The Dreadnought

Dreadnought is a unique survivor from the pioneering generation of motor cycling. In modern terms it’s a custom bike—in 1903 Harold ‘Oily’ Karslake set out to build the best bike he could with the best components he could find. And in 1911 he wrote down the story of Dreadnought. Oily, you have the floor.

IN THE EARLY days of motorcycling we all had ideas of our own as to what would improve the machine of the day. My ideal was a 65x65mm [216cc] outside-flywheel engine, overhead valves, belt drive, 1¾in tandem tyres, and weighing complete just over 100lbs, and I had one. After using it for two years and making many alterations to it, I decided that a lightweight was not suitable for all-round riding. Thus it came about that I decided upon building a machine myself, and early in 1903 I got hold of a stout loop frame and set to work to acquire the various component parts. Some I obtained from friends and some were bought through The Motor Cycle then just started. It was a quaint little paper at the time, compared with the present sumptuous publication, and 2d too.
However, to return to the subject, I bought a front wheel which ran on the machine until early this year. The back wheel I built up myself. And then came the question of the engine. I watched the advertisements and at last saw one of a 3½hp BAT, 80x80mm [402cc], at Woking. After some correspondence I went to see it, taking £5 with me (all I possessed). The engine turned out to be new, but the owner said that it had a terrible knock in it. No wonder! The contact breaker was put on the wrong way round. I didn’t tell him so, but got it for £4.10s and nearly killed myself carrying it to the station. It fitted my frame very well, and I was then able to fit the belt rim and make the tanks.
As I was building the machine in my spare time it was the end of the year before I got everything done to my liking, but early in January I had my trial run on it. Although I only went three miles, I think it was the most enjoyable run I have ever had. And all my own work too. At Easter I went on my first long run, to Huntingdon. I did it non-stop, and wasn’t I proud! But, as usual, pride went before a fall. I couldn’t start the engine next day as the contact breaker (De Dion trembling blade) had got out of adjustment, and many were the sorry tricks it served me before I understood it.
At the end of the summer (1904) I decided to fit a seat in place of a saddle, and thought out its present sprung seat. This has proved satisfactory in every way, and I am vain enough to think it is of the pattern which will be fitted as a standard in ten years’ time. I also lowered the foot boards to their present position, and with a new type of handle-bars the machine was getting quite comfortable. This sufficed for 1905.
In 1906 I ventured further afield, and went on a holiday tour around Cornwall, returning via North Devon. As the machine was fitted with only a single gear of 4½ to 1, I had to push up a good many hills and I consequently began to think of two-speed gears, which I had scorned hitherto. In those days there was no choice of gears. It was Vindec or NSU or trouble. It was over a year before I could get one, an NSU, and it has served me magnificently ever since. I cannot find words to describe its worth, but its present day popularity speaks for me. When in North Devon in 1906 I was shown the redoubtable Barbrook Mill Hill; I registered a vow to conquer it. To enable me to do this I fitted a chain from the gear to a large pulley on the bottom bracket, and so got 14-1 on the low gear. With this I was able to climb the hill at the first attempt, a thing that had never been accomplished before. The hill is now too well known to need any description here. I also climbed Porlock Hill after a number of attempts to get round the first corner in the saddle. This was at Easter 1908. As the cylinder had now got considerably worn I decided to have the engine re-bored and this was done, increasing it to 86mm [increasing the swept volume to 464cc]. I also used the cycle as a passenger machine this year, taking a friend on a trailer. Then belt troubles began, so I got a Whittle which ended them promptly. I also fitted the live axle and bearings.
In January 1909, I was invited to a MCC Smoking Concert, and although I did not know a single person there I was made perfectly at home. I was so pleased with the boys that I decided to join them. At Whitsuntide I entered my first competition, the London-Edinburgh—and I got through without any trouble, but lost my medal for being ahead of time at York. My next competition was the MCC 24 hours, 466 miles. In this competition I was lucky in two ways. I won the handsome silver cup outright, and made the acquaintance of Hugh Gibson. I cannot speak too highly of him, for we rode for twelve hours within 30 seconds of one another’s time, and yet he corrected my watch outside each control, so that we should compete on skill and not watches. The old machines ran perfectly throughout. A fortnight later we started together on the MCC ride, London to Land’s End and back, but after trouble at the start I got as far as Launceston, where I broke my engine shaft, and parted with Gibson. I trained home, the first and only time the Dreadnough” has not come home under power. It was this year that I suggested the Winter Ride, and got laughed at for it. Who laughs now?
In 1910 I had a much more ambitious programme, and having caught the competition fever I joined the Herts County AC (Motor Cycle Section). At Easter I went on the Harrogate Tour, when the big end seized at Wentbridge, but I worked all night, and next day I climbed Sutton Bank, and then had to ride dead on time to qualify for a bronze medal. How’s that for a ‘holiday’? At Whitsun I did the London-Edinburgh and back, and later on I rode for the MCC in the Teams Trial, non-stop. Then I beat the crowd at the MCC Petrol Consumption trial, besides some other medals for minor events.
I had found so much trouble with accumulators spilling acid and eating up tank sides and wires that I decided to give dry batteries a trial. I was approached by Messrs Siemens Brothers & Co to try theirs, and, although I did not altogether trust the system I gave it a fair trial and found it completely successful. Since adapting these batteries I have had no ignition troubles whatever and, as far as attention is concerned, the ignition system might just as well not be there. The results I have obtained from the Siemens dry batteries have been extensively published, and it is not necessary for me to repeat them here.
My first event for this season (1911) was the Winter Ride last Christmas, when I obtained a gold medal. Then followed the Land’s End ride at Easter, which captured for me the silver medal. This was undoubtedly my best ride, as I survived where half the modern machines failed. On the London-Edinburgh ride at Whitsuntide I gained the gold medal, but my frame broke on the return journey. Then there was the MCC 100-mile non-stop, including three hills used for hill climbing competitions. Then I won the silver medal, and since a number of other events. Thus I have qualified for eight awards out of eight entries—100 per cent.
To return to the machine itself, it has run something like 60,000 or 70,000 miles, and the engine has still the original main bearings on both sides. This is undoubtedly due to the low compression and heavy flywheels. All but one of the other bearings have been renewed from time to time, and a new piston and several sets of rings fitted. The successful running of the Dreadnought in competitions is due, in a large measure, to the brainy work put in by by my friend Mr Simpkins, the clever inventor of the ingenious system of chain drive bearing his name, and it would be unfair on my part if I did not give him his due in this respect.
Harold Karslake–1911

