The young William Henry Lowe Watson was at Oxford with a keen eye on Europe. He realized war would break out and determined to enlist on Saturday, July 25, 1914 three days before the war started. He served in the war as a motorcycle despatch rider. W.H.L Watson learned to ride corners like he was on rails, because snipers would locate themselves on corners, knowing the despatch riders would slow down. Watson survived and was promoted. By the time the war ended, two of his friends and fellow despatch riders were killed – Alec and Robert Whyte. Watson assembled a collection of his letters from the front, giving us a motorcycle despatch rider’s view of the war. He titled the book “Adventures of a Despatch Rider.” You can find the full text free online at Project Gutenberg. Read more about his story.
Well, “flying”…the brave lasses of the U.K. Women’s Royal Navy Services mostly kept their motorcycles on the ground, but the Navy’s choice of lightest weight vintage bikes surely resulted in a little air here and there. WRNS member Joan Burns got clocked by a bobby at 53 mph riding her motorcycle to work. When she joined, the Wrens, as women serving in the WRNS were called, were short on uniforms. So Joan dyed a pair of her own jodhpurs blue and blacked her riding boots. Later, she would deliver vital secret orders to the D Day invasion force. Wren McGeorge earned herself a medal unsuccessfully dodging falling bombs but successfully delivering her despatch. Read on to learn more about the role of women motorcycle despatch riders in WW I and WW II.
Corners. That’s where you’ll find the edge, the fine line between victory and going over the high side. The corners are also where you’ll find the snipers…if you are behind enemy lines in World War I. Over one hundred thousand young men raced against death in those early days of motorcycling, and thousands of women joined them serving on motorcycles on the home front. Military commanders discovered that motorcycles in World War I provided better speed than horses for dispatch delivery. The new invention spread rapidly, it’s versatility proven by one “ultimate test” after another.
In both World War I and World War II, motorcycles found their most important use for communication. But in World War I, they also provided increased mobility to infantry units for direct combat. Prior to entering World War I, The US army troops rode motorcycles in direct combat, fighting Pancho Villa in “The Border War.” In World War II, military leaders mostly deployed motorcycles for dispatch riding rather than direct combat.
Hill climbs, hare scrambles, flat track racing, board track – aka the murderdrome. Grand Prix, rallies, the Isle of Mann Tourist Trophy, motorcycle polo. There are so many ways to have a bit of competitive fun on motorcycle; it’s hard to write an exhaustive list. For instance, if you went with that list, you’d be leaving out motorcycle chariot racing.
Have you ever felt the itch to get out and explore the world? Della Crewe, a manicurist living in Waco Texas, did. She considered taking a train or a steamship. But the 29 year old Della reckoned that was just a little too tame not to mention beyond the limits of her budget. She had adventure in her blood. At 29, she had escaped the state of her birth, Wisconsin, and traveled to Panama already.
The independent and confident young woman decided to travel by motorcycle. She chose a 1914 Harley-Davidson V-twin with a sidecar attached for cargo. Her friends in Waco, after several attempts to dissuade her, realized the headstrong Crewe would not be stopped. So they bought her a Boston Bull Terrier pup as a going away present. She named her little dog “Trouble” and quipped: “Trouble is the only trouble I will have with me on this trip.” Justifiable optimism? Or ironic foreshadowing? You be the judge.
Nowadays, the idea of a twin-cradle perimeter motorcycle frame made of Reynolds steel tubing, with a twin-shock swinging arm rear suspension, can sound downright prehistoric. Indeed to many of today’s motorcyclists who were born at about the same time as Yamaha’s “Deltabox” frame, it probably sounds even older than that. But when it was introduced, it was just as revolutionary and undoubtedly paved the way for the design of many – if not most – modern motorcycles and even today in the 21st century, some motorcycles still use a derivation of this quintessential frame design. They called it the Norton Featherbed and it played a crucial role in the history of motorcycle frames.
What is a “Silodrome?” Well, you might say it is far less catchy name for a Wall of Death. And what is a Wall of Death Motorcycle Show? Ironically, you could say it is the safe version of a motorcycle board track race. Built for spectacle more than speed, they allow stunt riders to rely on centripetal force to ride sideways along curved vertical walls.
Origins of the Wall of Death
The Wall of Death was inspired by board track racing. Motorcycle board track racing in turn had grown out of bicycle velodrome racing. Jack Prince, a bicycle velodrome builder, saw the potential of racing motorcycles on purpose built wooden tracks. In 1910, he built the Los Angeles Motordrome with 30 degree banked turns. One year after Prince built the LA Motordrome, a prototypical stunt silodrome attraction appeared in Coney Island New York, and stunt riders were off to the races, sideways. In 1911, carnival promoters started making travelling version. By 1915, promoters were building silodromes with completely vertical walls and the “Wall of Death” name was coined in Buffalo New York. In the 1920s, the spectacle spread to England and Australia. By 1930, there were over 100 Wall of Death shows touring the U.S. as carnival attractions.
Motorcycle racing legend Jim Davis started his career in the age of vintage motorcycles. In 1911, at the age of 14, he won his first motorcycle race riding a borrowed motorcycle. The prize: a quart of oil and a pair of goggles, quite a rare luxury for racers in those days. His life spanned three centuries: born in 1896, he lived to the age of 103 and passed away in 2000. Davis won 21 American Motorcycle Association National Championships, including the first AMA National Championship in 1924 and 50 other national titles. His impressive collection of wins includes 90 gold medals and 40 silver and 35 bronze medals.
In 1920, he was fired by his sponsor for an audacious caper involving a box of chocolates and a forged telegram, but that hardly slowed him down. Read on for the details of his bold exploits.
In 1928, the motorcycle speed record stood at 124.5 mph, just a little over 200kph. The founder of the Opel Motor company’s grandson, Fritz Opel, was in charge of testing and publicity. A canny showman, he recognized the bang he would get out of attaching explosive propulsion to a motorcycle. He hatched a plan to literally rocket into the history books with a new land speed record. Before he could set a record, the authorities got wind of his crazy plan. They banned the rocket powered motorcycle before he could make it official. But he did get off a few test runs. He also applied the idea to rocket cars, rocket trains, and rocket planes. Read on to learn more about this bold pioneer of the vintage motorcycle era.
As this year’s Isle of Man TT fortnight recedes into the distance, I think it would be really interesting to take a closer look at this singular and unique motorcycle race.
The Isle of Man TT, or Isle of Man Tourist Trophy
The Isle of Man Tourist Trophy, or “TT” for short, is one of the world’s oldest races, and to some people, the world’s most controversial motorsports event. How could it not be: each lap of the course is 37.75 miles, on single-track roads lined with trees, lamp-posts, garden walls, bus-stops and other such solid objects. At race speeds, bike and rider are shaken, juddered and vibrated as they ride over bumps that you would otherwise not notice at normal everyday road speeds. Indeed, it’s not uncommon for bikes to finish the race with bits missing, rattling loose or broken. More importantly, since its creation, the TT has claimed the lives of over 200 competitors, whether during the practice sessions or during race week itself.