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South Liverpool club gymkhana, August 30, 1930

Michael Barraclough
August 4, 2014

The club’s Motorcycle Gymkhana was a charity event in aid of the Liverpool Radium Fund and Cancer Hospital. The club raised a total of £15-15s for these noble causes and the main event was, of course, this bizarre and potentially hazardous race.

The winner was a Mr A Cafferata (references to whom remain disappointingly illusive; does anyone recognise the name? Founders of the Cafferata and Co brick company in Newark seemingly had roots in Liverpool so perhaps there was a link there?) but this contest showcased much more than one man’s gift for balancing an egg on a spoon at high speeds.

Here there are two motorcycles, each representing one side of a ‘changing point’ in British motorcycle manufacture. The legendary ‘bullnose’ Sunbeam Model 90 – arguably the finest flat-tank motorcycle ever made, certainly in terms of performance – versus the revolutionary BSA Sloper. One of these riders, it is not known which, would end up with egg on his face by the end.

The Model 90 enjoyed its best ever year in 1928, culminating with Charlie Dodson winning the Senior TT. Its flat tank was almost an anachronism, as more and more manufacturers were switching over to the ‘modern’ saddle tanks. Even so, the arrival of the seminal Model 90 also heralded the arrival of Sunbeam’s ‘bullnose’ petrol tank. The ‘bullnose’ did away with the usual angular flat tank front which gave way to a rounded snout – it was still a flat tank, but the design had certainly been updated, producing one of the most beautiful of all flat tankers.

The Sunbeam’s overhead-valve 500cc engine soon became a real classic, thanks to its great performance and simple design. The real strength of the engine was to be found in the design of the cylinder head. The roof of the combustion chamber was extremely thick, but the finning between the twin exhaust ports was very deep and so the engine was always very well ventilated, enabling it to run cooler and thus perform better, for longer. 

The Model 90 also had Druid forks and Sunbeam’s own close-ratio gearbox. Couple those aspects with the more streamlined tank and pokey 500cc engine, and you’ve got a machine that was made to race.

The new and innovative Sloper represented a departure from the norm for the often conservative BSA, and signalled the beginning of a new motorcycling era.

If the Model 90 Sunbeam was the final development of an old era, then the Sloper was the first ‘1930s’ motorcycle. In fact, the first incarnation of the Sloper emerged from BSA’s Birmingham factory in 1926 and was an instant success. Its modern design embodied the forward-thinking approach to motorcycling. The BSA did throw a greater proportion of its weight over the front wheel, so the back wheel did wiggle on the odd occasion, but it was still a much loved motorcycle throughout the late 1920s and early 30s.

The Sloper featured a detachable cylinder head. The valves were operated by steel alloy pushrods which were hidden inside telescopic tubes. The overhead-valve engine was slanted in such a way that it fitted snugly inside the frame and it also had an Amac TT carburettor and BSA’s own three-speed gearbox. The Sloper in its infancy was not a terrifically quick motorcycle, but it was a real trend setter. Later models allowed BSA to perfect the design, which carried the company for a number of years, alongside its more commuter-friendly and ride to work machines.

The Sloper (note the chrome-plated tank too, another ‘modern’ feature) pictured is most likely a 1929 model, and it seems to be edging into the lead ahead of the Model 90, though which one of these gentlemen was A Cafferata we will never know. Or will we? \

 –º For more historical images visit the Mortons Archive

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