The ex-Roland Martin, Brooklands
1927 Zenith-JAP 8/45hp Championship Motorcycle Combination
Registration no. ML 3081
Frame no. 9737
Engine no. KTOTR/I/77181
Zenith motorcycles were manufactured from 1905 until 1950, in a variety of factories in or around London. From the early days proprietary engines were used, such as Fafnir, Precision, JAP, Bradshaw and Villiers. The driving force behind Zenith was Chief Engineer, and company owner, Frederick Barnes, who was responsible for the famous Gradua gear. Worked by a crank handle, the Gradua mechanism varied the diameter of the engine pulley while simultaneously sliding the rear wheel back and forth in the fork slots, thus maintaining correct belt tension. Its advantages showed most effectively in speed hill climbs, and in pre-WW1 days Zenith machines gained many successes as the Zenith rider could change gear during the ascent while the other competitors had to make do with a single choice of ratio. Rival riders and manufacturers thought that this was an unfair advantage so many leading clubs excluded Zeniths from their hill climbs. Zenith was quick to recognise the publicity value and took the word Barred as their trademark.
Although the expensive Gradua system gave way to a more conventional Sturmey-Archer countershaft gearbox in the 1920s, Zenith continued to pursue its racing and record breaking activities with enthusiasm. Fred Barnes himself enjoyed considerable success at Brooklands, where in 1922 Zenith rider Bert Le Vack became the first man to lap at over 100mph on a motorcycle in the rain. In 1928 a Zenith-JAP ridden by Oliver Baldwin established a world motorcycle speed record of 124.62mph at Arpajon in France, while Joe Wright later raised the record to 150.736mph using his supercharged Zenith-JAP reserve bike, his favoured OEC having succumbed to mechanical problems. Significantly, when Wrights record was set, in 1930, the company was temporarily out of business.
Despite adding a Villiers-powered economy model to the range, Zenith failed to weather the financial storms of the early 30s. After a succession of closures and changes of ownership it re-emerged after WW2 with a solitary model: a 750cc JAP-powered sidevalve v-twin, which lasted only a few more years.
Dating from Zeniths Vintage years heyday, this magnificent Zenith-JAP was supplied new via Blays of Twickenham to Roland Martin in April 1927 and later was united with its AJS-manufactured Graiseley TT Model 259 racing sidecar. The original bills of sale for both motorcycle and sidecar are on file. Roland Martin was one of the few private owners who had their own workshop at Brooklands, and earned his living by preparing and tuning other peoples machines for racing. He started racing solos, but his real love was motorcycle combinations, and the KTOR-engined Zenith represented just about the best you could buy for £140 in 1927.
The machine comes with a file of fascinating documentation, including a letter from Tony Donnithorne, the VMCCs Zenith marque specialist, who first became acquainted with ML 3081 in the 1960s. In his letter, Mr Donnithorne observes that Zenith, being a relatively small concern, was prepared to build machines to the requirements of individual customers, resulting in many leaving the factory in virtually works specification. Indeed, ML 3081 would have been supplied to special order as Zenith did not list a 980cc overhead-valve racer in its catalogue at the time. This machines JAP KTOR racing engine - listed as the 8/45hp - produced 45bhp and was the most powerful available to the private owner, the slightly more potent JTOR, rated at 8/50hp, being reserved exclusively for works riders. The cradle-type frame was based on the design used by Zeniths for its World Record machines and was sufficiently rigid to cope with the rough tracks encountered in the 1920s, Brooklands included.
