Dermot Walshe — Motorcycle Illustrator

Here’s a column that first appeared on the pages of Cycle Canada about four years ago — still one of my favourites. It’s a reminder that motorcycles, and the passion for them, transcends the metal. Dermot Walshe continues to draw, mostly kids cartoons, but he has plans for a motorcycle feature in the future. Enjoy!

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Image courtesy of Dermot Walshe.

 

With a stroke of his pen Dermot Walshe dramatically moves a motorcycle from the road or the racetrack to the printed page.

Walshe, of Oakville, Ontario is a man of talent. Armed with a pencil, pen and ink, and a computer he creates amazing images. Just have a look at the accompanying panel drawn by Walshe of Stanley Woods on a Cotton motorcycle circa 1922 racing in his first Isle of Man TT. It’s perfect.

Born in 1962 in Toronto, Walshe vividly remembers the first time he ever saw a motorcycle. He grew up on the outskirts of the city, and from a small stand at the side of the highway he would sell rhubarb to passing motorists. One afternoon, Walshe heard thunder. He looked up to the sky, and there wasn’t a cloud. Then, a big Harley-Davidson roared by, and another, followed by a B.S.A., and more – likely all big American v-twins and British iron. To young Walshe, the procession seemed to last half an hour. In all likelihood, it was less than a minute or two. But the sight of that passing gang was seared in his memory.

Not long after Walshe determined he would get some money together and buy a bike. But that didn’t happen until his first year of university, when he dropped out of landscape architecture and bought a used Yamaha SR185. Walshe said he bummed around Toronto on this single-cylinder machine with push-button starting, and he crashed it quite a few times before he needed a replacement.

From that point, Walshe’s motorcycling career has been nothing short of interesting. Between 1989 and 1995 he raced vintage machines including a Yamaha SRX600 and a Honda CB350, and said some fast laps at Mosport and drafting at Daytona were among the highlights. He’s traveled by scooter around Indonesia, and by his count has bought, sold, ridden – or destroyed – more than 50 motorcycles such as a Norton 850 Commando, a Ducati 860 GT and a 1950 B.S.A. Gold Star. Aesthetically, pre-War motorcycles with a rigid frame and a girder fork are his favourites, although he just bought himself a 1977 Yamaha XS650.

As for art, Walshe was always handy with a pencil and paper. He’d sketch and doodle and draw comic strips, and planned to do something creative with his life. Landscape architecture wasn’t it. While in that program, however, he met another student who commented on his drawing talent, and told him he should be in animation. Animation? He got a big shock when he learned what that was.

“That’s when I had my first inkling that animated cartoons were actually manufactured,” Walshe said. “I never really thought that you didn’t take a camera to cartoon land. I was kind of naive that way.” He attended an animation program at Sheridan College but never finished. Eventually, Walshe put his not insignificant talents to commercial use as a storyboard artist –someone who must quickly and accurately draw out the scenes of a movie, television show or commercial. He’s worked for the likes of Disney on films such as Mulan, Return to Neverland and Little Mermaid 2. For most of the last decade he’s worked on a freelance basis (click here to see samples).

During periods of downtime Walshe likes to dabble with projects that are of interest to him. Such a project is the tale of 17-year old Irishman Stanley Woods, who struggled in 1922 against factory teams and experienced riders to finish in fifth place aboard a Cotton motorcycle during his first Isle of Man TT race.

“Stanley Woods inspires me,” Walshe said. “He had a lot of audacity and he refused to give up. He was a gentleman racer who played fair but took advantage of everything he could.” Woods, in fact, had raced his father’s Harley-Davidson before deciding he could take on the TT. He wrote to most major British motorcycle manufacturers, requesting a ride, and it was Cotton who took on the youngster. His creative requests helped him land the Cotton, but nothing was going to come easily. During his 1922 outing on the 350cc Cotton, just about everything that could go wrong, did. He botched the start, having to stop to retrieve some fallen spark plugs. The machine caught fire in the pits. Not long after putting out the flames and back on the circuit, Woods had to stop and wrestle with the valves thanks to a broken push rod.

Recently, Walshe drew up eight pages of Woods’ story, keeping his eye on the clock to determine how long it might take him to produce a 100-plus page graphic novel, or even an animated film. For now, it’s simply an idea that’s percolating. Walshe ideally needs someone to write a cheque before he could spend a year on such a project, but it’s one that’s dear to him.

