World’s First Superbike: The 1937 Brough Superior SS100

The most fantastic and desirable machine in the history of motorcycling?

“Doing the Ton”—breaking the 100-mph barrier—for the first time is a milestone moment in any motorcyclist’s career. Losing my own velocity virginity was especially remarkable because it happened aboard the very bike you see in these pictures: a 1937 Brough Superior SS100, perhaps the most fantastic and desirable machine in the history of motorcycling.

The year was 1973. I was racing cars in a decidedly amateurish way, and sharing a flat in London with an expat American bike racer named Jeff Craig. Even though I rode on the street every day, racing bikes seemed like a terrifying prospect. But eventually, Jeff persuaded me out onto the racetrack. One day we were driving home from a Brands Hatch practice session when we passed a shop in Tooting and saw some old bikes being unloaded from a truck. “Stop right now!” shouted Jeff, and before I even parked he was out the door and running back to the shop.

When I finally caught up, Jeff was deep in conversation with white-haired Brian Verrall—Britain’s leading vintage motorcycle dealer—who was straddling this very Brough Superior SS100. “One of the greatest motorcycles ever built,” Jeff informed me. “I never thought I’d ever see one, especially in such original, unrestored condition. I wish I had the money to buy it…”

Verrall acquired the bike as part of a collection he was disposing of. It was marked at £950—a princely sum 40 years ago, even if it wouldn’t buy a 50cc scooter today. I had just sold my racecar, and spent half the proceeds on a transit van and racebike. I had almost exactly £1000 in my bank account, and you can guess the rest...

Before shaking hands on the deal, Verrall insisted on checking one thing: Every SS100 was delivered with a certificate signed by George Brough himself, personally guaranteeing the bike had been tested at over 100 mph. Verrall wanted to ensure this one still qualified for the SS100 label. Swinging his leg lazily against the kickstarter, he brought the giant V-twin to life with an inimitable crack from the twin fishtail exhausts. Engaging first gear, he accelerated away and disappeared round the corner. Half an hour later he returned. “Still a ton-up bike,” he remarked casually. “It rides so nice that I had to make two runs.” We shook hands and I joined—for a short while, at least—the most exclusive owners’ club in the motorcycle universe.

You can imagine what happened the first time I took the Brough for a ride: On a downhill stretch of A2 headed toward Dover, I did the magic Ton on a bike for the first time. Even after the road flattened, the needle on the 120-mph Smiths speedometer still flickered well into the triple digits. The SS100 was a true ton-up motorcycle—and the first real superbike.

George Brough was the second son of motorcycle manufacturer William Edward Brough, who had been building eponymous motorcycles in his Nottingham factory since the 1890s. In 1919 the younger Brough set out on his own, adding “Superior” to the name. This wasn’t hyperbole: Every Brough Superior was hand-built to the highest specification, and typically custom-tailored to its owner’s desires. Costing more than most houses at the time, Brough Superior quickly became known as “The Rolls Royce of Motorcycles.” Just over 3000 were built before the company’s demise in 1940. A mere 382 of these were top-of-the-line SS100s. JAP (J.A. Prestwich) motors powered the majority, but the final 100 or so were built with more modern Matchless motors like the one shown here.

Quality issues with the aging JAP engine design led Brough in the mid-’30s to approach Matchless, which agreed to develop a motorcycle-specific version of the 50-degree, 990cc V-twin it supplied to Morgan for use in its three-wheeled Supersport cars. The Brough-edition engine—denoted BS/X2—utilizes forked connecting rods like a Harley-Davidson, instead of the Morgan’s side-by-side arrangement. Unlike the four-cam JAP motor, the Matchless uses a single camshaft to reduce noise, with three lobes—one controlling both valves on the front cylinder, the other two controlling one valve each in the rear. Instead of the Sturmey-Archer transmission used on earlier SS100 models, Brough specified a Norton International-derived gearbox from Burman for these later bikes. Cush-drives in both the clutch and the Enfield rear hub provide unexpectedly smooth power transfer.

True to my promise, I sold the bike to Jeff for the same price I’d paid for it one year later, after he’d saved up the money. If I only knew then… “Our Brough” wasn’t just any old SS100, but once belonged to George Brough himself! Factory records reveal EAU 31, bearing chassis #1662 and engine #1008, as the eighth Matchless-motored SS100 built. This bike was delivered on October 2, 1937, to the Brough Superior dealer in Norwich as “ex-Mr. Brough.” George Brough registered an example of each new model upon introduction, riding it himself to troubleshoot any problems. This was his testbike.

