How Lawrence of Arabia Changed The Camel For The Motorcycle
Lawrence’s father, Sir Thomas Chapman, was a married man that fell in love with the family governess, Sarah Junner and left his marriage to be with her. Out of this union came five illegitimate boys out of which, Thomas Edward was the second. He, as well as his brothers, grew up under the assumed name of Lawrence.
Lawrence was a staunch vegetarian, but while living in France in 1906 his host family pressured him into eating meat by repeatedly badgering him with stern warnings of how “vegetarians fill an early grave.” This lifestyle also included complete abstinence from alcohol and tobacco. After graduating from university with a degree in archaeology and military history he decided to walk the length of Syria alone. At only 21 years of age, he walked over 1,600 kilometres across the desert and through many of the world’s oldest cities, not really aware of the dangers he could be facing. The reason he decided to do this was to photograph crusaders’ castles, but he ended up doing way more than just staring at castles. He became aware of the people’s customs and behaviors, of the geographic conditions, of the political situation, and in addition to all of that, through his constant contact with the Syrian people along the trip he managed to learn Arabic. Arabic and the rest of the knowledge gained on his epic trip would prove to be invaluable years later during his campaign in the Arab revolt.
While being in the army, Lawrence managed to get the title of the “untidiest officer in the British Army”. His uniform was never the way it was supposed to be, opened buckle, unbuttoned shoulder strap if on at all. He had constant episodes of disrespect towards officers, or any other authority. This general lack of respect would be a constant companion throughout his life.
T.E. Lawrence started being Lawrence of Arabia during the First World War, once he adopted the Arab way of dressing and the language. This unexpected behavior from an English soldier is precisely what made him standout from the other soldiers and made him be respected by King Faisal.
In 1915, just months apart of each other, two of Lawrence’s younger brothers, Frank and Will, were killed fighting on the Western Front. This tragic fate played a major part in the guilt Lawrence felt about his safe desk job in Cairo while other thousands of men were being killed on the frontlines that made him want to take part in the field.
In 1916, he was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel and was sent to join the Great Arab Revolt, led by King Faisal. Using guerrilla tactics, they struck at Turkish lines of communication, avoiding direct confrontation as their strategy would not have worked otherwise. By cooperating and mixing within the Arab culture and its people, Lawrence became a very respected adviser, and kept on leading small organised forces against the Turks throughout WWI, weakening communication lines and supply routes. Lawrence lived the life of a Bedouin, he rode his camel, fought the Turks, ate what there was and suffered alongside the Arabic people. And this is exactly how he earned their respect and became a leader among those who fought beside him.
Back in England, King George V summoned Lawrence to Buckingham Palace in 1918, Lawrence thought that this audience was being held to discuss borders for an independent Arabia, but the reality was far from a pragmatic purpose. Instead it was taking place for the King to bestow Lawrence the knighthood for his service to his Majesty. When Lawrence caught wind of this, he was sure that the British government had betrayed the Arabs by giving them the false promise of independence, and it is for this reason that he refused this honor in front of the King himself and walked out of the palace. He would later become part of the Arab delegation to the Treaty of Versailles after World War I, acting as a translator between the various heads of state. In 1921, the future prime minister became Colonial Secretary and employed Lawrence as an advisor on Arab affairs. The two men grew to admire each other and became lifelong friends.
After World War I, in 1922, Lawrence was tired of his celebrity, and in an effort to gain seclusion from the world he had been living in, he decided to join the ranks of the Royal Air Force under the assumed name John Hume Ross. This new identity didn’t last long as the media quickly found out who he really was so he enlisted in the Tank Corps as Thomas Edward Shaw, a name that remained with him when he transferred back into the R.A.F. in 1925 and up until the day he died. Lawrence served in India from 1927 to 1929 before returning to Britain. He stayed in the R.A.F. until 1935.
Lawrence retired to a two-story cottage in the southwestern English county of Dorset known as Clouds Hill. A tiny place, less than 700 square feet, consisting of two small rooms on each floor connected by a steep and rickety staircase. Curiously, it has neither a kitchen nor a toilet. He was Pvt. T.E. Shaw to his neighbours, a reclusive serviceman rarely seen except when riding his beloved Brough motorcycle through the countryside.
Throughout his life, Lawrence, felt a need for speed. He had a motor engine sent over to him at Carchemish, installed it in a boat and raced with it. He used to swap his camels for Rolls Royce Armoured cars that were capable of 60 mph over the desert flats. In the R.A.F. he willingly worked on fast motor launches in Plymouth. But if there was something he really loved it was definitely riding motorcycles, proof of it are two of his books “Lustfulness of moving swiftly” and “Pleasure of speeding on the road”.
