days before he died

Eric Fernihough would discuss what it was like to be the first person to travel 170 mph on two wheels. This is his story in his words, reposted from here.


A quarter of a century ago a very small boy, rummaging in the family wastepaper basket, found a catalogue of motor-cycles and their accessories. He kept it, studied it, and from it learned to name the component parts of the machines he saw. It was dearer than any story book to him, for from it sprung a deep-rooted interest in motor-cycles that filled his life.

Years afterwards he used to break bounds on Sundays and tramp miles from his school to an important road, where, for a brief half-hour, he could sit and watch various makes ascending a certain hill and compare their performances. A military aerodrome was another objective where internal combustion engines could be seen. Often he was late back for roll-call, but that, to one who was obsessed with motor-cycles as he was, did not seem important. For while he wrote out his 'impots' his thoughts were free to fly away to some future time when he himself should own a machine, should tune it, and perhaps, if the gods were very kind, win races on it. That small boy was I.


Those dreams have come true, and other ambitions besides I would not have dared to hope for in those far-off days. the Moon could hardly have seemed unattainable as the motor cycle speed record did then. My first bike was not a fast one. This was fortunate, for it is both absurd and dangerous for anyone to try to do high speeds without an enormous amount of practice on slower machines. When I tell you that the machine had been through the War, and flat out could be coaxed up to 32 miles an hour, you will realize that riding it did not involve any real danger.

A year later I got a Norton which would do seventy, and after that one of the famous '90 bore' Zeniths, which carried me into the eighties. My first speed contest, a hill-climb in which I drove a Morgan three-wheeler, came about the same time, and resulted - nobody more surprised than myself - in an award for making the fastest car time of the day. I went in for a lot of hill-climbs after that, driving the Morgan and also a 250cc New Imperial, but they were relatively small affairs. In the mean time, however, I had conceived a new ambition. I wanted a 'Gold Star', to gain which it was necessary to lap Brooklands on a motor-cycle at over 100 miles an hour.

A good many people had already done this on bigger machines, so I determined that I would get it on a 350 - a bike of two and three-quarter horse power - and join the select minority. The bike was prepared, and I went out. A lap or two to warm up and then full throttle. It seemed to be a pretty fast bit of lappery, and I waited anxiously for the time-keepers' figures. They came. Ninety-nine miles an hour! I went out again, with the same result. Time after time I lapped at over ninety-nine without once touching the magic century. There seemed to be a jinx on that bike. But at last, after trying everything we knew to squeeze that extra scrap of power out of the engine, we got it! Nothing had ever given me so much satisfaction.

That was in 1933, and two years afterwards I built my first big 'Twin'. First time out the bike exceeded two miles a minute, and by the end of the season it had taken the Brooklands motor-cycle lap record for all classes at 123.58 miles an hour. This lap record was an achievement beyond my wildest dreams. I had not even contemplated being able to do it when I was building the machine. Now, out of the blue, it had fallen into my lap, and my friends were trying to persuade me that I should go for the World's Fastest. I was a long time believing them, even though George Brough, maker of my famous Brough Superior machines, was sure we could do it.

Eventually, late in 1936, my first supercharged model appeared. Alas, it came too late. For in the mean time Ernst Henne, the German rider, had pushed the record we were aiming at higher still. Our best, 163.82 miles an hour , won the world's record for the mile, but could not top his figure for the flying kilometre. You may think that the record-breaking is all fun. Don't you believe it. For every second of record riding I do a fortnight's work, and I did work that winter!

At the earliest possible opportunity in the spring of 1937, the moment the weather promised to be suitable, we loaded the machine on to my two-ton van and set out for Budapest where the wonderful Gyon road, stretching dead straight for miles across the great Hungarian plain, provides a speedway it would be hard to equal. But though the flatness of the plains is an inestimable advantage in one way, in another it is a disadvantage. There is always wind. We were forced to wait several days before it was calm enough for an attempt.

At last there was a lull, however, and I went up the road at 175 miles an hour, easily fast enough for the record. But a record, as you probably know, is worked out from the average speed of runs in opposite directions, and on the return run, with the bike moving once more at over 170, the enormous power of the engine sheared the key which held the sprocket. The sudden cessation of power gave me an awkward moment, and made me realise the tremendous resistance of the wind at that speed, for the machine slowed just as if something had gone tight. Indeed, at first we suspected that that was what had happened.

It took us a couple of days to rectify matters, and then we went out again. The wind was still bad, and though we reached the road as usual at eight in the morning, it was tea-time before the breeze fell sufficiently for another run. Once again I made a good speed one way, only to run into minor troubles on the return trip.

We told ourselves that the third time would be lucky, and prepared to start again.
So for a third time I was pushed off. I settled myself along the tank, took a firmer grip, and gave her the gun. And this time nothing went wrong. By the time I returned, I had averaged 169.8 miles an hour for the two runs, and the record was ours. But we had to curb our jubilation for a while: our job wasn't finished. For the next hour we worked feverishly fitting the side car to the bike and wondering, while we worked, whether the wind would hold off long enough for us to get the world's fastest sidecar record as well. Fortunately, it did.

With the side car attached I had a really hectic ride. I had to fight the machine all the way, and at one time I got the third wheel right off the road on to the grass verge. Since the bike was touching 145 when it happened, you may take it from me that was not one of life's pleasanter moments. However, I kept on full throttle, and as I passed the timekeepers I saw on the 'clock' that the machine was doing 147. The speed for the run was 143.5 miles an hour, which left us a comfortable margin over Henne's existing record, and we came back 'quietly' at about 130, giving us this record, too, at 137mph average.

What is it like to be exposed on top of a motor-cycle at nearly three miles a minute? The all-impressive thing is the colossal wind-pressure which tries to tear you backwards off the machine. Lift your head, and it is forced back. If your goggles are not positioned very carefully, the lenses are pressed on to your eyeballs, and until you slow down you can't see a thing. Perhaps the most unexpected sensation is that of finding your cheeks flapping against your teeth like a flag in a breeze. The only way to avoid toothache is to suck in and hold them still.

The engine noise, after a certain speed, seems to fade away behind you, drowned in the roar of the wind. A narrow ribbon of concrete appears to be dashing towards and under you, edged by a blur of green, and the most welcome sight of all is the little group of timekeepers at the finish. You wonder if you can reach them without easing your speed; and then, having passed them, your concentration is absorbed in slowing, which must be done very gradually.

Danger? There must always be danger in exploring the unknown, and I was exploring speeds that had never been attained before on two wheels. But you don't think of it. There are so many other things to occupy your attention. I had one speed wobble - at over 170 - and recovered in time to laugh at the spectators who were still trying to scramble over the roadside banks out of the way of the crash they imagined was coming. I nearly laughed myself into another. But one is enough - at that speed, at any rate.

Why do we do it? - what is the use of it? - people ask. Tourists travel now at the speeds I commenced racing at, though only fifteen years have passed since then. My two-ton lorry is as fast as my first racing motor-cycle. That is progress. Beside which, we do it for the sake of British prestige. I wonder sometimes what that small boy who was once me would have thought of it all.
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