Tuesday, October 05, 2010


In a funny twist of lingering history, the FIM book of Motorcycle Land Speed Records notes that on 6th November, 1930, Joseph S. Wright took his Temple-O.E.C. (Osborne Engineering Company) with supercharged JAP 994cc engine to 150.7 mph down the rod-straight concrete pavé at Cork, Ireland. The 1930 record was a significant advance on the Ernst Henne/BMW record of 137.58mph, achieved only weeks prior at Ingolstadt, Germany, on a supercharged 750cc ohv machine.  But in this case, the history books are all wrong.


 (Click on the image above to see the film from the Record attempt)
The O.E.C. was an unusual motorcycle, using 'duplex' steering; an OEC trademark, although not all of their bikes used this system.  The advantages of this arcane steering system on these early motorcycles was great stability at speed, plus the possibility of front wheel suspension which didn't alter the steering geometry when compressed by bumps, giving totally 'neutral' steering under all conditions.  In practical use, the OEC chassis was reported to be very stable indeed, although resistant to steering input!  So, while potholes and broken surfaces brought no front wheel deflection, neither did a hard push on the handlebars...perfect for a speed record chassis actually.

A pair of machines was present at Cork that day; the OEC which had been prepared by veteran speed tuner Claude Temple, and a 'reserve' machine in case it all went pear-shaped.  The second-string machine was a supercharged Zenith-JAP, of similar engine configuration to the OEC, but in a mid-1920s Zenith '8/45' racing chassis.  Zenith at that date was technically out of business, so no valuable publicity could be gained for the factory from a record run, nor bonuses paid, nor salaries for any helpful staff who built/maintained the machine.  While Zenith would be rescued from the trashbin of the Depression in a few months, and carry on making motorcycles until 1948 in fact, the reorganized company, with its star-making General Manager Freddie Barnes, never sponsored another racer at Brooklands or built more of their illustrious special 'one off' singles and v-twins, which did so well at speed events around the world - from England to Argentina!
Joe Wright had already taken the Motorcycle Land Speed Record with the OEC, back on August 31st at Arpajon, France, at 137.32mph (see top photo with news story), but Henne and his BMW had the cheek to snatch the Record by a mere .3mph, on Septermber 20th. That November day was unlucky for Wright and the team, as the Woodruff key which fixed the crankshaft sprocket sheared off, and the OEC was unable to complete the required two-direction timed runs to take the Record.  As you can see in the photo below, the engine mainshaft drove the supercharger as well as the primary chain/gearbox, and was a one-off for which there was presumably no replacement, with probably no time for repair in any case.

Supercharging a v-twin motorcycle is a difficult business, as the compressor blows fuel/air mix at a constant rate into a shared inlet manifold for both cylinders, but as the cylinders aren't evenly spaced physically (as they are on a BMW, for instance), one cylinder inevitably gets a much bigger 'puff' of built-up pressure.  Figuring out how to accommodate a different charge for each cylinder led to all sorts of compromises, from restricting the inlet port of one cylinder, to the use of different camshafts/compression ratios/valve sizes for each cylinder, in an effort to keep one cylinder from doing all the 'work' and overheating.  It was an imperfect science, as supercharging was still relatively new to motorcycles, and only a handful of blown motorcycles were truly 'sorted out' for racing or record-breaking before WW2.  Typically, these had flat-twin or four-cylinder engines, with even intake pulses!  (Although, of course Moto Guzzi, typical of their genius at the time, had a lovely 250cc ohc blown single-cylinder which worked a treat).

With the OEC out of action, and FIM timekeepers being paid by the day, as well as the complicated arrangements with the city of Cork to close their road (and presumably police the area), a World Speed Record was an expensive proposition, and the luxury of a 'second machine' (above) was in fact very practical...although this may be the only instance in which the second machine was of a completely different make.  Imagine Ernst Henne bringing a supercharged DKW as a backup for his BMW; simply unthinkable!

But, such was the English motorcycle industry at the time; several very small factories (Brough Superior, Zenith) competed on friendly terms for national prestige the in record books, while the largest makes (BSA, Triumph, Ariel), nearly ignored top-tier speed competitions such as the Grands Prix and Land Speed Records.

In the event, Wright did indeed set a new Motorcycle Land Speed Record with his trusty Zenith (above, setting the record, quite clearly on a different machine than the OEC below) at 150.7mph, although the press photographs and film crews of the time were solely focused on the magnificent but ill-fated OEC, as Zenith was out of business and OEC paying the bills.  Scandalously, all present played along with the misdirection that the OEC had been the machine burning up the timing strips, and the Zenith was quickly hidden away from history, a situation which still exists in the FIM record books!

Photographs from the actual event show the Zenith lurking in the background (above), while Joe Wright poses on the OEC, preparing himself for a blast of 150mph wind by taping his leather gloves to his hard-knit woolen sweater, and wrapping more tape around his turtleneck and ankles to stop the wind stretching them, and dragging down his top speed.  His custom-made teardrop aluminum helmet is well-documented, but the protective abilities of his wool trousers and sweater at such a speed are dubious at best...but there were no safety requirements in those days, you risked your neck and that was that.  Nowadays, when any young squiddie can hit 150mph exactly 8 seconds after parting with cash for a new motorcycle, Wright's efforts might seem quaint, but he was exploring the outer boundaries of motorcycling at the time, and was a brave man indeed.

