davies rode one of his own HD90 motorcycles in the Isle of Man TT finishing second in the Junior TT and following up by winning the more prestigious Senior TT.
His Isle of Man success ensured orders came in for his motorcycles. Despite 60 machines being completed in 1925 they couldn’t keep up with the demand and waiting times grew longer.
Davies was having trouble with his suppliers, in particular the JAP sports engine. J. A. Prestwich (JAP) only made a limited number of the sports engine and they were in high demand.
The original building had also proven to be too small to cope so they had to move to bigger premises which put more pressure on an already struggling bank account.
They added just one motorcycle to the catalogue in 1925 – the HD Super90 which had a JAP twin port engine. The Super90 was capable of reaching 100mph and cost 98 guineas.
Why it wasn’t called the HD100 and priced at 100 Guineas I have no idea.
In 1926 HRD had a poor TT with a best placed 5th. They added further models to the range which appears to have been an error. Staff couldn’t keep up with orders as it was, adding more models to the production line could only add to the delay.
- The HD75 with the 500cc JAP OHV engine replaced the HD90
- The HD600 De Luxe with the 600cc JAP side valve engine
- The HD65 with the 350cc JAP OHV engine
- The HD60 with the 350cc JAP side valve engine
The HD Super 90 also had the additional option of the larger 600cc JAP engine added to the catalogue.
In 1927 an HRD won the Junior TT and finished 5th in the Senior. By then though, the company were in serious financial trouble. A strike in the previous year had slowed output still further.
Only 214 HRD motorcycles cycles were sold in 1927 despite their TT success with each one produced at a loss. The company net loss had been £440 in 1925, £1223 in 1926 and £6,600 in 1927.
In total HRD produced 850 motorcycles and it is believed only 18 complete and a few incomplete motorcycles are still in existence.
In January 1928 the company folded and was purchased by OK Supreme Motors. They in turn sold the name, machinery and design rights to Philip C Vincent for £450 later that year. Mr Vincent set up his new company the same year, The Vincent HRD Company.
References and Credits
BMW R32 courtesy of the BMW blog.
Isle of Man 1911 TT results can be verified here.
Bonhams say only 60 Model W Harley Davidsons are left.
A 1920 Indian Scout was given an estimated price of $30,000 by Bonhams in 2017.
A Harley Davidson Model W sold in 2016 for £12,600 by Coys of London
The Norton Owners Club is a goldmine of information
The 1924 Croft-Cameron 996cc Super Eight shown in the image was sold by Bonhams of London on the 16th October 2016
Howard Raymond Davies info sourced at the History Website