Although I might not have given much indication in previous articles - in recent years I have developed a yearning to own a belt drive 'flat tanker' from the Edwardian era (i.e. 1905 - early 1920's era).
Read on to find out how, almost entirely by accident, I recently happened to fulfill this ambition - at least, if not a complete bike - then the main parts to build one!
(as always - click on any photo to see an enlarged version)
As always, my ambition for this latest project bike would be to build something representative of this racing/sports variant
The Stafford Classic Bike show in April is one of the biggest classic motorcycle events of the year, and has been running for well over a decade now. I would admit, I am not one of its biggest advocates - I think the last time I visited was about 9 or 10 years ago, finding parking difficult and the event a bit crowded for my liking. That said it is a very popular meeting, and one that Bonham’s (my favourite auction house) has used as a platform for its most prestigious annual UK motorcycle auction in recent years.
So back in April, while still pre-occupied fettling my late father's Vincent Comet after its recent full restoration, it was only by co-incidence as I happened to be telling one of my motorcycling mates about it - and that I had also recently purchased a gearbox outrigger plate for my Vincent Grey Flash build (another article still to come!), when he mentioned he had seen a Vincent RFM coming up for grabs in the forthcoming Bonham’s Stafford auction.
I had been telling him I just needed a Vinnie RFM (Rear Frame Member – or rear swinging arm to you and me) to complete the hunt for the major parts for the Grey Flash. I have actually been hunting for the RFM as a back burner quest, ever since I was a teenager and first talked about the possibility of using my fathers Comet spares to build a Grey Flash as my first racer - clearly that never happened!
Over the years a couple of RFM's had almost come into my grasp, but never quite happened - normally because at the time i had other things going on and RFM's have never been cheap!
So, having been told by my mate that he thought he had seen a load of Vinnie spares and at least one RFM coming up for sale at Stafford, even with every thing else going on, I thought this was too good an opportunity and I ought to get my arse in gear!
The original auction listing for the Douglas I was most interested in - Yes, a lot was missing, but most the major components were there and in my opinion - of the seven similar Douglas 'project kits' that were being offered at the auction, this looked the best of the bunch.
I particularly liked the look of the frame and the excellent and very original petrol tank
The funny thing is, I had already received a catalog for the auction a couple of weeks before, as I do for all of their motoring auctions, but had only given it the briefest of skim reads. I had seen a number of interesting Brough Superiors coming up for sale in rough unrestored condition – including a very rare twin rear wheel, Austin 7 powered Brough, only a handful of which are still known to exist, all coming from the collection of the late Frank Vague. I gather this gentleman had acquired a collection of Brough’s in the early 1960’s and then had moved to a very remote farm (in Wales or Scotland?).
Unfortunately, It would seem that many of the buildings that Mr Vague stored these bikes in must have been short of maintenance, because clearly they have suffered very badly with the elements and most looked in 'poor to piss-poor' condition – see photos below. But in the rarified atmosphere of the Brough world –rarity overrides condition and these bikes which sold on the Sunday (I only went on the Saturday) still fetched some very high amounts, just proving that unrestored Barn Finds will always attract strong bidding, irrespectvie of condition.
The twin wheeled Austin/Brough eventually fetced an amazing £331k with premium, despite being a long way off from a complete or restored bike, and no doubt will need a lot more money and effort to get it back on the road - but I am sure the person that bought it knows that - hey ho!
When I started to read the Bonhams catalog in more detail I could see there were lots of other really interesting 'Parts Lots' and projects bikes also in the Saturday auction – making it a potentially entertaining place to spend a day – even if I was only going to be bidding on a few of the smaller items.
But as I started to read through the detail of some of these parts kits, I could not help but find myself salivating! Many of them were from the earliest days of motorcycling - from the 1900's through to the early 1930's. It is rare to nowdays find even one restoration project from those early era's at an auction- but here were approximately 40 - 50 very early basket cases or 'kits' from that era - being mainly of Scott, AJS or Douglas marques. If I did not know better I would say that an old time collector must have passed away and much of the first 70 lots may have all come from the same collector - or maybe two or three at most.
If you would like to have a look at the interesting bikes and project bikes that were for sale on the day, then here is the link – mine was Lot 13: https://www.bonhams.com/auctions/23600/
So, as it happens I have always had a real soft spot for both the Scott and Douglas marque. In the case of Scott's - it takes me back to days spent with Titch Allen in the 1980's-90's where I spent many a pleasent Saturday afternoon tinkering on bikes with Titch down his little lane lined with old buildings and outhouses full of old bikes. He had at least two Scott's - including one with a sidecar very similar to the model in the photo on the left. I grew to like their quirkiness of construction and the yowling 2 stroke noise that only Scott's seem to make - particularly as I came very used to it when we raced his grasstrack Scott outfit in the late 1980's.
