RUDGE UL­STER

No ar­gu­ments this time around: no quib­bles, no qual­i­fi­ca­tion. Paul Miles would like you to meet the best mo­tor­cy­cle he’s ever rid­den. Rudge’s ul­tra-so­phis­ti­cated sport­ster for dis­cern­ing gen­tle­folk of the 1930s…

Real Classic - - Contents - Pho­tos by Paul Miles

No ar­gu­ments this time around: no quib­bles, no qual­i­fi­ca­tion. Paul Miles would like you to meet the best mo­tor­cy­cle he’s ever rid­den. Rudge’s ul­tra-so­phis­ti­cated sport­ster for dis­cern­ing gen­tle­folk of the 1930s…

Don’t trudge it, Rudge it!’ en­treated the ad­verts from the Rudge-Whit­worth Com­pany, com­plete with ‘amus­ing’ cartoon char­ac­ter Johnny Rudge. Founded in 1894 when Whit­worth Cy­cles ac­quired Rudge, mo­tor­cy­cle pro­duc­tion be­gan in 1911 along­side the core bi­cy­cle busi­ness. Rudge quickly es­tab­lished them­selves in the sport­ing arena, break­ing the 500cc record at Brook­lands and go­ing on to record their first suc­cess in the se­nior TT of 1914 at an av­er­age speed of nearly 50mph.

One of the smaller com­pa­nies which did not at­tempt to ap­pease mass market tastes, Rudge’s diminu­tive size al­lowed them cer­tain n free­doms within the mar­ket­place. Their first im­por­tant model, 1912’s Multi, em­ployed a novel pul­ley sys­tem to ten­sion the fi­nal drive e belt, ef­fec­tively of­fer­ing the rider 21 ra­tios from which to choose. Such in­no­va­tion sug­gested con­tin­ued suit­abil­ity for rac­ing. The firm bor­rowed avi­a­tion’s ex­ten­sive use of four-valve tech­nol­ogy and looked to Ri­cardo’s pi­o­neer­ing work on the Tri­umph R, de­vel­op­ing a sim­i­lar en­gine them­selves as early as 1923.

Four smaller valves al­lowed the fit­ment of a cen­tral spark plug, giv­ing a bet­ter burn in the com­bus­tion cham­ber. Lighter valve gear also per­mits higher revs than the two-valve equiv­a­lent, and an over­all in­crease in port area en­sures deeper breath­ing. Sales man­ager Gra­ham Walker (fa­ther of Mur­ray) rode a new for f 1928 ex­per­i­men­tal four-valve sin­gle s to vic­tory in the Ul­ster Grand Prix; a road race that pun­ished both rider and mount to t the ex­treme. The win­ner av­er­aged a over 80mph for the first time, t which com­pen­sated for the prob­lems two months ear­lier in the t TT, when his mount suf­fered oil­ing prob­lems.

For the fol­low­ing year, and un­til the firm’s demise, the pre­mier sport­ing model in the range was there­after named the Rudge Ul­ster to com­mem­o­rate Walker’s W achieve­ment. Fur­ther suc­cesses s fol­lowed, with the com­pany claim­ing the world two-hour record at over 100mph. Even the IoM even­tu­ally suc­cumbed to the four-valve Coven­try rac­ers, with the top two steps on the podium in the Se­nior TT and all three places in the Ju­nior race fall­ing to the 1930 Rudge fac­tory team.

The Ul­ster in­vari­ably car­ried the best of the com­pany’s ideas and de­vel­op­ments, and for 1937 the by-now en­closed bronze cylin­der head sported par­al­lel in­let and ra­dial ex­haust valves, a set-up found to of­fer the best over­all power. Other fea­tures unique to Rudge in­cluded a patented linked brak­ing sys­tem where gen­tle foot pres­sure ap­plied both brakes evenly, be­com­ing pro­gres­sively more front-bi­ased as the rider braked harder. The longer than nor­mal front lever, only found on the Ul­ster, also op­er­ated just the front drum in the usual fash­ion as re­quired. Large 8” drums with huge 1.5” wide lin­ings were deemed so pow­er­ful that the wheels re­quired a spe­cial off­set spoke ar­range­ment in or­der to pre­vent rim dis­tor­tion.

