It was just over 75 years ago that T.E. Lawrence, aka “Lawrence of Arabia” died as a result of a motorcycle accident. Lawrence, just recently retired from the military at age 46, was on his way from Cloud’s Hill, his cottage in Dorset, to the nearby military base, Bovington Camp, to send a telegram, when he encountered two boys on bicycles in a dip in the road, swerved to avoid them, and crashed. Knowing Lawrence, he was probably going pretty fast, and, as today’s newspapers would emphasize, he was not wearing a helmet. He died from head injuries six days later on 19 May 1935.
TEL was a motorcycle nut. The bike he was riding when he crashed, a Brough Superior SS100, was capable of speeds over 100 mph. Lawrence named it George VII, after the King, and was the seventh Brough that he owned. His bike(s) actually had two names, George and Boanerges, or “son of thunder”.
“He ambles at forty-five and when roaring his utmost surpasses the hundred. A skittish motor-bike with a touch of blood in it is better than all the riding animals on earth because of its logical extension of our faculties, and the hint, the provocation, to excess conferred by its honeyed untiring smoothness. Because Boa loves me, he gives me five more miles of speed than a stranger would get from him.”
Lawrence had studied archeology at Oxford, and was digging in the Middle East when WWI broke out. Because of his knowledge of the area’s geography he was recruited for military intelligence in Cairo and was assigned to making maps. Then because of his knowledge of Arabic and the local customs and culture he was given the assignment to meet with one of the local tribal leaders, Faisal, to assess the his potential as an ally for the British in their attempts to drive the Turks from Arabia. Lawrence soon gained the Arabs’ trust, became one of them, and organized the often warring tribes to join together to defeat the Turks. But by the end of the war he was disillusioned, having promised the Arabs their own land if they could win it, when he knew that the British and French had already made other plans.
After the war he wrote about his adventure in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which he self published in a limited edition, exquisitely illustrated and printed, with each copy loosing money. To recoup the loses he allowed a mass market version to be published in the U.S. with excess proceeds going to a military survivors’ benefit fund.
Assuaging his guilt, and hoping to hide in anonymity, he joined the fledgling British Air Force under an assumed name, Shaw, and as a low-grade aircraft hand. While in the Air Force he wrote the notes that he later published as The Mint, following his own and others’ experiences going through basic training and being turned into military men. The open secret of his true identity was eventually revealed in the press, forcing his dismissal from the Air Force, but he was allowed, after calling in favours from highly placed military and government people, to join the Army and serve at an isolated outpost in India. It was here that he, in his spare time, translated the Odyssey which I’ve mentioned earlier.
Returning again to Britain, he was assigned to a unit engaged in boat rescue of air crash survivors, which led to his developing a series of high-speed rescue boats. It was after this service that he finally retired.
Despite his desired poverty, Lawrence was more than happy to accept, as a gift from Charlotte Shaw, the wife of the playwright George Bernard Shaw, a Brough Superior. The bike would have otherwise cost him a year’s military pay. This was the one luxury he allowed himself, and was his one source of pleasure other than his books. He rode whenever he had leave from camp, all over Britain, often giving rides to his camp mates. In a famous passage from The Mint he writes of racing an aeroplane:
The extravagance in which my surplus emotion expressed itself lay on the road. So long as roads were tarred blue and straight; not hedged; and empty and dry, so long I was rich.
Nightly I’d run up from the hangar, upon the last stroke of work, spurring my tired feet to be nimble. The very movement refreshed them, after the day-long restraint of service. In five minutes my bed would be down, ready for the night: in four more I was in breeches and puttees, pulling on my gauntlets as I walked over to my bike, which lived in a garage-hut, opposite. Its tyres never wanted air, its engine had a habit of starting at second kick: a good habit, for only by frantic plunges upon the starting pedal could my puny weight force the engine over the seven atmospheres of its compression.
Boanerges’ first glad roar at being alive again nightly jarred the huts of Cadet College into life. ‘There he goes, the noisy bugger,’ someone would say enviously in every flight. It is part of an airman’s profession to be knowing with engines: and a thoroughbred engine is our undying satisfaction. The camp wore the virtue of my Brough like a flower in its cap. Tonight Tug and Dusty came to the step of our hut to see me off. ‘Running down to Smoke, perhaps?’ jeered Dusty; hitting at my regular game of London and back for tea on fine Wednesday afternoons.
Boa is a top-gear machine, as sweet in that as most single-cylinders in middle. I chug lordlily past the guard-room and through the speed limit at no more than sixteen. Round the bend, past the farm, and the way straightens. Now for it. The engine’s final development is fifty-two horse-power. A miracle that all this docile strength waits behind one tiny lever for the pleasure of my hand.
Another bend: and I have the honour of one of England’ straightest and fastest roads. The burble of my exhaust unwound like a long cord behind me. Soon my speed snapped it, and I heard only the cry of the wind which my battering head split and fended aside. The cry rose with my speed to a shriek: while the air’s coldness streamed like two jets of iced water into my dissolving eyes. I screwed them to slits, and focused my sight two hundred yards ahead of me on the empty mosaic of the tar’s gravelled undulations.
