February 2000 Column www.virtualindian.org   
 
 “Lateral thinking for the Indian lover”
Home / Features / Chopper Corner
 
  Indian Chopper Corner Part One: Why Indians?
   By Tim Pickering 
 
This is the first in what may become a series of articles devoted to chopped or bobbed Indian motorcycles.  It is an outgrowth of correspondence on the Virtual-Indian e-mail list, where a handful of the listers have already demonstrated that they are not just slaves to originality and are willing to improve or modify their Indians, to mould them into personal renditions of their dream motorcycle.  

Moen, esteemed host of the VI list and Mastermind of the VI webpage, as well as Grand Schemer behind his own Project Indian 741 Metisse (a Gallic word meaning “mongrel bitch”, I am advised), invited me to articulate my  vision of the ideal Indian motorcycle, and document my fumbling attempts to realise this vision in actual metal.  He thought some of you may find my story edifying, at least as a demonstration that you don’t always have to unthinkingly follow the factory manuals and parts lists when you tinker with your Springfield steed.  In subsequent articles I will prove that you will not be struck down by lightning if you fit your Indian with non-stock parts from other models, or even other brands! 

I have to tell you straight away that I am no wizened Indian guru, like some on the VI list who have been twirling wrenches over these bikes since Adam played quarterback for the Israelites.  I am a mere amateur, a motorcycle hobbyist with no formal training and little mechanical experience apart from an ability to read a workshop manual as well as the next person. What you are going to get here is the Ignoramus Approach to home-brewed Special-building.  Bit by bit I will reveal a philosophy of chopper-building that is a minority taste these days, but is nevertheless a significant minority and one worth promoting.  My  tortuously twisted thinking and flights of mechanical fancy will throw up some engineering problems that the Springfield boys and girls never dreamt of.  Sit back and watch as the story unfolds!  Thrill to my bizarre inspirations!  Be revulsed by the crimes about to be committed against revered classics!  This journey is not for the faint of heart.  If your personal vision of mechanical perfection is a 100-point over-restoration of a catalogue-spec ’47 Chief, then leave this page now.  Or else keep a firm grip on your barf bag. 

But this all awaits you in future installments, and will be revealed in the fullness of time (provided I can last the distance).  This first two chapters of the saga will address itself  to a couple of key questions vital to the plot: (1) why get into Indians in the first place, and (2) why on earth would anyone want to chop one?  

As you will come to see, my opinions about motorcycles are based mainly on their looks and their sound, rather than on strictly engineering criteria.  I make no apology for this highly irrational approach because, lets face it, looks and sound are the main criteria people apply when choosing a motorcycle.  Motorcyclists are not rational people.  We decide upon a particular scoot for emotional reasons, not logical reasons.  We just assume that the damn things will be okay engineering-wise, and go for the model that best suits our self-image.  Show me a person who claims they own a motorcycle purely for cheap transport, and I will show you person that is either a liar, or they ride a 50-cc Honda scooter. 

Getting into Indians was, for me, a natural progression from getting into motorcycles.  Being a starving University student in the early 1980’s, I could not afford any mode of petrol-driven transport until the age of 20 when I became the grateful recipient of a Freemason’s Bursary, a study emolument worth US$250 in a single lump sum.  I immediately rushed over to a junior lecturer in the Physics Department, who agreed to sell me his decrepit old Suzuki GT550 for … ummm… lets see now, US$250!  You may or may not recall these GT devices, they were two-stroke triples with an impressive total of four exhaust pipes (try and work that one out) and were definitely a dead-end in motorcycling evolution.  I didn’t care, it was large, and loud, and I could afford it.  Never mind that I was not eligible to sit my test on it, and had to borrow a 50-cc Yamaha Assola, oops! sorry, I mean Passola, in order to pass the scrutiny of the examining traffic cop. 

