Auction Insights with Nigel Kirk
What makes a Legend
A little piece of motorcycling history from Nottingham goes under the hammer next month
What makes a legend? Certainly not, it seems to me, a shrinking violet. After all, Robin Hood was a showman, an extrovert and larger than life figure. So too was another, more recent Nottingham character, George Brough (1890-1970) creator of the renowned Brough Superior motorcycles.
Last week I was amazed to discover a stunning pair of gold cufflinks which the great man had won in 1926. Hitherto unknown, never having been offered for sale at auction before they are bound to be one of the more exciting lots when they go under the hammer at Mellors & Kirk on November 29th.
From a local gentleman, the cufflinks are accompanied by a person Christmas card from George Brough. Dating from the 1960s it features a photograph of George jauntily posed before his brace of jaguars, a E-type and Mk II with personalised numberplates GB 100 and 333 NRR. The card is signed ‘Kindest regards to you and yours from George and Mrs Brough’.
The cufflinks which are cast with allegorical figures of young women and were presented by the MCC (Motor Cycling Club) are inscribed LONDON TO EXETER MOTOR CYCLE DEC 27-28 1926 G BROUGH. Both reliability and speed trials were organised regularly by the Club.
In the 1920s George Brough was at the height of his motorcycling racing career which only ended after he had a narrow escape when he became unseated at 100mph and was finally persuaded by his wife to cease racing. Brough Superior motorcycles were produced at the Haydn Road factory from 1924 until 1940. Just over 3,000 were built of which around 1,100 are thought to survive. Now highly prized by collectors they easily make hundreds of thousands of pounds as prices continue to spiral.
George Brough described his machines as “The Rolls Royce of motorcycles” a sobriquet which was fully justified and it is a testament to the Nottingham motorbike’s outstanding quality that Rolls Royce acquiesced and did nothing to prevent him using the illustrious marque’s name.
Brough Superior motorcycles were powered by JAP engines made by J A Prestwich, later to be replaced by Matchless engines and fitted with Sturmey Archer gearboxes and other bought-in components, all of which were carefully selected by George Brough. Every machine was beautifully built by hand by his highly skilled workforce and extensively tested before being collected by the eager customer.
What makes Brough special in my view is that as a motorcycle manufacturer he was utterly and uniquely dedicated to an ideal, rather than motivated purely by profit and this was the ‘magic’ ingredient which has ensured his legacy.
Men of exceptional ability and wealthy thrill-seekers alike made the trip to Haydn Road to order their very own SS100 from a manufacturer that himself was an outstanding racer. Most famous of these was T E Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, a brave but troubled hero and as much an introvert as George was an extrovert. Perhaps this is why they got on so well together. Lawrence owned a succession of Brough bikes until his life was tragically ended when he crashed on one in 1935.
Mellors & Kirk has often handled Brough Superior memorabilia, touching mementoes of George Brough such as the enamelled badge of a worker at his factory, a rare brochure for his short-lived motorcar venture and best of all Brough’s collection of silver motorcycling trophies, which sold for high prices a few years ago. Most of these and probably the cufflinks too, which are estimated at £1,000-1,500, will end up in the hands of overseas collectors.
In his distinctive specially made flat cap, designed not to be blown off at high speed, George in the 1920s must have cut a dashing image as a modern young man obsessed with the power of speed on two wheels, riding with what was described at the time as “great flourish”. He never missed an opportunity for a publicity stunt or self-promotion but, by contrast, he kept his home life very much out of the spotlight. He had an eye for the pretty girls that inevitably his celebrity attracted but would have never dreamt of leaving Constance, the tolerant and devoted Mrs Brough to whom he was married for 52 years. It says much about their relationship that he always referred to her in conversation, and on the Christmas card in the Sale, as ‘Mrs Brough’ and never ‘my wife’.
Only the outbreak of World War Two effectively ended the Brough Superior story. Throughout the 1920s and ‘30s, years of the Great Depression, economic slump and austerity, Nottingham was home to several flourishing, world beating businesses such as Brough Superior and Raleigh. Somehow I don’t think George Brough would have wasted much time thinking about the concept of a Northern Powerhouse or for that matter, Brexit. Instead he would have concentrated on what he did best, and that was very good indeed.< Back to Auction Insights