Lawrence of Arabia | Icon

Warrior, Diplomat, Statesman … Motorcyclist

Before Brad Pitt, Steve McQueen or even Marlon Brando, T.E. Lawrence was the original motorcycle-riding celebrity badass. Unlike the others who only played heroic iconoclasts on the big screen, however, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Edward Lawrence was the real deal. An Oxford-educated archeologist, author and armchair philosopher best known for his autobiographical Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence was also a decorated British Army veteran who earned his nickname by coordinating the Arab Revolt during World War I.

Lawrence was also the first—and arguably the best—motorcycle poet, legendary for lyrical descriptions of his beloved Brough Superior motorcycles. “A skittish motor bike with a touch of blood in it is better than all the riding animals on earth,” he wrote in a posthumously published essay titled The Road, “because of its logical extension of our faculties, and the hint, the provocations, to excess conferred by its honeyed, untiring smoothness.” Has a more eloquent description of a fast motorcycle ever been penned?

Only the incomparable Brough Superior SS100, the fastest and most fabulous motorcycle of the era, could inform such an inspired opinion. Lawrence’s romance with the brand began in 1922, when he used proceeds from sales of his book to purchase his first SS100, an Alpine Grand Sport model. Lawrence owned a total of seven SS100s during his lifetime, and had an eighth on order when he died in 1935. Each was officially nicknamed “George,” followed by the appropriate Roman numeral (I-VII), though Lawrence habitually referred to any and all of them as “Boanerges”—a biblical reference to the “Son of Thunder.”

Lawrence often covered as many as 500 miles per day—almost unthinkable given the road conditions of the time—and claimed, in an endorsement written to George Brough in 1926, to have ridden more than 100,000 miles in four years. He famously rode like there was no tomorrow, and inevitably, one day there wasn’t. In May 1935, just two months after exiting the service, Lawrence crested a blind rise near his Clouds Hill cottage in Dorset and collided with a boy on a bicycle. The boy survived. Lawrence, who suffered severe head injuries, did not. His death was not for naught, however: His attending neurosurgeon, Hugh Cairns, was so distraught over what he considered Lawrence’s “unnecessary death” that he launched a definitive head-injury research campaign that led to a huge increase in the use of motorcycle crash helmets.

As is often the case, this tragically premature demise only added to his mythological status, and the Lawrence of Arabia imprimatur has helped make the Brough Superior SS100 among the most desirable motorcycles in existence. An example that was allegedly gifted to Lawrence by his close friend, Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, is rumored to have sold privately for $4 million. George VII—the bike Lawrence was riding when he died—is privately held and publicly displayed at London’s Imperial War Museum. One can only imagine the stratospheric value of that…

It’s impossible to separate Lawrence of Arabia from the legend of Brough Superior motorcycles. T.E. Lawrence, conferring here with George Brough, owned seven of them.