This GT 550 was my rite of passage into the so-called bro’hood of motorcycling, and my first taste of freedom whereby I could go where I wanted when I wanted, without reference to bus timetables.  I could now hang out with the other post-grad students and discuss the relative merits of their equally decrepit Suzy T500 Cobra, Honda DOHC 450, and other now-classics but then at the very bottom of their depreciation curves.  I found out how knackered swing-arm bushes affect the handling.  I got really adept at setting points, because this beast had three of them and being a two-stroke they needed setting often.  But I got sick of its “ring-ding-ding” firecracker exhaust note and wanted something deeper, more manly.  To my untutored ear, the best noise out of all of us came from an elfin Biology junior lecturer’s T140 Bonny that he’d fitted with six-bend pullback bars to try and make himself look bigger.  We teased him unmercifully about his British slab of shit, but deep down in my bones I knew that it had class.  It looked right, and it sounded right.  To him, however, it was second-best.  What he really wanted, but couldn’t yet afford, was a Harley. 

I decided that I never again wanted to own a two-stroke, and sold the GT to another know-nothing undergraduate who was just as impressed as I was with its array of exhaust pipes.  I found out two months later that he seized it in the middle pot, caused by removing all the exhaust baffles to further enhance its anti-social acoustic properties.  Meanwhile, I had re-invested my working capital in a Honda 550 Four Super Sport. 

This was a four-stroke, and looked really mean, low-slung and sporty compared to the touring-oriented GT.  It had four-into-ones, and was pretty tame below 5000 rpm but from 5500 up to the 9500 redline it could really zoom.  And all without fuss.  It was smooth, and it was quiet.  I rammed a crowbar down the muffler to try and get it to make more noise.  It didn’t.  The more you wrung its throttle, the more it seemed to like it.  But even at a speed of 85mph (I was too chicken to go much faster) you had no sense that this was a motor cycle.  It was like you were being drawn silently along by a piece of string.  The engine had all the character of a Bernina sewing machine.  Incidentally, Jerry Hatfield has made similar comments about the Indian Fours.  I was also frightened by the complexity of the CB550, even though it was only a first-generation Japanese four.  The motor was as intricate as a Swiss watch.  Even changing the sparkplugs seemed to be a specialist task. 

So I sold the Honda at a slight loss, and bought a Yamaha SR500 single.  This was barely even capable of 85 mph, and when it was, it really let you know about it.  It was both noisy and vibratory.  And I loved it.  Thump thump thump thump thump.  But it was underpowered for two-up riding with a pack.  And the example I had bought turned out to be a dog.  It kept getting a partial seizure, and I took a while to figure out why it would lose power and stop, only to re-start after 45 minutes of kicking it over.  Also, some delicate electrical coil in the crank-end alternator kept disintegrating and would need to be re-wound.  And the bitch was hard to start, even without the partial siezure.  

As an aside, I cannot to this day understand why the Japanese attempts to replicate a classic British single have always ended up so complicated, and with such light flywheels.  Yamaha followed up the SR series with the 600-cc SRX, while Honda produced a 500-cc AJS 7R lookalike complete with ducks-arse seat hump (after dumping their extremely-ugly FT500 Ascot), and Suzuki released its Savage (God only knows what single they were trying to replicate).  They all have OHC (quite uneccessary), with extremely complex carburetion (the SRX effectively had twin-carbs; a high-speed throat and a low-speed throat, plus accelerator pump), and counterbalance shafts, and shit like that.  And such light flywheels!  They have the smoothness, rev-iness and complexity of multi’s, but of course they are relatively gutless because they are only singles.  No wonder they have never sold very well.  When will the Japanese designers learn that the charm of the classic Brit single comes from a heavy flywheel effect, elegant looks, and extreme mechanical simplicity?  Forget the Manx Nortons, because we don’t need street singles to be revvy, and we don’t need OHC since the revs in such big pots are limited by piston speed, not valve bounce.  The proper role models here are the BSA B33, Ariel Red Hunter, and the still-in-production Enfield Bullet.  People are willing to accept that singles make less power, but want them to go plonk-plonk-plonk, not whirr-whirr-whirr.  And plonking power is not necessarily the result of long stroke, since the same effect can be achieved with heavy flywheels. 

