No hill left unclimbed

In the pioneer days of motorcycling, hill climbs – and hill climbing – were popular proving grounds.

Words: Rachael Clegg Photographs: Gary Chapman/Mortons Archive

Hunter House Road, Sheffield, is not a place that is synonymous with motorcycles. The street is home to umpteen students, several Green Party activists and the cause of many parking-related headaches.

Yet, in the 1900s, this steep Victorian terraced street – just up the road from where I live – was the place where a young Dan Bradbury would test the might of the early Nortons.

Known as ‘Norton Dan,’ Bradbury was the Sheffield agent for Norton and a passionate competitor in hill climbs and speed events.

He was the first person to be recorded at reaching 70mph on a 500cc machine, which is no mean feat given the primitive suspension on motorcycles, poor tyres and ineffective braking of machines in that period, not to mention the dire road surfaces.

George Cohen’s book ‘Flat Tank Norton’ is peppered with correspondence from South Yorkshire’s own Norton rider to James Landsdowne Norton, the founder of Norton.

The original picture, as reproduced in The Motor Cycle. All five Nortons pictured are V-twins – note the dark tank on the one second from left.

Bradbury is photographed riding a 500cc Norton outfit with ‘53 stones’ worth of luggage – five passengers in total – riding up the ‘one in eight’ hill.

A petticoat-clad onlooker stares at this charabanc as it conquers the hill with an expression of sheer bafflement.

And it’s not hard to see why: this was, after all, 1913 and the motorised bicycle had been in production only a handful of years by this time.

Furthermore, the sight must have also offered a glimmer of hope to incline-weary residents of the ‘city of seven hills’ (much like Rome, only slightly less glamorous) – what better way to transport an entire family up a hill? After all, it was only 1894 when the first production motorcycle came into being (the Hildebrand & Wolfmüller).

Restoration was originally started by the late George Cohen, but finished by the NMM’s Colin Wall.

Hill climbing was, in the 1900s, at the epicentre of motorcycle development and a challenge early motorcycle riders were keen to embrace. Conquering a steep gradient not only paid testament to the power and resilience of the motorcycle itself, but also demonstrated a certain panache in the saddle.

There were reports of hill climbs as early as 1903 in The Motor Cycle, with technical graphs and photographs of proud ‘testers’ at the likes of Stoneleigh Hill, near Coventry, Co. Down, Ireland and even France.

Read more and view more images in the July 2019 issue of TCM – on sale now!

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