The great British motorbike revival

The Brit bike renaissance is stepping up a gear with the phoenix-like return of a trio of historic names. Simon de Burton reports

The Brough Superior SS100, Titanium model, £43,000
The Brough Superior SS100, Titanium model, £43,000 | Image: Eric Corlay

There was a time when it seemed as though the great British bikes of yore had left the road for good. But then Triumph came roaring back, UK imports of Indian-built Royal Enfields were stepped up and Norton underwent a dramatic rebirth at the hands of Midlands-based fireworks tycoon Stuart Garner.

And now the Brit bike renaissance looks set to continue apace with the phoenix-like return of a further trio of historic names, each one revived by a different enthusiast-entrepreneur keen to exploit the vintage chic of some of yesterday’s forgotten marques with a range of machines aimed at well-heeled buyers who hanker for the days when motorcycles really looked like motorcycles.  

The most significant of the three to return is Matchless, the marque set up by brothers Harry and Charlie Collier who built its first motorised bicycle in a south London shed back in 1899. They were certainly no marketing experts and probably didn’t give a thought to building a brand. But Matchless – what a name.

It was to prove apposite when Henry’s son Charlie won the single-cylinder race at the first Isle of Man TT in 1907, with his brother Harry putting in the fastest lap. The firm progressed apace, scoring further successes in competition, introducing innovative designs and, during the 1930s, winning over the working man with practical models such as the Silver Arrow, which was so swift, comfortable, reliable and refined that it came to be known as the Whispering Wonder.

George Brough on the “works scrapper” in 1928
George Brough on the “works scrapper” in 1928 | Image: Courtesy Brough Superior

Matchless also made and sold its by then celebrated V-twin engines to other marques, including Calthorpe, Brough Superior and Morgan, and then supplied thousands of completed machines for military use during the second world war through Associated Motorcycles, the parent company set up by the Colliers in 1938 that grew to incorporate other great British names such as AJS, Norton, James, Francis-Barnett and Sunbeam.

But then came the Japanese motorcycle revolution that famously put the kibosh on the British bike industry and led to the collapse of AMC in 1966. Matchless et al had finally been matched – and then some.

Fast-forward to April 23 2006, and Bonhams was staging its annual motorcycle auction at the Stafford Classic Motorcycle Show. Lot 554 in the catalogue was an intriguing one, because it offered the opportunity to buy the UK and EU rights to the Matchless trademark “in word and device”.

There wasn’t much to it, just a fabulous history, a name that spoke of strength and indomitability and some highly distinctive logos – notably the famous winged “M” and Matchless written in elaborate golden script with the strapline “in name and reputation”.

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The lot was hammered down for £45,500 to a Greek buyer, prompting speculation in the old-bike world that Matchless might be set for a return. But then everything went quiet again, until 2012 when news emerged that it had been sold on to the Italian Malenotti family who, having turned Belstaff from being an in-decline maker of waxed-cotton motorcycling kit to a blue-chip international fashion brand, had something of a reputation for being able to revive some nice bits of Britain’s biking heritage.

And now, under the managing directorship of 33-year-old Michele Malenotti, the Matchless name is back in circulation as the logo on a range of high-end motorcycle-inspired clothing – expensively promoted by Kate Moss – that has arrived at a time when vintage biker chic and all things British have never been more popular.

But there seems to be more to this story than simply the exploitation of a historic and evocative name in order to shift some pricey garments. This is because the Malenottis, who sold Belstaff to the Labelux Group in 2011, are genuinely mad about motorcycles and are determined to get Matchless back in action as a fully operational bike manufacturer post-haste.

“Back in the 1980s, my father had the opportunity to buy several British motorcycle marques, but the one we always wanted was Matchless. It was the only marque that was truly global, selling bikes everywhere from Australia to Canada – and it was very popular in Italy too. One Italian enthusiast owns 100 Matchless bikes,” says Michele Malenotti.

Simon de Burton test-riding the Hesketh 24, £35,000, at Mercers Country Park in Surrey
Simon de Burton test-riding the Hesketh 24, £35,000, at Mercers Country Park in Surrey | Image: Nick Elvery

“We began with the clothing, because it was the quickest way to re-establish the brand, which we want to build into something that works along the lines of the Harley-Davidson business model, whereby the bike is an asset that promotes the clothing and makes it more exclusive,” continues Malenotti, who refuses to say how much he paid for the Matchless trademark.

