Bonhams : Property of Pete Gagan, 1914 Zenith-JAP 8hp 'Gradua' Twin Frame no. 4499 Engine no. 46612
Property of Pete Gagan, 1914 Zenith-JAP 8hp 'Gradua' Twin Frame no. 4499 Engine no. 46612

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Lot 494*
Property of Pete Gagan, 1914 Zenith-JAP 8hp 'Gradua' Twin
Registration no. LO 3560 Frame no. 4499 Engine no. 46612

Sold for £ 28,175 (US$ 35,886) inc. premium
Property of Pete Gagan
1914 Zenith-JAP 8hp 'Gradua' Twin
Registration no. LO 3560
Frame no. 4499
Engine no. 46612
• Rare Pioneer-era v-twin
• Equipped with the Zenith Gradua transmission
• Present ownership since 1997

Zenith motorcycles were manufactured from 1904 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 hand-wheel or 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-WWI 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 Wright's 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 1914, this magnificent Zenith 'Gradua' is powered by a sidevalve JAP v-twin engine of 976cc displacement, rated at 8hp. The accompanying (copy) old-style logbook (issued 1959) records this Zenith's date of original registration as 7th April 1921, this being shortly after the introduction of the Roads Act of 1920, which required local councils to register all vehicles at the time of licensing and to allocate a separate number to each. (Many vehicles, although in existence for several years in some cases, were only registered for the first time after the Act's passing). The first owner listed therein is Comerfords Ltd, the well-known Surrey-based motorcycle dealership, while the only other owner listed is one Robert Winter of Surbiton, Surrey (change undated), from whom the Zenith was purchased by VMCC and Sunbeam MCC stalwart, Geoff Morris, circa 1978.

A letter on file from Ken Blake states that this 1914 model was one of three Zeniths purchased in 1957 by the Comerfords motorcycle dealership of Thames Ditton from former Brooklands racing driver and proprietor of Ambassador Motor Cycles, Kaye Don. The three Zeniths were collected from Ambassador Motor Cycles' 'Pontiac works, and Ken Blake then proceeded to restore the two Veteran machines over the course of the next couple of years. Comerfords' sales director Bert Thorn then rode this one on the 1959 London-Brighton Run. Also on file is a (copy) Pioneer Certificate (no.76) issued in 1962 to E R 'Bob' Winter of Comerfords Ltd, and a purchase receipt dated 1996 when Geoff Morris sold the machine to Mr Mike Sherwin. Pete Gagan purchased the Zenith from Mike Sherwin in 1997.

Born in Ontario, Canada, Pete Gagan was the instigator of what became the Canadian Vintage Motorcycle Group. In 1959 he joined the Antique Motorcycle Club of America, becoming its President in the late 1990s, a position he held for almost six years. He has served on the board of three US motorcycle museums, was a curator of the Guggenheim Museum's 'Art of the Motorcycle' exhibition, and in 2007 helped establish the Antique Motorcycle Foundation. You could say Pete knows a thing or two about motorcycles.

Pete recalls his acquisition of the Zenith: 'When Mike let me have the bike he had a condition. I was to take it on those Pre-1916 road runs in the USA, and show those Americans what a real motorcycle can do.

'The Gradua gear has a low ratio of 8:1, and increases to 3:1 by turning the "coffee grinder" handle. Opposite brings it back down. I was often asked why I was turning the handle, and I would say I was just tightening the belt. Nobody seemed to catch on!

'The American bikes were mostly big twins, and were often fitted with later cams, top ends, higher compressions, etc. (The Zenith is fitted with 1923 Ricardo top ends as well, but they are identical in appearance to the early ones thanks to a slight external modification.) The limiting factor on the America bikes were the gearboxes, either two- or three-speed, and there is always a big jump to top gear. My method was to pass them going uphill, when they had to gear down, and I could choose the perfect ratio for the climb. I could always get by.

'My best effort was in Death Valley one year. There were approximately 80 bikes taking part. I took off ahead of them all and arrived at the bottom of the climb to Dante's Outlook, which was about six miles from the start. It is about 250 feet below sea level, and climbs to 5,400 feet in 12 miles. I waited at the bottom until they all passed me. Then I took off uphill, steadily passed the entire group and was waiting at the top, sitting on a boulder as they all arrived, the Zenith beside me on its stand.

'I prepared the Zenith for the Cannonball Run seven years ago but was unable to attend. The bike vibrated a fair amount due to the modified top end, so I fitted a mercury balancing disc (made for a Harley-Davidson) behind the engine sprocket out of sight, and it is now as smooth as a good BMW!'


  • Should the vehicle remain in Europe, import VAT of 5% will be added to the Hammer Price and Buyer's Premium.

    As with all Lots in the Sale, this Lot is sold 'as is/where is' and Bidders must satisfy themselves as to the provenance, condition, age, completeness and originality prior to bidding.
Property of Pete Gagan, 1914 Zenith-JAP 8hp 'Gradua' Twin Frame no. 4499 Engine no. 46612
Property of Pete Gagan, 1914 Zenith-JAP 8hp 'Gradua' Twin Frame no. 4499 Engine no. 46612
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