Motorcycling goes deep in my family history, starting in the earliest days with my progenitor, Lord Percy Gifford- Rhys of Bagg-on- Weasel in the Welsh mountains during the waning days of the Victorian era. We were not originally from royal stock, but family legend holds that Percy resulted from a brief, enthusiastic, but ill-advised relationship between an Earl’s daughter and a passing purveyor of household supplies during a long dry summer in Snowdonia. The offspring of this union ascended to the manor in his infancy when the thirty two members of the family ahead of him in the line of inheritance tragically perished in a single afternoon, later referred to in hushed tones as “that unpleasantness at the fox hunt”. Having no other direct heirs, young Percy was ensconced in the seat of power.
The old Earl had left a well-equipped workshop and laboratory, from his lifelong interest in tea kettle whistle technology, which the new lord of the manor began exploring as soon as he could walk. From the beginning, Percy seemed to have an aptitude for taking things apart and occasionally getting them back together, if not always in the original order. There were a few incidents involving missing servants and extensive cleanup, but overall his abilities progressed as he matured.
His early mechanical attempts were innovative, if not always successful. He had tried constructing a clockwork horse for use in plowing, but never could get the ears to look quite right. When he progressed to internal combustion, his first engine design presaged the “shim under bucket” valve arrangement by decades. Using the state of the art technology of the time, he relied, however, on a tiny replica of an actual bucket, carved painstakingly by the young Lord’s valet from birds-eye maple grown there on the estate. Using the left sided kickstart of his own invention, (adopted later for Bultaco, because Senor Bulto, for an engineer, had an odd sense of humor) Percy was spread out with his right arm on the far end of the handlebar when the valve let go under compression, driving the entire mechanism deep into his armpit. Surgical techniques and anesthesia being what they were then, his doctors decided to leave it in place. This did keep my ancestor from participating in the Great War, since each time he raised his arm to salute in basic training, the resulting suction from the valve created a rather flatulent sound his superiors (and there were many) found “simply ridiculous” and ordered him discharged at once.
Later efforts at engine design included flint and steel ignition (discarded because the footman with the steel just couldn’t keep up with the machine at full chat) and carburetion using a modified blacksmith’s bellows (rejected after the blacksmith exploded while on the suction stroke too near the ignition flame). As Edison later commented, these weren’t failures but merely a way of finding out what didn’t work.
Motorcycle frame design was in its infancy as well, with Percy’s maiden efforts showing his usual flair. Oak was the default material, owing to the sudden lack of a blacksmith for effective welding, and several potentially useful designs succumbed ultimately to woodworm infestation during the testing phase. He first tried using both wheels on the same axle, but lacking the balance technology of the Segway (we never got the credit we deserved for that one) he had some difficulty keeping the rider upright, particularly during strong braking. The resulting broken nose and overall flatness of his facial features would come to restrict his choice of dance partners at the village balls and fetes.
Eventually borrowing a working two-stroke engine and frame (at least “borrowing” was the phrase used by Percy’s solicitor to the local Magistrate at the subsequent hearing), Percy managed to enter one of the early Isle of Man TT races, run on the old Clypse course which consisted of mainly unpaved roads around the island. Percy quickly developed the foot-out cornering style later adopted by American flat-trackers, though he initially tried using the foot on the outside of the corner. After several excursions into homes and gardens bordering the track, he switched to the inside foot, increasing his speed and only occasionally kicking himself behind the ear when encountering stones in the road. (Nearly one hundred years later I, his descendent, rode the Mountain Course on the Isle using a modern four cylinder machine on paved roads, but probably kept about the same average pace.) His final finishing position is unrecorded, owing no doubt to the confusion as to whether he was last in the first race or first in the second race.
(The racing gene was carried on as well by a distant American cousin who participated in the briefly popular board track racing on this side of the pond. He became known as “Fireball”, but unfortunately not for his track prowess. It seems that in a spectacular get-off while mid pack in the high banked wooden bowl at Syracuse, he sustained two rather large splinters in his upper thigh. These later developed a high friction as he frantically attempted to kickstart a British 500cc single, causing him to erupt into the conflagration that begat his posthumous nickname. Legends of this occurrence later inspired the storyline for the ill-fated succession of drummers in the movie “This is Spinal Tap”.)
Percy married well, it is said (it is also said that for Percy, any marriage to a live female was “well”, at least as far as he was concerned) and it is no surprise that his bride loved motorcycling as much as did he. They spent many happy hours together as Percy taught her the finer points of machine control using his unique methods. There were a few visits to the casualty ward, her for crash injuries and him with self defense wounds.
Eula was an American heiress, one of the many who flocked to Britain in the latter years of the Edwardian era, looking for a title from the aristocracy now fallen on harder times and in need of cash to prop up their expensive estates. Her fortune came from her father’s factory in Bangor, Maine, which turned out a fine selection of buggy whips, whale oil lamps and wood-spoked wheels for the carriage trade. To ensure the family business thrived in the future, her father invested all of the money in the rapidly growing American stock market in late October of 1929, on the eve of the wedding, making a present of the stock certificates to the beaming couple.
By the time they’d returned from the honeymoon to Niagara Falls (Eula remarked that the Falls weren’t as impressive as she thought they would be, her second disappointment of the trip), the stock market had undergone its “correction” and times were hard indeed at the manor house.
To be (perhaps) continued….