“My family is crazy about motorcycles – my father was a champion road racer for Honda, as well as a motorcycle designer. It is something that is transferred down the line, and I think that’s applicable to Matchless, too, as most people who recognise the name do so because their father or grandfather has spoken about owning one or riding one,” he adds. “We are working on bringing back the name with the third generation of the Collier family, who have been really important to us because they know everything about the company’s history, and it is important to incorporate that history into our contemporary line.“

A plan is currently in hand to produce a crash helmet inspired by the look of those worn by the Collier brothers at the TT races. There is also ambitious talk of bringing back Matchless to the Isle of Man to take part once more in the legendary road-race event, which has enjoyed a significant profile boost by being opened up to the corporate world and through the documentary film TT3D: Closer to the Edge, starring celebrity rider and off-the-wall television presenter Guy Martin.

But the most significant move to date was the unveiling at last November’s important EICMA motorcycle show in Milan of the prototype of what Malenotti promises will be the first new Matchless motorcycle to hit the road for 50 years.  Named Model X Reloaded after the original firm’s Model X of the 1930s, it was designed by Malenotti’s father Franco with the aim of showing how the marque might have evolved had it not fallen by the wayside.

Matchless MD Michele Malenotti
Matchless MD Michele Malenotti | Image: Courtesy of Matchless

To that end, the bike features a 1,916cc V-twin engine made by American firm S&S, a six-speed gearbox and a “layered” frame construction of the type used for racing motorcycles. The overall look is decidedly retro, with plenty of heavy chrome work, fishtail silencers and balloon tyres, but Malenotti says the Model X Reloaded also bristles with innovation, ranging from a modern take on the old-fashioned “castle” front suspension design, to a system that allows extensive adjustment of the handlebars, foot controls and a “floating” seat so that the rider can quickly change the nature of the machine from a comfortable tourer to an outright sports bike.

“We are still in the development and engine-testing process, but the aim is to make a pre-series of machines available next year,” says Malenotti. “We’ve applied for 12 patents for the design and, although the S&S engine is used in several other bikes, this version has been specifically developed for the Model X Reloaded. Our intention is to make it the Rolls-Royce of motorcycles.”

At a projected £60,000-£80,000, depending on the finish, the new bike is certainly set to carry a Rolls-Royce price tag, but it probably won’t be made in England. Although there will be some UK components, the final assembly is expected to take place in Italy.

Matchless is just one of three previously defunct marques currently being revived in order to tap into the widespread perception that having the right name on the tank of your motorcycle represents the key to a certain lifestyle. Another is the mighty Brough Superior, which was founded in 1919 by the perfectionist George Brough, who enjoyed considerable racing success and attracted celebrity buyers of the era, including George Bernard Shaw and, famously, TE Lawrence.

The Matchless Model X Reloaded, about £60,000-£80,000
The Matchless Model X Reloaded, about £60,000-£80,000

Lawrence bought his first Brough Superior in 1922 and called it Boanerges, following it with seven subsequent examples that were successively named George I to VII. He died on the latter in May 1935 after he crashed while swerving to avoid two boys on bicycles near his home in Dorset.

Five years later, the original Brough Superior factory shut down, having produced little more than 3,000 machines in a 21-year period. (These, too, were known as the “Rolls-Royce of motorcycles” and each one cost as much as a small house in 1940.)

Back in 2010, How To Spend It reported that Austria-based Englishman Mark Upham, who had acquired the Brough Superior marque in 2008, had begun making brand-new recreations of the original Brough models using 21st-century techniques and materials to create modern, reliable machines that are outwardly indistinguishable from those made in the 1920s. In 2013, however, Upham announced that he had embarked on a further project to produce an all-new Brough Superior that, while in the spirit of the original, would bring the marque up to date.

Named the SS100  after the guaranteed 100mph Brough Superior introduced in 1925, this modern-day bike cleverly combines state-of-the-art engineering with looks that make it instantly indentifiable as being a Brough with a contemporary twist. At the time of writing, Upham says he has secured approximately 150 orders from around the world at £43,000 apiece, including VAT, with the first production bikes due to be delivered this year.