And likewise - although I may never have given much indication in previous articles, I've also had a soft spot for Douglas flat tankers for as many years as I can remember. This goes back to days of sprinting against some really outrageously fast OHV Douggies in the 1980's and the combination of blue/silver flat tank, quirky boxer engine and external flywheel all added appeal to make them my joint favourite 'flat tanker' marque (the other being Norton OHV flat tankers of course - which would mean me selling an OHC bike now to afford!).
So in the few days leading up to the auction I found myself warming to the idea of attending the Saturday auction, in main to try and grab one of the Vincent RFM's, but as I found myself emptying all my little piggy banks and trying not to dip too much into the CNC fund . . . I realised I had already put myself in the mindset that if a Soctt or Douglas 'kit' came up at the right price - then I may just be tempted to a point where I would not be able to stop myself!
Dont sneeze too close to the this petrol tank - it will crumble away. In the background is a 1938 SS80 'Special' procject bike, which seemed one of the more affordable, it fetched £25,300
The Austin 7 bike was better condition than some of the others and definitely had some interesting features - I gather it was originally built for sidecar work
I got to Stafford early on the Saturday morning and found the car park already filling up fast, this just after 8.00am. I had bought my VW van, and having done this kind of meeting before – put a wheelbarrow in the back, in case I bought anything large and had a long walk!
What was not expected and very annoying was that to get in before 9.00am they made me pay the full weekend price . . . for the sake of about half an hour . . . robbing so and so’s. I even showed them my auction baton to show them I was only there for the auction – but to no avail, if I didn’t want to spend the next 45 minutes waiting outside I had to pay the full weekend price - that is Stafford all over for you!
Anyway, getting in early before the crowd gave me the chance to go round the outside autojumble, say hello to a few old mates – and find myself in the normal position of snapping up a couple of bargains I could not afford to leave – which included a reasonable set of late 1930’s Norton Inter crankcases and a Vincent left pot racing inlet manifold and Amal RN carburettor (either Lightning front cylinder – or of course Vincent Grey Flash!). Well less money for the auction, but couldn’t let either of those go could I!
With the auction itself, Bonham’s had two large buildings/rooms, with the bikes to be sold on the Sunday in the bigger room and the parts and project bikes in the second area, with roped off tables and Bonham’s security guards in attendance. I spent about 1 to 2 hours in the morning carefully examining all the Vincent lots, along with a number of likeminded enthusiasts and I am sure a few dealers. Of the three swinging arms the first two were in excellent unmolested condition, the second one being from a Comet and that was the one I was most interested in. The third one looked like it had either been repaired or altered, so I decided not to bid on that. What was really useful was to look at the different project bikes – the Scott I had previously found interesting looked just a s promising in the flesh as did a few of the other kits. However, it was the Douglas basket cases that really appealed. Unfortunately it was clear that although the Bonham’s people had done their best to arrange the bikes into complete ‘kits’, some of the parts had been mixed up. I think like most of those who were looking to bid on them, it was the ‘teens’ bikes (pre 1920) that appealed most, but on careful examination – I could not find one of them as good, or as complete as the 1920 bike. In fact a couple of the early ones were very rough – one in particular I could see had forks that had corroded through, so I had decided before the auction which one I wanted to bid on. Incidentally – when the auction actually started I noticed a large percentage of the bidding on these older bikes was either from the phone or internet. I did think to myself – when you are bidding on something like one of these restoration cases, they really should have come and examined – I spotted loads of faults it was not possible to see from the (excellent) Bonham’s photos.
When the bidding started the Scott’s came up first. I was really in two minds if to bid on the Scott (Lot 3), and frankly I could not believe there was not more interest in them.
At this point it is worth stating that unfortunately Bonhams have a much higher levy against parts and memorabilia than they do against motorcycles themselves with regard to commission. For the Saturday auction the commission is 25% rather than 15%, so with final VAT added the final premium to pay is approximately 30% up on the hammer price – which talking beforehand, seemed to have put some off attending.
I think the upshot of this was – although the initial amounts seemed low, those bidding were probably trying to work out in their heads how much they were actually paying!
All that said, the Scott still seemed very reasonable, in fact low, and I came really close to buying – I think I did put one of the bids in, but eventually decided to duck out and save what funds I had for the Vincent RFM . . . and possibly a Douglas!
Now here was an interesting Lot . . . click on photo above to look at an enlarged version - then see if you can figure out what these are? , as a clue - both Vinnie and Norton SOHC cranks are present!
I did not bid as did not want the extra weight in my wheelbarrow - but they were cheap!
The Douglas’s came up shortly after – and again, for motorcycles almost a 100 years old – even if only ‘part’s kits’, the bidding did not seem excessive. I did put a couple of bids on the first two Douglas lots, both being pre 1920, but realised the condition of both was not brilliant, so decided to duck out – knowing Lot 13 was coming up.
