The 1930s were a big decade for the motorcycle industry. The 1920s saw developments on the original pioneer motorcycles, going from bicycles with engines to full on motorcycles, they even saw in the worlds first Superbike with the Brough Superior.
The 1930s however, was a time for pushing boundaries, improving engine design and going hell for leather. Arguably the industry wouldn’t progress further until a few years after WWII and even then many manufacturers picked up where they had left off with their 1930s motorcycles.
So, I have put together a list of 13 of the best classic motorcycles to come out of the 1930s, let’s delve straight in.
Table of Contents
- Ariel Red Hunter
- Ariel Square Four
- AJS Silver Streak
- BMW R2
- Brough Superior Austin Four
- BSA Blue Star – Empire Star – Gold Star
- DKW RT 125
- Excelsior Manxman
- Harley Davidson RL 45
- Triumph Speed Twin
- Vincente Rapide
Ariel Red Hunter
Ariel had a wide range for its line up in the 1930’s which was compiled of sidevalve and push rod, 250cc, 350cc, 500cc and 557cc single cylinder engines.
Lead designer Val Page left for Triumph in 1932 and was replaced by Edward Turner who had just designed the Square Four for Ariel which we will get into later.
In 1933, Ed Turner oversaw three OHV single cylinder bikes built and the top of the line model was the Ariel Red Hunter, which had a 6 year run before WWII ended its civilian production. The Ariel W/NG was based on the 350cc Red Hunter and would serve as a military vehicle.
The Red Hunter had a cast iron cylinder and head with two OHV’s per cylinder, it was air-cooled and came with 250cc, 350cc and 500cc engines. It started off with a rigid frame and springer front forks.
The 500cc engine delivered 27HP and a top speed of 84mph, which was quite a speed for its day. It would remain in production until 1959 and really shaped Ariel’s success, becoming a popular touring motorcycle.
There are not many pre-war Red Hunters available today but Car and Classic have one of the earliest models online for £18,980.
Ariel Square Four
The Ariel Square Four was the first of Ed Turner’s iconic designs and perhaps the most revolutionary given the year it was produced.
The first designs were done in 1928 and it was a 500cc engine initially but swiftly upgraded to 601cc. Simply it was two 2-cylinder engines with across frame crankshafts geared together. The cylinder block was shared and had a removable head.
The Model 4F as it was named was produced between 1931-1936. The model had a reputation for overheating as the cylinders were cramped. Furthermore, the engine was prone to suffer damage from water getting into the engine oil via condensation from the cam chain cover.
1936 saw the Square Four have a redesign and get bumped up to a 995cc with the designated title of Model 4G.
The bike was received well by the press and public and was known not for its speed but for its durability, reliability and being a great workhorse.
The 1932 601cc model covered 700 miles in just 700 minutes during the Maudes Trophy endurance test, followed by an 87 mph timed lap. Quite a feat for a bike from 1932. It was quite the testament to Ariel’s design and gave great value to the model.
For the full story check out my previous article on the Ariel Square Four.
Today you can find both 4F and 4G Models on the market, not loads of examples but they do come up mainly in the U.K. You can expect to spend £20,000 for a clean and tidy example. It may seem steep but the Square Four really is museum worthy motorcycle history.
AJS Silver Streak
The AJS Silver Streak was produced in 1938 and it was one of the stand out motorcycles of the era thanks to its over the top visual design.
Chromium plating was used on the mudguards, headlamp, fork links, front and rear chain cases, oil and petrol tanks, the tool box and more.
The sales brochure quoted that the Silver Streak “became recognised as the aristocrats of the motor-cycle world.” They were available in 250cc, 350cc and 500cc engines.
Each bike came with a specially tuned engine with a polished single-port cylinder head. The 500cc had a compression ratio of 5.9:1.
The AJS Silver Streak remains desirable for collectors but you can expect to pay upwards of $15,000 and would be lucky for one to come up on the market.
The BMW R2 remains the smallest displacement engine that BMW has produced. It came at a time when the world’s economy was crashing and BMW’s big bikes were no longer viable due to their high price tags.
So seizing an opportunity and a need to survive the 6hp, 198cc air-cooled four-stroke single R2 was born. Combining features from their high end models the R2 was an attractive motorcycle that sold well. This was also helped by being under 200cc making it exempt from some taxes and licensing regulations.
The R2 sold 15,207 units during the 6 years of the Great Depression and it was priced at $230.