Like arrows the tiny flies pricked my cheeks: and sometimes a heavier body, some house-fly or beetle, would crash into face or lips like a spent bullet. A glance at the speedometer: seventy-eight. Boanerges is warming up. I pull the throttle right open, on the top of the slope, and we swoop flying across the dip, and up-down up-down the switchback beyond: the weighty machine launching itself like a projectile with a whirr of wheels into the air at the take-off of each rise, to land lurchingly with such a snatch of the driving chain as jerks my spine like a rictus.
Once we so fled across the evening light, with the yellow sun on my left, when a huge shadow roared just overhead. A Bristol Fighter, from Whitewash Villas, our neighbour aerodrome, was banking sharply round. I checked speed an instant to wave: and the slip-stream of my impetus snapped my arm and elbow astern, like a raised flail. The pilot pointed down the road towards Lincoln. I sat hard in the saddle, folded back my ears and went away after him, like a dog after a hare. Quickly we drew abreast, as the impulse of his dive to my level exhausted itself.
The next mile of road was rough. I braced my feet into the rests, thrust with my arms, and clenched my knees on the tank till its rubber grips goggled under my thighs. Over the first pot-hole Boanerges screamed in surprise, its mud-guard bottoming with a yawp upon the tyre. Through the plunges of the next ten seconds I clung on, wedging my gloved hand in the throttle lever so that no bump should close it and spoil our speed. Then the bicycle wrenched sideways into three long ruts: it swayed dizzily, wagging its tail for thirty awful yards. Out came the clutch, the engine raced freely: Boa checked and straightened his head with a shake, as a Brough should.
The bad ground was passed and on the new road our flight became birdlike. My head was blown out with air so that my ears had failed and we seemed to whirl soundlessly between the sun-gilt stubble fields. I dared, on a rise, to slow imperceptibly and glance sideways into the sky. There the Bif was, two hundred yards and more back. Play with the fellow? Why not? I slowed to ninety: signalled with my hand for him to overtake. Slowed ten more: sat up. Over he rattled. His passenger, a helmeted and goggled grin, hung out of the cock-pit to pass me the ‘Up yer’ Raf randy greeting.
They were hoping I was a flash in the pan, giving them best. Open went my throttle again. Boa crept level, fifty feet below: held them: sailed ahead into the clean and lonely country. An approaching car pulled nearly into its ditch at the sight of our race. The Bif was zooming among the trees and telegraph poles, with my scurrying spot only eighty yards ahead. I gained though, gained steadily: was perhaps five miles an hour the faster. Down went my left hand to give the engine two extra dollops of oil, for fear that something was running hot: but an overhead Jap twin, super-tuned like this one, would carry on to the moon and back, unfaltering.
We drew near the settlement. A long mile before the first houses I closed down and coasted to the cross-roads by the hospital. Bif caught up, banked, climbed and turned for home, waving to me as long as he was in sight. Fourteen miles from camp, we are, here: and fifteen minutes since I left Tug and Dusty at the hut door.
I let in the clutch again, and eased Boanerges down the hill along the tram-lines through the dirty streets and up-hill to the aloof cathedral, where it stood in frigid perfection above the cowering close. No message of mercy in Lincoln. Our God is a jealous God: and man’s very best offering will fall disdainfully short of worthiness, in the sight of Saint Hugh and his angels.
Remigius, earthy old Remigius, looks with more charity on and Boanerges. I stabled the steel magnificence of strength and speed at his west door and went in: to find the organist practising something slow and rhythmical, like a multiplication table in notes on the organ. The fretted, unsatisfying and unsatisfied lace-work of choir screen and spandrels drank in the main sound. Its surplus spilled thoughtfully into my ears.
By then my belly had forgotten its lunch, my eyes smarted and streamed. Out again, to sluice my head under the White Hart’s yard-pump. A cup of real chocolate and a muffin at the teashop: and Boa and I took the Newark road for the last hour of daylight. He ambles at forty-five and when roaring his utmost, surpasses the hundred. A skittish motor-bike with a touch of blood in it is better than all the riding animals on earth, because of its logical extension of our faculties, and the hint, the provocation, to excess conferred by its honeyed untiring smoothness. Because Boa loves me, he gives me five more miles of speed than a stranger would get from him.
At Nottingham I added sausages from my wholesaler to the bacon which I’d bought at Lincoln: bacon so nicely sliced that each rasher meant a penny. The solid pannier-bags behind the saddle took all this and at my next stop a (farm) took also a felt-hammocked box of fifteen eggs. Home by Sleaford, our squalid, purse-proud, local village. Its butcher had six penn’orth of dripping ready for me. For months have I been making my evening round a marketing, twice a week, riding a hundred miles for the joy of it and picking up the best food cheapest, over half the country side.
Today, a Brough Superior SS100 from the mid 1930s, if you can find one, would sell for more than $100,000. It is one of the most desirable of all collectable motorcycles, not just because of its engineering, performance, and beauty, but because of its role in the life and death of Lawrence of Arabia.