So, by the time I figured all this out, I was ripe for seduction by the bike that I now nominate for Japanese Bike of the Millenium - the Yamaha XS650 twin.  These were made virtually unchanged (except for styling updates) from 1969 to 1984, which is an eternity for any model of motorcycle let alone a Japanese one.  Even the Triumph Bonneville did not remain without major re-design for this length of time.  The XS650’s look good, clean, and simple, and are made entirely out of metal (although I acknowledge that Triumph twins are cleaner and simpler still).  The engines are handsome and bullet-proof, with crank bearings that make the British look like idiots.  They are innocently bereft of counterbalance shafts, unlike their TX750 and TX500 brethren which were dogs and best forgotten.  

The XS650 motors have no weaknesses that I could discover (just avoid the last CDI-ignition models) and were designed to be taken apart with no need for special tools except maybe for a three-legged-puller (well, you need a press to work on the crank assembly).  I am told that their handling is improved by fitting an after-market swingarm (produced by a specialist shop in England) and real bearings rather than the stock plastic spindle-bushes, but I found handling adequate for my purposes.  Two-up with a pack? No problem!  And the noise?  Like a Norton with Dunstall Decibels.  Though perhaps this is because my one actually does have Dunstall Decibels fitted to it.  I used to find it amusing to putt down the street and see leather-clad sidewalk commando’s look around on hearing me coming, to see what type of cool British bike was approaching, and then turn away in disgust on seeing that it was “only a Japper”.  Sucked in, mate! 

But, just like that T140-toting Biology lecturer, I was forming the impression deep down in my subconscious that a 650 twin is really just a schoolboy’s substitute for the true King of Motorcycles, a heavyweight V-twin.  

I had three main reasons for hankering after a big V-twin.  Firstly, their sound.  Nothing beats the off-beat rumble of a large V-twin.  Secondly, their looks.  A V-twin fits better into the still-essentially bicycle frame that most motorcycles have, and fills the space in that frame just right (even though at times a V-twin’s ancillaries can be a bit messy and “tacked-on”; check out the mag-dyno on a Brough).  Thirdly, their size.  Long-stroke V-twins are tall engines, and by the time you have wrapped a frame around one you end up with a long bike.  I am 6’1” and 16 stone, and quite frankly I look ridiculous on most motorbikes.  I make my current working steed, a ’56 Triumph Thunderbird, look like a Honda CB250 Wet Dream.  I want a long bike that I can really stretch out on. 

Having now realised that I only have one life to live so I better live it on the right motorcycle, namely a heavyweight V-twin, the next question to arise is; Which one? 

To most people, “heavyweight V-twin” means “Harley”.  But Harleys were rare in my neck of the woods, at least until the Evo’s deluged the marketplace and suddenly every stockbroker and advertising exec seemed to have one.  Harleys were rare because owning one was a daunting prospect: they were expensive, they (pre-Evo) needed above-average mechanical competence to keep on the road, and they were prime targets for getting stolen.  It required a very high level of commitment to both obtain and retain a Harley.  Too high for most motorcyclists, including me at that time. 

I am now at the time of my life when I could have a Harley, if I wanted.  The mortgage is paid, I have a lock-up garage with lots of tools, and I could finally afford one (almost).  But I don’t want one.  Because, quite frankly, and the more I think about it, I just don’t like Harleys.  Not from any era, and especially the Evo’s.  The only ones that even come close to tugging my heartstrings are the EL knuckleheads. 

There are several reasons for this, both mechanical and emotional. 

I don’t like the single-cam timing chest layout of the big twins.  V-twins are supposed to be narrow, but Harleys are wider than Honda Fours because of the massive timing chests and primary cases.  The ideal timing layout for a V-twin, in my opinion, is a two-cam layout with parallel pushrod tubes, like on JAP of London engines and like on Indian V-twins.  Harley pushrod tubes look like knitting needles that have been thrown onto the floor. 

I don’t like Harley cylinders and heads, except for the Knucks and iron Sporty’s.  Pans are for pissing in, and a Blockhead is a person of low IQ.  My ideal cylinder head shape for a V-twin is the Sportster one, or the one fitted to Ariel Red Hunter singles.  The two rocker boxes sit as discrete lumps on top of the cylinder head, and give a space that you can see through.  Very simple and elegant.  But Sportsters are spoiled by the silly attempt at “modern” styling on the cases where the timing cover has been blended in with the gearbox cover to give a then-fashionable “power egg” look.  It hides the crankcases, so that you can’t see the shape and form of the engine properly.  

