T.E.Lawrence, his love of Brough Superior and a conspiracy theory
Our article on Lawrence of Arabia last week has generated a lot of interest but in two widely different directions. Don Morley, with whom I worked when a journalist back in the 1960s and who went on to become an internationally renowned photo journalist, has added some interesting background. Not only is Don a superb and acclaimed photographer, he’s also an expert on vintage motorcycles, including Lawrence’s chosen Brough. Don is also honorary president of the Association of Pioneer Motorcyclists. So he knows what he is talking about, whether it be motorcycling or photography.
The association between T.E.Lawrence and Brough Superior is an important part of the Lawrence of Arabia legend. Lawrence was fascinated by aeroplanes and motorcycles. And the Brough Superior, manufactured in Nottingham by George Brough, was the epitome of motorcycling aspiration in the 1930s. It was indeed the Rolls Royce of motorcycles.
Glimpse of a Brough
Don, who has had a lifelong affinity to Brough Superior, tells me that as a boy he used to cycle all the way from his home in Derby to the Nottingham Brough works in the hope of seeing the odd Brough entering or leaving. Although production had ceased at the outbreak of war, the factory was still servicing all the models and it was a magnet for the motorcycle-struck teenager.
Many years later Don managed to buy of these bikes and eventually owned a very rare overhead-valve 680cc Black Alpine followed by several 1000cc SS80s and, finally, one of the last-ever 1000cc SS100s. He later loaned this bike longterm to The Brooklands Museum in Weybridge. That was until he got an email one day to tell him that the River Wey had burst its banks, the museum had been flooded, and his beloved Brough was under several feet of water.
I also well remember the day the Brooklands Museum was inundated. So many priceless cars and motorcycles lost their lives on that day and the museum was closed for a whole year while salvage operations took place. But there’s an interesting sequel involving Don’s saturated SS100.
The museum told Don that the flood hadn’t been a total disaster. There had been enough warning to be able to get most of the valuable vehicles out and push them to higher ground. Does that include my Brough, asked Don reasonably. Er…… no what they meant was valuable motor cars. You can imagine Don’s reaction.
Don was left holding the baby or, more precisely, a bedraggled and rusting SS100. It took him over a year to restore it, amidst many difficulties. Pre-war motorcycle frames were made up of tubes brazed into cast iron lugs, and all of those tubes had holes drilled into them at the time of manufacture so the gasses could escape during the brazing process — otherwise the joint would not take. The problem for Don, however was that the water got in through those holes, as well as into every part of the engine and gearbox, handlebars and so forth, but then could not escape again after the flood as the holes were blocked with sediment.
So, quite apart from every item needing stripping and rebuilding, Don had to find a way of heating the frame for weeks and weeks in order to steam the water out, and to do it in the knowledge the tubes would also be rusting from the inside out. Shortly after he had restored the bike to pristine condition a rather cheeky chappy called from Brooklands: "Glad you've restored the Brough, can we have it back?" The answer was predictable.
Yet after all the shenanigans Don never again felt happy about his SS100. He advertised it and sold it instead; it went to America and its original works registration number of GWB 983 — George William Brough machine No. 983 — is still on Don’s car to this day.
The photograph reproduced at the top of this article shows Don’s SS100 in action, being ridden by Peter Watson, just before it was shipped to the States. It was one of the final six manufactured and was delivered in August 1939, just a few days before war broke out. They were all registered consecutively, GWB 979-984 and sold to Sheffield police where they did speed-cop duties. During the war, Don's SS100 had a Brough sidecar attached and all six bikes were put to work escorting convoys of munitions, dodging the bombs in the industrial heartlands of England. Five of the six survived; the sixth one ended up in a watery grave — in the canal behind the Sheffield police station — after having been cannibalised for spare parts during hostilities.
Later, whileacting as chief photographic press officer for the 1991 World Student Games in Sheffield, Don visited the canal and gazed wistfully at the spot where he imagined the Brough lay. He didn't find a trace but, remarkably, he did meet the policeman to whom Don's bike was assigned back in 1939 and who rode it during the war and later when the bikes returned for a time to speed cop duties.
As a lasting memorial to George Brough's finest, the SS100-owning members of the Brough Club compete annually for the Don Morley Trophy.
VN Press Camera
During all this intense period of Brough worship, though, Don continued his career in photo journalism and still maintains his keen interest in photography. He has recently bought a couple of VN press cameras, the ones which were used at Associated Iliffe Press in the 1960s. As a young journalist on The Motor Cycle, one of Iliffe’s star publications (along with Amateur Photographer, Autocar and Flight among others) I remember the VN being used for our road test photoshoots. I dug out the photograph below, showing me performing for road test shots in late 1965, hoping it might have been captured with a VN. but apparently not; Don reckons it was snapped by a Mamiyaflex TLR wielded by his then colleague, Dave Nash.
A further sequel to our Brough story came from reader Stephen Jenner who reminded me that there was — and still is — some doubt over the circumstances of Lawrence’s death. There is a theory, which has some convincing supporting evidence, that TEL was polished off by the security services because of his friendship with Sir Oswald Mosely, the British fascist leader, and his general sympathy for the Nazis. As the story goes, Lawrence was an influential figure and it suited the establishment to have him out of the way. You can read the full history here: The Murder of Lawrence of Arabia. Fascinating as this theory is, it is about as provable as the corresponding theory that Alan Turing was poisoned by the security people.
One thing for sure, though: The fatal Brough lives on. After the accident in 1935 Lawrence’s brother declined to pay George Brough £40 to repair the machine. He thought it was exorbitant. So George bought it back as a wreck and restored it. Eventually, the bike found its way to a Cambridge motorcycle dealer where it languished for years as a publicity tool. It now spends its time between the National Motorcycle Museum in Coventry and the Imperial War Museum in London. All remaining Brough Superiors now command a hefty price — £100,000 isn’t unusual — but no price can be put on Lawrence’s last and fateful SS100. Some say if it came to market it could fetch over £1.5m.