“Most motorcycle content (currently being drawn) is about booze and babes,” Walshe said. “But I think there’s more to the story of motorcycling than that.”

The Strange Death of the British Motorcycle Industry: in review

BOOK COVER

As the title suggests,  Steve Koerner’s book shines more light on the plight of the English makers.

When Argentina shut its doors to British motor imports, the bell tolled louder for the English motorcycle industry.

In 1948 the South American country imposed strict import quotas and significantly higher tariffs. Losing this single important market helped cause Vincent, the English manufacturer of sporting v-twins, to misfire, and ultimately end in 1955 with the final motorcycle to roll from the Stevenage factory.

Such facts are discovered in a new book written by Vancouver Island historian Steve Koerner. The Strange Death of the British Motor Cycle Industry, published by Crucible Books, documents the downfall of the Brit-bike industry.

Why another book about English cycle makers? Several already investigate the topic, including Bert Hopwood’s Whatever Happened to the British Motorcycle Industry? and Hughie Hancox’s Tales of Triumph Motorcycles and the Meriden Factory. Most recently, Abe Aamidor tried tackling the subject in Shooting Star: The Rise & Fall of the British Motorcycle Industry.

Koerner attended University of Warwick in England, graduating with a PhD in Social History. Enthusiastic about things British, Koerner’s thesis investigated the history of the nation’s motorcycle industry. Rewritten for a broader audience, his thesis became the book, which is comprehensible and not an academic treatise.

Steve Koerner visiting the  Triumph Meriden factory, June 1979.

Photo copyright Steve Koerner. This photo was taken in June 1979 when Koerner was invited to tour the Meriden factory by its Workers’ Coop owners.

What Koerner accessed that nobody else seems to have are the annals of the Motor Cycle Industry Association in the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick library. “This is an amazing archive of information,” Koerner says of his original research, conducted in the 1990s. “It took me two years to get through it all. It contains materials about the industry and trade federation representing most of the manufacturing companies.”

Based in Coventry, the association was founded in the late 1800s, and archived information includes minutes, attendance books, guard-books, copies of telegrams, membership lists, periodicals, press cuttings, show catalogues and photographs.

Koerner mined more than just the association archive, also consulting surviving company papers of B.S.A. and Triumph, trade journals including the Cycle and Motor Cycle Trader magazine and a raft of documents kept at the British National Archives.  “I don’t think any other historian of the British motorcycle industry is aware of these sources, never mind used them in a book on the subject,” Koerner says. Indeed, 67 pages of the total 350 in The Strange Death of the British Motor Cycle Industry include detailed notes and references.

“I haven’t spent a day of my life working in a factory or motorcycle retail environment,” Koerner says. “But I think I bring a different perspective to the (British motorcycle industry). It’s a business history when you get right down to it.”

Steve Koerner and his 1977 Triumph Bonneville, somewhere in the Kootenays, circa June 1978

Photo copyright Steve Koerner. In the B.C. Kootenays with his 1977 Triumph Bonneville sometime in 1978.

In Koerner’s ideal transportation world everyone would drive an Austin Cambridge or ride a Matchless G80, and he remains a devout fan of British motor products. That’s because Vancouver Island in the 1950s and 1960s was a different place. Ties to old Britannia were evident, and the corridor between Victoria and Cowichan Valley teemed with British motor products.

Born into this Canadian microcosm of British culture, Koerner became immersed in English vehicles. Apart from a couple of Chevrolets, his parents drove mainly British cars, including a Hillman Minx, a Humber Super Snipe and a Jaguar XJ6.  “British vehicles have always been a part of the family, and remain so to this day,” he says.

An avid motorcyclist, Koerner rode a 1970 B.S.A. Thunderbolt around Vancouver from 1976 to 1978. “It was a vile beast,” he recalls, but that experience didn’t prevent him from owning a string of Brit-bikes, including a new 1977 Triumph Bonneville. He shipped the Triumph to England, riding to the TT races and visiting the Meriden Triumph factory in 1979.

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Photo by  Jurgen Pokrandt. Of his ride, Koerner says: “My Norton originally came out of the factory as a 1974 Roadster model with a red-coloured tank.  Several years ago I changed it over to an Interstate model with a used tank (metal and factory original) and seat (both of which I found via the Norton Owners’ Club in Britain) along with new side-panels which come from Fair-Spares in Burnt Bridge near Birmingham.  The tank is painted traditional Norton silver-grey.  No, I realise the paint scheme is not correct for 1974 but I think it looks pretty good, despite, no doubt, objections from the purists.”

