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Victory on the Salt by Jared Zaugg
This year, Brough Superior’s SS101 Retro made a decades-long dream come true.
 
The resurrected Brough Superior comes full circle with a new record at Bonneville Salt Flats.

Brough Superior has returned. The most legendary of motorcycles—which, despite all its glamour, gentlemanly refinement, and, yes, cost, is, at its heart, a raw missile—has triumphantly honored its bloodline by setting a new speed record at the hallowed Bonneville Salt Flats.

Victory on the Salt by Jared Zaugg
In perhaps the most famous picture in motorcycling, the legendary Rollie Free, wearing only swim trunks and sneakers, broke the world motorcycle land speed record in 1948.
 

Since the company’s founding in 1919 by Englishman George Brough (rhymes with “rough”), performance has always been, unapologetically, the raison d'être for the Brough Superior Motorcycle company. Achieving race victories and land speed records became somewhat of a specialty for the upstart firm, whether the track consisted of asphalt, cement, or sand. So when the revered marque was resurrected by another Englishman, Mark Upham, in 2008, the traditions of bespoke craftsmanship and high performance were elemental.

Like Brough Superior, the name Bonneville represents not just an entity but a composite of history bordering on the mythical. For nearly a century, men have come to this desolate, remote, ancient inland seabed with a shared quest: to soar. As the adage goes, “There’s nothing faster than the fastest.” So with mortality an acceptable risk in achieving immortal glory, each year this lunar landscape hosts the ultimate test of human and mechanical capability.

Victory on the Salt by Jared Zaugg
(Left) The author at the flats. (Right) Salt cakes the Retro after a test run. The intense conditions at Bonneville meant that the bike had to be cleaned after every ride.
 

At an elevation of more than 4,200 feet, where the reduced oxygen represents a formidable challenge, the already inhospitable nature of Bonneville is outweighed by its principal attribute: ground so barren, wide, and flat that the curvature of the Earth can be seen. So while the compact sodium chloride surface wreaks corrosive havoc on machines, it also provides the definitive track to test speed.

Bonneville first became famous in the 1930s when Utah racer and record holder Ab Jenkins, known as the father of salt racing, lured legendary motoring daredevil Sir Malcolm Campbell over from Britain with his now-famous Blue Bird, the car that set a world record as the first to exceed 300 mph. Appearing in headlines around the world, Bonneville suddenly attracted an international roster of competitors wishing to be the fastest in a myriad of categories, despite the fact that motor racing was still very much a blood sport.

Over the decades, these brave pioneers shaped Bonneville into the legend it is today. Who can forget the most famous of all Bonneville—and motorcycling—pictures, that of Rollie Free naked, except for swim trunks and tennis shoes, laying flat on his Vincent as he became the fastest man on two wheels? How about the epic struggle of Burt Munro as year after year he pushed his personally modified Indian motorcycle into becoming the world’s fastest? These feats, and hundreds more, are what the Salt Flats represent.

Victory on the Salt by Jared Zaugg
The Salt Flat’s otherworldly landscape makes the sky appear taller, the horizon more remote and, with nothing to provide scale, distance becomes incalculable.
 

In this spirit, Mark Upham vowed not only to uphold the reputation of the early brand, but to prove his machine’s mettle and settle unfinished business. Because it was at Bonneville some sixty years ago that the sole attempt by Brough Superior ended in failure after a crash at high speed.

The target of Upham’s ambition was a speed record at September’s annual BUB Speed Trials, Bonneville’s officially sanctioned motorcycle speed week. Known as AMA 1350-A-VG—a vintage class specific to stock motorcycles or, in theory, a model that could’ve come off the dealer’s showroom floor—the record stood at 114 mph. While this velocity may seem low by modern perspective, it was nonetheless one that presented considerable risk. For although the new Brough Superior was created using state-of-the art tools, at its heart it still employs archaic, sixty-year-old technology. As such, the hazards of the salt were not mitigated but enhanced: Danger was ever present.

Prior to the event, the Brough Superior team assembled in Los Angeles at the Big Dog Garage facilities (owned by Jay Leno, a renowned automotive enthusiast and owner of several Brough Superior motorcycles), and further prepped the chrome thoroughbred for its debut. Then, to celebrate Brough Superior’s historic return to Bonneville, Double RL hosted an evening reception and exclusive display of this and other Brough models at its shop in the converted 1950s-era gas station on Melrose Avenue. Attended by motoring aficionados, celebrities, and a cross section of Los Angeleno society, the admiring crowd paid tribute to these “sons of thunder,” as the brand’s most famous patron, T. E. Lawrence, lovingly referred to his stable of Brough Superior steeds. And with this farewell, the team set off.

Victory on the Salt by Jared Zaugg
The Brough Superior Bonneville team and supporters at the Salt Flats.
 

When first viewed, the Salt Flats’ stark beauty and sheer immensity are mesmerizing. The otherworldly landscape makes the sky appear taller, the horizon more remote, and, with nothing to provide scale, distance becomes incalculable. But its seemingly endless expanse conveys a misleading sense of safety: At high speeds, the slightest breeze can force disaster. The smallest ridge, crack, or clod on the surface can make a driver lose control. Salt can cake to tires and rims, seizing wheels, and heavy track wear can produce the same effect as ice. At Bonneville, the pilot must always be vigilant.

With this in mind, the Brough Superior team exercised prudence, and gradually accustomed rider and machine to the land’s conditions. Continuous mechanical adjustment followed by test riding, then more adjustment and test riding—or, as the mantra became known, “wrench, ride, repeat”—ensued for three days until everything aligned and the moment was deemed ripe.

On that third day, after two minor crashes and multiple modifications, rider, machine, and salt merged into harmonious symphony, the steady yet rapidly increasing velocity, the revolution of the thunderous motor heard leagues away, the blur of the flesh and metal silhouette fading into the horizon, then silence.

To attain an official speed, two timed runs must be made within a specific period with no modifications to the motorcycle allowed. The average of these two runs is the certified speed.

Finally, after the second, seemingly successful attempt, the Brough Superior team anxiously awaited the results, feeling the weight of history—not to mention the human and monetary investment—upon its shoulders. After what seemed like an eternity, one phrase was announced, “A new speed record,” and cheers erupted. Victory!

At an average speed of 124.98 mph, it is certainly not the fastest a Brough Superior has ever gone, but here, under official scrutiny at the temple of speed, one of the greatest motorcycle makes the world has ever known comes full circle. Brough Superior, the pre-war superbike, a brute cloaked in a tailored suit, and perhaps the most perfect combination of beauty and brawn on two wheels, has been reborn. And the new generation of progeny can soar.

Jared Zaugg is a brand consultant and, topically, was the cofounder of the seminal Legend of the Motorcycle Concours d'Elegance. He has both written articles and been the subject of them in multiple adventure travel, lifestyle, and vintage motoring publications.

  • Paul d'Orleans/The Vintagent
  • © Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
  • (Left and Right) Paul d'Orleans/The Vintagent
  • Paul d'Orleans/The Vintagent
  • Paul d'Orleans/The Vintagent
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