A CENTURY LATER Vintage MCC president Bill Phelps wrote: “Harold was a young, impecunious engineering student when he dreamed up the Dreadnought. The frame he acquired in early 1903 is believed to be made by Quadrant. However, the whole project really hinged around the big MMC engine (a de Dion made under licence in Coventry) which he picked up in good condition in Woking. It was really intended for a motor tricycle where its height and weight could be accommodated but Karslake saw it as the answer to the emancipation of the motorcycle. It was an engine of sufficient power to be able to cast off the pedals that were preserving the motorized-pushbike image. In fact the Dreadnought has never been fitted with pedals and, as such, was probably the first motorcycle to be built without them. Instead Harold fitted long wooden footboards, stretching from the front of the crankcase to beneath the rear wheel spindle. This gave an infinitely variable riding position. His real piece de resistance was his sprung saddle arrangement. The Dreadnought was, in fact, a mobile test bed and there is no record of the original specification and it was continually developed until by 1909 the specification of the Dreadnought had crystalized and can be considered final.
“One of the most common beliefs in those days was to get the exhaust gases out as quickly as possible and then the inlet gases could look after themselves. To that end Harold deduced that two exhaust outlets would be better than one. He took an extra exhaust pipe from a hole drilled into the exhaust valve pocket. The manner of the fitting, by two short lengths of spoke with nipples to act as a crude turnbuckle arrangement, is pure Heath Robinson; but who could condemn a jury rig which has stood the test of time like this?
“Another experiment in the evacuation of the exhaust gases, no doubt inspired by early aircraft engines, was to cut ports in the cylinder near the bottom of the piston travel so spent gases could escape to atmosphere at the end of the stroke. Messy! Oil was blown all over the place. Maybe that is why he became known as Oily Karslake, a nickname that stuck to him till he died at in Nottingham during early 1962 at the ripe old age of 81. The nickname might equally have been suggested by his later job as a salesman for Speedwell oils.
A motorcycle this individual needed a name, and Dreadnought was chosen after the first British battleships which used steel plates for armor. The Dreadnought debuted in 1904 and proceeded to win dozens of reliability trials during its day, even with its outdated spec of tall Edwardian frame and ancient motor; in fact the machine could be seen in road trials into the 1940s, still with no clutch! It became popular in the press as well, which cemented its enduring reputation, and was the first starter away, ridden by George Brough, in the very first London-Brighton run, in 1930. Yes, the London-Brighton run was an ‘old timer’s ride’ even in 1930, but here’s the crazy part: George was honored as first starter that year because he had won an ‘Old Crocks’ (pre-1904) motorcycle trial from London to Brighton at an earlier date…1914! It’s a fine line between home-built and custom, but certainly, this machine is the rootstock of the custom family tree and we are honoured that it is still in existence today–and being used.
The short story is that Karslake built the bike to get the performance that he was after for the trials and tours of his time. The 400cc BAT motor was customized with an additional exhaust port and cooling fins before being dropped into a frame that fit his 6’4” stature. He continued to develop the bike for decades, and was still competing in trials like London to Edinburgh, trips to Lands End, etc and he and the machine continued to be competitive against much newer machines.
Karslake’s Dreadnought was bequeathed to the VMCC by the man himself just prior to his death and is the club’s number one treasured asset.

