Motorcycling is deeply rooted in the British motoring scene. The history of manufacturers and models is a minefield of acronyms, gentlemen’s deals and arrangements that have seen brands merge and favor each other more often than they could produce a new model. Oh, and the war.
Such things tended to hamper the manufacture of motorcycles in the early years, but nonetheless it is generally considered that the cream of British motorcycles were produced before the 1960s. lap times and top speeds to the limits of what they could achieve. They even turned an entire island into a race track, and countless models have since had Manx derivations to honor the great Isle of Man TT. But if we had to choose just ten bikes from over a century of work in the world of two-wheeled hedonism, what would that list look like? No doubt, something like that.
ten Velocette Venom 1955-1970
Produced over a period of 15 years, the Venom was a 499cc single-cylinder model from the Velocette brand with an evocative name. Clever engineering meant the single-cylinder design was still able to compete with the new wave of British twins flooding the market in the late fifties. The brilliance of the Venom was such that it set a new 24-hour average speed record!
In March 1961, a factory-prepared Venom Clubman with a fairing took the Montlhéry oval (a name familiar to aficionados of early MGs) and with a team of racers set a 24-hour average speed record of 100.05 mph. Which includes stopping for rider exchanges and resupply, done via a bucket and funnel. The stunt revived sales of the model and kept Velocette in business. The model used for the attempt still lives in the British National Motorcycle Museum.
9 Scott Flying Squirrel 1926-1940
A somewhat evolved version of the Squirrel, the Flying Squirrel featured the familiar two-stroke twin of the Shipley siblings, but was now mated to a manual-shift three-speed gearbox. A brilliant sportbike at the time, the Flying Squirrels were a force to be reckoned with on the Isle of Man TT course. With a standard top speed of between 75 and 80 mph, the water-cooled engine responded well to tuning and was capable of more.
In 1926 rider Jack Welsby limped his machine around the island, with a second gear misfiring, and still managed an impressive 92.2 mph through the speed trap on the Sulby Straight and 107 mph on the descent to Hillberry.
8 Vincent The Dark Shadow 1948-1955
Upon its release, it usurped its predecessor as the fastest production motorcycle in the world. The Vincent Rapide hit 110 mph, the Black Shadow came in and was able to hit 125 mph right out of the factory. The source of this power? A 998 cc 50° V-twin developing 55 hp.
Famous for its use in the Top Gear 1949 Race to the North, the bike stood out from its contemporary two-wheeled competitors with its black crankcase and engine.
seven Triumph T100R Tiger Daytona 1967-1974
Triumph has had brilliantly evocative names over the years, Bonneville, Trident, Speedmaster, Thunderbird, Thruxton, it’s a long list. But the one that stands out beyond many of them is the Tiger Daytona. Modern motorcycle fans will recognize them as two distinct models, the Tiger a dual-sport tourer and the Daytona a fast rival to Japan’s 600cc bikes.
Step back in time to 1967 and the Tiger Daytona, often referred to as the T100R, was a direct competitor to Honda. Powered by a 490cc air-cooled twin, the Daytona takes its name from a tribute to Buddy Elmore’s 1966 Dayton 200 victory. models could reach 150 mph. On two wheels. In the late 60s. Madness.
6 BSA M20 1937-1955
This one featured in James Bond, A View To A Kill, albeit the book version. It involves ambushes motorcycle couriers carrying messages between the front lines. He sees James ending up on a BSA M20 posing as a dispatch rider.
At the start of World War II, BSA was Britain’s largest motorcycle manufacturer, with a long history of supplying armaments to the armed forces (BSA stands for Birmingham Small Arms Company). In 1937 they began work on a rugged single-cylinder motorcycle that would also accept a sidecar. After the design was finely refined, it was accepted by the British military arms and quickly put into service. An unsung hero of the war effort, the full story and details of the M20 tells a fascinating story of Britain through the 1930s and 1940s.
5 Royal Enfield Bullet 1931-Present
Yes, so far. The same model that rolled out of Enfield in 1931 is produced, largely unchanged, albeit thousands of miles away in Chennai, India. With the true line beginning in 1948, the Royal Enfield Bullet has the longest unchanged run of any motorcycle that has remained in continuous production. The Bullet brand is even older and, like the BSA M20, has a military heritage to boast of, with the British Army and Air Force using 350cc Bullets as courier bikes.
UK production of this rorty single cylinder bike ended in 1966 as the popularity of the twins became too much to combat. But production continued in India; in 1949 the Indian Army ordered Royal Enfield Bullets for border patrols and the company decided to open a factory in Madras. In 1955 the 350cc Bullets were sent from the Redditch factory in kit form for assembly in India, but Enfield India Ltd. quickly expanded the factory and produced complete motorcycles independently under license. This 1955 model remained almost unchanged for years and Madras produced over 20,000 bullets per year.
4 Commando Norton 1967-1972
Norton currently has a bit of a rocky history, bouncing in and out of the market, with all the commercial strength and financial stability of trying to sell penguin ice cream. But there was a time when Norton was a big and stable player in the UK bike scene, and the Commando is one of their most iconic models.
Built with a modified version of Norton’s iconic Featherbed frame, the bike was fitted with an evolution of the Atlas 750cc engine after prototype engines were found to be out of power or prone to oil leaks. Unlike most Nortons, the engine was mounted with the cylinders angled forward, as opposed to the traditional upright style. The 750cc engine proved popular but was quickly outclassed by the bored 850cc version.
3 AJS 7R 1958-1963
The Boy Racer. A winning bike from the start. The race boy title comes from the 7R’s smaller 350cc displacement. This put the bike in the field for junior TTs, aimed at typically younger riders on smaller machines. Racing development saw the bike take a string of victories in 1954; the lower CoG thanks to mounting the engine lower in the frame, along with tuning changes that gave it a higher redline of 7800 rpm and a total of 40 hp. These factory stages saw the 7R take the first two wins of the season and a first at the Isle of Man TT.
From 1954 the 7R was available as a customer bike and took IOM Junior TT victories in 1961, 62 and 63.
2 Ariel Square Four 1931-1959
Square four engines are not a common layout, this one-piece design is not that different from the VR6 engines produced by VW. Their compact design makes them ideal for use in motorcycles.
Ariel put it to good use with its iconic Square Four model. By the time the bike had evolved into its second generation, the complex engine was producing 40 bhp and the bike was capable of hitting 100 mph in good health.
1 Rudge Ulster 1929-1939
Rudge is an oft-forgotten name in the British bike world, and that is shameful. Rudge pioneered CVT gearboxes with his 1912 499c Multigear bicycle. In 1914 the Isle of Man TT was won on a 21-speed Multigear. But, arguably, their peak came with Ulster. A replica racing bike, named after Graham Walker’s victory in the 1928 race (Graham Walker, father of the late great and iconic F1 commentator Murray Walker).
The Ulster was as competitive as needed to live up to its namesake, continuing to perform well at the 1930 Isle of Man TT. Wal Handley winning with a record average speed of 74.24 mph. His teammate and fellow Rudge Ulster Walker came second. Ulsters also finished 6th and 7th. This dominance sealed the history of the Rudge and its 499cc, four-valve, sloping-roof single-cylinder.
There was a time when it took skill and effort to have a cool cafe racer, but now anyone can buy a cool factory cafe racer bike with a warranty.
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