FULL THROTTLE / Brough Superior 8-Cylinder

FAMOUS MOTORCYCLE MANUFACTURER GEORGE BROUGH announced his first road car, the 8-cylinder Brough Superior ‘Dual-Purpose’ Drophead in 1935, after three years of experimentation and development. Launched from de Havilland’s Hatfield Aerodrome (birthplace of the Tiger Moth training aircraft), the news of the Brough Superior Car caused a stir in British motoring circles, the Motor declaring in its May 21st edition, “The introduction of an entirely new car, built at Nottingham under the direction of so famous an engineer as Mr. George Brough, is a motoring event of special importance.”

Photo via the Brough Superior Club
The Brough Superior 8-Cylinder launch at Hatfield Aerodrome in 1935 with Freddie Dixon, George Brough and Malcolm Campbell

This was not mere hyperbole. For chassis development Brough had turned to Freddie Dixon, a famous motorcycle racer who had turned to cars in 1932, racing his independently prepared Riley’s to a third place finish at Le Mans in 1934. It was to be distributed by Freddie, Earl of March (grandfather of the current Earl of March and founder of motor racing at Goodwood), who had won the Brooklands Double Twelve Race in 1931, and who was also a board member for the new venture. Finally, World Land Speed Record holder Malcolm Campbell was also there, having broken his own record in March of that year at Daytona Beach. All three men posed for the press photos with George Brough, who wore his signature offset flat cap for the occasion.

Brough Superior logo. Photo by Simon Aldridge.
The famous Brough Superior logo is evident all over the car. Photo by Simon Aldridge.

It is difficult to imagine a more impressive and promising start for a new automotive manufacturer, and the initial run of 25 8-cylinder chassis quickly sold out. Today however, Brough Superior cars are little known, and only 17 of these 8-cylinder chassis survive, so I am curious to experience the car for myself. Generous owner and arch-enthusiast Nick Grewal has invited me to New Hampshire to try out his immaculate 1936 example. Nick grew up in England but is based stateside, and as an early tech entrepreneur and engineer, he is really drawn to those rare English cars and motorcycles that built the reputations of small companies. When he found this rare 8-cylinder car in Florida, he realised that here was a piece of English manufacturing history with an interesting story of entrepreneurship, and embarked on a four year restoration.

Nick’s 8-cylinder emerges, appropriately enough, from an aircraft hangar at a small airfield near Nick’s home. It’s resplendent in black and chrome coachwork – the original colour scheme – and one can see why this car won ‘Best in Show’ at the Greenwich Concours D’Elegance this year. As Nick talks me through the car, I also appreciate that Nick is an owner for whom the perfect operation of each component is essential – his cars are fastidiously maintained, finely fettled, and also driven and enjoyed to their fullest. This is going to be a good day.

Brough Superior instrument panel. Photo by Simon Aldridge.
A 100 mph Speedometer is the main dial on the Brough Superior’s instrument panel. Photo by Simon Aldridge.

Son of W. E. Brough, an early builder of cars, motorcycles and cyclecars, George Brough was born into a life immersed in engineering and pioneer motoring. At age 16 he entered his first motorcycle trial – the 1906 M.C.C. End to End Land’s End to John O’Groats – in one of his father’s Zenith powered Broughs. He continued testing, racing and improving his father’s machines up until the Great War, his greatest achievement being to win the London to Edinburgh trial consecutively for three years, in 1910, 1911 and 1912.

During the war his father’s Brough works were engaged in essential production for the Admiralty. George Brough became an engineer at White and Poppe’s engine works in Coventry,  a position that allowed him a petrol allowance. He took the opportunity to buy and sell a succession of 34 motorcycles during the war, learning from their strengths and weaknesses, increasing his knowledge base for the moment when he could manufacturer his own. Harley-Davidson impressed him in particular.

