The dreadnought was the predominant type of battleship in the early 20th century. The first of the kind, the Royal Navy's HMS Dreadnought, had such an effect when launched in 1906 that similar battleships built after her were simply referred to as "dreadnoughts" .
At the turn of the century, a young engineering student from London called Harold Karslake, developed a passion for the 'powered by motor' bicycle which were coming to market. Today we would call them "pioneer motorcycles". But he wanted to go further and felt that he could build his own machine, using parts from different manufacturers, but with bespoke features too. Karslake was a tall man standing 6 feet 4 inches (193 cm). His dream was to build a bike to empower him to travel further and with greater comfort. So in 1903 he set about collecting the parts he needed. .
The legend was about to be born........
He began by purchasing a frame from the Birmingham based Quadrant. They were bicycle manufacturers that in 1901 "clipped on" Belgium made Minerva engines to their cycle frames. Karslake thought their frames were ideal but everything revolved around his choice of engine. He managed to find just what he was looking for when he read an advertisement in The Motorcycle Magazine for a second hand De Dion 3½ bhp. After some negotiation, he paid £4.10s (around £500 in today's money). He struggled to carry it home on the train from Woking station in Surrey. The engine was designed for a tricycle, but Karslake was confident enough of it being suitable to be cradled within his frame. He felt that the engine once suitably tuned, would have more than sufficient power to be able to emancipate the motorcycle from pedals.
He was building the machine in his spare time and it was towards the end of the year that he got everything done to his liking, building the rear wheel himself and obtaining other parts through contacts and friends. The Petrol tank was slung from top frame tube, capacity approximately 1½ imperial gallons (7 ish litres). But a stand out feature had to be the running boards. Instead of Karslake's feet resting on pedals, the running boards gave an area where he could stretch his long legs out, perfect for him given the long distance riding he was to do. But removing the pedals meant that you could no longer raise the back wheel and use the pedal to crank the engine. So the bike had to be rolling in order to start. In the absence of a friendly pusher or a nice downward slope, it was necessary for him to push his own bike, he would plant his left foot when at sufficient speed, before swinging his right leg over the frame. That must have been pretty tricky and as well as quite dangerous! .In January of 1904 it was ready for its inaugural run. It may have only been three miles but he described noting, "I think it was the most enjoyable run I have ever had. And all my own work too". At Easter he went on his first long run, to Huntingdon.
He continued to make changes to the bike over the course of the next few years as he toured Britain. In the summer of 1904 he swapped out the saddle for a sprung seat - possibly the first of its kind and two years later In 1906 Karslake fitted an epicyclic two-speed engine-shaft gear made in Germany by N.S.U. He now had the ratio required to successfully climb hills that were previously out of reach. He was the first motorcyclist to climb Porlock Hill in Somerset, which is 3.94km long with an elevation gain of 366m.
Karslake the publicist
Harold took every opportunity to promote his bike and he kept a number of diaries of its achievements. His performances were certainly making a stir. In 1910 he published a little booklet outlining the bikes history and development....and by this time it had gained the name "Dreadnought". It is said that the name was suggested by his friends following the launch of HMS Dreadnought in 1906, a vessel that was to revolutionise naval power. I am unconvinced and think he may have been behind the naming himself, marketing with impressive names was to become a pattern in his later career as we'll discover in part two.
There were scores of pioneer Edwardian motorcycling manufacturers in England, as well as many more in Europe and the likes of Harley Davidson and Indian motorcycles were already manufacturing in the United States. These manufacturers were keen to put their models into the shop window by competing in arduous reliability riding trials, hill climbs, and of course racing. They needed to show potential buyers that their machine stood above the competition in reliability, speed and comfort. In the Isle of Man there was a more enlightened attitude to motorcycling, the first IoM TT took place in 1907.
But when it came to arduous trials, Karslake performed brilliantly. The Dreadnought was, of course, a significant component of these successes, but I believe that the skill, resourcefulness and incredible powers of endurance possessed by Karslake would have ensured success on almost any machine of the period.
He became a regular and highly successful participant in the Motor Cycling Club's long distance trials - embarrassing the larger manufacturers in the process, especially as by 1911 his bike was seen as quite antiquated.
Next week in part two, we'll look at the relationship between Karslake and the Brough family, motorcycling manufacturers from Nottingham.