Lawrence of Arabia's favourite bike brand Brough makes a French comeback
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by Hugues Jeanneaud
TOULOUSE, FRANCE - Brough motorcycles, favourites of the writer, spy and gentleman adventurer TE Lawrence, are making a comeback - not in their former home in England, but deep in the southwest of France.
Production of Brough bikes, of which the historic figure known as "Lawrence of Arabia" owned seven, ended in 1940 when the factory in Nottingham was requisitioned for Britain's war effort.
Manufacture didn't resume after the war, but the bike's memory was kept alive over the decades by diehard - and flush -- fans, with prices for the bikes sometimes reaching $600 000 (R8.9m) at auction.
In the meantime the motorcycle world embarked on a nostalgic love affair with famed old British brands, with Royal Enfield, now Indian-owned, and Triumph leading the neo-vintage way.
'The most beautiful'
Brough fans had to wait much longer for a revival, which began to take shape only in 2013 when Frenchman Thierry Henriette, a former Toulouse motorbike salesman, met with Briton Mark Upham, who had bought the Brough Superior trademark five years earlier.
Within three months Henriette came up with a prototype for a new Brough that won cheers when he presented it at the Milan bike show.
Henriette started production, first under licence, before taking over the brand in 2018.
"I always thought Brough was the most beautiful motorbike brand," Henriette told AFP.
Production is based near Toulouse in southwest France, but Henriette wanted continuity with the brand's English tradition.
It was an important moment when members of the Brough Superior Club made the trip to France on their 1930s bikes to give the venture their blessing.
'The English will forgive you'
"What we're doing is heritage theft," acknowledged Albert Castaigne, Brough Superior's CEO. "But if you do it well, the English will forgive you."
The memory of TE Lawrence, bike lover, supporter of an Arab rebellion during World War I and author of the "Seven Pillars of Wisdom", is a big factor for the longevity of the Brough legend.
Lawrence kept a regular correspondence with Brough's founder George Brough, got a say in the bikes' design, and acquired seven, four of which were SS 100s, the model that still gets the hearts of aficionados racing.
He died in the Dorset countryside when he crashed his sixth Brough before he could take delivery of the seventh, a scene memorably captured in David Lean's 1962 epic film starring Peter O'Toole as Lawrence.
The ultra-modern factory in Saint-Jean will deliver around 100 Brough bikes this year, at a price tag of 60 000 to 100 000 euros (R1.07m to R1.79m), with customisation costing extra.
Brough offers three neo-retro models: a contemporary version of Lawrence's SS 100, a scrambler and an art-deco effort to mark the brand's centenary.
"We have customers in a dozen countries in Europe, in Russia, Australia, Mexico and soon in the United States," Henriette said.
'Worth the money'
One of them is Patrick Blandinet, a businessman in his 60s based in the French Caribbean department of Guadeloupe, who came over to see the factory, customise his bike and "indulge myself", he said.
"I asked for a gold-leafed logo on the tank," said Blandinet, calling his brand-new bike "a gem" and "worth the money".
The availability of qualified sub-contractors in the Toulouse region, thanks to the Airbus production there, is "indispensable" for Brough, which requires high-value materials including titanium, carbon fibre and speciality steel, Castaigne said.
"You should be able to place every component of the bike on a table and consider them to be both technically accomplished and beautiful," Henriette said.
Brough has also started a collaboration with Aston Martin of James Bond fame, whose first motorcycle, called the AMB01, will be made by Brough.
Ten units of the futuristic-looking Aston Martin bikes are already at the assembly stage.