Crystal gazing… 1999 and all that

The staff of The Motor Cycle were quite capable of making  well-informed predictions about the evolution of the motor cycle. But as this Christmas offering shows, they were also ready and willing to have a bit of fun. So let’s join them in a trip 90 years into the future…to 1999 and beyond!


DISCUSSION AS TO THE FUTURE of the motor cycle waxed so hot and fierce at the late Stanley Show that the Editor greatly desired to provide his readers with some actually reliable information on this subject. Hearing that a clairvoyancy bureau in the West End had at last established communication with the spirit world, he sent an experienced member of the staff to consult the gifted mediums of the bureau, and the following is the commissioner’s statement of the revelations vouchsafed to him.

Madame Secconciteski considerably disconcerted me at the very outset of my interview by informing me that what I might see in her crystal depended primarily on the purity
of my life. Sober, serious persons, she informed me obtained far greater clarity of vision than people of cynical temperament and indifferent habits. I quailed visibly, in the consciousness that my language had been rather lurid only the day previously, when it had taken me two hours to recover the red-hot pieces of a broken exhaust valve from my cylinder near Henlow Crossing. However, sustained to a false courage by the sternness of the editorial command, and, low be it spoken, by half a bottle of fizz injected just previously, I took my seat in the chair with as good a face as possible, and stared as intently at the crystal ball on the table as if it had been a broken down magneto.
The room slowly darkened, and the crystal seemed to swell and glow gradually, until all sense of my actual locality was lost, and I found myself standing in the Agricultural Hall, Islington, brilliantly illumined by huge coronas of some unknown lamp. A mysterious compulsion impelled my faltering steps towards a stand which occupied practically the whole of the ground floor. A courteous attendant began by leading me to an armchair. When I was seated, he handed me a Larranaga of the best and a tumbler containing a new American drink.

A 1999 Lightweight.
My creature comforts being thus provided for, he submitted his 1999 catalogue, and I realised that my life and character were not quite bad enough to obstruct the passage to me of the crystal’s secrets. The catalogue informed me that I was inspecting a lightweight exhibit of ninety years hence, and the attendant presently wheeled up to my feet a small velvet covered platform on wheels, on which was mounted his lightweight de luxe for the season of 2000AD. It was slung from a spring balance, registering 38lb, and it was the most extraordinary motor cycle I have ever seen.
To begin with, it had no tyres worthy of the name. Its spidery wheels were shod with light rings of aluminium, semi-circular in section, and less than half an inch thick. The engine was no bigger than a ‘fifty size’ tin of Wills’s cigarettes, and could be dismounted from the frame without tools. It simply slid onto a clip resembling a generator bracket, fixed to the saddle pillar tube. It drove the back wheel by a shaft like the flexible drive of a 1910 speedometer. This shaft was provided with a small bevel at each end, and was attached by two bayonet joints, one at the engine, the other near a crown wheel set on the rear spindle. Petrol was carried in the top tube of the frame, the petrol pipe being connected by another bayonet joint. At first sight the machine appeared to have no control at all, but I presently espied that some gear or other was concerned with the right footrest.
This was stirrup like in shape, and below it was a small rod ending in a tiny wheel, which would obviously make contact with the ground when the rider’s foot was placed in the stirrup. As there were no signs of any ignition, it occurred to me that this might be a device for picking up current from a live wire, similar to that common in 1909 on overhead electric tram systems, and so indeed it proved to be. Remembering ‘Ixion’s’ advice, I rose from my chair, and lifted the machine, which certainly felt no more than the 38lb registered on the dial. The salesman appeared anxious on the point, and informed me that on another stand a 22lb lightweight was exhibited, but that it had neither piston nor flywheels inside its engine, and that its frame was a dummy, composed of papier mache tubing. At any rate, the machine under examination seemed an honest job, and I pulled out my cheque book. The stand immediately began to rock and swim around me, and when my surroundings steadied and assumed definite shape again I was outside the Archway Tavern, Highgate. Here I found the MCC foregathering for a club run to the North. It was evident that if dear, dirty old London had not altered much during nine decades, the country roads had undergone great transmogrifications.


