There were 203 models in the Blue ‘Un’s 1920 Buyers’ Guide with more debuting every week. Demand for sidecars boomed with many veterans needing transport for their brides.
A short, sharp slump took its toll but also boosted demand for economy lightweights. The government backed this trend with a new roadtax system based on weight: £1.10s for bikes up to 200lb, £3 over that or £4 for outfits and three-wheelers.
Villiers and its imitators were kept busy supplying small two-stroke engines for utility mounts; Villiers led the way with a clever flywheel magneto system that supplied lights as well as sparks.
Eric Williams, who had won the 1914 Junior TT for AJS, did it again. This time he was riding an Ajay with a pukka three-speed gearbox – so were his team-mates who came home second, third and fourth. As if that wasn’t enough glory for one year, Howard Davies rode his 350 AJS to a unique victory in the Senior, ahead of a brace of Indians, a Norton and a Sunbeam. A New Imperial won lightweight honours.
So it was AJS’s year, but Eric Williams’ first place was nearly lost to Jim Whalley on a Masey-Arran – a marque set up only the previous year. Whalley was leading on the last lap of the Junior when a burst tyre caused him to crash. He still finished fifth, riding on a flat tyre, stuck in second gear, bleeding from his nose and holding a broken exhaust pipe.
Brooklands staged 500-mile races for the first, and last time. It seems the noise of 60-plus bikes running flat out on open pipes for more than seven hours was more than local residents could bear. That unique long-distance thrash clearly suited US bikes because the first three bikes home were an Indian, a Harley-Davidson and another Indian. A sv Norton Brooklands Special took fourth spot in the Brooklands 500-miler. Since his pre-war exploits Dan ‘Wizard’ O’Donovan, now Norton’s chief tuner, had been busy: the Brooklands Special was now certificated to do 75mph, or 70mph from the Brooklands Road Special.
All subsequent races at Brooklands were shorter and quieter as competitors had to fit silencers – the famous Brooklands can.
Germany came up with the Megola. It was another short-lived experiment (lasting only four years) but what a glorious experiment it was. Designer Fritz Cockerell built a 640cc five-cylinder radial engine into the the front wheel and he couldn’t be bothered with fripperies like a clutch or gearbox. If the rider couldn’t be bothered to bumpstart the beast the recommended technique was “kicking with the heel into the spokes of the front wheel”. The frame was a welded and rivetted box section; touring versions had two bucket seats. And yes, there was a competition version which was good for more than 90mph. More than 2,000 Megolas were made.
British registrations hit 373,000, compared with 154,000 in the USA.
The striking design of the 500cc ohc Wooler TT model, including a bright yellow fuel tank that extended round the steering head, inspired Green ‘Un editor Graham Walker to dub it the ‘Flying Banana’. Wooler also won publicity by extracting 311mpg from a 350. Another lost secret of the ancients, it seems.
Belgium staged its first motorcycle Grand Prix The 500cc class was won by a Norton, but Belgian-built Gillet, founded in 1919, took first and second spots in the 350 class to huge acclaim. Gillet survived to the 1960s.
Triumph built on the success of the Trusty with the Harry Ricardo-designed 498cc Model R ‘fast roadster’. The ‘Riccy’ with its innovative central plug light alloy head and four-pushrod-operated overhead valves would become as famous as the Trusty. Major Frank Halford broke the 500cc world hour record at 76.74 mph on a Ricardo Triumph, along with the 50-mile standing start (77.27 mph) and the one-mile British record (87.8 mph)
From Germany came the D-Rad, made by the state armaments factory that would become better known for Spandau machine guns, and the Mars, with a frame made of rivetted and welded steel plates. The Mars was powered by a 956cc sv flat twin which was the only motorcycle engine ever made by the Maybach car and aero engine works at Friedrichshafen. Instead of a kickstart the big twin was started by a car-style crank. The Mars was expensive, but stayed in production for nearly a decade – longer than most newcomers in those turbulent economic times.
More flat twins. Italy produced the Fongro, Maxima and SAR; Czechoslovakia built the Itar as a military mount though civilians rode it too. Even Harley got in on the flat-twin act, as it would again in the Second World War.