Jeff has ridden the bike about 7000 miles since then—making it perhaps the only unrestored SS100 that is (semi-regularly) ridden in the world. Whenever I visit Jeff’s Pennsylvania home, I’m compelled to take a trip down Memory Lane. Lighting the Brough’s fire is still a pre-modern affair: Tickle the twin-float Amal 6/200 carb until fuel floods out, set the choke three-quarters closed, retard the ignition a third with the left bar lever, priming the engine with the compression release on the end of the same handlebar, then firmly kick your right leg. Two or three prods were enough then and still do the job today, sending the lusty engine rumbling into life with a satisfying bark from the handsome twin fishtail exhausts.

Lift the longish shift lever to select low gear and feed out the light-action clutch till it starts to bite. Bottom gear is long but there’s still a good gap to second, with the top three ratios close together. Luckily, the engine is so torquey that you don’t need to bother much with changing gears. This is a long-legged, effortless Gentlemen’s Express. Performance is honestly impressive by the standards of any era, with enough grunt to take you from 10 mph to the Ton all in top gear. Cruising at 75 mph is entirely practical, and the vestigial windscreen even delivers something resembling wind protection.

Stability is another of the Brough’s trump cards, thanks to its low center of gravity, long, 59-inch wheelbase and effective—by vintage standards—Castle fork. The well-sprung Lycett saddle does a good job of smoothing the ride, so much that you hardly notice there’s a rigid rear end. On the uncluttered roads of the ’30s, the SS100 must have been a magical mile-eater. The only real disappointment—and this is a problem with all bikes of this era—is the horrendously underachieving brakes. The Brough’s dual Enfield drums deliver pathetic stopping power. A 100-plus-mph bike deserves better than this.

Even 75 years on, the SS100 remains a wonderful road bike. It’s a shame more survivors aren’t regularly ridden, but that’s an unavoidable reality when restored examples regularly change hands for more than a quarter-million dollars. Even though I’ll never own another, I’ll always have the memory of straddling that wide, sloping tank and tucking behind that tiny screen as the speedometer needle climbed toward three figures. Now as then, Brough Superior stands for The Best.

Tech Spec

Evolution
The final edition of George Brough's iconic SS100, with a smoother, more reliable Matchless V-twin engine.
Rivals
Nothing rivaled "The Rolls Royce of Motorcycles."

Price na
Engine type a-c 50-deg. V-twin
Valve train OHV, 4v
Displacement 990cc
Bore x stroke 85.5 x 85.5mm
Compression 6.5:1
Fuel system Amal carburetor
Transmission 4-speed
Claimed horsepower 48 bhp @ 4200rpm
Claimed torque na
Frame Tubular-steel single-cradle
Front suspension Castle leading-link fork
Rear suspension Rigid frame, sprung saddle
Front brake Drum
Rear brake Drum
Front tire 19 x 3.5 Avon Speedmaster
Rear tire 19 x 4.0 Avon Speedmaster
Rake/trail na
Seat height 28.0 in.
Wheelbase 59.0 in.
Fuel capacity 4.0 gal.
Claimed curb weight 440 lbs.
Color Black/Nickel

Verdict: 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Modern-era performance arrives—albeit at a very high price.

A rangy, 59-inch wheelbase and stretched-out riding position define the Brough Superior’s Magic Carpet Ride. Long and low, the SS100 was fast but not especially maneuverable.
The Matchless V-twin, with enclosed pushrods and rocker arms, was more modern than the JAP motor it replaced. The Norton four-speed gearbox shifted better, too.
Just less than 400 SS100s were built between 1924 and 1940, and only 81 are known to survive today. Few, if any, are as original and untouched as this one.
“Our Brough” at rest in Jeff Craig’s well-appointed workshop. Distinctive fishtail mufflers are typical of late-model SS100s, as are hand-tooled Lycett saddles and sidebags.
With its wide, nickel-plated tank and elegantly curved handlebars, the SS100 is a gorgeous machine. An authentic, 70-year patina makes this one utterly unique.
George Brough didn’t overlook any detail when it came to rider comfort, leading fans to nickname the SS100 “The Rolls Royce of Motorcycles.”
Brough sourced major components from outside manufacturers like JAP, Matchless and Enfield, but the meticulously crafted SS100 was no mere parts-bin special.