The Highways of the Future.
The ordinary stone pavement ended abruptly just North of Highgate, and a broad steel tape about double the width of an ordinary highway had taken its place. It was split
into eight tracks, divided by light aluminium rails; four tracks went north, four were restricted to southward traffic. The two central tracks were for police and repair men, the next two for racing motors, and each pair of side tracks for touring cars and motor cycles respectively. Horsed, pedestrian, and pedal-bicycle traffic was still, however, allowed to use the ancient macadam highways on payment of a heavy annual tax. If anyone wished to stop for food, petrol, or to diverge to a side road, he had merely to turn a small striker on the near side of the car or cycle, so that it touched the aluminium rails. It would then ring a bell, and the roadmen let the far end of the next section of the track sink, so that it conducted the traveller down its inclined plane into a subterranean stopping bay.

Easy Starting.
The MCC offered me the position of honour, but, being a stranger to the modern track, I preferred to see them start off first. I noticed each machine possessed the same single control as my own. Each man cast a leg over his saddle, and, putting his right boot in its stirrup, depressed the wheel beneath onto the road surface. He’ then jogged the machine forward with his left foot till the tiny wheel touched the steel track. This was evidently highly electrified, for the engine instantly started off of its own accord, and the machine glided pleasantly away.
One of the club experts informed me that to stop one had only to relieve the stirrup of foot pressure, then the tiny contact wheel broke circuit with the track. He strongly advised me, however, never to use this method on a speed highway, lest I should be ridden down from behind. He advised me rather to ring one of the belts on the rails by means of my handle-bar striker and descend the inclined plane which the roadmen would then open into the bays beneath the track. The inclined plane would always lead me on to an insulated surface, where the engine would stop of its own accord.

Date of the Last Breakdown AD1952.
I enquired what I must do if I had a breakdown, but he scornfully informed me that the last breakdown on record occurred in 1952AD, and that non-stop trials had long since been abandoned, since the last ACU trial had been prolonged for seven years in the attempt to find a winner. This sounded good enough, so I slung my leg over the saddle, and hitched my handy little jigger forward till my contact wheel touched the steel track.
I was soon spinning forward at thirty miles an hour, and was deliciously impressed with the poetry of motion. Not a jar was perceptible, which puzzled me for a time, but I presently noticed that every motor on the track had solid metal tyres, and that at last the silly old makeshift dodge of springing vehicles and using resilient tyres had been abandoned years before in favour of the more logical method of springing the road instead. On closer inspection the apparently solid steel track was seen to consist of small laminated steel plates, each mounted on springs, and built up into framed sections. I afterwards learnt that the under-springing was lubricated by forced circulation from enormous turbine pumps set at intervals of twenty miles.


Impeded by Aerial Traffic.
I soon discovered, however, that there was considerable room for reform even in these advanced times. It took me some while to get used to the aeroplanes, which were buzzing about overhead in all directions at truly formidable speeds. A slow family plane passed across the track within a few yards of my head before I had covered ten miles, and a small boy in its bows deliberately shot me in the back of the neck with a catapult. Most of the aeroplanes flew disgustingly low, and the airhogs would suddenly loom up out of the distance at 200 miles an hour, dive straight towards one’s face, and with a sudden tilt of their elevators at the last second of safety jerk up into the blue empyrean again. My most unpleasant experience occurred when a racing plane split its propeller within forty yards of me, and one of the vanes sizzled past my ear, and sliced the front three cylinders clean off a racing Napier that was passing down the central avenue of the track. However, my fellow clubmen told me that these dangers were to be met by roofing in the highroads in the near future.
Towards Wetherby I began to feel rather stiff, and turned out my handle-bar striker to make contact with the aluminium rail. Instantly the section of track in front of me dipped its far end, and I slid down its inclined plane into a brilliantly lighted underground stopping bay, rather like a Tube station.

