Memorable MC 1928 Rudge Four

September 15, 2006
Frank Melling
Frank Melling
Contributing Editor| Articles|RSS

Our Memorable Motorcycles expert, Frank Melling also is the organizer of the British vintage motorcycle extravaganza known as Thundersprint. Melling began riding five decades ago and remains as much in love with motorcycles as when he drove his first bike into a cow shed wall aged ten. In the last 50 years, Melling has competed in every form of motorcycle sport and now declares himself to be too old to grow up and be sensible.

The creation of British designer George Hack  the 1928 Rudge Four was ahead of its time and showcased technology  like linked anti-lock brakes  which finds itself cutting edge on modern machinery.
The creation of British designer George Hack, the 1928 Rudge Four was ahead of its time and showcased technology, like linked/anti-lock brakes, which finds itself cutting edge on modern machinery.

As a proud Englishman, I sometimes blush with embarrassment when I write these Memorable Motorcycle articles. Look at British products of the late 1960s and anyone with a modicum of pride would squirm as history’s searchlight picks out such truly awful motorcycles as the James Sports Captain or the Greeves Sportsman.

But this sorry state of affairs was not always the norm. Go back to 1928 and the state of the art for a super sports bike was the fabulous 500cc 4-valve Rudge.

I hope that advocates of the supremacy of Japanese motorcycle designer read this article, take a few gulps of their beer and then bury their faces in their magazines. Almost 60 years ago, most of the ideas which are thought of as Japanese innovations had been perfected by Rudge in England and were in series production. The fact that Rudge technology was available, over the counter, is an important one. Rudge did not make Grand Prix specials limited to a few examples. Almost anything that Rudge ever made could be purchased by the well heeled 1920s sporting rider.

Rudge had always been an innovative factory – not so much as an outright pioneer but as a developer and refiner of cutting-edge technology. It was, in fact, very Japanese in its thinking.

When the rest of the biking world offered three-speed gearboxes, Rudge provided four ratios. Where soldered fuel tanks were the standard, Rudge supplied the ultra-modern welded saddle tank which was safer, had a bigger capacity and looked beautiful.

The Rudge Four s welded tank was an upgrade  and so was the four-speed gearbox complete with handshifter.
The Rudge Four’s welded saddle tank, opposed to the soldered tanks which were customary on the Rudge’s 1928 competition, was one of the examples of Hack’s simple innovation.

The driving force behind all the Rudge designs was George Hack. He was not one of motorcycling’s visionaries, but there have been few more intelligent engineers. Working largely alone, and with a very tight development budget, Hack took cues from the 4-valve Ricardo Triumph which Sir Harry Ricardo had designed for his bike racing pal, Major Frank Halford, in 1921.

In the case of these four-valve pioneers, not only did four valves give improved combustion in the large-capacity single-cylinder engines, but they also provided vital additional cooling to the hot-running cast-iron cylinder heads which were universal in motorcycle engines of the time.

In 1924, the all-new 88 x 85mm Rudge 4-valve engine, combined with a four-speed gearbox, simply left every other manufacturer for dead.

Not that Hack rested on his laurels. His front suspension, although using conventional girder forks, was much neater than the opposition with the springs enclosed in purpose-made shrouds. The brakes on the Rudge “Four” (named after the valves and number of ratios in the gearbox) were huge at 8 inches. These were Grand Prix quality brakes fitted on the bike right off the showroom floor. Better still, the brakes were linked, operating from the rear brake pedal, and had a simple anti-lock device. Linked brakes and anti-lock: isn’t that the hot set up for 2007?

Not that the “Four” was aimed at the racer on the road. On the contrary, the bike not only had super sports performance, but there was all the sophistication that the most discerning rider could demand. By 1928, the “Four” offered electric lighting when many of the other factories provided only carbide lamps.

The 4-valve aided combustion and also assisted in cooling the cast-iron heads of that era.
Rudge mastered four-valve technology which Hack derived from the 4-valve Ricardo Triumph. The system aided combustion and also assisted in cooling the cast-iron heads of that era.

All this engineering was combined into a package which was simply gorgeous. Wheel out a Rudge “Four” today, park it amongst a group of young motorcyclists and watch their jaws drop with admiration. The aesthetic balance and styling cues of the bike are flawless and show a gifted engineer in complete harmony with the concept of form and function. No bike of its period is as beautiful or offers such an iconic design.

And finally, the performance is all that the design promises. One long kick fires up the big Single into a melodious, throbbing heartbeat booming through the twin “Brooklands” cans. The hand-change gearbox is sweet, and the big Single pulls effortlessly to a relaxed 70-mph cruise, accompanied by precision handling. In 1928, this must have been the ultimate motorcycling experience.

Tragically, Rudge never survived the Second World War – but that’s another story.

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