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classic motorcycles

Andrew Bosson's 1938 Rudge Ulster. “It gets in your blood,” says Bosson of his lifelong love of old motorcycles.

Outside the ranks of rabid old bike enthusiasts, few will recognize the Rudge name on the tank badges of the 1937 Sports Special and 1938 Ulster. After all, it was a century ago that this British motorcycle maker fired up its first products and it survived for just three decades.

But the Rudge name gets prominent play in motorcycling's history books for making fine and fast bikes that featured novel engineering innovations and scored competition successes at venues including the Ulster Grand Prix and the Isle of Man TT races.

Rudge's 100th anniversary is being celebrated this coming Father's Day weekend (June 18-20) at the Canadian Vintage Motorcycle Group's 38th annual rally in Paris, Ont., where it will be the featured marque.

The Sport Special and the Ulster, owned by Andrew Bosson of Columbus, will be part of a display of these still enthusiastically collected and restored classic machines. And, of course, there will be many other makes on hand to stir memories of motorcycling's past.

Actually, recall of the Rudge name might be aided if you add the second part of the parent company's name, to create Rudge-Whitworth Ltd. British car enthusiasts might then remember this was the company that in 1907 invented a detachable wire wheel with a central locking cap called by generations of sports car fans a "knockoff."

And it should be remembered too for something clever its engineers developed for one of its earliest models, the 1912 Rudge Multi. The aptly named Multi's belt-and-pulley transmission was one of the forerunners of the continuously variable transmissions now being used in a number of modern vehicles.

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The rider employed a long lever beside the tank to simultaneously adjust the effective diameter of the engine and rear wheel pulleys to give essentially infinite ratios between the two over a range of 1.73:1, a great advantage over bikes with only a single speed.

The Rudge name initially came to prominence in the latter half of the 19th century when Dan Rudge began making and racing bicycles. Following his death, his company eventually merged with cycle makers Whitworth Cycle Co. in the 1890s and soon steered its inventive energies towards motorcycles.

The first Rudges appeared in 1910 but the following year racing versions were ready for the Isle of Man's lengthy and rough open road circuit. In 1912, a 500-cc single with a Multi transmission ran the event without success, but this was followed by a second place in 1913 and a win in the Senior TT of 1914.

Back in the bike business following World War One, the Multi transmission eventually gave way in 1923 to a conventional four-speed gearbox, which was coupled to a 350-cc single-cylinder engine with no less than four valves that made more power than the 500-cc unit it replaced. An interesting "coupled" braking system was introduced a couple of years later, along with various other models.

Rudge won the Ulster Grand Prix at record speed - 80 mph plus - in 1928 and christened its sports model the Ulster to commemorate the event. And in 1930 its new "radial" four-valve cylinder head 350-cc engine racer finished 1-2-3 in the Junior TT.

The company struggled in the 1930s and was taken over, oddly enough by British music-makers EMI Group, which in the 1960s would have on its representation play list bands such as The Beatles, The Beach Boys and Pink Floyd and which remains a force in the business today.

Production of the rigid-framed/girder-forked Ulster, whose 499-cc, four-valve single (with aluminum/bronze head) produced 35 hp and made it capable of almost 90 mph continued along with the touring-oriented Special (and Sports version). They were the last Rudges made in 1939 before the plant turned to making radar sets during the war.

"It gets in your blood," says Bosson of his lifelong love of old motorcycles. "There's real pleasure in having restored something from a very incomplete heap of rubbish to a machine that's polished up, runs beautifully and sounds nice."

As an apprentice pattern maker in England, he rode a variety of British machines, mainly because they were cheap transportation and, in the process, "really got to like them, particularly the older stuff."

An affinity perhaps inspired by his learning wooden pattern making, an art, craft and science dating back to the earliest forms of manufacturing. And which remains in demand today in an age where complex computer-generated forms are carved from solid chunks of metal by computer-driven machines. A pattern maker creates the shape of a required component in wood, which is used to create a mould into which molten metal is poured to create a casting.

A number of foundries in Southern Ontario still cast things by hand, says Bosson who still makes his living plying his ancient trade, which has come in handy in returning a number of badly used-up Rudges to life.

Bosson came to Canada in 1981 - with a '46 BSA in his baggage - and has owned a variety of vintage machines since. But his pair of rare Rudge resulted from meeting Ingo Reters in the mid-1990s.

Reters needed patterns made for unobtainable parts of other Rudges he was restoring. Bosson took on the job, which was made easier by being able to access original factory drawings. His compensation included the 1938 Ulster.

The 1937 Sports Special came along 10 years ago, and bringing it to life from a handful of rusty bits required extensive manufacture of new components here and in England. "Ingo and I decided to build a firecracker. The outside is exactly as it should be, but the inside has a few hot parts in it."

The CVMG's Paris Rally starts at noon Friday, June 18, and runs to 1 p.m. Sunday June 20 in the Paris Fair Grounds (near Brantford, Ont.). Admission is $5. For information go to cvmgparisrally.ca.

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