The Captain is Decapitated.
The other MCC men were already there, in a great state of indignation because their captain had had his head cut off near Grantham by part of a broken propeller, which had spun off an aeroplane which was flying too low. Public opinion,they said,ran so high in favour of aeroplanes that a motorist had no chance in a lawsuit with a flying man, and it was highly improbable that his sorrowing widow would obtain any compensation. I had previously felt rather nervous about the system employed for shunting riders who wished to drop down into the subterranean bays, but I found it worked admirably in practice. When a section of track was dipped, the previous section was automatically insulated, and any motor upon the previous section was thus held up till the depressed section swung up again.

A Magnificent Lunch.
I enjoyed a magnificent lunch with the club, and it was then agreed ‘nem con’ [unanimously] that we should go further north that I might be shown Sutton Bank under modern conditions. I objected strenuously, owing to lurid memories of attempts to climb Sutton years ago on an 8hp twin, but the members laughingly overruled my objections, and told me that my microscopic mount would make light of the once formidable climb. We informed the road superintendent that we wished to reascend to the upper regions, and insulating the track just south of the station, so as to hold up any motor cycles approaching along our section of the track, he dipped the northward section. The light of day streamed down on us again, and moving forward our cycles on to the steeply sloping plane, we shot gracefully up on to the track again, as soon as our feet touched the rests, and put our contact wheels in circuit with the track once more. In the same easy fashion as before we trickled north into Thirsk, which was now one of the grand trunk junctions. Here we encountered a two minutes’ delay, as we all had to descend again into a stopping bay, out of which inclined steep planes led us up on to the cross road for Scarborough.

Hill-climbing made Easy.
A few miles brought us in sight of Sutton Bank, and the aspect of the famous hill was indeed changed. Scenery and surroundings remained unaltered, but the surface of the road was thickly dotted with motors of all sorts and sizes, each of them flying up at a good thirty miles an hour. Scrutinising the spectacle closely, I noticed that the wheels of the various vehicles were stationary—they were simply resting on a sort of moving tape, which rolled them up the hill with their engines at rest; all the cars had their side brakes locked, and the cyclists had their feet on the ground. The fixed steel track terminated exactly at the base of the gradient, and I then saw that the surface of the hill consisted of corrugated steel tapes, running over enormous drums sunk in the ground. We simply steered our machines straight on to one of the narrow side tapes, dropped our feet to support the machine in a vertical position, and in a couple of minutes or so found ourselves at the summit, where the former type of steel track, comfortably undersprung, recommenced, and continued right into Scarborough.

The Fate of the Old-time Machines.
As I slid silently and swiftly on towards the queen of watering places I fell awondering what had become of the old-time 3½hp tourist machines and 8hp twins, and even while I wondered, the quiet hedgerows on either side began to dissolve like the painted scenery of a transformation in a pantomime, and I found myself in the British Museum. There in a glass case was the very identical Matchless twin on which Collier had won the TT Race in 1909, and beside it stood a figure that I took for Collier himself—the same neat athletic figure, compounded of steel wire and india-rubber, the same pleasant dogged smile. I sprang forward to renew old acquaintanceship, but only to realise that Collier was a waxwork. I realised with a sigh that, thanks to steel tracks and endless hill-tapes and advances in design, the day of the high-powered machine had long since passed. As I mused sadly on the decay of sport and the elimination of the human factor, the glass cases and their dusty contents faded, and once more I found myself seated in the chair and gazing anxiously at the winking crystal ball.
“Two guineas, please, sir! ” murmured the clairvoyant. “Cheap at the price, too!” responded I, dreamily, as I stumbled down the steps and took a miserable out-of-date taxi in my haste to communicate the astounding vision to my Editor.