Today’s In the Barn story is about a special motorcycle that was once owned by a very famous individual. You have probably heard of Lawrence of Arabia and today we have the tale about his favorite bike. This story was written by Paul Duchene and first appeared in Tom Cotter’s book, The Vincent in the Barn. It is published here with permission so enjoy! Be sure to subscribe to our mailing list for a chance to win a free copy of the complete book or purchase one through Motorbooks or on Amazon. Also, dont forget to send in your own find stories because one is going to make into Tom’s upcoming book!
Perhaps the most famous barn find of all was performed on one of the best known motorcycles ever built—Lawrence of Arabia’s 1932 Brough Superior SS-100, registration GW 2275, the bike on which he died in 1935.
Lawrence’s 980cc V-Twin disappeared at the start of World War II, was found and refurbished in the late 1950s, then was bought by reclusive collector John Weekly in 1977. The motorcycle has reappeared recently at exhibitions at England’s National Motor Museum and Imperial War Museum. “Because of T. E. Lawrence I think this is the most famous road-going vehicle in existence, along with the car J.F.K. was killed in and James Dean’s Porsche—if it still exists,” said Weekly.
T. E. Lawrence is perhaps the twentieth century’s most romantic hero, a diminutive, multilingual British scholar who led a successful Arab revolt against the Turks in Palestine in World War I in full tribal regalia. At his death, no less than Winston Churchill said, “We shall never see his like again. His name will live in history. It will live in the annals of war. . . . It will live in the legends of Arabia.”
After World War I, peace eluded Lawrence, who felt he had betrayed Arab dreams of independence. He sought anonymity in the Royal Air Force, first as John Hume Ross, then as Thomas Edward Shaw. The sole outlet for his passions seems to have been a succession of seven 100-mile-per-hour Brough Superior motorcycles, on which he rode more than 300,000 miles.
George Brough built 3,048 motorcycles between 1920 and 1940, all to customer specifications. Broughs ranged from a modest 500cc single to a bizarre 1932 four-cylinder powered by an Austin 7 engine and with twin rear wheels, and a big 1,150cc side-valve twin, often used with sidecars. His pinnacle was the Golden Dream of 1938, a four-cylinder boxer engine with geared cranks turning in opposite directions and shaft drive. Only two were built.
But the Brough to have is clearly the SS-100. In 1939, it was advertised as the fastest British bike, after recording 169 miles per hour in the hands of Eric Fernihough, who would die at 180 miles per hour trying to break his record.
The SS-100 used a J.A.P. overhead-valve 980cc V-Twin making up to 74 horsepower from 1924 to 1936, but such power reduced reliability and Brough switched to a 45-horsepower 990cc Matchless twin in 1936. In all, there were 281 SS-100s with the J.A.P. motor and 102 with the Matchless unit.
The ultimate version was the Alpine Grand Sport, six of which were sold in 1934 and two in 1935. These were “two of everything” bikes—two carburetors, two oil pumps, and two magnetos—and reputedly were tested at 120 miles per hour before delivery. This is the bike Lawrence had on order when he died.
Lawrence called his SS-100s Boanerges (a biblical name that means “sons of thunder”) and reportedly once outran a Bristol Fighter (which has a top speed of 125 miles per hour) across Salisbury Plain. He often wrote about motorcycling in letters to people like George Bernard Shaw and Lady Astor and regularly corresponded with George Brough about his bike’s performance. “Your present machines are as fast and reliable as express trains and the greatest fun in the world to drive—and I say this after 20 years experience of cycles and cars,” he wrote to Brough in 1926.
At the time, there was no more daring and dynamic image than Lawrence grinning behind the signature Brough fly screen, astride the nickel-plated gas tank in gauntlets and military cap. The timeless glamour of this man and his machine was captured by Peter O’Toole in director David Lean’s 1962 Oscar winning film, Lawrence of Arabia. The bike in the film is not correct, as GW 2275 was lost at the time.
Lawrence was awaiting delivery of his eighth Brough when he was killed on May 13, 1935, avoiding two boys on bicycles. The accident still has conspiracy theorists hinting at government plots and looking for a missing black sedan. He wasn’t wearing a helmet and died of head injuries six days later. The doctor who treated him later campaigned for compulsory helmet use.
“Lawrence’s bike wasn’t badly damaged, the accident was quite a slow speed affair,” said Mike Leatherdale, who’s been the secretary of the Brough Superior club for 25 years. “There’s a photo of it on a lorry under a sheet before it was sent back to the works. The headlight and front fender were grazed, footrest bent, pannier box damaged, and gearshift bent back.”
