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Lawrence of Arabia’s penultimate Brough Superior SS 100 to star at Bristol bike show

Mike Lewis
Lawrence's 1929 Brough Superior SS 100 has received a sympathetic, 18-month restoration after many years in storage - mikeslewis@btinternet.com

History records a number of celebrated characters with close links to a particular form or even model of transport. Think of the actor Steve McQueen, who (although passionate about motorcycles) defined the art of the cinematic car chase while driving a Ford Mustang GT in Bullitt. Or stunt rider Robert ‘Evel’ Knievel, best remembered for soaring over lines of stationary buses on a Harley-Davidson XR750. 

One British enthusiast, acknowledged the world over for his military achievements in the Middle East during the First World War, remains well known for his subsequent loyalty to a prestigious manufacturer, which endured until his untimely death more than 80 years ago. 

Colonel Thomas Edward Lawrence CB DSO was passionate about Brough Superior motorcycles and owned seven consecutively during the inter-war years. One of his historic machines will be displayed at the 40th Carole Nash Bristol Classic MotorCycle Show, held at the Royal Bath and West Showground, this weekend.

Although larger than life in his desert exploits as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, at 5ft 5in tall he was modest in physical stature, which necessitated a lower seating position on his two-wheeled mounts. 

For this example, the sixth in his personal series and affectionately nicknamed George VI, T E Lawrence asked the Brough factory in Nottingham to fit a bespoke lifting handle, to make putting the bike on its rear stand easier. With a nod to his duty as an enlisted aircraftman, serving at RAF Mount Batten near Plymouth, he also requested that a small receptacle be clamped to the nearside lower section of the front forks, to secure the tip of his military swagger stick. 

The heart of this Brough Superior SS 100 is a JAP JTOR V-twin engine displacing 998cc and developing 50bhp Credit: MIKE LEWIS

The 1929 Brough Superior SS 100 was hand-built around an overhead-valve JAP (J A Prestwich) engine, offering race-developed potency that allowed Lawrence to regularly complete the 235-mile journey from Plymouth to London in under five hours, at an average speed of 47mph. Still, the 998cc V-twin remained tractable enough for him to give local pillion rides to Viscountess Astor, the Member of Parliament for Plymouth Sutton. 

It’s noteworthy that this machine’s registration number of UL 656 was incorrectly displayed on the film prop that actor Peter O’Toole rode at the beginning of David Lean’s 1962 biopic Lawrence of Arabia. That should have been GW 2275, corresponding to the updated SS 100 model for which George VI was part-exchanged in March 1932, and upon which Lawrence sustained fatal injuries three years later, aged 46. 

George Brough and TE Lawrence astride UL 656 outside the Brough factory in Nottingham

The genuine UL 656 now has provenance certified by no less an authority than the Brough Superior Club’s registrar, and the bike has recently benefited from an 18-month restoration after many years in storage. 

As one of only two bikes owned by T E Lawrence that are known with absolute certainty to have survived intact, UL 656 may be considered beyond price – although for reference, another 1929 SS 100 Alpine Grand Sports model of similar specification was sold at auction in November 2014 for £315,100, becoming the world’s most expensive Brough Superior motorcycle ever sold at a public auction. 

In March 2019, a 1930 example discovered in bits as a “basket case” sold for a new record of £425,500 for this most revered motorcycle marque.

Several individual touches help to identify UL 656 as one of Lawrence's stable, such as a bespoke lifting handle and a holder for his military swagger stick on the forks Credit: MIKE LEWIS

THE FACTS

1929 Brough Superior SS 100

ENGINE/SUSPENSION 998cc 50-degree air-cooled V-twin, three-speed gearbox, Bentley and Draper spring frame plus Castle leading-link front forks 

PRICE £180 in 1929 – at least £500,000 today (if you can find one for sale)

POWER 50bhp 

TOP SPEED at least 100mph, certified by manufacturer

FUEL CAPACITY 4 gallons

VERDICT Outstanding visuals plus temperamental starting and running traits guarantee a characterful ride. But a Lawrence connection transcends even the Brough Superior cachet, so that simply being in the presence of this bike feels special. 

TELEGRAPH RATING Five stars out of five

THE RIVALS 

Brough Superior SS100, £49,999

This hand-crafted 21st-century take on the iconic V-twin, in production since 2016, has a high price tag that buys class and exclusivity, but without the raw appeal of the original.

Vincent Black Shadow, from £25,000

The top-of-the-range Black Shadow was made from 1948 to 1955. Identical in engine capacity and configuration to the 1929 Brough Superior SS 100, it could exceed 120mph in standard trim. 

Harley-Davidson Sport Glide, £15,295

The famed American manufacturer still uses air-cooled V-twins in its large-capacity roadsters, with the Sport Glide powered by a 1,746cc fuel-injected, eight-valve engine that develops 82bhp. 

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