By the late 1960s, ML 3081 had passed into the ownership of Neil (Steve) Stevenson, a VMCC member who owned a garage at Virginia Water and had bought the Zenith directly from Roland Martin. (The accompanying original buff logbook records a change of ownership from Roland Martin to Gavin Fairfax Ltd, of Virginia Water, Surrey in April 1968). In the 1970s Mr Stevenson immigrated to Australia, taking the Zenith with him, and later recounted its history in an article published in Classic Motorcycling magazine (issue No. 10, copy article available) in 1978, at which time the machine belonged to Ron Cherrington. Mr Stevensons account reveals that the Martin Zenith was based on the 1926 Championship model, and was supplied with heavyweight Druid side-spring forks and a puny Webb front brake. When the centre-spring Druids, as used by Zenith at Brooklands, became available a few months later, Roland ordered this new side-strut type and also fitted an Enfield front wheel with 8 brake, as used on contemporary Nortons. In 1936 the engine was rebuilt by JAP at Tottenham using a later (but still Vintage) webbed drive side crankcase, and bevel drive to the magneto, as on the 8/50 engines. At the same time a pair of Amac TT carburettors was purchased (original invoice on file) and mounted on special manifolds of Roland Martins own design.
Roland used the Zenith on the track as a testbed for his ideas until the outbreak of war, when he returned to his toolmaking profession at Heston aerodrome. The Zenith stood idle, although its owner amused himself by making up various bits and pieces for it in stainless steel. It is not known for certain when Roland Martin last used the Zenith on the road, though 1936 seems most likely as the last licensing stamp in the original buff logbook is dated April of that year.
Neil Stevenson had first learned of the Zenith in August 1967 when a chance encounter directed him to Roland Martins house, where the now retired engineer supplemented his pension by dismantling and selling oak and mahogany furniture. Steve did not actually get to see the machine until October, by which time the concealing pile of timber had been shifted, and was able to negotiate its purchase, complete with sidecar and a quantity of spare parts. The engine had been run on Castrol R oil, with which the machine was liberally coated, and its new owner spent hours removing this preservative layer. When stripped down, the engine was found only to require four new valves plus guides. The tank was repainted in the correct livery, a pair of silencers fabricated, a few parts plated, the control cables sorted and fuel pipes rerouted. The twin float chambers were removed (the engine had been run on alcohol fuel at Brooklands) and single chambers substituted.
Neil Stevensons first outing with the Zeniths was the VMCCs Rally in the Isle of Man during TT week in June 1968, and the machine would subsequently travel many miles in his hands, both in Britain and Western Australia. Modifications undertaken by Neil Stevenson included fitting an in-period, tank-side gearchange in place of the frame-mounted original; rebuilding the front wheel using a WM2 rim and 8-gauge spokes on the brake side; and fitting two new sidecar panels, the originals having decomposed during the machines long lay-up.
In a letter (dated 15th November 2003) to Roland Martins niece, Mrs Joy Hansen-Addy, of Weybridge, Surrey, Brian Verrall recalls that he first saw the Zenith in the 1960s and next heard of it while visiting Australia with his wife Margaret in 2001. The machine was up for sale at that time and Brian succeeded in buying it. So home it has come and now the pride of my collection, he concludes. Mrs Hansen-Addy was able to provide Brian with copies of period photographs of her uncle and the Zenith, some of which are reproduced here.
Since returning to the UK in 2001, the Zenith has taken part in the Sunbeam MCCs 2002 Garden of England Run, with Brian riding, and at the Brooklands Centenary Festival in June 2007 and the Brooklands Motorcycle Centenary in April 2008, on both occasions being ridden by his colleague, Ian Hatton. Presented in wonderful condition, the machine is offered with the aforementioned documentation; Graiseley Side Cars brochure; (copy) Druid fork brochure; (copy) Zenith brochure extract; assorted correspondence; Garden of England Run programme; Brooklands Centenary Festival programme, literature and assorted photographs; shipping invoice; C&E Form 386; (copy) customs papers; various expired SORNs; expired MoT (2002-2003); current SORN; old Swansea V5 and current V5C documents.
The VMCCs Zenith register lists only three KTOR-engined models: one in America, another in Austria and ML 3081, the only example in Britain. As such, this machine represents a possibly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to acquire a v-twin-engined racing motorcycle belonging to one of the most important sporting marques of the Vintage period, possessing a proven Brooklands association and impeccable provenance.