When Lot 13 did come up, I had already made my mind up for sure that I wanted a Douglas – so this was going to be it! I had noticed most bidding was coming from the internet/phones and therefore confident bidding from the room itself seemed the way to go – so I quickly railroaded my bids in, responding instantly to any phone bids with a counterbid of my own! The final hammer price in my opinion was still lower than I expected, and with premium the final price I paid was £2125, which I think was very reasonable for such a wonderful time capsule.
I carried on bidding on a number of other items, working on the theory – just duck out when it no longer seemed a bargain, and it was probably a good job I did not have more available money in my back pocket, because there were some real bargains to be had – for instance, look at Lot 56, as set of early Webb girder forks of the type fitted to the earliest Cammy Norton’s – even with premium the final price was only £875, if I had been building an early Inter I would have been prepared to pay £2k if I really needed them.
It was a long afternoon and added to that Bonham’s lost the Internet connection a couple of times – which meant delays of approximately 15-20 mins while it was restored – obviously they did not want to lose the opportunity of the internet bidding and I don’t blame them for that.
But although the prices seemed very reasonable in the early part of the auction – that all changed when the large Vinnie lumps eventually came up for grabs!
First up was the Vincent Rapide RFM. This looked a nice item and I was tempted to bid. However, logic told me that the Comet RFM that was to follow would be slightly cheaper – and actually it was a Comet RFM that was more appropriate for me for building a Grey Flash.
I had previously worked out in my head the amount I wanted to pay and subtracted buyer’s premium etc. Ideally I did not want to have to pay more than £1800, and I bet there are a few of the older Vincent owners reading this who would be really surprised at that much, but I knew if push came to shove I might go a fraction more.
Anyway, I watched the Rapide RFM price rise rapidly and decided to wait for the Comet, the Rapide RFM finally sold for £2,125 with premium.
Then, for me anyway – the main event the Comet RFM. This was also a nice one in totally original unmolested condition. However, I hoped it would sell for less than the last one – I was quickly proved wrong. I stayed out for the first few bids, but then came in when it looked to be reaching its end. I felt confident at this point, but at least one phone/internet bidder was not going to let go and eventually I found myself going at least two bids over my self-imposed maximum before I came to the conclusion it was too much and there would always be another – after all I had already been searching for 30 years!
As you can see from the photograph, the Comet RFM eventually sold for £2,750 with premium, probably a new record for a Comet RFM on its own!!
There were a few mutterings and soft intakes of breath in the auction room after this Lot (and a few people sat close to me gave me sympathetic nods) but it seemed to set the scene for what followed – all other Vincent lot’s made similar big money, just showing that this marque is still close behind the Brough Superior in top auction prices. For me though, I shrugged my shoulders and muttered a few profanities under my breath, but knew it was the right thing to do – I knew another would come my way sometime in the future.
However, what I did not realise was, was just how quickly that next opportunity would come, because about 10 minutes after losing the RFM, with the auction still in full swing, I got a tap on the shoulder. Turning round, an old boy I had never met before whispered in my ear – would you really have paid that much for an RFM? So I whispered back – ‘well obviously, because I did!’, so from that we agreed to meet outside a few minutes later. It turned out the old gent who introduced himself to me was a collector himself and did not live that far away. Amongst his parts he had a spare RFM himself and asked if I wanted to come and look at it after the auction? In an amazing stroke of luck, that is exactly how it turned out. The auction went on for another couple of hours – even I was knackered at the end of it, and about 5pm the kind gent and his brother tailed me as I wheeled off my wheelbarrow full of Douglas and Norton parts to the van, and we then travelled about 5 miles to an industrial unit where low and behold – amongst other dusty items was an extremely clean and nice Vincent Series C RFM. We agreed a reasonable price (much less than the price at the Bonhams auction I am pleased to say and – hey presto, I had managed to come away with an RFM as well as the Douglas after all – mission accomplished!
And here is the RFM that I was lucky enough to purchase - also a Series C Comet RFM, just as good condition as the Bohnaams one - oh, and substantially cheaper.Eventually this one will be drilled and lightened around the swinging arm pivot area and painted grey
In respect to the kind gentleman’s privacy I won’t give any more details about who he was, but it turns out we got on rather well – both him and his brother, and at the end of a long day, he asked me if I fancied a short drive to his other location, where he showed me some of his collection – and what a collection it was! . . . Save to say there was some pretty amazing bikes – Vincent and Norton’s included, and it was a great end to a nice day.
But before I finish on the auction, I probably should mention what happened towards the end of the auction – and the reason I could not meet up with my new friend until 5pm. Having made the effort to get there, and being sat there for a good length of time waiting for the auction to start, had given me an opportunity to go through the Saturday catalog in some detail. From doing this I had noticed a rather poor photograph of yet another Douglas item – a spare Douglas 2 3/4HP complete engine/carb/mag mounted on what looked like an engine stand, right at the end of the auction.
