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The 1930s Dynasphere - a "remarkable experiment in spherical locomotion"
- powered by a Douglas engine. It was
neither a commercial or technical success.
The 1928 500cc Douglas DT5 horizontally opposed engine. Brand new, this bike would cost around £85
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“This Douglas has a three speed ‘box with a hand change – which means you’re handicapped against the foot-change riders who can click-click-click through the gears without losing precious time.
“I shaved two seconds off my quarter mile time by mastering ‘cross tank’ changes - where you reach across the tank with your left hand to change gear allowing you to snap the throttle open with your right while the left is still making its way back to the bar. A foot-operated clutch prevents any damage to the gearbox.
“The Douglas is an SW5/DT model. It was built from bits, but is totally period. Flat out it reaches 80-something, and is perfect for me because it’s so low. It sounds raw and untamed, but the brakes are poor. I sometimes worry about the stopping distance – which sounds ridiculous when people are racing newer machines at around 180mph.
“Sprinting got me back on bikes after a serious back injury. I was amazed when a trial run - intended to see if I could still manage riding - opened up a competitive side in me that I never knew existed. I soon went from riding against the clock for fun to analysing each run and planning tactics. But every so often the back trouble recurs and I’m flat on my back rather than flat on the tank. It kept me out of the saddle for the whole of last season, but I’m planning to get back into it this year.
"My times don’t sound very impressive compared to foot-change riders. We’re experimenting with a different cam profile for next season, and if I can get into the low 16s I’ll be happy.
"After that, I don’t think I can go much quicker without foot change and methanol. But I want to stay in the pre-war classes because it’s my favourite era and it needs the support of younger riders to keep entry levels up.
“I’ve raced at North Weald in Essex – which is a little too public for me. I’ve also raced at Weston Zoyland, near Bridgwater in Somerset; at Eelmoor, Nr Aldershot in Surrey; and at Tempsford in Bedfordshire – which was a Special Operations Executive base during the war. There’s a barn at the airfield that has pictures of the secret agents and operatives, both men and women, who died on the missions.
“Eelmoor, incidentally, has one event run on a twisty course which is very tricky when you’re riding a bike with Speedway forks.
"I’m a member of the National Sprint Association and VMCC Sprint section. Sprinting is the cheapest form of motorcycle sport. There are some great characters and everyone has been very supportive to me as a novice, especially Dave Massam who owns and prepares the bike."
More on classic bike sprinting: Kevin Hunt and his 1950 Triumph Tiger 100.
The Douglas Engineering Company was founded in Bristol in 1895, the year the Lumière brothers staged their first public film exhibition in Paris and Alfred Nobel began giving away prizes.
William and Edward Douglas began not by building motorcycles, but by blacksmithing, general engineering and foundry work. It wasn't until Joseph Barter came along in 1905 that the biking business got underway. Barter had founded a company called Light Motors Ltd and had developed a 200cc motorcycle powered by a horizontally opposed engine called the Fairey; said to be advanced, refined and very smooth when compared to other engines of the day.
The venture wasn't financially successful, however, and by 1907 Barter became an employee of the Douglas company and helped further develop the design which was enlarged to 340cc.
By 1910, Douglas motorcycles were on the move and began winning long distance reliability trials. Two years on, Douglas consolidated their relatively modest successes by taking 1st, 2nd and 4th place in the Isle of Man TT.
In 1914, thousands of Douglas motorcycles were seeing action at the Western front, many of which were repatriated post-hostilities and saw active service of a different kind.
The stock-in-trade fore-and-aft horizontally opposed design engine was generally held in high regard by road users and racers alike, despite a tendency to foul the spark plug of the forward-pointing front cylinder coupled with a propensity for overheating at the rear.
In the 1930s, Douglas fielded three engine sizes; 348cc, 499cc, 596cc. All were 3-speed machines. But the classic long, low and lean design of the bikes was beginning to look antique when compared to other marques. Nevertheless, the company felt it had a tried and tested formula and persisted with its flat-twin ideas in the face of the heavy broadsides from their many rivals.
Moreover, the firm had long flirted with other engineering areas and were, arguably, never quite as focussed on their product as they needed to be - especially during the depression era when other motorcycle manufacturers fell by the wayside.
In 1931, the "Douglas tartan" first appeared on the petrol tanks. That same year, the company's financial stock became public and the era of private ownership came to an end.
A Douglas engine also became the motive power for the now largely forgotten Dynasphere; a one-wheeled, two-seater vehicle invented by Dr J A Purves of Taunton, Somerset looking not dissimilar to an oversize hamster wheel. The Dynasphere, capable of speeds of around 30mph, made an appearance at Brooklands, Surrey but was never put into production - not least, no doubt, due to its weird pendulum motion.
Revised engine configurations for Douglas motorcycles appeared over the next ten years, none of which put the company as far into the black as they needed to be.
Radiadraulic forks appeared soon after WW2, along with torsion bar rear suspension. By 1953 the company introduced the daringly-styled (and short-lived) Dragonfly - a bike similar in many respects to the BMWs of the day, albeit chain-driven.
The Dragonfly (originally called a Dart) was not a commercial success, and production ceased three years later. By early 1957, the game was up and Douglas was bought out by the Westinghouse Group.
The Dynasphere, meanwhile, rolled away into another kind of oblivion.
Top sprinting links
The National Sprint Association: www.sprinting.org.uk
For these guys, life is anything but a drag
The Vintage Motor Cycle Club: www.vmcc.net
Huge range of activities with a wide support network across
The Sprint Section of the Vintage Motor
Cycle Club: www.vmccsprint.co.uk
Organiser of motorcycle sprints for machines from vintage and classic bikes right through to millennium moderns. Think your bike is too modern? Think again. Bring it and fling it, whatever year it was built. All classes and categories supported.