I am a big fan of the styling of the R2, BMW’s new R18 for me has reminiscent styling of the early BMW’s and lines are strikingly similar to that of the baby R2.
You will be looking at paying upwards of $10,000 for an original R2 today and would most likely find one in Germany over and above anywhere else.
Brough Superior Austin Four
The Brough Superior Austin Four is one of the rarest motorcycles, so rare in fact there are only a few that have seen one in the flesh, only 10 original examples were made. This was mainly due to the Great Depression looming over the industry.
George Brough wanted an inline-4 but could not afford to develop one themselves, he approached Austin to use their 747cc engine and original transmission.
Brough bored the engine out to 797cc and developed a new alloy head with larger valves, twin carburettors were added in and most notably the twin rear wheels.
The Austin Four was intended to be used with a sidecar, however one piloted solo by Hubert Chantrey was used to complete the Land’s End Trail.
The few models that were built and have survived rumoured to be only 8, are scattered among private collectors and museums.
BSA Blue Star – Empire Star – Gold Star
The BSA Blue Star is the bike that came along in 1932, before the Gold Star, it is the one that ushered in a new era for British bikes of reliability and durability. It was one of the first bikes that could do a 200 mile journey without the need to stop for maintenance or repair.
It only had a short 5 year run before the Empire Star took over and the Gold Star followed suit, but the BSA Blue Star should always be hailed as the bike that created the legends as it was one in it’s own right.
The Blue Star had 3 variants: a 250cc, 350cc and a 500cc. All shared the same air-cooled, pushrod-operated OHV, vertical single cylinder engine design. The 500cc engine produced 28 HP at 5,200rpm. Initially the bikes were operated with a suicide clutch until 1934 when the bike got a foot-shifter gearbox
1936 saw the dawn of the improved model now named the Empire Star. The engine was a new design from Val Page. Having led the charge and worked on several landmark models for Triumph and Ariel, Val Page turned his hand to the Empire Star which resulted in a bike that could rely on reliability for its marketing and selling strategy.
The BSA launch saw the 500cc Empire Star subjected to an endurance test. The bike did 500 miles at Brooklands, averaging 70mph round the track. Following on from this it did 1,000 miles around the U.K, visiting the West Country, Wales and the Lake District. The ride was completed with no need for spare parts, which fed right into BSA’s clever marketing scheme.
In 1937, Wal Handley fresh out of retirement, piloted a modified Empire Star, to ride a 3-lap Brooklands race. His fastest lap hit 107.5mph which earned him a “Gold Star”. BSA were chuffed with this achievement and so the next bike to be developed was named the BSA Gold Star.
Only 500 Gold Star’s were produced before the War intervened and civilian production was halted for the war efforts. BSA would go on to be the largest producer of motorcycles in the World and one of the largest companies in the British Empire. The BSA Gold Star would go on to be one of the most successful motorcycles in the world both on the track and in the showroom.
Early Blue Star and Empire Star models are increasingly difficult to find today, when they do come up for auction they tend to sit at a minimum of £10,000.
Gold Stars are coveted and vary in price range depending on model and year anywhere from £12,000-£25,000. For one of the 500 pre-war Gold Star’s you could end up paying double that.
DKW RT 125
The DKW RT 125 is an interesting motorcycle not necessarily in itself but because of the story it has in being the blueprint for many different copies across the world.
It started off life being built by the Germans in the 1930’s as a lightweight two-stroke 125cc motorcycle. The tech for the time was fairly advanced with a loop-scavenging system which ultimately made the piston lighter. It was a cheap and reliable motorcycle that would sell very well.
DKW was also building cars with manufacturers like Audi so it is not uncommon on early models to see the 4 entwined circles associated with Audi’s logo today.
It is said that DKW sold more motorcycles in the 1930’s than any other company in the World. However, the result of WWII for Germany meant that reparations needed to be paid and DKW was called upon to release their motorcycle designs inclusive of the RT 125.
DKW would continue to produce their own RT 125 until 1957 at a new factory which they had relocated to following the war.
The British BSA Bantam, Harley Davidson Hummer and Yamaha YA-1 are just three of the popular bikes that were created based solely on the RT 125 design.
There are not many DKW 125 bikes on the market, you are most likely to be able to find one in Germany and could expect to pay around $4,000.
Excelsior Motor Company was based in Birmingham, U.K and the Manxman was a popular model that was in production from 1934-39.