He currently owns a 1974 Norton Commando Mk. IIA Roadster, which he’s converted to Interstate specification. There’s also a 1958 Matchless G80 in the shed. However, the bike he now rides most is a Harley-Davidson Road King.

Koerner is as much a British motorcycle enthusiast as he is an academic, but he doesn’t wax nostalgic about the industry. He is critical in hindsight, and although players in the trade aren’t identified as heroes or villains, it’s fairly obvious who they are.

Steve Koerner in front of old Norton factory, Bracebridge St., B'ham, circa autumn 1992

Courtesy Steve Koerner. This is the same Norton seen in the previous photo, and was taken at the Bracebridge Street factory in the early 1990s.

Managing director of Ariel and Triumph and later chairman of BSA, Jack Sangster, is a hero. “He was competent and successful,” Koerner says of Sangster. “I think he came out of the womb on a motorcycle, and he was effectively a talent scout, hiring Edward Turner and Val Page.”

Bernard Docker, chairman and managing director of B.S.A. from the late 1940s to 1956, is a villain. Koerner describes him as ‘inept and scandal-prone’.

B.S.A. was a massive company, with several divisions including Daimler – a low-production luxury limousine maker. Docker wanted the firm to break into the far more competitive middle class car sector, which in the 1950s was largely dominated by Humber, Jaguar and Rover. Moving Daimler downscale was a high-risk strategy, poorly conceived and executed with millions of pounds wasted. The results almost destroyed both Daimler and its parent B.S.A.

“If only a small amount of money had gone into motorcycles instead of cars,” Koerner says. “B.S.A. never recovered from drowning in red ink, and when Sangster took over he had to sell off assets to keep the company liquid.”

Koerner investigates many facets of the British industry, which seems to have built itself into a corner after the Second World War as it supplied mainly sporting motorcycles to a young, male dominated crowd. But the industry had tried post-1918 to design and market an ‘Everyman’ motorcycle, one that would appeal to a broader audience, including women. The scooter was the answer.

Many of these new products were either designed or built by the aviation industry (after the First World War, airplane manufacturers were looking to expand their markets and utilize their manufacturing capabilities). Vehicles such as the Skootamota and the Reynolds Runabout, and even the Ner-A-Car, which was engineered by an American but first built in Britain, couldn’t find traction.

Of the machines produced, Koerner says, “(I think) these British scooters failed because, although often innovative in concept, they were undermined by poor design work and engineering. I suspect the companies which made them just didn’t have enough experience in making motorcycles/scooters to make a success of it.”

Bike on assembly line, Meriden July 1979, 1

Photo copyright Steve Koerner. This assembly line image was taken in June 1979.

Crippled by the early 1970s there is no easy answer regarding the downfall of the British industry, but Koerner’s book is one of the better attempts at an in-depth exploration. “Life is complicated,” Koerner says. “And there aren’t simple explanations. It wasn’t all Bernard Docker’s fault, nor was it German or Japanese manufacturers, or the attitude of management. It’s simply not that simple to explain.”

Inside Motorcycles, Britain’s Mighty Single, by Greg Williams

This feature first appeared in Canada’s Inside Motorycles, April 2009.

All photographs are courtesy Amee Reehal.

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In its heyday Britain’s motorcycle industry was famous for producing single cylinder machines.

Every major maker, from B.S.A. to Velocette, offered a single in its range. Some of the big, powerful singles were simple workaday machines, and often pulled a sidecar. Others, however, were built for more lively action. Such is the case with the B.S.A. Gold Star.

B.S.A. named their Gold Star after the star-shaped gold metal badge awarded to racers who lapped Brooklands track at speeds faster than 100 mph. In 1937 racer Wal Handley took a B.S.A. Empire Star to a 107.5 mph lap — and B.S.A. decided to take advantage of the marketing opportunity.

Manufactured between 1938 and 1963 the Gold Star was available with either a 350cc or a 500cc power plant. Each engine was assembled by hand, and it was an impressive-looking all-alloy motor with overhead valves. Each unit was tested on a dynamometer before dispatch, and a Gold Star buyer was given the printed results so they were aware of their machine’s full horsepower potential (around 38 h.p. for the 1958 machine featured here). That was quite a figure back then, and the Gold Star would have been today’s Suzuki Hayabusa or Honda CBR1000RR.

