Two Wheeled Heroes: T.E. Lawrence

Words and Pictures by Craig Willis

My own introduction to TE Lawrence was only quite recently. Of course I’d heard of “Lawrence of Arabia”, but in my youth it was just a really old movie that my grandparents might have watched.

Photo taken at the National Motorcycle Museum, Birmingham

It was during my first visit to the National Motorcycle Museum in Birmingham that my real interest in Lawrence began. After seeing the picture above, it piqued my interest. I did some research. I went back and watched that old movie and last year I went to an exhibition in Oxford dedicated to him and his time in the city. Much of his military life is well known, mostly due to the “Lawrence of Arabia” film by David Lean, but less seems to be known about his two-wheeled life.

Born in 1888, Thomas Edward Lawrence moved to Oxford when he was nine years old and his family lived there until 1921. During his teenage years he spent a lot of time cycling around Oxfordshire, visiting various historical sites and reporting his findings to the Ashmolean museum. A relationship that would grow and grow over the years and a few items from Lawrence are still on display today.

The actual robes worn by T.E. Lawrence, currently on display at the Ashmolean museum in Oxford.

It was whilst studying history at Jesus college, Oxford, Lawrence decided to go on his own “Tour De France”. Following the 1908 tour, four days behind them, Lawrence journeyed across France visiting crusader castles along the way.

The journey was over 2000 miles, solo, on a standard touring bike of the time, on the rough roads of the time. A challenge for any professional cyclist today, so for Lawrence to have done it over 100 years ago is truly inspiring.

His love of two wheels didn’t stop with bicycles. After the first world war, he seemed to fall in love with motorcycles. In particular, Brough Superiors and he went on to own eight of them.

There is a wonderful piece of writing in his posthumously published book, The Mint. It essentially documents his time in the RAF after the war. In chapter 16 – “The Road”, he writes about riding his Brough Superior named Boanerges (A biblical name meaning ” Son of Thunder”) as he races a plane!

Boa is a top-gear machine, as sweet in that as most single-cylinders in middle. I chug lordlily past the guard-room and through the speed limit at no more than sixteen. Round the bend, past the farm, and the way straightens. Now for it. The engine’s final development is fifty-two horse-power. A miracle that all this docile strength waits behind one tiny lever for the pleasure of my hand.

An excerpt from “The Mint” by T.E, Lawrence

In May 1935, whilst riding his Brough Superior SS100, he was involved in an accident which tragically, cost him his life. At the time of his death, a new Brough Superior was being built for him but was sadly, never delivered.

T.E. Lawrence may be best remembered for his achievements during the first world war and the film that made him a household name. But for me, his stories and adventures involving both bicycles and motorcycles make him a real, two wheeled hero.

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