The tim­ing side of the en­gine was treated to a smart metal tidy cover, and the

cen­tre­stand could be op­er­ated from the sad­dle by lift­ing the long han­dle on the left side of the en­gine. On the front of the tim­ing cover a small half-com­pres­sion lever lifts one ex­haust valve just off its seat, sim­pli­fy­ing start­ing. A Smiths eight-day clock was of­ten fit­ted as an af­ter­mar­ket ac­ces­sory, but there was no rev counter. This sug­gests that the Rudge mo­tor­cy­cle oc­cu­pied a po­si­tion of ‘gen­tle­man’s sport­ing con­veyance’ in the mar­ket­place rather than that of ‘racer’. A sort of two-wheeled Bent­ley, if you will. The over­all qual­ity and at­ten­tion to de­tail sup­ports that ax­iom.

A more flex­i­ble, al­though less pow­er­ful four-valve tour­ing ma­chine, the Spe­cial, was also of­fered at a price of £65, com­pared with the £77 of the Ul­ster. Your ex­tra twelve quid guar­an­teed that you would be rid­ing ‘the fastest 500cc ma­chine in nor­mal pro­duc­tion’ with a cer­ti­fied top speed in ex­cess of 90mph, com­pared with the 70-75mph of the more af­ford­able Spe­cial. Eighty years on and speed has never looked so cheap!

Al­though tech­ni­cally very ad­vanced, poor sales in the early 1930s saw Rudge strug­gle, and fur­ther sig­nif­i­cant de­vel­op­ments were slow in com­ing. The fu­ture looked bleak and

in 1936 the firm went into re­ceiver­ship. EMI, the large elec­tri­cal and mu­sic com­pany who were ma­jor cred­i­tors, as­sumed con­trol and in 1937 switched pro­duc­tion from Coven­try to Mid­dle­sex, where they had spare fac­tory ca­pac­ity. From these por­tals emerged the much-needed en­closed head en­gines, re­plac­ing the an­ti­quated-look­ing ex­posed valve train de­sign.

Sales steadily im­proved and, but for the war, Rudge might have con­tin­ued to grow and thrive, pro­duc­ing in­no­va­tive mo­tor­cy­cles that ap­pealed to the con­nois­seur. Due to the de­mands of the war ef­fort EMI had to con­cen­trate on pro­duc­tion of ra­dio and radar equip­ment, its chief busi­ness, so the mo­tor­cy­cle di­vi­sion was shelved. Raleigh pur­chased the name and tool­ing in 1943, sound­ing the death knell to this great mar­que. With Rudge’s use of ex­otic met­als, four-valve heads, linked brakes and clever ideas be­fore the war, who knows what they might have achieved af­ter the con­flict ended?

This lovely ex­am­ple was the per­sonal trans­port of fa­mous Rudge spe­cial­ist, Ben French. Very cor­rect, it is al­most a re­storer’s ref­er­ence for the 1937 Ul­ster model and a mul­ti­ple prize win­ner. The am­me­ter de­sign is in­cor­rect and the nut on the horn should be dif­fer­ent, but that smacks of straw clutch­ing.

The build qual­ity is ex­em­plary. The 1930s were truly a golden age for mo­tor­cy­cling, with skilled crafts­men, new tech­nolo­gies and a well-heeled clien­tele who de­manded the best. The black­smith-de­rived bikes of the 1920s were a dis­tant mem­ory and the post­war util­i­tar­ian ma­chines, built to a price, had yet to come. It even dis­plays the op­tional and fa­mous eight day clock, so im­por­tant to the gen­tle­man rider has­ten­ing for an assig­na­tion!

