Zenith Motorcycles

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Zenith Motorcycles
Industry Manufacturing and engineering
Founded 1904
Defunct 1950
Headquarters London
Products Motorcycles

Zenith Motorcycles was a British motorcycle and automobile manufacturer established in Finsbury Park, London in 1903,[1] by W.G. Bowers.[2] Automobile manufacture only lasted from 1905–1906. The motorcycles used engines from various suppliers including Precision, Villiers and JAP.[3] In their early years Zeniths featured the "Gradua" variable-ratio belt drive transmission, designed by Zenith chief engineer Freddie W. Barnes, in an era when direct-drive, single speed transmission was the industry norm. Variable gear ratios proved a significant advantage in competition, leading riders of other marques to complain the Gradua gave an unfair advantage; eventually Zeniths with Gradua gears were banned from many competitions. Zenith capitalized on this ban, adding the word "Barred" to their advertising and logo. The Gradua system was replaced by the now-standard gearbox and chain transmission in 1924.

Zenith was a relatively small manufacturer, but had significant success in speed contests throughout the 'Teen and 1920s. Chief Engineer Freddie Barnes personally oversaw Zeniths in competition, and in the 1920s racing Zeniths held more 'Gold Stars' on the Brooklands racing circuit (for 100+mph laps in competition) than any other marque.[4] Racing engines of single and v-twin configuration included the most advanced designs available, including the DOHC single-cylinder JAP, the twin-cam JAP sidevalve v-twin, the Martlett OHV 1000cc v-twin, the Blackburne OHV 1000cc v-twin, and the JAP KTOR and JTOR OHV 1000cc v-twins.[5] Riders included 'Ted' Baragwanath, Bert LeVack, Owen Baldwin, H.M. Walters, and Joe Wright.

In the 1931 Zenith declared bankruptcy due to the Depression, although 'Writers of Kennington', a principal Zenith dealer, purchased the name and restarted production at the Hampton Court factory in Surrey. The Second World War interrupted production again, and Zenith finally ceased production in 1950.[6] The last Zenith models of 1947-1950 used JAP 750cc sidevalve v-twins, and were basically the same models as produced before WW2.

Automobile history

Between 1905 and 1906, the company introduced the Popular model, which had a two-cylinder, 6HP Stevens engine and a belt driven rear axle.[7]

Speed records

Zenith were always keen to promote themselves via competition. Freddie Barnes competed and won regularly on his own machines in 1909–1913,[8] and in 1922 it was a Zenith that was the first British machine to do a 100 mph (160 km/h) lap of the Brooklands circuit with rider Bert le Vack.[8] In 1925 Zenith held the record for the number of over 100 mph laps of the bumpy Brooklands circuit.[8] Works rider Joseph S. Wright held the lap record at Brooklands from 1925 until 1935.[8]

Zenith held the motorcycle world speed record on two occasions, the first FIM record of 124.55 mph (200.44 km/h) set in 1928 by Owen M. Baldwin at Arpajon, France, the site of the Autodrome de Linas-Montlhéry.[9] Bert le Vack surpassed Baldwin the following year on a 995 cc (60.7 cu in) Brough-Superior at the same location.[9] In 1930 Zenith was in financial trouble due to the recession, and were taken over by one of their dealers, Writer's of South London.[10] The ex-Zenith works rider Joe Wright, riding an OEC with a 994 cc (60.7 cu in) JAP engine, took back the record on August 31 at 137.23 mph (220.85 km/h), again at Arpajon, France.[9] But the record was broken twice more in 1930, first to Ernst Jakob Henne riding a supercharged BMW to 137.85 mph (221.85 km/h) at Ingolstadt, Germany.[9] Claude Temple made arrangements to try to win the title back in Cork, Ireland using his supercharged OEC again with Joe Wright on board.[11] Joe Wright had managed to acquire the works 995 cc (60.7 cu in) supercharged J.A.P-engined Zenith, and he took this to Ireland as a spare machine (visible on the Pathe news when the OEC is tow started[11]). The OEC bike suffered a mechanical failure and was not able to complete the required two runs, so Wright used his Zenith to set a new world record of 150.65 mph (242.45 km/h).[9] As Zenith were temporarily out of business, and OEC were paying the bills, the fact the Zenith had made the run and not the OEC was conveniently overlooked in much of the publicity of the time,[11] and even in the FIM record books [1].[citation needed]. An eyewitness account by Freddie Barnes himself was published the following year, noting the Zenith victory,[12] and later eyewitness accounts confirmed his claim.[13]


Model Year Notes
Zenith Bi-Car 1903 Hub-center steered, full suspension
Zenith Tri-Car 1908 Fafnir single-cylinder
Zenith Gradua 770 cc 1912 "Gradua" variable drive belt
Zenith Gradua 964 cc 1914 Green V-twin water-cooled engine
Zenith Gradua 680 cc 1918 JAP Twin
Zenith-Bradshaw 494cc 1922 Oil-cooled horizontally opposed Bradshaw engine
Zenith "Brooklands". 1923 344 cc JAP engine
Zenith 346 cc 1924 JAP engine
Zenith 680 cc 1926 Side-valve JAP engine
Zenith C5 Special 500 cc 1936 JAP 500cc OHV engine
Zenith 750 cc 1948 JAP engine

See also


  1. The Motorcycle, 'Milestones of Design', London, Sep.15, 1937
  2. VMCC Bulletin, Letters, January 1969,
  3. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  4. Brooklands Bikes in the Twenties, Hartley, 1980, Argus Books, Watford, ISBN 0-85242-620-8
  5. The Vintage Years at Brooklands, 1968, Bayley, Goose&Son, Norwich, ISBN 0 900404 00 0
  6. The Motorcycle, 'Milestones of Design', London, Sep 15, 1937
  7. Harald Linz, Halwart Schrader: Die Internationale Automobil-Enzyklopädie. United Soft Media Verlag, München 2008, ISBN 978-3-8032-9876-8.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  10. Zenith Motors, Graces Guide
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 "Cork. 150 miles an hour on a motor cycle! Streamlined in every possible way even to his helmet - J S Wright and an O.E.C. - Jap-engined - wins back record for Britain from Germany.", Pathé News, Film ID 751.17, 10/11/1930
  12. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  13. VMCC Bulletin, 'Letters', Oct 14, 1978