New Brough SS100. First UK view
We finally got to see the new 21st century Brough Superior SS100 as conceived by Mark Upham, the driving force behind the most talked about motorcycle of the moment, and one that's rapidly shaping up to be a future classic.
▲ Mark Upham and the new Brough Superior Super Sport 100. You can love this bike, or you can hate it. But so far, nobody's ignoring it. And folk are queuing to buy it.
The UK public unveiling took place on Saturday 7th December 2013 at Eric Patterson's Southern Classic Off Road Show and Jumble at Kempton Park, Surrey, a well attended gathering of souls with a good pre-Christmas buzz, a welcome patch of decent weather, and plenty of bargains on offer as traders looked to clear some stock and make the best of what hasn't exactly been a great year.
As hoped, we managed to get an interview with the redoubtable Mark Upham, and a very revealing tête-à-tête it was, too.
▲ Mark Upham (far left) talks the Brough talk and walks the Brough walk at Kempton Park. We had to hold a lot of people back to get this shot. Need a crowd in a hurry? This is how it's done.
But truth to tell, we hadn't really expected the interview to come off at all. In fact, we had a vague notion that Upham was either going to turn out to be a smug, superior, self-important glib git willing only to talk to us between carefully scripted guidelines, or was going to cry it off at the last moment.
In the event, however, we couldn't have been more wrong and he was happy to sit down for a frank half an hour to forty minutes chin-wagging and fielding question after question about his background, his personal life, his current business interests, and his plans for the future. And, of course, the Brough Superior itself.
Much of what he said, as with many interviews, was off-the-record comments that we're going to respect. He's not a sly or condescending man, note, and there wasn't any evidence of a gossiping nature. But it's impossible to talk about modern motorcycle manufacturing without referencing other parties, and he's shrewd and discreet enough to know where and when to leave matters well alone and stay focussed on his own immediate interests.
▲ Brough Superior headlight detail. It looks like a camera lens, and it's peering as much into the past as the future.
So who exactly is Mark Upham?
Well, he's 56-years old, and a Somerset bred man. He's married, has eight kids (and can name them all without hesitation), and he lives in Austria.
He used to own a motorcycle shop in Wellington, Somerset. Later he worked for Phillips, the auction house. He has a brother named Matthew who owns an upmarket antique emporium on the Kings Road, Chelsea, London. And he's got a divorce (or was it two?) safely tucked away in his back catalogue (which accounts for the aforementioned kids).
He's also the driving force behind British Only Austria (a long established classic bike firm trading in Brit iron from 1900 to around 1980). And he's more or less constantly on the move in and around the western world.
He dresses casually and looks the part of a refined English country gent, but not too refined. He's got a touch of grit about him and can clearly slum it with the best of us when he either needs to, or has too. And he's got a youthfulness about him and could pass for a much younger man.
But if you saw him coming towards you on a country lane with a shotgun in the crook of his arm and a Labrador at his heels, he wouldn't be out of place.
He speaks clearly and coherently and listens to what you have to say before batting back the answers in frank and engaging tones. But he's not an easy person to fathom. You get the distinct sense that although you're talking to him about the same subject, and enjoying that subject, you're not really approaching it from the same direction, and certainly not with the same frames of reference.
That happens often with British people who live abroad. Something changes in their outlook when they're back on home turf. A sense of social absenteeism maybe, like they've been playing a little harmless truant and enjoying it, and are now watching out for the headmaster on his rounds.
Or maybe it's a touch of culture shock as Britain continues a rampant mutation into a land that few recognise anymore. Or maybe he's just exhausted. He has, after all, been shifting three very expensive and rare Brough motorcycles about Europe, carting them from show to show in a huge Mercedes van, pressing endless amounts of flesh, running tighter and tighter schedules and always dashing for the next ferry or aircraft. He's got a busy mobile phone, and he glances at it occasionally to check the urgency. But when it's talking time, he puts down the instrument and talks.
It's a good start.
▲ Check the blueprint. From the girder forks to the triangulated rear suspension, it's as much Vincent as Brough. Aluminium-manganese and titanium are the chosen materials. Suspension front and rear is by Ohlins.
Interest in the Brough Superior SS100
"The interest in the bike", he explains, "has far exceeded our expectations."
Initially, he was expecting to deal with 20 to 25 orders. But as we sit talking beside the Brough (most of the crowds having departed Kempton, but the camera flashes still lighting up our ears every few minutes or so), he reveals that the current orders total 163, two of which were taken at the show.
"We've so far achieved everything we expected to achieve," he adds. "And we're very gratified by the situation and the feedback and goodwill that we've got. The project was started on July 4th this year, and in only 90 days we unveiled the bike at the EICMA Show in Milan. That's from drawing board to a metal bike in three months."