At first glance it looks sim­i­lar to many other pre-war sport­ing sin­gles, but the devil, they say, is in the de­tail. To start: tickle the pre-monobloc Amal be­fore lift­ing the half­com­pres­sion lever on the crank­case and fold­ing out the kick­start. A fold­ing lever and the built-in de­com­pres­sor were just the first of many sur­prises; the bar-mounted de­com­pres­sor lever is only used to stop the mo­tor.

The en­gine fires up at the first dab of the lever. Like a two-stroke moped it barely qual­i­fies as a kick, which en­sures the rider re­mains un­ruf­fled. Re­turn­ing the half­com­pres­sion lever to its orig­i­nal po­si­tion, I’m re­warded with a deeper, more po­tent sound­ing ex­haust tone; the ease of start­ing be­lies its high com­pres­sion mo­tor.

You ease it off the stand with noth­ing more than a gen­tle push of the left-sided lever, which tucks it­self safely out of harm’s way, and the Ul­ster glides away. The vice­free clutch and fully roller-bear­ing gear­box, an­other Rudge de­sign, are quickly for­got­ten as speeds rapidly in­crease. Me­chan­i­cally quiet with just a gen­tle bur­ble from the twin ex­hausts, it was dif­fi­cult to imag­ine this might have been one of the fastest pro­duc­tion pre­war ma­chines.

But fast it is, with sparkling ac­cel­er­a­tion and a top speed of over 90mph from the four-speed sin­gle. It feels like it’s mak­ing sim­i­lar power to a much later Ve­lo­cette Venom, so around 34-38bhp. The muchad­mired brakes eas­ily stop the Rudge and the fac­tory mod­estly claimed ‘the high­est brak­ing ef­fi­ciency known to road trans­port’ from their cou­pled de­sign. Sim­ply put, the brake pedal op­er­ates both rear and front brakes si­mul­ta­ne­ously, with the ra­tio shift­ing to­wards a greater front bias as the pedal is pushed harder.

The front brake only is also ac­ti­vated us­ing a con­ven­tional lever, longer on the Ul­ster model and no­tice­ably dif­fer­ent in size to the clutch. It’s quite pos­si­ble to have the tyres howl­ing on the tar­mac un­der heavy brak­ing, quite a nov­elty on a 1930s bike! In­deed, so pow­er­ful are the brakes that the Rudge re­quired the afore­men­tioned unique off­set rim lac­ing pat­tern to elim­i­nate the twist­ing that could oth­er­wise oc­cur. This patented spoke de­sign was also used un­der li­cence, by Rolls-Royce and Bent­ley.

Rapid progress is so eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble with the pow­er­ful and flex­i­ble four-valve mo­tor, it’s only when a pot­hole pitches this lucky tester al­most out of the seat that you are minded this is, af­ter all, a pre-war, girder forked, rigid ma­chine that’s over eight decades old.

The large wheels, 21” front and 20” rear, are typ­i­cal of the rac­ing-de­rived mod­els, with the Spe­cial us­ing a more nor­mal 19” setup. These add to the sport­ing feel out on the road. Al­lied

to the very close ra­tios in the four-speed gear­box and taut re­sponses from the en­closed-spring forks (yet again Rudge’s own de­sign), rid­ing the Ul­ster is about as close to a 1930s rac­ing ex­pe­ri­ence on the road it’s pos­si­ble to get.

Clearly de­signed for the sport­ing market, the mighty Ul­ster is in its el­e­ment on faster roads and cruis­ing at (or be­yond) the le­gal limit is only lim­ited by the con­di­tion of the road sur­face. When out rid­ing with other (lesser!) mar­ques of sim­i­lar age, the per­for­mance dif­fer­ence is clear. As luck would have it, a friend of mine has a Rudge Spe­cial and even that fine ma­chine is over­shad­owed by the pow­er­ful Ul­ster when rid­den side by side.

