Home Film Lawrence of Arabia: It’s 89 years since he died on his beloved...

Lawrence of Arabia: It’s 89 years since he died on his beloved Brough motorcycle

The story of T.E. Lawrence, continues to fascinate, years after his death


What comes to mind when you hear mention of Lawrence of Arabia? Perhaps the actor, Peter O’Toole, garbed in a white thawb or sat astride a Brough motorcycle? Rarely has a historical figure associated been so closely with a particular item of clothing, or with a particular motorcycle. But somehow, years after his death, those images of T.E Lawrence, still capture the imagination. He was a complex character, with many facets, but his love of Brough motorcycles was one of his defining characteristics.

The story of T.E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, continues to fascinate, 89 years after he died in a motorcycle accident while riding his cherished Brough Superior SS100 on 19 May 1935. Yesterday was the anniversary of his death.


Historians have amply documented Lawrence’s war exploits and his love of Arab culture, yet he ended the war severely disappointed.

His leadership had helped defeat the Ottoman Turks, but he had failed in his dream of securing a homeland for the Arabs. Disillusioned, he refused the Order of the Bath and Distinguished Service Order, leaving King George V, The present King’s great-grandfather, holding the boxes.

Lawrence continued his writing and his support of the Arab cause, eventually becoming a fellow of All Souls, Oxford. In 1921, Winston Churchill recruited him as an advisor on Arab affairs, and he attended a conference in Cairo where he realised at least some of his ambitions for the region.

Ruse discovered

But he found all this attention a deadly bore. He decided to make a dramatic about-turn in his life, partly prompted by his new-found love of aircraft. Forsaking fame and fellowship, he joined the RAF as a humble squaddie under the assumed name of John Hume Ross.

Unfortunately, the press soon discovered the ruse, and he had to leave the service, enlisting a year later as Private T.E. Shaw in the Royal Tank Corps. However, his unhappiness almost drove him to suicide, before a transfer back to the Royal Air Force became possible. Many suspect that Churchill himself influenced the decision.

Lawrence’s fascination with aircraft and machinery in general led to a long association with George Brough and his Brough Superior motorcycles, manufactured in Nottingham between 1919 and 1940.

Gone but not forgotten

When I worked for The Motor Cycle magazine over 35 years after Lawrence’s death, the Brough-Superior marque was long gone.

Yet, it continued to occupy an almost mystical status in the lore of motorcycling. My colleague and prolific author Vic Willoughby, the technical editor of the magazine, told lurid stories of riding Broughs1Pronounced “Bruff” before the war; an earlier colleague, H.D. Teague, whom I never met, had dubbed the Brough the “Rolls Royce of Motorcycles”.

Lawrence became a leading light in the Brough world and owned a succession of seven models throughout the 1920s and 1930s, including the fabled SS100, the 1000cc flagship of which only 383 examples were manufactured in its 16-year life.

These beasts were powered by a massive v-twin engine manufactured either by JAP (J.A.Prestwich of Tottenham) or Matchless of Woolwich. It was on the latest of these machines that Lawrence was fatally injured, not far from his cottage near Wareham in Dorset. He died six days later on 19 May 1935 at the age of 46.

At the time of his death, Lawrence was waiting for the arrival of his eighth Brough, another SS100. This machine, which would have cost him around £180 had he lived to take delivery, is now in the Imperial War Museum in London.

You might also be interested in T.E. Lawrence, his love of Brough and a conspiracy theory

Join our community and play an active part in the future of Macfilos: This site is run by a group of volunteers and dedicated authors around the world. It is supported by donations from readers who appreciate a calm, stress-free experience, with courteous comments and an absence of advertising or commercialisation. Why not subscribe to the thrice-weekly newsletter by joining our mailing list? Comment on this article or, even, write your own. And if you have enjoyed the ride so far, please consider making a small donation to our ever-increasing running costs.


  1. The motorcycle scene in the David Lean movie was just great but the scene I remember most was where ‘O Toole puts out the flame from the match with his fingers and his friend asks ” Doesn’t that hurt?” He answers ” Of course it bloody well hurts, the trick is, not to MIND that it hurts.” Classic.
    They really don’t make movies like that anymore. or sadly, bikes like that anymore either.

      • The thing is, I snuff out candles with my fingers frequently, and it does not hurt. Now maybe a match is different . . . I suppose I’ll have to try.

  2. Interesting footnote ; The late Robert White (Robert White Photographic from whom i bought my first Leica) owned a significant collection of Brough Superiors which he had agreed to sell to his friend Jay Leno on his death. The proceeds of the sale went to a new cancer unit at Poole Hospital. Of course not far from where TE Lawrence crashed

  3. Mike, there is seemingly no end to your interests!

    Looking at the photos of Broughs, I see it appears to have a 45-degree V, which Harley-Davidsons are famous for on this side of the pond. Curious, I looked up the history of these bikes, and found that Brough, H-D, and Indian were all started about the same time, 1901-03, and all eventually featured 45-degree V twins. So who developed that style of engine first? Mind you, I am not a motorcycle aficionado, but am always interested/curious about engine designs, from single-cylinder to 5,000 HP 36-cylinder radials, and everything in between

    • Martin, indeed there is no end. But motorcycling was always my great love and it wasn’t it after I stopped riding that I developed my interest in photography. George Brought took over his father’s motorcycle factory in Nottingham in 1919 when he was 29 years old. V-twins were popular and used in several marques, including Panther and the later Vincents made in Stevenage. The best-known manufacturer of v-twin engines was JAP (J.A Parsons) but Matchless and others were also prominent. I don’t know if there is any historical connection with the v-twins of the American manufacturers but someone might know.