BSA did the same thing with their unit 650’s (the A65’s) but notice how master stylist Edward Turner made sure the unitized Triumphs kept their separate timing-chest and gearbox covers.  Things are what they are, and don’t have to be made to look like something that they are not.  Turner’s Triumphs are a clear example of how engine components can be built to look elegant, without having to be disguised.  Bert Hopwood was ten times the engineer that Turner ever was, and it must have galled him that his excellent but stodgy-looking Norton twins were vastly outsold by the rattly, marginally-cranked but handsome Triumph twins.  Of course “engine-styling” makes no difference engineering-wise to the operation of the motorcycle, but silly attempts at “engine-styling” like on the Sportster just make them look contrived, to my eye.  Factory engineers must get really pissed off with us customers, but hey, we are the customers so we must be right! 

HD really lost the plot with the Evo’s, which is when they started to meet the Japanese halfway.  Why are the cylinders square?  Pistons are round, Goddammit!  Why are they made out of cheesy alloy that can’t be welded?  Why is it that their “Screamin’ Eagle” kits are more aptly labelled “Slightly-Annoyed Pigeon”?   No wonder the aftermarket has had a field day.  If the Evo’s met the Japanese halfway, then with the Twin Cam 88’s they have gone right across, since none of the parts for this year’s model will now fit onto last year’s model.  This is a major break from their tradition of gradual evolution of infinitely-rebuildable power plants, and marks the final abandonment of the enthusiasts that sustained them through their lean years.  And HD’s now have counterbalance shafts, fer chrissakes!  I see little difference now between a new Harley and the Yamaha Road Star, and the fault is as much HD’s as Yamaha’s. 

Lastly, and most controversially, I don’t like Harleys because such a lot of the people who ride Harleys are wankers (for you Americans, “wanker” = “jerk-off”).  This is not a hard-&-fast rule, and I do personally know of exceptions, but in the circles I have operated in there are usually two main camps.  The yuppies or rubbies or whatever you want to call them, with new Evo’s accessorized to within an inch of their American Express, who want to play at being bad boys on the weekend.  Then there are the real bad boys,  the tribal cults whose members need a Harley as part of their wardrobe in order to be socially valid with their in-crowd, and if they don’t have one then they will steal somebody else’s.  There must also be a significant third group of people best described as “enthusiasts” who unselfconsciously love their Harleys for what they are, i.e. as motorcycles.  But in my mind they get overshadowed by the bad vibes emanating from the other two groups, best described as “poseurs”, who use Harley ownership mainly to make a statement about their penis size.  I do not want to be mistaken for a “poser”.  

My logic here does not only get aimed at Harleys.  I also would not own a Porsche, because of the kinds of people who own Porsches.  If any of you are offended by this, too bad.  This is my article, and if you don’t like it then go away and write your own article. 

So … Harley’s indisputable commercial success ensured that I would not be seen dead on one.  Not that they would care, as I am clearly in the minority with this viewpoint.  It has left me with a problem because, apart from Harley’s, the options nowadays are fairly limited.  I will ignore completely the raft of Japanese “Harley” cruiser attempts and the Victory/Excelsior-Henderson, because they all miss the mark.  The Yamaha Road star comes closest but still misses the mark, mainly because of its clever-dick primary-drive arrangement.  Japanese designers seem incapable of resisting any opportunity to be clever.  When will they realise that cruiser customers don’t want cleverness, they want chug-chug-chug!  My reasons for dismissing all the current crop of cruisers would require another entire article to explain, so for now I won’t.  I will just ignore their existence completely, because none of them cut it.   And the latest model Harleys also miss the mark, in my estimation.  Although, as I have explained, I could probably live with a Knucklehead or genny Shovel. 

I will also ignore the Italian Stallions like Ducati and Moto Guzzi.  I considered them, honest!  But they are sporting cycles at heart, and at heart I am not really a sporting rider.  Sure, they make “cruisers” too, like the Ducati Indiana and Guzzi California.  But these are marketing-exec aberrations that epitomize Italian-American culture shock, and their engines look like fish out of water in those chassis.   My good friend Kevin swears by his old Guzzi Eldorado (ex-LAPD), however I just cannot get used to the idea of a V-twin with cylinders across the frame. 