By the end of WW1, George Brough had formulated a dream of producing a luxury motorcycle. He left his father’s company to launch Brough Superior Motorcycles in 1919, and the first Brough Superior was put on sale two years later. From their Haydn Road workshop in Nottingham emerged beautiful, crowd-stopping machinery combining quality, performance and functionality. Competition success followed swiftly, with Brough Superiors taking top honours at Brooklands, the Cefn Sidan Speed Trials, and Pendine Sands. In 1936 Eric Fernihough took the Motorcycle Land Speed Record at 163.82 mph, having also taken the Brooklands motorcycle lap record the previous year. Brough Superiors were glamorous and exclusive, attracting famous owners such as William Lyons, and T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) – and of course today they are regarded as the first true Superbikes in motorcycle history.

In the spring of 1935, this was the background that sprang to mind when the motoring press first reported that Brough Superior were to launch a new car. His old pals and best customers were getting to the age where they were buying cars instead of bikes, and George Brough, – famous racer, prestigious manufacturer of the world’s fastest and most glamorous motorcycles – had in the words of The Autocar, “for the last three years…been busy developing a car to suit his own particular ideas of what a car should be.”

Brough’s great success had come through producing motorcycles of superlative quality using J.A.P. or Matchless Engines, Sturmey-Archer gearboxes, and a front fork which was a development of the Harley-Davidson design. He therefore began the research and development of his first four-wheel project in 1932 by looking at available componentry. Hudson had carried off a publicity coup that year by using Amelia Earhart to introduce the first Essex-Terraplane models, whose chief characteristics of lightness coupled with powerful engines Hudson were keen to highlight. Orville Wright purchased one of the first Terraplane cars for himself, further burnishing the car’s reputation, and in 1933 the chassis became available with a high performance version of Hudson’s 4.2 litre straight eight engine.

Hudson Terraplane chassis
The Hudson Terraplane chassis with Straight-8 engine.

This was exactly what Brough was searching for, and he abandoned his earlier Meadows engined prototypes in favour of the Terraplane. The twin rail, cruciform, chassis had additional stiffening channels at the front, along with a pressed steel tray that helped stiffen the frame while also forming a rigid floor and foot-wells for the rear-seat passengers, along with Hudson’s Axleflex front suspension, which used parallel links and leaf springs to create an early type of independent front suspension. Brough set about modifying and improving it using the expertise of Freddie Dixon, with a view to increasing handling and roadholding. The springs were tuned, and firmer Luvax dampers replaced the standard Monroe units. Brough also installed a remote linkage for the gear change to ensure that the gearlever fell easily to hand, and improved the braking by careful attention to the cable-actuated system.

Original sales literature artwork for the Brough.
Original sales literature artwork for the Brough Superior 8-Cylinder.

Brough, whose keen eye for design had produced some of the world’s best-looking motorcycles, designed a handsome drophead coupe body which was executed by coachbuilder W C Atcherley of Birmingham. Special attention was given to avoiding water traps and eliminating squeaks and rattles. The top – whose mechanism Atcherley patented – could be operated by one person in about 5 seconds, and folded into a pocket in the bodywork so that it folded flat and flush with the tops of the doors. The interior was fitted with a new dashboard with a central instrument panel containing English instruments and switches, and the car was rewired and converted to 12V electrics with Lucas lighting.

'The Motor's' cutaway drawing of the Brough Superior.
‘The Motor’s’ cutaway drawing of the Brough Superior 8-Cylinder which it published in 1935.