Engine: De Dion 402cc air-cooled four-stroke single made under licence by MMC (Motor Manufacturing Company) of Coventry, 80x80mm bore and stroke. Automatic overhead inlet valve, side exhaust. Two exhaust pipes from single exhaust valve.
Lubrication: Constant loss by hand pump on seat tube from pressurised oil compartment.
Ignition: By HT coil from rechargeable wet battery. Advance and retard by wire from handlebar lever.
Carburation: Originally AMAC two-lever spray carburettor with concentric control wires. Later fitted with a two-lever B&B instrument.
Transmission: Direct belt drive. Two-speed NSU engine-shaft gear conversion fitted in 1908 but later discarded.
Frame: Loop-type, probably originally Quadrant. Braced, rigid front forks, no rear springing. Lowered saddle support featuring telescopic spring struts. Live rear axle to permit engine starting on stand by starting handle, but now the engine is push start only.
Wheels: Beaded-edge rims for 26×2¼in tyres. Belt rim rear brake, pedal cycle type stirrup front brake.
Tanks: Petrol tank slung from top frame tube, capacity approx 1½ imperial gallons. Oil tank between saddle tube and rear mudguard, capacity half a gallon.
Dimensions: Saddle height, 30in; handlebar width 24in.
Original finish: Green paint. Now refinished with red and gold lining on tank.
Performance: Not known, but comfortable cruising speed 35-40mph.
The technical specs and captions on this page were also by Brian Phelps.

This photo was taken by me in 1961 at the Banbury Run at Shenington Airfield, when the bike was ridden by Peter Moffat the then President of the club. The bike was on show as an appeal for funds to restore it, subsequently carried out by Walter Green. At this time the bike was still in the colour last painted by Harold Karslake—green bathtub enamel.
This picture I took at the 2010 ‘Festival of a 1000 bikes’ just before I rode the bike in one of the track sessions. There’s 49 years between the photos—have a good look.
This photo, taken in 1921, shows Harold, on the right, aboard the Karbro Express, a machine that he built using his own frame design and a 1,500cc engine when he was at the Brough Superior works. Yet another attempt at producing a customized machine. Harold was a great friend of George Brough, his most trusted employee and right-hand man. Where George was slim and dapper and exhibitionistic, ‘Oily’ was a shambling giant, at 6’4” tall. He had his own ideas on how to make his motorcycle better and more attractive than what was commercially available.