Well, it looked like no V-twin still in production was going to satisfy me.  To find my Holy Grail of elegance, simplicity and plonking power, I decided that I would have to go back in time.  Not physically, you understand, as in “Back to the Future”, but I started to get interested in the classic bike movement.  As a result I now have a running ’56 Triumph Thunderbird, but this was not because I went looking for one, rather, it found me.  I was offered it as a basket of 1 and 3/4 bikes for US$250 (that magic number again) and this was just too cheap to turn down.  As far as I am concerned, the pre-unit Triumphs are the only ones worth having.  Also cheap was a basket Ariel single and a sprung-hub T-bird, and completely free were some 350/500-cc unit Triumphs (proving that it is possible to give the damn things away!), but I haven’t let these distract me from my main goal, which is a heavyweight V-twin. 

Although Harleys have been about the only really viable heavyweight V-twin since the 1950’s, it wasn’t always so.  Especially in the immediate pre-war era, there was a plethora of heavy-weight v-twins.  You Yanks will immediately think of Indian and Excelsior, but there was much more than this.  On the other side of the pond there was, let me see now, AJS, Matchless, Zenith, AJW, NUT (Newcastle-upon-Tyne), BSA, Royal Enfield, McEvoy-Anzani, OEC (stands for “Odd Engineering Contraptions”, I am told), and so on and so on.  And I haven’t even mentioned the Continent yet, where giant V-twins of up to 2.5-litre capacity once stalked the earth.  

These English makes were all around 1000 – 1100 cc in long wheelbase frames, some OHV but mostly sidevalve.  The main ones with sporting pretensions were Zenith and Brough Superior, and the rest were unglamorous sidecar tugs.  As indeed was the Indian Chief until the post-war era, when it finally became flagship of the range.  AJS and Matchless used the same engines, but the Ajay was marketed as a tradesman’s machine with long wheelbase and sidecar.  You could even order a “colonial” version with footboards and hand-change.  The Matchless was sold solo as a sporting mount with a shorter wheelbase.  Their performance in hard numbers was on a par with a sporting OHV 500-cc single, but the difference of course was that it did it in a much more relaxed fashion.  There ain’t no substi-toot for cubes. 

Postwar there was the Vincent, but they do not appeal to me.  The riding position is like sitting on an ironing board, and it’s been said that you have to take LSD in order to understand their engines.  They bristle with solutions to problems that don’t exist.  And besides, like Broughs, you have to sell your house in order to buy one. 

So, I thought, lets be really different!  Lets get one of these pre-war English V-twins!  While still completing my PhD studies I was doing field work near Invercargill in New Zealand (Bert Munro’s home town) and my assistant, an English chap named Gordon Crowther, was well acquainted with the local bike scene.  I poured out my heart’s desires to him, and he said he knew of a Royal Enfield Model K in the area that had ruptured itself and might be purchased cheap.  Its rider had got stuck in amongst a flock of Vincents during the famous annual  Arrowtown Run, with disastrous consequences.  He thought Norman Hayes, a local collector and motoring enthusiast, would be able to point me in the right direction.  Norman had in his possession the famous Bert Munro record-breaking Indian (the real one, not the one built up in the US recently out of spares), among other unusual items like an Austin 7 side-valve 750-cc car engine fitted into an AJS spring frame, his famous wooden engine (a stationary engine built out of wood and plumbing fittings, to prove to steam buffs that internal combustion can be simple!), plus the obligatory Vincent.  

After pouring me a stiff gin and tonic, Mr Hayes explained that the somewhat eccentric Model K owner would like as not fill my pants with buckshot if I dared approach him about buying his beloved Enfield.  And anyway, why bother with those English V-twins?  They were such dreary conveyances, having been designed for window-cleaners and chimney sweeps. They did not have race-bred motors, and were now orphans for parts.  Why not get an Indian?  Although also side-valve, they are anything but mundane because they had race-bred motors right to the finish.  And parts?  No problem.  You can get it all right off the shelf, better parts backup than for a Honda! 