The record-breaking Joe Wright Zenith was a rumor for decades, becoming a documented story only in the 1980s via the classic motorcycling rags, the whereabouts or existence of the Actual machine known only to very few.  I've had the great pleasure of making the Zenith's acquaintance, it does still exist, and is currently undergoing restoration, to be revealed when the time is ripe [Update: the ex-Joe Wright Zenith was shown at Vintage-Revival Monthléry in 2011]

As the OEC also still exists and is in beautiful restored condition, a meeting of the two machines is almost a certainty, at the right event.  If motorcycles could talk, I bet the Zenith would have something to say to the OEC...
The Joe Wright supercharged Zenith record-breaker lurking in its basement today...


mp said...

I'm so jelous, You get to see the best freakin bikes. I love zenith (super kim = my favourite) and I love this bludy story. Typical, so he went 150.7 on the zenith and 150 on the oec,then posed on the slow grid, am I right? I am amazed that the bike exist's still. Exellent.
BTW FYI I have that top pic on my blog http://corpsesfromhell.blogspot.com/2009/10/supercharged-motorcycles-good-old-days.html

richard said...

G'day Vintagent

Bloody awesome stuff, but I think the steering is duplex not hub centre. How that works is up to the motorcycle gods.

Cheers Richard

ps. only need two sites vintagent & occhio lungo

Greg said...

Brilliant, I had no idea that bike still existed! I should check your site more often!

I'm hell busy at the moment but will check back and talk to you soon.

Anonymous said...

Hi Paul,
just finished reading the great article on the OEC/ZENITH speed record,and am amazed how
you come up with these stories! and of course the photo,s !! I have collected data on J.S.Wright
but have never been able to find out his life story,birth place etc,do you have any details that
you could write an article about the man.
Keep up the good work.
Regards, Don.

Anonymous said...

Hi Paul,

My name is Louis Costa. I've been planning on designing a motorcycle with the front end / frame of an OEC temple and I have a few sketches of it in one of my books. I was wondering if you'd be interested in checking it out or possibly updating the recent post with an image of it. i plan to build a complete 3D model featuring this front-end / frame design. I also read once on a website that a group of people 3D scanned the OEC and built another one out of the scans and it was put into a museum apparently. If interested in checking out the sketches i have, Let me know! Feel free to call my cell as well. 516-784-9307

Alongside all this, I've redesigned the BMW Rennsport last summer and it won the 2009 Innovation contest. Here is a link to a video I used to present it:

I'd like to suggest making a post about the BMW Rennsport because that bike has to be the coolest motorcycle to date in my eyes!

Anyway, hope to hear back soon.

-Louis Costa

Anonymous said...

Hi Paul,

You are such an excellent story teller.. I wonder if you might consider telling the
story of Mike Hailwood's victory over Barry Sheene @ the IOM..........1978?? World
Champion vs. a "retired" 37 year old...Suzuki square 4/two stroke vs. V twin Ducati...

Years ago, Cycle World ran a version of this story... I was captivated... I can just
envision your version.........The stuff of legends..............Please consider....

MC Enthusiast,
And fan of your writing

occhiolungo said...

Hi Paul In the October 2010 edition of the VMCC journal, founder Titch Allen tells some other aspects of this story. He ends with a second hand account of how the Zenith was sunk to the bottom of the Irish Sea. It arrived in my mailbox last week, let me know if you want a scan.


VMCC Sprint said...

Hi Paul, Pete has just beaten me to it! I was about to confirm Titch Allen's view was that the Zenith was Dumped Overboard with the objective of hiding any 'Evidence'! I discussed this with Titch some years ago and he was firmly of the opinion that this was a fact! As a 'Zenith' fan, I would be delighted if this dumping overboard scenario could be disproved! Looking forward to your follow-up on this.

Best regards,
VMCC Sprint Section

vintagent said...

Hi Pete and Chris,
While the story of the 'Zenith Overboard' is entertaining, it is also preposterous. None present could afford or would be inclined to destroy a very expensive motorcycle which also happened to be the fastest in the world at that moment by a significant margin. A more thorough tale of intrigue would have involved scores of dead Irish witnesses to the event, and films confiscated, threats in FIM timekepers, etc. It just doesn't add up in England, 1930. Maybe Germany 1940, or Russia 1950, where I'm sure we could scare up some true stories involving cloak and dagger Sports.
Dr. Joe Bayley (of 'The Vintage Years at Brooklands' - my favorite m/c book), in a letter of June 1994 to the VMCC states that the Wright Zenith resided in Austria, where it
sits today in fact, with the same owner. I'm more inclined to believe his word than a fabulous tall tale.

occhiolungo said...

It is a preposterous story. It would be great to grill the esteemed founder Titch and his sources, but he is dead now. Maybe the owner of the current bike could produce the motor and frame numbers and maybe they could be correlated by the FIM to show the authenticity of the bike... Without that, who should we believe, a second hand story by Joe Bailey or a second hand story by Titch Allen?

It doesn't really matter to me! :) I'd just love to see it back on the road used as the maker intended.

Anonymous said...

Glad you sorted the steering typo Paul, your welcome.
You can see this motorcycle in action on the first DVD of Castrols History of Motorcycle Racing by Duke. That bike has JAP on the rocker covers and tank?

Cheers Richard

Anonymous said...

Paul ;
Loved the article on the Land Speed Record attempt at Cork as I live 30miles from Cork. The concrete pavé is know locally as the Carrigrohane Straight and was used for many years after as part of the Munster 100 road race. The attached photo is of Crommie McCandless in action winning the 1953 event. What better place than Cork for the two bikes to meet again? Maybe even having a blast down the road again.
Pa Houlihan

Josh said...

Stopped by after a while and what a great story. Paul you always seem to have something special in that bag of surprises. Really envy the fact that you get to see all these machines. Great job. Please keep them coming.