But it's clear that there's still much work to do including a busy shakedown schedule ahead where numerous details will need to be sorted out. Such as the drive chain run, for instance, which currently has a contact issue with the frame. Apparently, the CAD design program hadn't picked up on that, but one glance tells you that it's got to be sorted. And there's no rear chain guard fitted either, which will have to be addressed.
Additionally, there are details touches to an electric cooling fan that needs work, and the radiator doesn't sit as well as it might. And although the bike is said to be compliant with Euro 4 emissions regulations, and even fit for Euro 5, these things always need remedial work following real world riding situations.
▲ It's got poise, it's got style, and it's got the Brough Superior trademark splashed all over it. But is it enough to carry the torch for the next 90 years? Maybe. But Mark Upham is already thinking ahead...
We ask whether the new Brough is running a Voxan engine, which is the prevalent rumour.
"No," says Upham, emphatically. "It's not the Voxan engine, and is not developed from the Voxan. People talk about Voxan because the common link is Boxer Design, which, together with Akira, has been involved in the Brough project since the beginning.
"Voxan was a French motorcycle company that was working on its own designs. But they had problems, so they went to Boxer to try and get those problems sorted out and eventually agreed to buy 400 Boxer-Voxan engines. But in the event Voxan went out of business. Our engines, meanwhile, are bespoke for the Brough project. They are not the same."
The bikes will be built in Toulouse, France, incidentally; home of the French aircraft industry and the huge Airbus consortium in "Aerospace Valley". That's important to Brough because this motorcycle relies heavily upon titanium alloys, and that requires a suitable supply of material plus the right engineers who understand the strengths and weaknesses of the metal. But production could yet be shifted, or possibly even handled in two locations (we're still hoping for Nottingham, England, but it doesn't look likely). It really depends on how the project, which is in a permanent state of flux, develops.
▲ Brough Superior. Barbour. Belstaff. All British brands, and all suddenly finding a new lease of life and a new customer base. Look back. Think ahead.
Brough Superior prices and cash flow
So what's the price? Well, that's 49,500 Euros for the base machine, plus VAT (for the UK market), plus delivery. Then there are other costs depending on customer requirements. These bikes are, after all, bespoke machines built in the Brough tradition, and there will be a long list of options and colours. No two bikes are expected to be exactly the same.
That all sound good as far as ringing the cash tills is concerned. Except that there could be problems ahead. Just think about it; 163 machines are likely to cost anything from around 5,500,000 Euros upwards to build. At current prices, they'd retail for maybe 8,000,000 Euros upwards.
That's our lousy mathematics, by the way, as scrawled on the back of an envelope. And that number of bikes must present a cash flow dilemma.
Why? Because Upham is determined to get this project right at every stage, and customer orders are not necessarily the same as hard cash on the nail. That in turn suggests that production will have to be rapidly ramped up, and suitable assembly staff will have to be found and trained. Plus, there might not be the manufacturing capacity at the existing plant (although we hear that it is a very large plant).
But if those customer orders fail to materialise, Brough could well discover that it's overspent on stock, staff, premises and production. And there are bound to be other associated costs including logistical woes, export issues, spare parts manufacturing and storage, etc. It could be, of course, that our envelope numbers are way out of whack. Regardless, in the tide of interest, Upham himself can hardly know what's what until the accountants have looked at the numbers and made fresh projections.
"The first bikes," he says, "are nevertheless scheduled to be delivered in January 2015. We're confident that we can satisfy orders, but we know we have a lot to do. And interestingly, there is no pattern to where the buyers are coming from. They're coming to us from simply everywhere, right around the world."
▲ Once again, there's a touch of Vincent here. But does that mean the bike's suffering from an identity crisis?
We ask him about specific production problems, but he rejects the question. The word "problem" is, it seems, too negative, and Upham thinks only in terms of solutions.
We try the question again, slyly modifying it to get at the nitty-gritty. But again, the word "problem" is a stumbling block.
And then he adds, "Well, we've got some very good people working on this project, and I know they can deal with whatever comes up. Currently, that staff is small at around 25 people. We're now expanding to around 60, and we hope to take that up to around 100. These things are immensely complicated, but Boxer and Akira are very good. We're satisfied that we've got solutions for whatever comes up."
▲ Detail of the SS100's new girders forks. Could this bike really have had any other type of front suspension. Technically, yes. Emotionally, no.
We ask about funding or manufacturing grants from the British government, and Upham explains that they are looking into this issue and have been in touch with David Cameron, Prime Minister, but the funding conversation is on-going—and possibly not helped by the fact that manufacturing the bikes in France rather than the UK is probably a non-starter. But we're out of our depth here, and Upham is clearly playing a longer game and is considering multiple strategies. And there are bound to be other possible investors waiting to get a slice of the Brough cake. And Upham himself has no doubt got more than fluff in his pockets.
