B. N. G. Spagthorpe:
Newfoundland Springer Spaniel

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  • I was poring over the Spagthorpe Archives when I came across a curious item, a reference to a Spagthorpe Newfoundland in a 1964 issue of Road & Driver Magazine. Entitled “British Invasion,” the article described a curious contraption which sported an unusual combination of four wheels, chain-drive, tandem seating, and a steering yoke. The photographs were of something vaguely motorcycle-like, something that might be the brain-child of corporate-executive designers of the American Motor Company.

    Curious, I continued my research, hoping to find some mention of this mysterious model in publications more relevant to this subject. But, as expected, this Spagthorpe received the usual level of coverage by the motorcycle press: it was ignored completely. The reasons for this apparently deliberate selective blindness to products of the Spagthorpe Motorcycle Company are manifold, but in this case might, it pains me to say it, be perfectly justified.

    The Spagthorpe Newfoundland is a four-wheeled motorcycle. At first glance, this may appear to be a contradiction in terms, but when one considers the unusual suspension layout—dual interlinked symmetrical single-sided swingarms in the back and dual interlinked hub-steering springer front axles—ones initial confusion is confirmed.

    The rear drive is, in typical Spagthorpe fashion, overengineered. Where the usual shaft drive employs a spur gear on the shaft and a crown gear for the wheel, the Newfoundland’s final drive’s crown gear drives a curious set of gears, termed “planetary” by the engineers, which drive the two short axle shafts. The reason for this, according to the literature, has something to do with differential rotation of the left and right drive wheels, an altogether curious concept which I in all my years as a motorcycle engineer have never encountered. Why the engineers didn’t employ the obviously simpler design of one spur gear and two crown gears—a design which would be elegant in its simplicity and light weight—is beyond me.

    The transmission is a delight to behold. Because of the engine’s prodigious output, the transmission designers were challenged to find an elegant, simple, and reliable solution that would survive in this high-torque environment. It would be fair to say that in this heroic endeavor the designers failed completely. The transmission sports paired primary, secondary, and tertiary shafts, each with identical gears, cogs, synchronizers, splines, ferrules, mesh-plates, dogs, forks, shift shafts, linkages, and selector barrels. Apparently the original intent was to send power to two drive shafts, but because of a last-minute design change, promped perhaps by the realization that one of the shafts would be rotating in the wrong direciton, a single output shaft was used instead. At the same time, the concept of dual shift levers was dropped in favor of a more traditional two down, one up, one-to-the-right, two up, one back, three down and one over shifter on the right side.

    The clutch is a multiplate semi-wet design lubricated at intervals by finely engineered spiderlike passages in the engine and transmission oil seals.

    Where the transmission’s complexity evokes the sort of delight normally reserved for tourists gaping in wonder at the giant clockwork mechanism of the clock in Spaten-Partenkirchen’s Town Hall, the engine elicits gasps of a sort usually heard only from the audience of a movie starring Vincent Price or Peter Cushing. The engine is a derivative of the Mastiff’s 16-litre W-10. This, however, was a proper W-14. Sporting eight 1300cc pistons in an octopposed configuration and six 1800cc pistons in a 60° V-6 with a common crankshaft, the engine’s 21,200cc displacement eclipsed anything seen on any wheeled vehicles until the giant Caterpillar strip-mining dump trucks legalized during the environmentally-conscious Reagan years. The engine’s sound was an awesome roar the likes of which were not to be heard again until the release of the cinematic blockbuster Earthquake—and then only by people who had not heard the original.

    Initial designs called for water-cooling, but the requisite fifty gallon cooling system was deemed cost-prohibitive.

    The massive yet teardop-shaped fuel tank, lovingly evocative of the classic choppers beloved of Colonials during the ’50s, has capacity of ten gallons. Surprisingly, even when filled to the brim, it hardly affects the motorcycle’s balance or steering. In fact, the difference in handling made by the presence or absence of sixty pounds of fuel—not to mention three hundred additional pounds contributed by passenger and fully loaded touring bags—is so slight as to be unnoticeable.

    Steering is by either a direct remote mechanical linkage or by an optional hydraulic drive, a feature to be revived in later years in certain forms of industrial machinery. In either case, it is actuated by a yoke, not a wheel, and there is a lever in the dashboard which, anticipating a simlar feature of the Pit Bull, reverses the direction of the steering sense. The two modes were lovingly termed by the Spagthorpe engineers as “Normal” and “Idiot.” 

    The Newfoundland is an obscure Spagthorpe design, and some may say deservedly so. The degree to which it was accepted and made successful by the motorcycling community of the ’60s, such as it was, may lead us to wonder why its modern descendant, the Daimler-Chrysler Tomahawk, is receiving so much fawning attention from the automotive press. Perhaps its kinship with the earlier Spagthorpe—whether it is purely by unlucky coincidence or, dare we say, a deliberate rehash of an old and deservedly forgotten concept—explains why its reception in the modern motorcycle community is most succinctly summed up in one word: “Hunh?”

    Spagthorpe Home Michael Roeder, inspired by Daimler-Chrysler
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