Today in Motorcycle History

Pocket Battleship

The story of the Dreadnought, as related by an un-named author in the 2nd Golden Jubilee Issue of The Vintage Motor Cycle.

The Dreadnought

The Dreadnought, the one and only

The "Dreadnought" resembles the Sphinx in many respects. It still exists, it can be viewed and examined - and it is surrounded by myth and legend. Yet there is one important feature which distinguishes the Dreadnought from the Sphinx. We know who "built" the Dreadnought.

It would be fair to state that Harold "Oily" Karslake was nothing if not an accomplished self-publicist and, when it suited him, he had a tendency to be a little "economical with the truth". So, much of that which is written about this curious machine needs to be taken with some reservations. The "Dreadnought" had acquired a considerable degree of fame and notoriety long before its specification was totally outmoded. This was due to the extraordinary successes of Mr. Karslake in long distance reliability trials in the Edwardian era. The Dreadnought was, of course, a significant component of these successes, but I cannot help feeling that the skill, resourcefulness and incredible powers of endurance possessed by Mr. Karslake would have ensured success on almost any machine of the period.

Such was the combined reputation of Karslake and the Dreadnought that he published a little booklet in 1910 outlining the history and development of the machine. As the years rolled by, and the "Dreadnought" appeared less frequently - but usually in circumstances calculated to attract the maximum degree of publicity, the stories and the history of the machine seeming to be redesigned to suit the occasion. What is reasonably certain is that construction commenced in 1902, with the purchase of a "stout loop frame" (Karslake's own words) and a front wheel. An engine was purchased in Woking for five pounds.

Karslake described this engine as a 3½ h.p. B.A.T x It is demonstrably an engine of M.M.C. origins. [1] The seating position and the foot boards were added/ rearranged in 1904 and at the same time the current design of handlebars were adopted. Bearing in mind that Karslake was significantly taller than most: this seating position no doubt contributed significantly towards his successes in staying the course on what must have been some gruelling rides.

In 1906, the lack of variable gears became apparent. Karslake decided upon and fitted an epicyclic two-speed engine-shaft gear made in Germany by N.S.U. To supplement this in situations where really steep gradients might be encountered, a rather basic chain-cum-belt arrangement was constructed - giving a bottom gear of 14-to-1. Engine wear necessitated a new piston and a re-bore: this enlarged the engine to 86mm. bore. The rear wheel was also re-designed to give the curious "live axle" configuration. The machine retains this feature to this day and presents us with a conundrum. A live rear spindle is an essential feature should a "ROC" two-speed-hub be fitted to a motorcycle: there are no other practical benefits to such an arrangement: indeed, rear wheel removal is encumbered by such a feature and wheel bearing life must have been drastically reduced. There are reports of conversations and correspondence with Karslake that indicate that such a gear WAS fitted - but this is not referred to in his accounts of 1910.

Subsequent to Karslake joining the Motor Cycling Club in 1909, he became a regular and highly successful participant in their long-distance trials - winning the "24 Hours" (466 miles) trial outright in 1909.

It was at around this date that the machine was "Christened". Fellow hard riders, Bert le Vack and J.S. Holroyd are credited with the invention and Karslake obviously found it both amusing and sufficiently newsworthy... at this time the new capital ships of that name were coming into service with the Royal Navy.

In 1910, he participated in the London-Edinburgh (and back.) The non-stop team trials and the petrol consumption trial. In 1911, he won the gold medal for the Winter Ride and the silver medal in the "Land's End Trial" - in total, some 60,000 -70,000 miles in eight years.

Acknowledgment is given to a certain Mr. Simkins, who is credited with the design and execution of the "countershaft chain drive " modifications. It is just possible that the machine owes much, much more to this mysterious figure than Karslake is prepared to concede.

The machine was more or less retired by the time of the Great War: and subsequent to the War Karslake was closely involved with another larger-than-life character - George Brough.

The Dreadnought was exhumed in the mid-twenties and with Karslake at the controls, put up a creditable performance in the "London-Edinburgh" for 1923. This exhibition did not go down at all well with the Motorcycle industry... a pioneer machine of eccentric appearance and a seemingly primitive specification successfully challenging their latest offerings.......

The machine still had its two-speed gear and its live axle rear wheel. The original rod-operated Longuemare carburettor had been replaced with a B.&.B. and the "chain-drive" attachment had gone. Being a cheese-paring individual, Karslake took the number plates off his Brough Superior - and the tax disc (!) and, lo and behold the Dreadnought became a Brough.

The next highly publicised appearance was the occasion of the first London-Brighton run for motor-cycles when George Brough - complete with ocelot fur gauntlets - thrashed it down the Brighton road to claim fastest time. This appearance of the Dreadnought gave rise to yet another misconception. George Brough had a somewhat cavalier attitude towards history and so the Dreadnought remained as a "Brough" - complete with a registration number from one of George's Demonstrators - for the purposes of the event. But this was not the first instance of economy, for the the first three years of its existence, Karslake utilised the documents, number and taxation disc for his 1¾ h.p. Ixion until caught out. Karslake then registered the machine - in Middlesex - being granted the number it possesses to this day.

Notes. 1. Bat used MMC engines in 1903.