▲ The engine as a stressed member locked to a trellis frame. From this angle it looks improbable, but the computers and engineers have proved time and again that it works. There's still much development work to do, but Upham says the engine is Euro 4 compliant and ready for Euro 5.
Brough Superior importer and dealers
We ask Upham about a possible dealer network across the UK and explain that we've heard that these bikes would be sold direct from the factory. Is that true?
"We're still looking into that," he explains. "We have in fact got someone in mind who can handle the UK importership. And we'd be looking at having roughly half the number of Ducati dealers [which is around 35, currently - Editor]. But there are a lot of issues to consider here, and we're still looking at options."
Those considerations, no doubt, would include issues relating to importer margins, dealer margins, selecting the right kind of dealer, choosing the right geographical locations, and perhaps even the final price of the delivered bikes. Because that will almost certainly change between now and January 2015.
"Also," explains Upham, "we have numerous Brough Superior related companies within the group. That makes it hard sometimes to be as categoric as we would like, because agreement has to be made between the various groups and the partners involved. So some questions are not easily answered."
▲ The wheelbase is 61-inches (1550mm). Dry weight is 396lbs (180kg).
First impressions of the new Brough SS100
We like it, but not without reservations. On the one hand, it's clearly built with the right Brough Superior design cues in mind. It's got a V-twin engine, girder forks, an unmistakeable Brough-style petrol tank, and there are quality design touches everywhere else. So even if you had no fore-knowledge of the bike, you'd recognise this for what it is. And if you sat astride one outside Harrods, nobody would mistake you for a despatch rider.
But the new machine requires a lot of mental adjustment. Some of that is simply because the legacy and cachet of the original bike is powerful. The Brough a legend, and legends are always hard acts to follow. And here we have a new pretender to the crown, a fresh young upstart, hot off the drawing board, built to carry the torch for a new generation and yet to make its mark. It's hard to be different (which it desperately needs to be) without polarising opinion.
The DOHC, water cooled, fuel-injected 997cc V-twin engine certainly looks refined and modern and, even with offset con-rods, is a reasonably slim unit. But there's that large gap between the cylinders that Harley-Davidson would have quickly plugged with a horn or an air filter. That upsets a lot of people, but probably few of whom are potential customers. Ultimately, you either like the cylinder gap, or you don't like it. And if you're buying, you can probably get Brough to deal with that. Moreover, there could well be more fundamental design changes in line with customer feedback.
It's not obviously a young man's bike. And it's not exactly an old man's bike either. It's somewhere in the middle and could go either way depending upon which camp (if there is a camp) appropriates it and makes it their own. In fact, if you had to nail it down, it looks like the kind of bike that might suit, say, a 56-year old traditional ex-pat Brit from Somerset with a passion for Brough Superiors, but a man who's still aware that for the show to really stay alive and relevant, it has to go on.
We asked Upham if he thought this project advanced the mystique and cachet of the Brough Superior name, and he replied: "Well, one Brough Superior restorer came to me recently and said, 'As you know, Mark, I'm probably one of the most critical people of your career, and we've certainly had our ups and downs. But this is the best tribute to Brough Superior that I've ever seen, and George Brough would love what you're doing'."
"And can you say who that restorer is?" we ask, Upham.
"No," he says.
▲ So what about the pillion? Talk to the manufacturer. As with the original "Rolls Royce of Motorcycling", the customer is always right, and always gets what he or she wants. Welcome to the bespoke world of Brough Superior.
And the future for Brough?
"We've got 23 versions of this bike," say Upham. "That means 23 drawings. And we're looking at possibly building a more exclusive expensive model, and even a slightly cheaper version using different materials. But nothing's been finalised. However, I will say that I love driving in the Alps, and my ambition is to build a very comfortable Alpine Grand Sport Tourer. Or something that you would loosely describe as an enduro bike. That's perhaps on the cards.
"But we know that the market has changed a lot since the days of the original Brough, and we're very conscious of the need to stay true to the Brough Superior spirit and ensure that our customers are properly looked after, both in terms of product, sales and aftersales."
So are any Brough family members involved in this project?
"Yes. There are apparently around 1000 members of the Brough clan scattered around the world, and the nearest descendant of George Brough is, I believe, a sixth cousin, so they're often far removed. But at the recent London launch party for the Brough, we had nine or ten members of that family attend, which was wonderful. As you might expect, many of them didn't even know each other. So there were a lot of distantly related people suddenly coming together."
"Meanwhile, we've got lots of ideas, but we're focussing on the immediate project here. My ambition as far as the company is concerned is to be one of the top three British motorcycle firms in the UK. Triumph, of course, has done an absolutely wonderful job and is at the top. But I would hope that Brough Superior will be either two or three. We feel that that's possible."
But British? We're still hoping that Brough Superior will somehow find its way back to Haydn Road, or somewhere close. That would neatly help square the circle.
See Sump's feature: Upham's Brough project unveiled.
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Copyright Sump Publishing 2013