Lawrence of Arabia: Legacy Beyond the Arab Revolt

Nov 04, 2021 View Comments by

Text by: Jeff Buchanan
Photos: Brough Superior, Bonhams, RM Sotheby’s, JAP.

Colonel Thomas Edward Lawrence, better known as T.E. Lawrence, was a British Army officer. He became renowned for his role in the Arab Revolt of 1916-1918—which was chronicled in the film Lawrence of Arabia. The young, enigmatic officer’s exploits took him to prominence within the military and made him the first romantic hero of World War I with the public. After the war, Lawrence, a gifted writer, brought a poetic brilliance to his war experiences with the novels Seven Pillars of Wisdom and Revolt in the Desert.

The success of the books propelled him to worldwide fame and notoriety. Lawrence, averse to celebrity, became restless and discontent with civilian life. He re-enlisted in the Royal Air Force (RAF) as a mechanic under an assumed name in an attempt to serve anonymously. Reporters rooted him out, exposing his real identity and complicating his situation, ultimately leading to his dismissal. Lawrence worked with a tank unit before re-enlisting in the RAF, both exploits carried out under a different fake name.

Lawrence had a profound love of motorcycles, specifically the Brough Superior, the “Rolls-Royce of motorcycles”—famously advertised as the fastest production motorcycle in the world. He enjoyed a kind of love affair with the Broughs, becoming the brand’s most famous customer, owning a total of seven bikes. An eighth was being built when Lawrence died.

The Death of a Legend

Daily outings to indulge the adrenaline found in riding at speed (and perhaps to serve as escape from the trappings of fame) became an essential part of Lawrence’s life. He poetically conveyed this feeling in a number of stirring and eloquent passages in The Mint, his novel about his time in the RAF published posthumously. Unfortunately, it was on one of those rides, undertaken just two months after leaving the RAF, that T.E. Lawrence would ultimately meet his end.

On May 13, 1935, while riding his prized Brough, Lawrence swerved to avoid two boys on bicycles. He crashed and was sent flying over the handlebar, fracturing his cranium. Lawrence was taken to Bovington Camp Military Hospital in a coma. Six days later, on May 19, he succumbed to his injuries without ever regaining consciousness. The subsequent autopsy revealed severe lacerations and damage to the brain.

One of Lawrence’s attending physicians at the military hospital was Sir Hugh William Bell Cairns, an Australian neurosurgeon. Cairns was profoundly affected by Lawrence’s death, which led him to research head traumas suffered by dispatch riders. Based on his studies, Cairns formed the opinion that safety helmets could significantly reduce death and injuries for riders.

Although the motorcycle helmet had been invented in 1914, they were primarily reserved for racing. At the start of World War II, Cairns became a consulting neurosurgeon to the British army, publishing a highly influential report in the British Medical Journal. He noted in his paper that in just the first 21 months of the war, 2,279 dispatch riders and passengers had been killed in accidents. Cairns was able to show that in the seven accidents where riders were wearing helmets, none of them died.

Saving Lives after Losing One

The report led to helmets becoming compulsory for military motorcyclists while on duty. As a result, in a follow-up report Cairns stated there was a significant reduction in dispatch rider deaths, leading him to stress that the adoption of helmets by civilian motorcyclists would save a considerable number of lives.

It took 32 years after Cairns’ initial report in 1941 before it became mandatory for motorcyclists in the UK to wear a helmet. Sadly, Cairns would die of cancer in 1952 and would not see his research lead to new helmet laws, which were implemented in 1973. Ultimately, it was Lawrence’s death that set Cairns on the impassioned path of advocating for helmets. The neurosurgeon was anguished by the thought that had the famous war hero and author been wearing a helmet, he may well have survived his crash. The pain brought on by Lawrence’s accident eventually led to widespread use of helmets today.

T.E. Lawrence and his beloved Broughs

“A skittish motorbike 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.” — T.E. Lawrence

T.E. Lawrence had a passion for motorcycles—quite specifically, the Brough Superior. “It is the silkiest thing I have ever ridden,” the famed war hero and author noted. The machines were known as the “Rolls Royce of motorcycles” and in their day were billed as being the only production motorcycles capable of reaching 100mph.

Brough Motorcycles was founded by William E. Brough in Nottingham, England, in 1908. William’s son, George—a successful competitive racer—felt he could improve on the motorcycle’s design. Much to his father’s chagrin, in 1920, he created the Brough Superior. The Brough Superiors, laden with powerful JAP V-twin powerplants (in 680cc and 1000cc displacements), meticulously crafted and sparing no expense in components, immediately established themselves as an attractive, niche product that would appeal to the wealthy.

The Superior served as much as a fashion statement as a performance motorcycle. The claims of being capable of speeds in excess of 100mph were guaranteed by George Brough, who personally test rode each machine coming out of his workshop to earn certification for delivery. In its appropriately audacious first advertisement—written by George himself—the Brough Superior was referred to as an “atmosphere disturber.”

Exclusive Toys

The Brough Superior Mk I was introduced in 1920. The Mk II rolled out of the workshop in 1921, with rapid technical improvements culminating in the SS80, released in 1923. By 1925, Brough Superior was in full production with the legendary SS100. With an unrelenting focus on high performance and exceptional craftsmanship—and possessing arguably the most beautiful fuel tank on a motorcycle—the Brough Superiors brought a respectability and legitimacy to motorcycles, attracting royalty and notable personalities such as author George Bernard Shaw and, perhaps their most famous devotee, T.E. Lawrence. Only about 3,000 Brough Superiors were ever built, helping the brand to retain its exclusivity and mystique.

T.E. Lawrence would own a total of seven Brough Superiors, with the eighth being built at the time of his death. Lawrence named each of his machines after George Brough in succession, starting with George I all the way to George VII. Lawrence often referred to his Broughs as “Boanerges,” a Biblical term meaning “sons of thunder.” It is rumored that Lawrence tallied up some 300,000 miles on his seven Broughs.

Prices for the Brough Superiors in the 1920s and 1930s ranged from 100 to 185 British pounds (depending on individual build requirements), which was roughly the price of a small cottage at the time. It’s interesting, and perhaps important to note that although his books Seven Pillars of Wisdom and Revolt in the Desert were publishing successes, Lawrence refused to take any profit from them, citing he was a paid officer during the time he authored the books.

Instead, a trust was set up for his royalty payments to go into an educational fund for the children of Royal Air Force (RAF) officers who lost their lives. It is essential to mention this as it reinforces Lawrence’s genuine love of motorcycles. He obviously was not wealthy like most Brough Superior owners, but still chose to prioritize the brand in his life.

The Lost Bike

Ironically, with Lawrence known for racing his Broughs against fellow RAF pilots in their planes, the crash that took the famous war hero’s life was essentially a somewhat low-speed accident. George VII suffered only minor damage and was repaired by George Brough. The bike was eventually sold, initiating a long trail of subsequent owners.

In the decades following Lawrence’s death, many people claimed to have the actual Brough Superior that he died on—Lawrence’s use of assumed names made verification difficult. However, George VII was eventually tracked down and substantiated by registration records and authenticated by George Brough himself, right down to the coins Lawrence used to place in the fuel filter for easy access. Today, Lawrence’s 1932 Brough Superior SS100, registration number GW 2275, sits on display at the Imperial War Museum in London.

“I could write for hours on the lustfulness of moving swiftly.” — T.E. Lawrence


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