Brough: rich boys' toys
It is 70 years since the last Brough Superior rolled off the production line. The British creations, dubbed the "Rolls-Royce of motorcycles" in their prime, boasted a who's who of owners and admirers. Writer George Bernard Shaw waxed lyrical about their intricate design, while TE Lawrence, of Arabia fame, owned seven Brough Superiors, the most recent of which he died on in 1935 as he swerved to avoid two boys riding bicycles.
His take on the bikes themselves was that they were "as fast and reliable as express trains and the greatest fun in the world to drive". But even that couldn't stop George Brough, who set up the motorcycle firm in Nottingham in 1919, from bringing production to a close in 1940. Nowadays, the old bikes remain massive collectors' items - two years ago, one version sold for £166,000 (Dh904,000). But now, buyers with sizeable pockets can get their hands on newer versions of the motorcycles.
The man behind Brough's rebirth is Mark Upham, a British businessman, now based in Austria, with a long history in the motorcycling industry. Upham bought the company in 2008 and has just sold the first new Brough creation in seven decades to a wealthy American industrialist. The second bike is on the cusp of being bought by an avid bike collector in Belgium while Upham is in the process of tying up another deal in Switzerland.
Brough's resurrection will not, however, lead to a major production line of bikes. Upham plans to make them just about the most exclusive bikes on the market, and one suspects the business is almost a secondary feature to what is a massive labour of love. "These are extremely exclusive; they're rich boys' toys," explained Brough's new owner. "I'm not saying they're the world's most expensive bikes, but they're certainly up there."
When it comes to price, this is the one area that Upham won't discuss because he believes it goes against the ethos of Brough and the motorcycles potential buyers. "If people ask about things like fuel consumption and the cost of the bikes," he says, "then they're not the right person for us." Upham himself is exclusive about who he sells the bikes to. He describes the first Brough buyer as a "wealthy eccentric", a phrase that could easily describe Upham as well.
"I'd far rather sell five bikes to people I like than 25 bikes to people I don't," he says. "For me, I have to check that I like the gentleman in question, if he is the right customer for me and if I can give him what he wants. "Last November, I went to the United States [where most of the interest in Brough has been to date] and took 13 flights in 11 days to see various people about the bikes and ended up with just one appropriate buyer.
"There was another chap out in the US while we we were showing the bikes in Pebble Beach who was wanting a discount. His attitude was all wrong - he was pushing me down and trying to show off in front of his girlfriend. And I said to him, 'sir, this bike is not available to you'. I'm afraid I want to be around nice people and see bikes go to nice people. We only want to have the best partners." While out in Pebble Beach, Upham stumbled across arguably Brough's most high-profile and avid fan, American chat show host Jay Leno.
Leno currently boasts six Brough Superiors in his extensive garage, one of which is being worked on at present by Upham's team. Upham also allowed Leno to take the controls of the newest Brough, although he admitted to nervous moments as the gregarious television presenter rode off without a helmet. Leno was full of praise afterwards, describing the brief outing as a "real thrill". Upham reveals, "Since then, he's regularly been ringing me and I've had the opportunity to chew the fat with him on a number of subjects - he's a real petrolhead. Sadly, he won't be buying a bike. Jay Leno's the sort of guy that gets given bikes, and we're too young a company to be doing that right now."
Brough Mark II is very much in its infancy, to the extent that Upham describes it as being in the "experimental stage". However, there is no shortage of experts working on the new bikes, ranging from staff in England and Germany to prototypers just six miles away from Upham's Austrian base who also work with Audi, Bugatti and Lamborghini. Upham, who also runs British Only Austria - which sells classic bikes and parts - began his love affair with Brough as a 19-year-old.
"It was one of the first bikes I had and there's always been a great ethos about them," he adds. "When they were first produced, they were more expensive than a two-up, two-down house. And they're probably still similarly expensive now." The selling process for Upham is generally a case of people approaching him, with no money to date spent on advertising and no plans to do so. "It's all about being exclusive," he says. "We had a well-known bike tester get in contact to book a time to ride one of our bikes, and we said they couldn't as these bikes are pretty much only ridden by the owners themselves."
The American purchaser of the first new Brough has had his own test rider put the bike through its paces, riding 2,500km in and around La Rochelle in France. That has led to further tweaks to the bike to get it just right, all of which were done at no additional cost. Upham explains, "The bikes are expensive and we make no secret of that fact, but it is then up to us to make them right for our customers, which is what we've done here."
Broughs could be set to make their way to the Middle East, and Upham has had initial discussions in the region. But he does not believe anything will happen there any time soon. "We've been asked by quite a lot of people to get involved in the Arabian region," says Upham. "But it's an area we don't know that much about right now, and I certainly don't have experience of the etiquette or how to approach them or where to approach people.
"But the Middle East is a phenomenal opportunity and it's certainly a route we'll go down in the future." Little is known about the spec of the bikes. To date, they have hit a top speed of 145kph, about 15kph short of the speeds reached by Brough himself when he competed in 53 races in his prime, winning 52 of them and falling off the bike in the other. Upham and his team are targeting the 100mph (160kph) mark in the future. But they are in no hurry, as they focus on the traditional aim of the bike, in the words of Upham, as "being associated with heroes and wealthy people".
The bikes were so coveted during the Second World War that their owners hid them under straw in a bid to make sure they were not used for scrap metal to aid the war effort in Britain. In all, 3,000 bikes were made in 20 years in Brough's initial guise, of which 1,000 still exist. Upham will take some time to get anywhere near that figure, with the hand-made bikes using the latest materials available.
But the Brough owner is obsessed with his new job in charge of the marque. "I wish I was a workaholic, but I've gone past that now," he says. "I'm not quite sure how to describe myself, but it's quite regular to finish work after midnight." This sort of obsession and attention to detail made Brough a great success story from 1919 to 1940. Upham is hoping for a repeat. firstname.lastname@example.org
Updated: June 26, 2010 04:00 AM