A Short-Lived But Fascinating Motorcycle
The only time I’ve ever viewed a Rudge Ulster TT up close was at the Throttlestop Museum in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. At the time, I’d never heard of the brand, and found it fascinating. Simple yet beautiful, spartan yet aggressive looking, the bike held my gaze for a few minutes, as I read up on its brief history via the info placard at the display. I love motorcycle racing, and the Rudge Ulster TT with its brief backstory intrigued me, so I decided to research it some more for a story.
The Rudge Ulster was a British motorcycle manufactured by Rudge-Whitworth from 1929 until the outbreak of the Second World War. Rudge-Whitworth formed in 1894 as a result of the merger of two bicycle companies, Rudge Cycle Co. of Coventry, and Whitworth Cycle Co. of Birmingham, England. The brand’s first venture into motorbikes came in 1909, selling a rebadged Werner with a 3.5 hp single cylinder. By 1911 R-W was producing a single cylinder 500cc F-head, and sales took off. Rudge-Whitworth soon gained notoriety for their unique engine and transmission design, as well as their racing prowess. Their Rudge Multigear utilized a system of pulleys to keep tension on the final belt drive, while allowing the rider to select from up to 21 different gear ratios. The Multi was a huge success, winning the Isle of Man Senior TT in 1914 and remaining in production for 9 years. Rudge dominated road racing with their 500cc and 750cc Multis, and the Rudge Four, a 350cc with four valves and four gears, followed by a 500cc Rudge Four in 1925. The 500cc Four also incorporated linked, front and rear brakes, foot pedal actuated, a major innovation for the time.
In 1928 Graham Walker won the Ulster Grand Prix astride a Rudge 500cc single, only the second time to-date a road race had been won at over 80mph. His win came after a disappointing loss just two months prior, when Walker narrowly lost the Senior race of the Isle of Man TT due to oil flow issues on the final lap. So in honor of his win, Rudge renamed their 500 the Ulster TT.
As well as Walker’s 1928 Ulster Grand Prix win, that same year Ernie Nott secured the world two-hour record at over 100 mph on the Rudge and set even more records in 1929. Then in 1930, under the guidance of Rudge engineer and team leader George Hack, Nott, Walker, Smith and Wal Handley were on Rudge 500 motorcycles for the Isle of Man TT Senior race, Handley winning at a record speed of 74.24 mph with Graham Walker coming in 2nd, Smith 6th and Nott 7th, winning the Team Prize for Rudge. The brand also swept the podium that year in the Junior TT race, running their 350cc bikes with prototype radial 4-valve engines. Their old sales motto, “Rudge It, Do Not Trudge It”, was certainly holding true. Rudge took a pair of podiums both in 1931 and in 1932 in the Lightweight TT, leaving their mark in every race class of the IOMTT in the early ’30s.
Rudge-Whitworth’s last production racing motorcycle, the 500 cc Ulster TT, found its way to general production as essentially a race replica. Various modifications and improvements were made over its ten year production run. Early models had a ‘pent roof’ four-valve head, with two pairs of valves operating on parallel slopes like a ‘pitched roof’, which was replaced in 1932 with a radial four-valve head and an option of a foot-operated gear change. This foot pedal operated both the front and rear brakes as on the race model, with a hand lever also operating the front brake. With a top speed of over 90 mph, the Rudge Ulster was advertised as “probably the fastest 500cc motorcycle in production”. Few questioned the “probably”.
But alas, the Great Depression was taking its toll worldwide and Rudge, struggling to make the sales needed to further develop their outstanding and race-winning machines, went into receivership. In 1936 EMI (previously the Gramophone Company Ltd. and maker of HMV records), a major creditor, took over and resurrected the Rudge Ulster and moved production to their facilities in Hayes, Middlesex in 1937. Production continued into December of 1939, but ended with the outbreak of World War II. EMI threw all their resources into the manufacture of radar and electronic equipment for the war effort. The company had a history of diversification into other fields since their Gramophone years, producing everything from electronics to typewriters as a strategy to survive recessions, downturns and now, the effects of a war-based economy. Rudge never turned out a motorcycle again.
This pristine example of the legendary Rudge brand is still on display at the Throttlestop Museum in Elkhart Lake, WI, for all to behold. Pictures do not serve it justice. With it’s rare four-speed gearbox and Rudge-specific front/rear linked foot brake, this beautiful bike was first registered on March 28, 1933 in the Sheffield region of South Yorkshire, England, yet now resides within the hallowed halls of the Throttlestop Museum.
For more on this piece of motorcycle history, as well as all the fantastic machines they have on display, visit the museum in person if you are in the area, or take their “virtual tour” via this link:
You’ll be asked for your email to send you a free entry code, which you’ll enter on the site where indicated, and then you’re in. Enjoy!
*photos by Throttlestop Museum
*info provided by Throttlestop, and Wikipedia searches.
Graham Walker astride his Rudge racer at the Isle of Man Senior TT, 1934. Photo by iMuseum.im
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