1935 BROUGH SUPERIOR 8-CYLINDER Specifications:

Engine 4168cc, side valve straight eight Hudson with aluminium cylinder head giving 7:1 compression ratio, single Carter down-draught carburettor with thermostatically controlled choke  Power 125bhp @ 4000rpm  Torque 240 lb/ft est.  Transmission Three-speed manual (syncromesh on second and top), rear wheel drive  Steering Worm-and-sector  Suspension Front: Articulated live axle (semi-independent), semi-elliptic leaf springs, Luvax hydraulic lever-arm shock absorbers. Rear: Live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs, Luvax hydraulic lever-arm shock absorbers.  Brakes Bendix drums all round, self-equalling, cable-operated  Tires 6.25 x 16 – wire wheels with Ace disc covers  Weight 27 cwt (112 lb. = 1 cwt) 3,024 lbs  Performance 0-60mph under 12 sec  Top speed 90mph-100mph depending on gearing  Numbers Built/Extant 25+/17

Full Throttle with MOVECTO. Photo by Erik Fuller.
Full Throttle in the Brough Superior 8-Cylinder. Photo by Erik Fuller.

Brough was also very keen on longevity and easy serviceability. To this end the chassis was equipped with a Luvax-Bijur centralised chassis lubrication system, which was fed by automatic pump from a refillable oil reservoir. An on-board Smiths Jackall hydraulic jack system was installed with jacks at each of the four wheels, enabling the entire car or each individual wheel to be jacked up by cranking a hydraulic servo which was mounted conveniently behind a removable plate in the footwell.

The eight-cylinder side-valve engine was the car’s most impressive component. The 4,168 cc iron block was a masterpiece of mass manufacture, using 5 main bearings and a Lanchester torsional vibration damper to produce incredible smoothness. The pistons were silicon-aluminium alloy with a 7:1 compression ratio, ground to a special profile, and Brough also installed a polished cover to the top of the engine, giving it some of the visual appeal of an overhead valve unit.

The result was a car which was notably modern and easy to live with compared to other cars on the market at the time. The engine was large, under-stressed and low revving, just like the Brough Superior motorcycles. The chassis, with its independent front suspension, automatic lubrication and jacking system was ahead of its domestic competition – Bentley’s 3-1/2 featured central chassis lubrication, but activated manually with a grease gun, and it still had a rigid live axle up front. Moreover, the Brough Superior 8-cylinder was about 700 lbs lighter than the Bentley, at a claimed weight of just 3,024 lbs, but had more power – the straight eight giving 125 hp. Bentley, clearly worried by competition, wasted no time in upgrading its car to 4-1/4 litres and 124 hp for 1936.

The Brough Superior's interior is a comfortable four seater. Photo by Simon Aldridge.
The Brough Superior’s interior is a comfortable four seater. Photo by Simon Aldridge.

Manoeuvring the 8-cylinder around the airport access roads for photography, it’s clear that here is a pre-war that can be treated like a far younger motorcar. Rear hinged doors afford easy access to the passenger compartment, which is all polished walnut, red Connolly leather and wool carpeting in the best English tradition. The starting procedure is simple. The key goes into a Lucas bezel, which is marked for ignition and lights. Rotating the key to ignition on, you then press the small black bakelite starter button, and the big eight comes alive with a hushed whoosh of mechanical activity.  No throttle is needed, and there is no mixture control or choke to play with either, because the single downdraft Carter has an automatic thermostat to control the choke. There is an almost unnerving absence of vibration as the unit starts up, and it settles quickly to a smooth idle – so smooth in fact, that photographer Erik Fuller is surprised to learn that the car has been running while he snaps away.

The clutch is light with a long well-oiled travel, and the three speed (syncromesh on second and top) gearbox is operated smoothly via a long, floor-mounted gear lever whose wand-like appearance belies a relatively short throw. First gear is low, and I soon realise that the car is happier starting from a standstill in second gear on the flat. This combined with the refinement of the clutch, the engine’s smoothness and torque, and a light and surprisingly direct steering make low speed manoeuvring a simple, pleasurable task. For a motoring public used in 1936 to obstructive non-syncromesh gearboxes, heavy steering, and powerful engines that were rorty things with lumpy, low-revving delivery, such modernity must have been a revelation.