Weekly is intimately familiar with the details of Lawrence’s crash and subsequent events. Lawrence cracked his skull and never recovered from his coma, dying six days later of congestion in his lungs and heart failure. GW 2275 was taken back to the Red Garage in Bovington and sat there for three months, except for May 21, when it was carried in a truck to the inquest so that the coroner could examine it. “It was a hurried affair,” said Weekly. “They held the inquest in the morning and the funeral in the afternoon, as if they couldn’t get him in the ground quickly enough.”
Three months later, Lawrence’s younger brother Arnold (two other brothers died in World War I) sold the bike back to George Brough. “George said he was going to keep it in memory of a great man—then turned around and sold it to Cambridge dealers King and Harper, who put it for sale in their window as belonging to Colonel Lawrence,” said Weekly, sadly.
King and Harper sold GW 2275 to an ophthalmic surgeon named Munro who didn’t get on with it. “He said it was too ferocious and prone to oiling the back plug at low revs when he was going through town. Lawrence complained about the same thing. Munro took the bike back after about a year and traded it on a BMW twin. Can you imagine? What a comedown after a Brough,” said Weekly.
The next owner of GW 2275 was a South African by the name of Pretorius, who was high up in the British Army. Weekly said Pretorius told the road tax authority he’d lost the logbook and got a replacement. “Then he sold the original, but I’ve managed to get it back.” Weekly has managed to assemble all the related paperwork that still exists, including all the tax discs, the original logbook signed by Lawrence, and two Victorian half-crown coins that Lawrence kept in the mesh screen inside the gas tank filler. “He’d be dressed in oilskins like a sailor when it rained, and it was hard to get to money, so he carried it in the tank.”
Pretorius sold GW 2275 to Ronald Merriman Barry, who kept it for 10 years, finally selling the bike to an artist who was a member of the Royal Academy. It next surfaced in the hands of South Coast collector Les Perrin in the late 1950s. “I knew it existed in 1962, I knew it was in Portsmouth, but I didn’t get it until January 1977,” said Weekly. “And don’t ask me what I paid for it; it was a lot. I bought it from Les Perrin, who got it from a chap at work. The fellow said he had it in his garden and didn’t want it and told Les, ‘I’ll give it to you for nothing.’ It had a dilapidated sidecar, and the two towed it from Southampton to Portsmouth, and Les gave him a pound to cover petrol—about 20 pounds today.”
“I was putting the bike’s history together and I wrote to George Brough.”
“‘That’s it, that’s Lawrence’s bike,’ he said.”
Weekly said that the bike had been rebuilt by Perrin, but he didn’t have a lot of money and kept all the original parts. “If that machine had been restored to a stunning bike just out of the factory, it would have demeaned it. As it is, it’s just a nice oily old bike.”
GW 2275 is definitely the genuine article, said Leatherdale. It has a borrowed gas tank, since Lawrence’s stainless steel one was at the works awaiting his new bike, and a smaller back wheel than stock because of Lawrence’s 5-foot, 6-inch height. GW 2275 still has scrapes on the handlebars and front fenders from the accident.
There are a number of period pictures of Lawrence on Broughs but only one of him on GW 2275, said Leatherdale. That was taken at Lawrence’s Dorset county cottage at Clouds Hill.
Coincidentally, while the most famous Brough is seldom seen, the 1,000 Broughs known to survive are more visible than ever. An amazing 219 showed up at the annual gathering at Nottingham in August, their black paint off set by gray-haired riders. The lineup included a 1924 SS-80, newly discovered in Edinburgh, Scotland. It’s a one-family bike that’s been off the road since 1930, when the owner hit a bus and promised his wife he wouldn’t ride anymore. “He passed it on to his son and he didn’t ride it either,” said Leatherdale.
The “barn find” phenomenon is coming full circle, said Leatherdale, with Brough Superiors heading into a different kind of anonymity, as prices for the best bikes cross the $250,000 mark (a 1938 SS-100 sold for $271,980 at Bonhams in London September 1, 2008).
“They’re getting so valuable, people are selling them at auction,” said Leatherdale. “After sales like this, bikes just disappear, going into secretive private collections. Our problem now is trying to keep track of bikes we know. They’re being shipped all over the world.”
The recent exhibitions of GW 2275 have brought it back into public view, as the values of its brothers and sisters climb. It was rumored to be for sale a few years back, but Weekly, who is 66, is very clear on what he wants to happen to GW 2275 when he dies.
“I think it should go to a prominent museum that would make sure it’s protected for the future,” he said. “I think you can have an affinity with mechanical things. This motorcycle is the last thing that Lawrence touched, the last thing he thought about. There’s still something about it. It’s not really mine, it will always be his. He had a lot of motorcycles, but he kept this one far longer than any other, and it was his favorite.”