Final (and unplanned!) purchase of the day - JAP LTOR/C crankcases and unmachined left 'DogEared' head - starting point for big Morgan engine!
I couldent bring myself to leave them unsold .
Available for swap or sale at some point in the future
As I complete this article it is now early 2017, and as always other things have conspired to drag me away from completing it back at the time – sorry for that.
However, what I can say is that – having got the Douglas back home in Spring 2016 I then embarked on a four month push where any hobby time was spent working on this bike – trying to get it into a ‘rolling chassis restoration’, so I could work out what was missing and what fitted – or dident fit as the case may be!
One of the selling points of this project bike for me whas the fantastic and very original petrol tank - seen here on my worksbench the week after the sale. The inention is still that I when I strip everything else down to paint & plate - I will respaint and line the tank in classic silver and navy blue. But as you will see from later photographs, there is definitely a temptation to leave as is!
I learnt an awful lot about this particular Douglas model, and how prodigious it was in it’s day – in one form or another it was offered from approximately 1910 all the way through to the early 1920’s, in numerous model guises. As I was hoping when I bought it – in the early days (particularly pre- World War One) it was raced by Douglas themselves, and therefore there are period photo’s and specifications available of more sporting examples which competed at the time – including the ‘Works’ version of the model which in 1912 won both the Junior Isle of Man TT and the Brooklands Junior GP later that year.
Without trying to get too anal about replicating specification – as my engine and frame both show it as being a later 1920 model, I have decided to try and emulate the ‘look and feel’ of one of these early racing model’s.
But in the following four months of intensive work and investigation that followed the auction - the overriding view was just how amazing and enjoyable it was to be working on a bike that is now almost a 100 years old, and how everything has such a tremendous feeling of age!
This model was also one of those chosen for use by the British Army in World War One – I believe almost 25,000 were eventually produced for them, although only a handful survived. But what has made the project even more poignant is finding original traces of early type British Khaki paint on some of the peripheral parts that came from the bike – showing that although the frame and engine are of 1920 vintage, some of the other parts ‘assembled’ into the kit were from earlier WW1 examples – just adding to that amazing feeling of age.
I will write another article shortly to cover the first part of that build, back in 2016, with more photographs. That first phase culminated in my being able to take it ‘loosely assembled’ and approx 70% complete (but not restored) to a Brooklands Motorcycle Reunion meeting in July 2016. I am pleased to say it got far more interest than one of my Norton’s sat next to it – it seem’s lots of other likeminded enthusiasts also like the idea of an Edwardian sports bike!
But for now here, here are few photograph’s to show it in more detail:
A couple of days after getting bike back home, i started a more careful examination. Poignantly, I found the previous owner (who I suspect had recently passed away - hence all the Douglas parts at the auction) had left some helpful little notes on some parts - including this one on the fork leg confirming the forks were actually of 1914 vintage. Not sure if the £1000 value he put against them was what he paid or the insurance value! I later stripped them and suspect all parts were original, even the wasted fork spindles
- more for a future article
A feature of the Douglas 2 3/4hp model from its earliest days was that although of belt drive transmission, with no clutch fitted - it did have a two speed transmission - in the form of this lovely dinky 2 speed countershaft gearbox. I have subsequently cosmettically restored it and made up new frame mounting bolts and nuts, but still may strip it before final assembly to re-pack with fresh oil and grease. By the way, still looking for a correct Douglas chain drive sprocket to the engine for this unit if you have one?!
Incidentally, later models came with the option of three speed gearbox and clutch. Again, I am pleased I was able to get the earlier unit - as this is correct spec for a 1913-14 TT spec model I believe
Another time capsule item - this time the original type Amac carburettor and float chamber, on an original twin manifold. I have not stripped it yet, but I believe it is the correct model for this bike (I have seen a few restored bikes with what look like later carbs fitted - including the small Amal fitted to my spare engine). Again - note possible WW1 khaki paint on carb and manifold . . . . a difficult one because I want to restore the carb - but not remove the paint!
Willie Douglas himself on a similar racing Douglas 2 3/4 hp model, at what I believe was an early sand race pre World War 1 (probably 1912)
I doubt if the engine specification was little different to standard - I would suppose they were mainly standard with just stripped back running gear
As a last photograph - jumping ahead to July 2016, this is what my Douglas looked like at the time I took it to the Brooklands Reunion - very different to the basket case purchased in April. Still lots of work to do before final stripdown for plating and painting - but a lot of work now done. Do you like handlebars? - made specially for this bike, including machining the mounting block from solid - pattern taken from period Brooklands photos.
I will cover many of the restoration tasks in teh next article, but build went on hold shortly after this photo taken, to allow for setting up of CNC lathe