George Brough with his hand on racer/sales rep Eddie Mayer at the Nottingham factory
George Brough with his hand on racer/sales rep Eddie Mayer at the Nottingham factory | Image: Courtesy Brough Superior

Despite its British roots, the new Brough Superior won’t be built in Britain, but in a factory in France. It has been developed and engineered by Boxer Design of Toulouse and features an in-house, 997cc, water-cooled V-twin engine that generates around 125 horsepower and nestles in a titanium frame fitted with front and rear suspension arms made from aluminium alloy. The double wishbone suspension system has been designed as a modernised version of the traditional “castle” girder fork used on Broughs of the past. Top-quality components, including suspension by Swedish racing vehicle supplier Ohlins and quadruple front disc brakes by Beringer complete the package, although numerous extras and individual fittings can be specified, at extra cost, to make the bike entirely bespoke.

“We’ll have the first 10 machines ready at the beginning of this summer and these will be used later for press road-testing and shakedown work,” says Upham. “Once that is completed, we’ll begin full production and start making the first customer deliveries at the end of this year. The idea of being able to own a completely new Brough Superior, which is built to the sort of exacting standards that George Brough would have appreciated, seems to have captured the imagination of enthusiasts all around the world – many have paid upfront for their bikes in full.”

Available in three models – Traditional, Full Black and Titanium – the SS100 is replete with handmade components (including a truly beautiful, cylindrical fuel tank) and is as likely to sell on its looks as much as its anticipated performance, since it fits right in with the current trend for motorcycles that are traditional yet different. Upham is also working on a Brough Superior clothing range to match.

The third of the newly reborn British marques is the only one that is actually put together in Britain – and its name is Hesketh. Motorsport fans of a certain age will recall the Hesketh name from the Formula One team set up by Lord Hesketh in the early 1970s, which gave the late James Hunt his big break and, with Hunt at the wheel, became the last privateer team to win an F1 race (at Zandvoort in 1975). Hesketh turned his hand to making motorcycles (or, more accurately, to getting someone to make them on his behalf) in 1981. The first machine was called the V1000 and, priced at £4,500, it cost £1,500 more than the class-leading BMW R100RS, which failed dismally to match on any level.

The new Brough Superior factory in France
The new Brough Superior factory in France

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hesketh’s single-handed attempt at reviving the British motorcycle industry when it seemed at its most lifeless proved a failure, and fewer than 150 bikes left the Daventry workshops before the firm shut down little more than a year after it was established. The name passed to test-and-development engineer Mick Broom, who kept it alive by servicing and restoring existing machines and, very occasionally, building new ones to order by using parts left over from the original production run.

In 2010, however, Broom sold the rights to British engineer/entrepreneur Paul Sleeman, who has since established a small factory in Redhill, Surrey, where he is building a new, redesigned Hesketh. Having recently ridden one, I can guarantee that it represents a quantum leap compared with the fairly awful original Hesketh of the 1980s.

As with the new Matchless model, Slee has chosen an S&S V-twin motor to power the bike but, in this case, it has been modified by UK-based tuning company HPE after being imported from the US. The mighty engine drives through a separate Baker gearbox with five speeds and an “overdrive” sixth, and produces such vast amounts of torque (or pulling power) that it is fitted with a special “King Kong” drag-racing clutch.

To say the new Hesketh – called the 24 after the number of the Zandvoort Grand Prix-winning Hesketh F1 car – is a big motorcycle would be a slight understatement. Everything about it is loud and imposing and it’s definitely not a machine for the nervous, the short of leg or the weak of wrist as it’s high, long and generally larger than life. Once underway, however, it’s remarkably smooth and, with all that torque on tap, offers effortless performance and a wonderful, loping gait that makes it more relaxing to ride quickly than slowly. The finish is also impressive, as are its ancillary components (Ohlins suspension, Beringer brakes and carbon-fibre wheels) and it pulls off the naked street-bike look beautifully.

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If you want one, however, you’ll need to move fast as only 24 are being built and Slee has already shifted 16, despite the bikes costing £35,000 apiece. And, once the run is completed, he intends to launch an all-new, full-production machine that will be powered by a 300-horsepower engine developed and built in-house.

Now that’s a lifestyle I can certainly relate to…  

For more about statement motorcycles, see Maxwell Hazan’s bespoke motorcycles and The comeback of the café raceror for biker chic, Matchless’ natty new biker jackets.

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