A Bit of Biking History (part 2)

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Courtesy ANDREWR (originally posted at ukrm.net)

History of the Motorbike (Chapter 2)

A bloody good idea

Charles Gainsborough was many things; a traveller, inventor, thinker, explorer, philosopher and sportsman. In the spring of 1901 his travels took him to Nottingham for the annual cheese sniffing festival. Charles was enjoying a relaxing drink in an Inn when he was approached by a somewhat surly youth who asked if he would be interested in buying a motorbike for 7s 6d. After being assured that the bike had only had one previous owner and that the documents were in the post Charles became the somewhat dubious owner of the Ichabod II, which had been stolen from Melton Mowbray the previous year.

Being a man of vision and wisdom Charles took one look at the Ichabod and realised that it was a bloody stupid idea. However, he could not shake a certain fascination with the concept and arranged to have the Ichabod transported to his home in Matlock Bath, Derbyshire. It is a tribute to his intelligence and foresight that he realised that trying to ride the thing home would be a certain death sentence.

From the outset Charles knew that the motor bicycle was hindered by it’s steam engine and made short work of removing it and placing a petrol engine into the frame. For unknown reasons whilst replacing the engine Charles also took it into his head to paint the whole contraption in a vile colour. It is possible that the strain of building the special machine upset Charles’ mental health, as his wife reported him waking screaming one night demanding that she bring him “Elsie Engine and Gixer Forks”. Not knowing any one of those names his wife simply clubbed him over the head with a warming pan and no more was said of the matter.

Historians have long argued over why Norton overlooked the petrol engine for so long while Gainsborough, his contemporary, could not imagine the motorcycle without it. The reasons are, undoubtedly, long and complex and relate to the social standing of the two men and their personal world views – Norton was a penniless semi-illiterate while Gainsborough was a rich, well-educated man. Perhaps the reason is best summed up in Gainsborough’s own words, taken from a letter to The Times in 1903, denying allegations that he had stolen Norton’s work:

“In summary, I am a respected and well-established inventor, holding more than three dozen patents, a man of taste and discretion with a keen eye for the future while Norton was a gibbering imbecile with even less mechanical aptitude than self-preservation skills.”

The new, petrol engine driven, motorbike was completed in the autumn of 1901. At that time engines were large and inefficient, so Gainsborough had been forced to use a 12½ litre engine just to get 11 horse power from his machine. Charles christen the machine the Charles Gainsborough 12.5 or CG125 for short.

The history of the development is still largely unknown, Gainsborough was fanatically secretive about his invention and kept all of his working notes and thoughts in an encrypted short-hand that was so complex that even he could not entirely decode them.

What is known is that, after the successful maiden voyage of the CG125, Charles acquired a business partner. This partner was the financial brains of the outfit and is referred to, throughout Charles’ notes as either “The Younger Gentleman” or “Mint”. The name Mint is probably an allusion to the fact that he was providing most of the capital for the fledgling business.

However, it is possible that Mint provided some technical input to the project as well, as this, less cryptic than usual, entry in Gainsborough’s journal hints:

“CG125 needed new gasket. Asked Mint for one, apparently he has more than 300 in house, don’t know why. Mint too drunk to tell me why. Must investigate.”

The cryptic nature of Gainsborough’s journal was to work against him. In later life he was asked to write a book about his work on the motorcycle, but his memory had faded and all he could recall was “I built a motorbike”. This led to his place in history as the writer of the shortest autobiography ever.

Autobiographical problems aside, the CG125 was progressing well. Charles had been doing some extensive testing and had discovered that bikes were great fun, but somewhat accident prone. Commonly he was finding that men with red flags were running out in front of him, causing him to crash to the ground where, a few seconds later, a motorcar would drive over the top of him. Invariably the flag wavers would claim that they “didn’t see him”. This caused Charles to write a scathing letter to The Times asking why the countryside was rife with blind people waving red flags. Unfortunately the letter was never published, as The Times editor decreed that “my paper will not publish material biased towards motor bicycle riding hooligans.”

However, the sheer number of accidents Charles had on his motorbike prompted questions in Parliament. The House were very foresighted in realising that these accidents were an indication that motorcycling was dangerous and should be outlawed immediately. Regrettably, for the legislators, Charles and The Younger Gentlemen were very politically astute and had curried favour with Queen Victoria by giving her a lift through rush-hour London traffic to get to the bookies before it closed. In fact Queen Victoria is the first person to whom the popular quote “Which way does one lean in the corners?” is attributed.

Unable to out-law bikes directly Parliament was forced to use more bizarre laws to hinder their spread, especially urgent as, in the summer of 1902, Charles and Mint began selling motorbikes commercially for 8 guineas each.

A snippet from the legislation of the day shows how far we have progressed:

“Persons riding a motorcycle shall, at all times, wear a cast iron helmet of a construction approved by Her Majesty’s armour maker. The helmet shall not be fronted with smoked glass, lest a sudden total eclipse of the sun should render the wearer unable to see. They shall travel at a pace not exceeding that of a plough horse and shall not lean their motorcycle more than ten degrees from the vertical at any time. Should the motor cyclist’s journey be forced into sudden detour by the unexpected appearance of a man with a red flag then the cyclist shall, without complaint, give way to the gentleman and the motorcar following him. Under no circumstance is the cyclist to ride past the flag waver and attempt to kick his ear off, as seems to be the practice.”

Obviously these new laws needed to be enforced, so in 1904, shortly after the sales of the two thousandth motorbike, the Queens Own Motorcycle Discrimination Force joined the ranks of the police. The QOMDF quickly earned the nickname of “the Black Rats” as the penalty for motorcycle offences was to have a black rat bite the offender’s testicles for one hour.

Initially the Black Rats were headed by Jebodiah Pariah Davis, and quickly became a force feared throughout the country. Jebodiah was a devout religious man and, if he could not bring a motorcyclist to trial for bike offences, would resort to trumped up charges of witchcraft. Under such a draconian regime it was estimated that, by early 1905, two thirds of motorcyclists had rats teeth marks on their scrotal sack. Bikers were further vexed when an early champion of motorcycle rights, Miss Margaret A. Guzzi, was forced to have all of her future bodices specially made after a particularly severe session with the rodents. The motorcycling community could take no more, in June of 1905 the word went around that Davis was holidaying on the Isle of Man and 3,000 bikers turned up there with the aim of harassing him. This mass pilgrimage was covered by a story that there was going to be a bike race. Not knowing exactly where Davis himself was staying the bikers were forced to race round and round the popular spots on the island on the off chance of finding him.

Gainsborough himself had been lucky in avoiding the attention of the Black Rats. He had been stopped on two occasions, the first, in August 1904, he had been flagged down by the first Black Rat in Derbyshire. Upon approaching him the Rat had asked “Excuse me, sir, do you think you’re .”. The Rat had then seemed to lose his train of thought entirely and Gainsborough made off in the confusion. On the second occasion, in February 1905, he had told the officer that he was sorry, but he had been “watching the road and not his speedo.”. He was given a warning and waved on his way, it is suspected that this is the only time that this excuse has actually worked.

The success of the CG125 had been such that, throughout England, new manufacturers were springing up making motorbikes for the masses. Gainsborough’s genius combined with The Younger Gentleman’s financial acumen had succeeded where Norton’s stupidity had failed and they had brought motorcycling to life. However, the heady days for Old Blighty were not to last.

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