A Harley ridden by Otto Walker became the first motorcycle to win a race at an average speed of over 100mph. The first British ton-up kid was Douglas Davidson, who set the first 100mph lap of Brooklands, also on a Harley Davidson (but no relation).
BSA spent a lot of time and money developing a TT contender. It featured an inclined engine, duplex frame, vertical valves, aluminum slipper piston, one-into-two exhaust manifold and two independent lubrication systems. Initial tests at Brooklands were promising and six machines were entered in the Senior TT. They all dropped out by the end of the second lap, primarily the result of melted pistons.
Motorcyclists no longer needed to be athletes: multi-speed gearboxes had replaced ‘light pedal assistance’ when hillclimbing; kickstarts had replaced pedalling or running-and-jumping when starting. Motorcyclists no longer needed to be technicians: improved design, smoother roads (some with electric streetlights) and better tyres made mechanical breakdowns and punctures the exception rather than the rule.
The ISDT was held in Switzerland as the Swiss had won in 1920 and they did it again, using a 350 Condor and two 1000cc Motosacoche twins, all Swiss made. The Brits were runners up, on two Ajays and a Scott.
Alec Bennett won the French Grand Prix for Sunbeam after a Riccy ran out of fuel. Another Sunbeam was runner-up with a Riccy third.
Drum brakes had finally superseded bicycle-style rim brakes. Control layout was becoming standardised, with clutch/ignition levers on the left, air/throttle levers on the right and the hand gearchange lever on the right of the tank
A slower debutante from the USA was the Neracar, designed by former Cleveland motorcycle designer CA Nerachter and backed by razor king Gillette (so a US alternative to the British Wilkinson). It was marketed as a two-wheeled car; features included a five-speed transmission, full enclosure and hub-centre steering. engine enclo sure, a 221cc two-stroke engine, and friction drive from the flywheel to a countershaft carrying the rear sprocket. Neracars were also built in Britain under licence by Sheffield-Simplex with 285cc two-stroke or 350cc four-stroke Blackburne engines and the option of a proper three-speed gearbox courtesy of Sturmey-Archer. Other options included rear springing, a screen and a bucket seat. Comfy, slow and safe, the innovative Neracar never caught on. It only stayed in production for five years.
Lucas came up with the oh-so-successful Magdyno: a dynamo mounted on, and driven by, a magneto.
Barr & Stroud launched a proprietary engine notable for its use of sleeve valves.
Ferodo introduced a long-life dry-plate clutch using asbestos friction plates.
Italy came up with the 477cc V-twin four-stroke Borgo: a potent racer boasting an ohc four-valve design with unit construction and oil cooling. Less radical but longer lived was the new Benelli, with a humble 98cc two-stroke lump; Bianchi came up with a fast 596cc four-stroke V-twin.
As a change from its successful ohv V-twins Anzani turned to motorising bicycles with a 75cc belt-drive four-stroke that returned better than 200mpg with a top speed approaching 40mph.
Rex Judd squeezed 92.4mph out of a sv Norton 16H, just before it was superseded by the ohv Model 18.
Briain introduced tax discs as part of the licence fee enforcement system.
JL Emerson, having switched from ABC to Douglas, set an hour record at 72.87mph. Horsman and Norton retaliated with a 73.38mph record; Emerson and Douglas raised the stakes again at 74.26mph. Then Major FB Halford took the stage, averaging 76.74mph for an hour on a four-valve ohv Triumph Ricardo.
No false modesty in this advert: “World’s record ride… the onward rush of science has never been so clealry demonstrated as in The Excelsior Motor Cycle… 5 miles in 8m 34s!
Mr Watanabe of Osaka designed and built the first ohv engine made in Japan. Displacing 150cc it worked reasonably well but was gutless so he redesigned it as a 300 coupled with a two-speed transmission and chain drive. He called his machine the Sanda, or Thunder.
The Tohatsu engineering company was set up in Japan; its of twostroke engines would power so many Japanese marques that it might be seen as the oriental Villiers.
Wells Bennett squeezed 1,562 miles into 24 hours at the Tacoma Speedway near Washington DC to average 65mph on a four-pot ohv Henderson K de luxe.