Managing your motorcycle, 1903 style...

Most riders of British bikes would have encountered, at some time, an edition of Motor Cycles and How to Manage Them. Full of useful tips on maintaining your bike, dressing for winter, riding on ice and so on, it was produced in numerous editions over more than 50 years. Most of the content remained pretty much unchanged over the life of the publication: front forks aside there is not much to separate a bike from the 30's from a bike from the 50's. But if we go way back to the Sixth Edition, "completely rewritten" by A. J. Wilson and published in 1903, we find a very different style. To set the context, the author launches into poetry:

Cultivate progress while ye may,
Old fashioned sports are lying dying;
And those who drive their motors to-day
To-morrow may be trying flying!

But before the intrepid motorcyclist of the day could try flying, he had to master his De Dion Bouton Tricycle. Quite a challenge! With the motor geared directly to the solid rear axle, and all the control levers mounted on the tank-top, it must have been quite an experience. At least by 1903, there were decent-looking brakes front and rear. But should they fail to work, Wilson advises, check that your motor horn hasn't swung down and fouled the lever!

De Dion tricycle

On the accessory side, there was plenty to choose from. For those seeking company on their adventures, a trailer might be the way to go, or perhaps a forecar attachment to make a 'quad'. It is amazing to think that trailers, with the problems of dust and fumes, were considered a viable means of transporting a passenger. Not to mention the disasters. Anyone who has not read Ixion's marvellous motorcycling reminiscences really should: his recounting of the day his machine performed as if the trailer wasn't there (it wasn't!) is a marvellous read.

De Dion with trailer

If you were worried about what dragging your passenger up hill and down dale might do to your little engine, you could opt for an after-market water-cooling conversion, complete with the water tank/radiator/extra fuel supply to mount behind the seat.

Combination tank and radiator

Brissard water-cooled head

So how do you ride it? The pictures tell it all! Our Mr. Wilson must have been no fool on a trike, for he recounts a near miss when following none other than Hon. C. S. Rolls down a "long stretch of winding road going at a pace that must have bordered on the legal limit". When Rolls "clapped on his brakes" spraying articles - and a passenger! - onto the road in front of the tricycle "...our heart came into our mouth, thinking that we could not avoid crashing into them; but, quicker than we could apply the brake, we slipped off our saddle and stood on the right pedal, just hooking our left knee over the saddle for steadiness" and so on. The resulting "lightning swoop" just got him safely past.

Some things never change!

The lightning swoop...


Copyright Leon Mitchell 1998


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