It is hard to overstate just how radically the internal combustion engine changed the world. It led to a revolution, because they ease and speed with which people could move from point to point caused a radical change in the way they thought about the world. The steam engine had opened up the world of work and communal travel, but its bulk and complexity made it impractical as a means of individual transportation.
The internal combustion engine, in which light oil fractions were burnt by means of controlled explosions inside of steel cylinders, was more compact and more suited to personal transport. When Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach assembled the first "Reitwagen", a vehicle which is a motorcycle despite its own intentions, to paraphrase Melissa Holbrook Pierson. The world fell in love with the freedom which the internal combustion engine brought, and the speed which it made possible.
Of course, once one motorcycle had been built, the second would follow shortly afterwards, and once two of anything exist, the human compulsion to compete takes over. Racing followed motorcycle development as sure as night follows day. And as racing followed motorcycle development, so motorcycle development followed racing, a process which continues to this day.
This story, of how the obsession with speed and competition drove the early years of motorcycle racing, and how those developments both influenced and were influenced by the societies in which they existed, is the subject of Mat Oxley's book, Speed: The one genuinely modern pleasure. In this meticulously researched book, Oxley traces motorcycle racing and competition from its earliest origins, an alcohol-fueled postprandial contest on a bicycle racing oval at the stately (and, post hoc, aptly named) Sheen House, all the way through to the death of the obsessive and eccentric Eric Crudgington Fernihough in Hungary, who died trying to beat the land speed record set by Ernst Henne. It follows the long and winding trail to go from speeds of 44 km/h of that first race to the 279.5 km/h which Henne set in his supercharged 500cc BMW streamliner.
Oxley weaves the history of motorcycle racing through the greater context of the history of the first half of the 20th Century, following the development of engine and motorcycle technology, and the development of the sport of motorcycle racing through the lives and times of some of the major characters who helped push the sport forward. As you might expect from Oxley, it is a book which tells the story of technology through the people and personalities involved.
The focus on personalities helps drive the narrative of the book, making it immensely readable. Each chapter is introduced with a colorful sketch of a rider or scene encapsulating the subject or period which follows, and setting the scene for its historical context. This approach has its pitfalls as well as its benefits: the mind of the reader, and probably the author, tends to linger longer on the more colorful characters, which can lead them to overrate the significance of those personalities. It also inevitably creates the impression of a 'Great Man' theory of history, rather than the more collaborative, evolutionary process which all technological and social developments involve.
That should not detract from the value of this book, however. Much has been written about the history of motorcycle racing since the Second World War in one form or another, but the period leading up to WWII has been greatly overlooked. Speed: The one genuinely modern pleasure provides a fascinating account to fill in that gap.
The book's strength is in providing the historical context for racing. The British parliament outlawed travel at speed on the public highway, effectively banning any form of racing on public roads. Because of that, racing moved to the Isle of Man, whose parliament could set their own laws, which allowed the creation of the TT. It meant that racing had to take place on private racetracks, of which Brooklands became the most important. The book does an outstanding job of making clear just how significant Brooklands was, not just to racing in the UK, but also to the motorcycle industry which grew up around it.
No such restrictions applied on the European mainland, and so racing started out as long distance contests between distant cities. Bikes and cars raced between Paris and Madrid, Paris and Bordeaux, Paris and Berlin. Shorter courses were laid out over public roads between towns and villages all over Europe.
In the US, races were also held over public roads, but the entrepreneurial spirit which pertained at the start of the American Century meant that organizers and promoters realized there was more money to be made by charging admission at custom-built arenas, or board tracks, wooden banked tracks based on velodromes which seated many thousands of spectators. Those arenas created an atmosphere bordering on the gladiatorial, creating rider rivalries as fierce as any which have existed over time.
Inevitably, there was carnage as a result of these contests. Engines failed, bikes broke, riders crashed. Sometimes riders were killed when they were thrown from their machines. Sometimes spectators were killed when bikes careened off track and into the crowds. On the long distance races between cities, animals and, on occasion, children and adults would wander onto the road in front of oncoming bikes and cars. The tolerance of the public for such dangers changed over time, causing the eventual demise of the board tracks and increasing restrictions on how racing and speed trials were organized.
Equally inevitably, the fierce competition pushed development forward. Total loss lubrication systems were replaced by closed systems, the twist grip throttle replaced the complex system of spark advance and fuel flow levers, single gears became gearboxes with multiple ratios, the 'suicide shift' foot clutch and tank-mounted hand lever were replaced by a bar-mounted clutch lever and foot-operated gear selector. Tire durability improved, suspension developed, frames went from reinforced bicycle frames to something conceived as a chassis to contain a motorcycle engine.
That development was intimately linked to both the First World War and the political period of extremist nationalism which rose in its wake. WWI saw the start of aerial warfare, and the needs of fighting aircraft pushed the development of the internal combustion engine forward. After the war, the rise of nationalism and fascism, and the inflated sense of national pride which helped propel it, demanded that its racers and its machines demonstrate their superiority on race tracks and in outright speed trials. The fact that an impoverished individual like Eric Crudgington Fernihough could make life so miserable for the massed might of Nazi Germany throwing all their resources into speed records exposes the ideology of racial superiority for the arrant nonsense it remains to this day.
Oxley goes into some detail about these technical developments, and the selection of photographs in the book give a superb overview of the history of racing, and how the bikes changed over time. At times, however, I felt that the description of technology – however well done – would have benefited from diagrams or drawings explaining long forgotten technology such as how surface vaporizers (the precursor of carburetors) worked, or the array of levers needed to control a motorcycle before the arrival of the twist grip throttle.
Above all, though, it is the cast of characters which make the book so readable. From pioneers such as Charles Jarrott and Georges Bouton, cutthroat racers such as Charlie Collier and Jake De Rosier, giants of the age such as TE Lawrence (for whom Oxley has a special admiration), to engineer racers such as George Brough, Bert Le Vack and the aforementioned Eric Crudgington Fernihough, it is the people who became addicted to the cult of speed on two wheels, and risked, and sometimes lost, everything in pursuit of their addiction which make this book such a pleasure. Oxley's strength as a writer is in conveying what motivated these individuals, and how they turned that motivation into sheer outright speed.
Speed: The one genuinely modern pleasure is a highly readable book and an important addition to the history of motorcycle racing. Though it is not a comprehensive account – that would make for a far duller book than this one – it gives an excellent overview of a period about which most racing fans know very little. It documents the changes which motorcycles and racing have gone through during that period, but it also shows how little of the essence of racing has still changed. The tales of rider rivalries, of technological development, of skulduggery and outright cheating could just as easily have come from the last twenty years of motorcycle competition as from the first forty years. As Oxley shows throughout the book, the bikes might have gotten faster, but the addiction of the riders and the engineers to the pursuit of speed remains as primal now as it was at the start of the 20th Century.
Speed: The one genuinely modern pleasure by Mat Oxley
170 pages. £27.95 plus P&P, available from the author's website. All copies signed by Mat Oxley.