Excelsior did not make engines prior to WWII. Eric Walker from Excelsior worked in partnership with Ike Hatch to develop engines from Rudge motorcycles to be used. These 4 valve engines were designed into a brand new twin camshaft with pushrod operated valves. The new unit was planned to be used in a motorcycle called the Marvel.
The Marvel prototype won the 1933 Isle of Man TT.
Eventually it was decided that mass production wouldn’t work for the new engine as it was quite complicated so a new simpler 2-valve single overhead cam was developed in 250cc, 350cc, and 500cc capacities. All of these were marketed as the Manxman and had the three legs of Man emblem on the engine casing.
The Manxman became a popular choice for independant racers heading to the Isle of Man TT, until the war put a stop to the races. They were reliable, sturdy and the main complaint was that they were slightly over-engineered.
As with most on this list there are not many original Manxman motorcycles for sale today. From looking at previous auctions they are mostly located in the U.K and fetch between £13,000-£22,000.
Harley Davidson RL 45
It’s the early 1930’s and Harley Davidson is facing financial struggles, not for the first or the last time, but the circumstances of this slump was down to the Great Depression which was affecting all manufacturers across the world.
The line of bikes comprising the 45-solo, R, RL and RLD manufactured from 1932-36 were the bikes that kept Harley Davidson afloat during this tough period and together with Indian Motorcycles they were the two American manufacturers to survive the Depression and War period.
The RL was built for solo riding, powered by a 737cc, side-valve engine with a total-loss oil system it would deliver 18.5HP.
Hollywood legend Clark Gable is said to have owned a 1934 RL 45 and it sold for $70,200 at an auction in Las Vegas in 2007.
Triumph Speed Twin
The Triumph Speed Twin was showcased in 1938 and it took the motorcycle industry by storm. It was to be Edward Turner’s second iconic engine design following on from the Ariel Square Four and the one that catapulted Triumph to stardom.
The parallel twin design came out of necessity. Vibration issues were plaguing the single cylinder engines as power output and displacement was continually increasing shooting up the RPM. This was causing rider discomfort on long trips and longer term engine problems.
Turner approached the situation by splitting the displacement into two cylinders that rose and fell together on a 360° crankshaft. The 500cc parallel twin was born and it was contained within the new Speed Twin.
While it was never meant to be used for racing (Turner was said to be avidly against this) the bike was capable of 94mph.
The early pre-unit models had some issues with oil leaks and didn’t have amazing handling. These issues were addressed over the course of its time in production and a 650cc engine was later introduced.
The Speed Twin remained in production until 1966 although the 500cc engine would remain to be used until 1973. 2019 saw the release of a new modern Triumph Speed Twin.
There are some early models around but they are rare on the market, completely original immaculate models can reach around the $22,000 mark while others that aren’t quite so perfect sit around $13,000-$15,000.
For more detailed information on Ed Turner and the Speed Twin check out my earlier article here.
There were 4 series of Vincent Rapide that would span 20 years from 1936-1956, they were Models, A, B, C and D, which admittedly wasn’t particularly inventive – unlike the bikes themselves.
The Rapide was the brainchild of Phil Irving who was working on the 499cc engine that was used in Vincent’s single cylinder machines, he did some tracings which lined two of the single cylinder engines up in the shape of a V-twin.
The bike was complex to both build and to maintain, the Series A was however in production by 1936, it had a 998cc V-twin which delivered 45HP and 110mph top speed, very much leading the charge for 1930’s power bikes.
The bikes were adored by all but could not be afforded by all and so they did not sell in huge numbers, the start of WWII saw an end to production until the war ended and Series B was ready to roll out.
Pre-war models were plagued by the same issues that other British bikes were struggling with due to non-unitized construction and with all the engine components separate, oil leaks were fairly common. Everything about the Series A was expensive and overly complicated; this was addressed with the post war models.
The Vincent Rapide was way ahead of its time and I think sometimes overlooked as a piece of British motorcycle history, as the Ariel Square Four and later Triumph Speed Twin tend to be the bikes that get the most attention.
However, credit where credits are due for Phil Irving because he had built a bike capable of 110mph long before any Triumph and frankly the styling was worth every penny.
As with all great classic motorcycles there are not many on the market today, with most remaining with owners who have had it passed down from previous generations, with collectors or in museums. Those that are around you can expect to pay a minimum of $40,000.
Dan Steele is a big fan of Vincent bikes and has written a full piece on the Rapide which is well worth a read here.