You probably know Thomas Edward Lawrence as Lawrence of Arabia, the British hero who united Arab tribes against the Turks in World War I. If you’ve seen the 1962 David Lean movie, you’ve also seen Lawrence (played by Peter O’Toole) fatally crash on a motorcycle in the first three minutes of the film.
T.E. Lawrence is a fascinating character in history, not only for his part in the Arab Revolt, but also for his Renaissance-like talent to excel in a variety of fields. He was a scholar, warrior, author, mechanical engineer, mapmaker, translator and historian, to touch on only a few of his abilities.
Lawrence loved motorcycles and began riding in earnest upon returning to England after the war. His favorite bike was the British Brough Superior SS100 (Brough is pronounced bruff) which was made in Nottingham from 1919 to 1940.
The 1000cc Superiors were touted as “the Rolls-Royce of motorcycles,” made by hand and prohibitively expensive. In the 1920s and ‘30s, they cost more than a year’s pay of a man making the average weekly salary.
Lawrence lived a relatively austere life after Arabia. A man of conscience, he was furious how the Arabs were treated after the war. The British broke their promises of self-government for the Arabs and though Lawrence championed the Arab cause, he was ashamed of his part in the political betrayal.
In a bit of convoluted atonement, and needing income, he re-entered military life, enlisting as an ordinary airman in the Royal Air Force in August 1922. He collected notes for a controversial book on life in the RAF ranks that later became The Mint. RAF officials were disconcerted by his presence and discharged him in February 1923.
Lawrence next tried the army, joining the Royal Tank Corps in March 1923. He never felt comfortable there (“like a unicorn in a racing stable” was how he described it) and lasted until July 1926, when he was transferred back to the RAF, where he remained until 1935.
He wrote a long version of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which detailed his role in the Arab Revolt. This is known as the 1922 edition. A more tightly edited version, 84,000 words shorter, appeared in 1926 under the same title. It’s the version most commonly available today. An even more condensed version, Revolt in the Desert, was published in 1927. His third book, The Mint, was published in 1955.
Seven Pillars remains in print; the others are easy to find. Lawrence’s writings have been gathered into other books and many biographies of Lawrence have been written.
But Lawrence also loved speed and precision machinery, and owned eight different Brough models. A ninth Superior was being built for him at the time of his death. He traded in his old bike whenever he got a new one. Each one was named Boanerges, a biblical term defined by Lawrence as “sons of thunder.”
Lawrence’s riding lived up to the name. Many who knew him characterized him as a recklessly fast rider. He rode “like a bat out of hell,” said one acquaintance.
The second-to-last Brough Lawrence owned was a gift from the playwright George Bernard Shaw, his wife Charlotte, and friends. Shaw was a fellow motorcycling enthusiast.
(Jay Leno is an affable guy, but he’s wrong on a few details of Lawrence’s death – there was no “drunken postman,” for example. And if, as Leno asserts, Seven Pillars is a challenge to read, the reward is worthwhile. Try the rarer 1922 edition over the 1926 publication. Nonetheless, Leno’s video (above) of how to operate a Brough is pretty good.)
With a wheelbase of 59 inches, the Superior was roughly as big as a modern-day 1200cc Harley-Davidson Sportster. But it weighed only about 340 lbs., compared to the Sportster’s 570 lbs. Lawrence was rather small in stature, about five feet, five inches tall, so the bike may have looked too big for him. A three-speed, the Superior was guaranteed to reach a hundred miles an hour, an impressive speed for a bike of that day. It was reputed to handle very well, but the brakes were less than adequate.
Lawrence kept his bikes in his tiny garage – barely large enough to squeeze a car into – adjoining his cottage in Dorset, about 110 miles from London. The cottage and its grounds were known as Clouds Hill. It was there Lawrence would fuss with his motorcycle, tinkering with carburetors and oiling systems and putting air into tires using an old bicycle pump.
His motorcycles found their way into Lawrence’s writing. The most famous passage is found in The Mint: It’s 1926 and Lawrence is riding home from a RAF air base when he sees a Bristol fighter plane low overhead; he waves, the pilot points to the road and challenges him to a race. It lasts 14 miles and Lawrence wins.
Riding a motorcycle was the last thing Lawrence did. On May 13, 1935, he left Clouds Hill on a bright and calm morning and rode to a nearby post office where he mailed some books to a friend, sent a telegram and started home.
Lawrence came over a blind hill at about 40 mph and swerved to avoid two 14-year-old boys on bicycles. The Brough clipped the back wheel of one of the bicycles and skidded off the road. Lawrence, who was not wearing a helmet, was thrown about 20 feet. He never regained consciousness and died six days later. He was 46 years old.
“A skittish motorbike with a touch of blood in it is better than all the riding animals on earth, because of its logical extension of our faculties, and the hint, the provocation, to excess conferred by its honeyed untiring smoothness.”
– T.E. Lawrence