Accelerating onto the local highway, the 8-cylinder picks up speed quickly, with what is surely sports car performance for 1936, although perhaps not quite the 10 seconds to sixty that George Brough – ever the showman – initially claimed for the car. The engine remains smooth as the revs build, and the fulsome torque means that shifting into top feels natural at 20 or 30 mph. From there, the speed just builds, turbine-like. Even abrupt lift-off produces no bad behaviour, just smoothness. Slowing to a walking pace, you can leave it in top and the car will take off again with a complete absence of judder.

At speed in the Brough. Photo by Erik Fuller.
Simon Aldridge takes a bend at speed in the Brough Superior 8-Cylinder. Photo by Erik Fuller.

We are on a twisting lakeside road now, in rural New Hampshire. The top is down, the air crisp and the leaves beginning to turn, and the Brough is hitting its stride. It’s a dignified way to travel, and with the top down, more than a little bit glamorous also. But it is also lighter and smaller than the contemporary Bentley or Rolls, and it doesn’t feel too large for these roads. The strong brakes pull up straight and are easy to modulate, increasing my sense of confidence in the car. The steering is the only control that feels pre-war to me, with about ten degrees of play, and that initial ambivalence to turn-in that disappears once you apply the power and the car takes a set through the curve. For a pre-war touring car however, the steering is remarkably accurate, light and quick.

With photography completed and the sun set, we take the main roads back to the hangar, and the car continues to impress. Sitting in the softly lit red interior, I have time to appreciate the trafficators as they pivot out from the sides of the footwells as we signal to make a turn, and the big Lucas R.D.170 headlamps which give a decent amount of light. Approaching a fast sweeper, the car hesitates for a split second before turn in, then settles into a neutral attitude through the turn. With its gearing and powertrain designed for flexibility rather than sports performance, it is not really a car that you drift, balanced on the throttle – but well balanced it certainly is.

Brough Superior 8-Cylinder side profile. Photo by Simon Aldridge.
The clean lines of the Brough Superior 8-Cylinder are most evident in the side profile. Photo by Simon Aldridge.

After the press launch in ’35 the initial run of  Brough Superior 8-cylinders sold out quickly, with production running into 1936. However, after the initial batch of 25 chassis, the Hudson company declined to supply any more eights, offering only its less powerful six. It was a major blow for Brough, but he continued production, adapting the design to the smaller engine. Distributer Freddie March had become the Duke of Richmond in 1935, and suddenly no longer had the time he would have liked to distribute the Brough Superior cars. Production wound down and was finally curtailed by the outbreak of war in ’39, when Brough’s manufacturing expertise were put to use supplying crankshafts for the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine.

After the war George Brough realised that the era of handbuilt motorcycles and coachbuilt cars was drawing to a close, and decided not to resurrect production. Brough Superior had taken the best mass manufactured componentry – engines from JAP and Matchless for the motorcycles, and Hudson for the motorcars – and built them into products that combined great design with extremely high quality and attention to detail. Famously – with a combination of competition success and celebrity owners – his motorcycles transcended the normal motorcycle market of the time, becoming much sought-after and making the motorcycle socially acceptable to the upper classes.

The Brough Superior 8-cylinder, though conceptually similar to the motorcycles, has always seemed less significant due to the use of Hudson componentry. Perhaps it is the American origin of Hudson, or the fact that Railton was also using the Terraplane chassis, that is problematic. However, George Brough selected those components for their performance, and then made his own improvements over the Hudson cars to increase quality, longevity, ease-of-use, handling and weight. Today, Brough Superior’s competitor Bentley shares common platforms that are tuned to their needs, and this approach is now an industry standard. In many ways then, the Brough Superior 8-cylinder was ahead of its time – a fantastic car that deserves greater recognition.

With thanks to Nick Grewal and Jim Lowrey of Lowrey’s Auto Restoration, Tilton, NH. Thanks also to Paul Skilleter, Howard Wilcox, Terry Hobden and the Brough Superior Club for help with this feature.



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