T.E. Shaw, as he was known by now, was troubled, he wanted to avoid the fame that Arabia had brought him, he was hiding from the press, and feeling uneasy after the revolt in the desert. He was anxious to see Britain keep her promise to the Arabs. Also, he was personally haunted by the idea that society would find out about his illegitimacy or the possibility that the fact that he had never had a woman by his side would be questioned. Motorcycles presented him with the perfect way to escape leaving all this behind at top speed, literally. And it was George Brough who built him eight different Brough Superiors, the “Rolls-Royce Of Motorcycles”. This man personally guaranteed that each one of them would top 160km/h.
It was pouring rain the morning of Sunday the 19th of May, 1935. Lawrence sped through the English countryside coming back from the local post office on his Brough Superior SS100 998cc motorbike. He, all of a sudden saw two boys on their bicycles and with almost no time to react swerved to avoid them. However, he clipped one of the bikes and was thrown forward over the handlebars. After six days in intensive care Lawrence succumbed to his massive brain injuries and died at the age of 46. His funeral service was attended by many powerful and influential figures such as Winston Churchill, who deemed him “one of the greatest beings alive in this time.” “Lawrence the Soldier Dies to Live Forever” rang out the Daily Sketch. And there, immortalised beneath Lawrence, was his powerful Brough Superior which he himself described as “a skittish motorcycle with a touch of blood in it”.
After Lawrence’s death, a move to make the wearing of motorcycle helmets compulsory for all riders was set in motion. In 1935, riders were typically bare-headed. But that would all change thanks to one of the medics who attended Lawrence. It was a young doctor by the name of Hugh Cairns, who became one of Britain’s very first neurosurgeons, who was inspired to research brain trauma due to motorcycle accidents when he was unable to save Lawrence from an untimely death. It was through his research that motorcycle helmets became a required safety equipment, eventually saving thousands of lives.
Dr. Cairns’ post-mortem examination established that Lawrence had suffered “severe lacerations and brain trauma” when his unprotected head struck the ground. In the case he would have survived this accident he most probably would have been blind and unable to speak. After this examination Cairns came to the conclusion that this death could have been avoided with the use of head protection and it is for this reason that he decided to start researching the subject and in 1941 the article “Head injuries in Motorcyclists – The importance of the crash helmet” was published in the British Medical Journal. This article revealed that 942 bikers had been killed on British roads the year before WWII and that out of these, two-thirds suffered head injuries. But things got worse when the air raids started, despite the petrol rationing and the consequent decrease in vehicular traffic, 1140 bikers died the subsequent year, roughly 100 a month.
Cairns had a hard time finding riders which would voluntarily wear helmets to prove that it made a difference. For the moment he could only count with seven accidents in which the rider was wearing a crash helmet, and all of them had survived with no major head injury. At this point the army was losing around two riders every week in motorcycle accidents, so they ordered all of their riders to wear a crash helmet. Two years later, in 1943, Cairns was able to show the difference between helmet-wearing despatch riders and bare-headed civilians. Results were outstandingly pro-helmet, the number of deaths fell by 75% during the period helmets were compulsory. Unluckily, Hugh Cairns did not live to see the change in the law his research helped to bring about, as he died of cancer in 1952. But he would have been proud of what was achieved and the tremendous impact the result of his work has had in motorcycle rider safety. Nevertheless, it is highly unlikely that the man whose tragic death motivated all of this would have ever worn a helmet had he lived in today’s safety-first world – Lawrence was a free spirit, a rule breaker- he lived for speed and the feel of the skin on his face cutting through the air. He not only loved riding, but the metal machinery he rode on.
Lawrence and Brough were good friends, Lawrence used to write him about how much he loved the master pieces he had built for him: ”Yesterday I completed 100,000 miles since 1922 on five successive Brough Superiors, thank you for the road pleasure I got out of them, your present machines are as fast and reliable as express trains, and the greatest fun in the world.” He nicknamed the motorcycle he had the crash with “Boa” or “Boanerges” which means “Son of Thunder” in Aramaic.
Brough superior motorcycles were made in Nottingham between 1902 and 1926, producing more than 3,000 models. Every motorcycle was test ridden to ensure that it performed to specification, and was personally certified by George Brough guaranteeing it had been tested over 160 km/h at the Brooklands racetrack. Approximately 383 SS100 (Super Sports) 1000 cc with V-twin engines were manufactured from 1924 to 1940.
After the accident, Lawrence’s motorcycle spent three months in a garage in Dorset. George Brough offered to renovate the bike for £40, but being the average wage £3 per week Lawrence’s brother decided to sell the motorcycle back to Brough, who carried out the repairs and re-sold it for “publicity purposes”. This motorcycle splits now its time between the Imperial War Museum and the National Motor Museum. This Brough Superior bike broke the record for the luxury motorcycle brand at £315,000 the most expensive motorcycle ever sold at an auction.
In 2008 Mark Upham acquired the rights to the Brough Superior name and is now hand-building the Brough Superior for the 21st century. In 2013 the first prototype of a new SS100 was shown in Milan. Instantly recognizable and cunningly modernised, today’s SS100 will be sold at a sum of £50,000, which is roughly the equivalent in real terms with the price in 1935 of £180.