      • George Brough’s father also built Brough V-Twin motorcycles at the same factory, but the ‘Superior’ tag was only added to the bikes (And BS Cars) by young George after he took over. I have often wondered what his father must have thought about his products thus being somehow ‘Inferior’ As a young man and motorcycle enthusiast I used to cycle over from my home in Derby to the factory in Nottingham in the hope of just seeing a Brough Superior being ridden into or out of the factory as they were still for servicing, and I did eventually get to own six Brough’s including a SS100, which I later loaned to the Brooklands Museum . Don

        • That episode with the Brooklands Brough was covered in another Macfilos story which, I think, was the one linked at the bottom of the current article.

      • “JAP (J.A Parsons)” ..er, I think J. A . Prestwich ..I ought to know, ‘cos I used to live in – was born and brought up in – Prestwich (just north of Manchester). Indeed, our house backed onto St Mary’s Park, Prestwich, where – every year – a grass-track speedway ran for a day, or over a weekend, and there were so MANY JAP-powered motorbikes going round and round the field, with the riders having one foot out as they scraped zround the track ..or field of mud, as it always ended up!

        Them were’t days, wi’ JAP, Greaves, Villiers, Matchless, (no Triumphs, I think), BSA, possibly Nortons, and many other ‘speedway’ brands, now long gone since Kawasaki, Yamaha, Suzuki and Co came calling.

        (Incidentally, the ‘Peter Brough’ exhaust always sounded as if it came from a different, but adjacent, vehicle instead.)

        • You are quite right, David. Slip of the finger. But who were J.A Parsons? Seems very familiar to me. It’s Greeves BTW, not Greaves, just to get our names right.

          • For the record J.A.Prestwich’s famous engine factory was in Tottenham London, not far from Spurs Football ground. Don

          • The only Parsons I know who made engines was the Parsons marine engine manufacturer – usually nice and reliable, and many of those were marinised Ford engines.

            As for Greeves: sorry, I’d never read the name in close-up, but only glimpsed it on VERY muddy ‘trials’ and speedway motorbikes ..but I’ve just read on Wikipedia that the company began by making those flimsy easy-blow-over ‘Invacar’ invalid carriages (..which were also, oddly, made by the very-fast-racer ‘AC’ – Amazing [sports] Cars – of Thames Ditton). I used to go down to the Thundersley Invacar factory back in, er, the early eighties, I think, when delivering car batteries to garages, etc, and often dropped them off at the Essex Invacar factory. Greeves, well I never.

            (I once stopped on the M6 motorway for a stranded Invacar driver – who shouldn’t have been on the motorway anyway! – to help him try to get his flimsy car restarted, but it couldn’t be done, so I towed the plastic three-wheeler to the nearest services behind my open-topped white convertible Jaguar ..I could have got us both arrested, but took pity on the stranded disabled motorist: he had no mobile phone (in those days) and – obviously! – couldn’t walk to the nearest emergency phone box.)

            [In fact I once had a car (..veering wildly off topic) with half a motorcycle engine in it: a Honda N600, which I’d bought from Mac Campbell of ‘Angling Times’ ..it went 40mph on the flat, and did 60 with a following wind, but it was rather difficult to drive ‘uphill’ back to Peterborough from Cornwall. It did last really well, though, till a goat ate most of it.]

          • Yes you are right about Greeves. Bert Greeves’s cousin (I think) was Derry Preston-Cobb who was severely disabled and they developed the Invacar project. Derry always had a souped-up version and was forever in trouble after taking risks. I did some PR work for Greeves and Derry was the main operator.. I have endless anecdotes about DPC and will tell you one day…

          • There was a C A Parsons engine manufacturer in (I think) Heaton near Newcastle. Parsons invented the steam turbine engine. Now part of Siemens.

          • Thanks, Tim. For some strange reason that must have been a thought at the back if my head. But glad we’ve established it was JA Prestwich!

          • Er, just to get our names right, that’s Tom not Tim!

            (I know; it always happens.)

    • Just for the record and with regard to your comment on cylinder angles, no vee-twin Brough Superior had a 45-degree cylinder angle. All had a 50-degree cylinder angle, whether JAP or Matchless-engined, except for the 11.50 model (as in the photo of YG3838) where the JAP engine has a 60-degree cylinder angle.

      • Thanks, Nick. I should have mentioned you in the story as one of the leading experts on Brough (as well as owner and rider!)

        • Mike, you are too kind! Another little bit of info is that the Brough Superior that has been on display at the Imperial War Museum (GW2275) is the one Lawrence was riding on that fateful day in 1935, not the one he was awaiting delivery of. GW2275 suffered only minor damage in the crash, contrary to some reports.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here