Douglas Dragonfly Though ultimately it didn’t end in glorious success, the Douglas Dragonfly was a serious attempt at a genuinely ‘modern’ motorcycle. WORDS BY STEVE WILSON PHOTOGRAPHY BY JOE DICK
he 1950s was the last period of real diversity for the products of the British motorcycle industry. Despite the initial petrol rationing and ‘Pool’ fuel, healthy domestic demand and the last gasp of a captive Commonwealth export market allowed larger manufacturers to market ‘different’ if lossmaking flagships (Ariel Square Four, Sunbeam S7/S8), while smaller ones (Greeves, EMC, Douglas) could produce innovative designs that ranged from the inspired to the distinctive to the downright odd. And none looked odder than the Douglas Dragonfly. The Dragonfly was the final Douglas postwar flat twin. It had a restyled, redesigned engine, and a completely different chassis and forks compared to what preceded it. And it’s the story of that chassis which was really interesting. Douglas was already different in many ways. First of all it was based in east Bristol. Second, after a distinguished prewar production history with fore-and-aft flat twins, by 1947 it had adapted a wartime generator for a motorcycle with its cylinders in the classic transverse BMW-type format, to create its 350cc twins. And thirdly, innovative suspension, by torsion-bar rear, and then patented Radiadraulic front leading-link fork (which a young Doug Hele had worked on), made them unique, as well as excellent handlers. The 80 and 90 Plus racing variants were even briefly but seriously competitive in the Clubman’s TT.
So why the Dragonfly? Douglas was dogged by a number of problems. The underlying one was financial; the Receiver had been called in late in 1948. The MD appointed by the bank had negotiated a deal from 1951 with Vespa, to import its scooters CKD and assemble them at Kingswood; it was eventually a profitable endeavour, but financial pressures remained. This resulted in low wages and a turnover of skilled staff, as well as the use of inferior materials – writer L J K Setright was a fan of the 90 Plus racers, but judged that Douglas must have obtained its aluminium alloy from the local cheese factory. So by 1953 the twins were on the heavy side (a 90 Plus weighed 393lb), not that fast in roadster form (around 78mph), expensive (£230 for a 1953 Mk V, versus £203 for a Triumph Speed Twin); and tarred with the brush of unreliability. Many felt a 500cc version would have been the answer, but after a prototype proved little faster and conspicuously thirstier, so was not pursued. With sales flagging, in a final attempt to uprate the model, the firm turned to welding wizards Reynolds Tubes, who were making Norton’s Featherbed frames, and to Ernie Earles. Earles had been superintendent of the Austin sheet metal shops, where he became lifelong friends with Tony Reynolds, future technical director of the Reynolds Tube Co. at Tyseley, Birmingham. Earles established his own Elms Metals company in West Heath, Birmingham, but he was more than a sheet metal man.
Fritzie’s Roamers’ – an Indian club, based in Springfield – gather for a Sunday excursion. Note the spelling of ‘Motorcycles’ on the shop front.
WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY ALAN CATHCART/MORTONS MEDIA GROUP
THE CLASSIC MOTORCYCLE OCTOBER 2013
The 112-year history of Indian is one of good times and bad, tribal turmoil and continual tumult. And now the company is back.
nce the world’s largest-volume manufacturer of motorcycles, Indian’s acquisition by Polaris in 2011 marked the latest chapter in more than a century of tribal turmoil represented by the fortunes of America’s oldest and most historic motorcycle marque, ever since ‘The Wigwam’, as the Indian Motocycle (sic) Manufacturing Company liked to call its factory, was founded in 1901 in Springfield, Massachusetts, by Indian chiefs George Hendee and Oscar Hedström. That makes Indian America’s oldest motorcycle company, established two years before Harley-Davidson. Hendee was an American champion cycle racer with a flair for promotion, Hedström an engineering genius who personally designed and hand-built the first Indian prototype motorcycle, a 1¾ horsepower single with then-revolutionary chain final drive, which led to two customer versions being built and sold in 1901. In 1903, Hedström set what was then the World Motorcycle Land Speed Record on an Indian at 56mph, in an early demonstration of the company’s thirst for competition. After the 1904 Indian Single introduced the company’s signature red livery, Indian led the pioneer days of American motorcycling, with sales increasing dramatically from 586 bikes in 1904, up to 35,000 built in 1916 prior to America’s entry into the First World War, with the Wigwam’s products taking more than 40% of a booming market contested by around 20 US based manufacturers. This was obtained thanks to Indian’s new 400,000sq ft Springfield factory which opened in 1913, building an unrivalled range of models which from 1907 onwards employed Indian’s trademark 42º V-twin motors, whose dependability and performance generated great brand loyalty with Indian’s customers. But while building their overhead-valve streetbikes to the highest standards attainable at the time, Indian management also believed that racing improved the breed, and sold bikes. Hence the comprehensive factory competition programme headlined by their iconic, and successful, eight-valve board-track racer, which debuted in 1911 and scored serial success. Erwin ‘Cannonball’ Baker set many long-distance records on an Indian, riding across America in 1914 from San Diego to New York in a record 11½ days, while Canadian-born Indian factory employee Jake De Rosier set several land speed records, as well as winning an estimated 900 races in dirt and board track races on Indians, before he died in 1913 of injuries sustained in a race crash, after leaving Indian for the rival Excelsior marque. Work at the Indian factory nevertheless stopped to pay tribute while local resident De Rosier’s funeral procession passed by. The versatility of Indian products was underlined by American Teddy Hastings’ domination of the debut ISDT Six Days Trial held in Britain in 1907 on his V-twin, as well as the American marque’s one-two-three domination of the first-ever Isle of Man Senior TT to be held over the present 37¾ mile Mountain Course, in 1911. Britain’s Oliver Godfrey won that race ahead of Irish civil servant Charles Franklin, who was to join Indian in 1916 as an engineer destined to create the company’s most famous models, the legendary Indian Scout, and Indian Chief. For after gradually reducing his slice of Indian equity as new investors were brought in to underwrite the company’s growth, cofounder and chief engineer Oscar Hedström had left Indian in 1913, horrified at the nowadays illegal, then merely dubious actions of Indian board members to ramp up the company’s share price, with George Hendee following him in 1916. This was the year a star Indian model was introduced, the legendary Powerplus whose side valve 61cu in/1000cc 42º V-twin engine designed by Charles Gustafson was quieter and more powerful than previous ohv models, remaining in production with few changes until 1924. Indian used the Powerplus as the basis of the 41,000 military bikes it produced under fixed-price contracts from 1917-19, a deal which turned sour for the company as raw materials escalated in
THE CLASSIC MOTORCYCLE OCTOBER 2013