Gold Star models are recognizable by their alphanumeric designations. There were only 500 Gold Stars built in 1938 and 1939, and production didn’t pick up post-War until 1949. Gold Stars built from 1949 to 1952 were ZB32GS (the 32 denotes the 350cc version) and ZB34GS (here, the 34 denotes the 500cc ‘cycle). In ’53 they were prefixed BB (as in, BB32 or BB34GS). An improvement in handling was gained that year when the frame became fully suspended, with a swingarm and twin rear shocks. Then, in 1954, there was the CB, and in 1955 the DB series debuted. A redesigned cylinder head was introduced in 1956, and after that all Gold Stars were either DBD32GS or DBD34GS. Among Gold Star enthusiasts, it is the DBD models that generate the most interest.
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Calgary motorcyclist and collector Charles Bruce almost lost interest in two-wheelers after his first adventure in riding. He says he wanted to look cool with a leather jacket and a motorcycle, so Bruce and a friend went half on an ex-Army surplus Harley-Davidson 45. The machine had a suicide clutch and a hand shift, and Bruce didn’t like the ride. But he was willing to give motorcycles a second chance, and in 1967 he’d been working in Nakusp, B.C., when he saw a motorcycle shop in nearby Castlegaar was auctioning off some machines. He had an entire month’s pay — $300 — in his pocket and went to buy a Honda 305 Scrambler. It sold for more than $300, and that’s when a tired looking 500cc B.S.A. rolled onto the auction block.

“I remember a kid riding a big single-cylinder bike up Centre Street hill (in Calgary), and always loved the sound that bike made,” Bruce says. “So when the B.S.A. came up, I thought that might be neat.”

So, he bid, and for $275 he was the owner of what was titled as a 1961 B.S.A. DBD34GS Gold Star. Later, Bruce learned the Gold Star was a 1958 model, and had probably been raced for three years before being titled for road use. The bike was missing the left hand foot peg, and had 10″ apehanger handlebars and a red-painted light bulb for a taillight. With the $25 Bruce had left over he bought a cat-face tail light lens to cover the bulb, ordered a foot peg and a set of low handlebars. He did manage to ride the B.S.A. home that day, where he took it apart and waited for the parts to arrive. One week later, he collected his pieces and put the Gold Star back on the road. Bruce rode the motorcycle for the rest of 1967 and into 1968, but after that the bike was parked and taken to pieces.
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He sent the motor to Nicholson Bros. Motorcycles in Saskatoon where the bottom end was rebuilt, and the head was worked over. Once Bruce got the motor back he didn’t go much further with the Gold Star. In fact, in 1985, he sold the Gold Star to a friend. During this time a number of parts were sourced including a larger four-gallon gas tank to replace the original two-gallon unit, and the special rear set footrests were found. Before any major work was completed, however, Bruce’s friend wanted to sell the Gold Star.

“My wife thought I was having an affair, I was so distraught about the Gold Star being sold,” Bruce says. “She said I was moody and wasn’t talking much.” So in 1987 he bought the Gold Star back, and for the second time put the machine on the road. Now in clubman trim, the Gold Star features the rear set foot pegs and the low, clip on handlebars that give the motorcycle its racing stance.

A special Eddie Dow (Dow was a U.K. Gold Star guru) 8″ twin-leading shoe front brake was sourced and installed. The machine is fitted with a racing RRT2 close-ratio gearbox, modified with a different first gear and a Triumph four-spring clutch. With the racing first gear in the ‘box, Bruce had to slip the clutch up to 50 mph just to get underway. Now, he can at least get started, but there’s a big gap between first and second gears.

Bruce researched his Gold Star through the Gold Star Owner’s Club, and they were able to confirm his engine was tested on B.S.A.’s dyno on Jan. 24, 1958, and released for sale Feb. 3, 1958. The bike went to Deeley’s in Vancouver. Bruce is almost positive the machine was a racer, as it has a special tab welded on the frame that would have held a centre mounted oil tank. That telltale tab would not have been part of a stock Gold Star frame. Gold Stars are rather famous for the muffler that is fitted, which is little more than a megaphone with a special cap welded to the end. The engine exhaust note will ‘twitter’ on the overrun.

Bruce doesn’t ride the Gold Star in the city, preferring to exercise it out on open country roads where he can back off the throttle and enjoy the tunes. Of the exhaust note, he says, “It does sound like a bird in a cage, it really does twitter.”
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