Fortified by an additional gin with a wee splash of tonic, I began to find this line of argument fairly convincing.  But where do I get an Indian from?  They are fairly thin on the ground in New Zealand, thanks to some idiot American President who slapped a trade embargo on British imports around 1930 and forced Britain and its Empire to reciprocate.  This made American vehicles unaffordable to us colonials, unless you were a bootlegger or something like that (bootleggers found the big Yank Tanks best for bringing their hooch down from the hills in).  Australasia had been a major export market for Indian, but from that point on the supply of civilian models just dried up.  So what we have down here is mainly the 741 military models, which got provided under Lend Lease and were auctioned as Army Surplus in the post-war years.  Starving students or frugal back-country farmers could buy them for 10 pounds each, but few true motorcycling enthusiasts took the 741’s seriously until fairly recent years .  They were known in New Zealand as the “Maori Speed Twin”, an epithet which plays on the fact that New Zealand’s indigenous people, like the Indians of North America, are over-represented among the lower socio-economic groups of our population. 

Well, it must have been destiny.  Two months later, an ad in the local paper read “For sale: Army Indian in parts, $500”.  Which is US$250 - it really must be fate!  I rang the guy, and he suggested that I meet him at 9.00 am the next day.  I got there at an anally-retentive 8.55 and he unlocked the garage, to show musty parts strewn all over the floor.  He was a property developer  (he later went belly-up after the Crash of October ’87) and had found this “basket” in the attic of a building he had purchased.  At 9.00 precisely, a line began forming at the door.  “I’ve come about the Indian”.  “So have I”.  “Me too!”.  It was crunch time.  And I didn’t have the money.  In those days, I didn’t have any money.  I turned to my better half, who had just graduated and was finally in gainful employment.  “Do you really want it?” she asked, dubiously.  “Yes”, I said.  She pulled out her chequebook and wrote the nice man a cheque.  This heap of crap was now mine, all mine!  (Thank you, honey). 

Well, the 741 rebuild was a long story. Suffice to say, it is a testament to Kiwi ingenuity. I did not readily form the habit of only fitting factory-original, standard parts.  Because I didn’t have any, and you couldn’t buy them for love or money.  Especially fuel tanks.  So I improvised.  And I did not get turned into a pillar of salt by any wrathful avenging angels, either. 

But the 741 only fit two of my three criteria.  It made the right noise, and had the right looks.  Unfortunately it was too small, with a short 56” wheelbase.  I looked like a rhino perched on a pea, and my fat arse kept smacking its seat into the rear mudguard.  What I really needed was a Chief.  You can read about my attempts to get one in the next issue.  Meanwhile, with my 741 I had truly arrived within the Springfield Teepee. From now on I couldn’t go any better.  I could only go bigger. 

So there it is.  The main reason I got into Indians is because I don’t like Harleys.  

Well, that’s my reason.  What’s yours?

Next month: Why choppers? 
 
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A mug shot of your faithful scribe, surrounded by a 5000-piece 741 jigsaw puzzle
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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   Japanese bikes that I have had a passing dalliance with; (from top) Suzuki GT550, Honda CB550, Yamaha SR500, Yamaha XS650.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  
  
  

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 At least one other person on  
this planet feels the way I do  
about Evo Harleys. Eric Byorth  
of Lincoln, Nebraska is clearly  
a man after my own heart 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 

 
 

 
 
 
 

   
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1000-cc AJS in action 

  
  
  
  
  
  
  
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
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Extremely boring BSA 1000-cc bricklayers conveyance 
 

  
  
  
 
 
 
 
 
  
  
  
  

  
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
  
  
 
 
 
 

  
  
  
  


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Exciting OHV Zenith above, and slogging sidevalve model below 
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King of the Brit V-twins, the sexy JAP-engined SS100 Brough. Yours for 50,000 pounds Sterling nowadays. You can get a less-sexy sidevalve SS80 model for 10,000 pounds, but note that the post-1935 ones had the same engines as the AJS/Matchless V-twins, which can be bought for less than 5,000 pounds. You are definitely paying for the name with a Brough. 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 


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Royal Enfield Model K, another barge not intended to be ridden solo.