How­ever, a lit­tle like the other raced­erived ma­chine I tested re­cently in RC193, the AJS Big Port, the Rudge is not nearly as happy just bim­bling along at low speeds. The gear ra­tios make lit­tle sense at lower speeds and the ride can be just a lit­tle too sport­ing on oc­ca­sion. Rudge thought­fully pro­vided the Spe­cial for such rid­ers, and choos­ing the right ma­chine for you ap­plies as much now as it did back then.

Had the com­pany sur­vived the war and re­sumed pro­duc­tion, I can only imag­ine how good a fur­therde­vel­oped ver­sion of this en­gine would have been in a mod­ern sprung frame. For­get BSA Gold Stars and Ve­lo­cette Thrux­tons, this could have ut­terly blown them away. Oth­ers must have thought the same and sev­eral spe­cials, in­clud­ing a feath­erbed-framed Rudge (Nodge? Rud­nor?) have been con­structed by en­ter­pris­ing peo­ple, but re­main rare beasts. I’ve even spot­ted a Velo-Rudge on my trav­els and will en­deav­our to beg a ride, purely for re­search pur­poses, of course.

Bristling with in­no­va­tion, the Ul­ster is sim­ply su­perb and one of the best Bri­tish sin­gles I’ve ever rid­den, stand­ing di­rect com­par­i­son with half-litre sin­gles from any era and not just other pre-war ma­chines. Only the rigid frame and gird­ers date the Rudge; the en­gine, brakes and de­sign fea­tures would out-per­form any­thing from the other fac­to­ries up to and in­clud­ing the 1960s. It’s still the only bike I’ve ever rid­den where I can pull it on the cen­tre­stand while still sit­ting on it! There is pre­cious lit­tle else with girder forks that would get past a Rudge Ul­ster out on the road.

Peo­ple who buy Rudges tend to keep them; very few come up for sale. It’s easy to see why. Al­though a small con­cern with a rel­a­tively low out­put, the fac­tory’s prod­ucts were and re­main prized as­sets. To­day, own­ers are well served by a thriv­ing own­ers’ club and spe­cial­ists that stock re-man­u­fac­tured parts, in­clud­ing tin­ware, and also have the fore­sight to pur­chase quan­ti­ties of sec­ond­hand parts when­ever pos­si­ble.

Reg­u­lar RC read­ers might be aware that this is my own bike, one that I paid way over the then market value for at the time. I’ve never re­gret­ted my pur­chase even for a second, and the Ul­ster will be the last mo­tor­cy­cle left in my garage; it will never be sold. It is by far, the best mo­tor­cy­cle I’ve ever rid­den and my favourite bike of all time. I guess that must tell you some­thing!

The noble Rudge. Ace Tester Miles’ ver­dict: ‘By far, the best mo­tor­cy­cle I’ve ever rid­den and my favourite bike of all time!’

The heart of the mat­ter. Rudge’s own most ex­cel­lent en­gine

Like their ma­chin­ery, Rudge’s brochures were sub­tle and so­phis­ti­cated

Drive side of the en­gine room is re­mark­able. For­ward ex­ten­sion of the pri­mary chain­case con­tains the chain drive to the dy­namo, while the big long lever op­er­ates the cen­tre­stand

Ob­serve the mys­te­ri­ous bronze col­oration of the cylin­der head. This is be­cause it is a bronze head, not an iron or al­loy item

What the pi­lot sees. No work­man­like rev counter here. The Rudge pi­lot pre­ferred a clock; bad form to be late for a date

Start­ing is made eas­ier by this lit­tle lever, which holds one of the sev­eral valves off its seat, so low­er­ing the com­pres­sion

We’ll let Rudge ex­plain why their bikes are so spe­cial!

The brakes are linked on a Rudge like this, hence the twin ca­bles. Hand­some speedo drive, too is un­usual. The Rudge’s spokepat­tern Paul ex­plains whythi­sis

Rudge. Ready to go any­where!

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