Britain's most unusual motorcycle manufacturer is back from the grave.
Words by Steve Rose and Richard Rosenthal Photographs by Joe Dick and Mortons archive
'I'm gonna hit the highway like a battering ram...on a silver black Phantom bike'. So sang Mr Meat Loaf on the legendary LP Bat out of hell in 1978. Which of course meant nothing to the fledgling motorcycle gang in behind Earlsheaton comprehensive school's bike sheds. Back then we barely knew what anything other than a Yamaha Fizzie or a Suzuki AP50 was. Our knowledge of British bikes extended to the BSAs, Triumphs and Nortons that our dads and older brothers rode, but a Phantom? Must have been some exotic Yankee machine.
32 years later I'm standing In the middle of Leicestershire, ogling at the fourth machine of the Phantom resurrection. Turns out it was British all along. Next to me is an anglicised American named Mark, A man who made some money in the dot-com boom of the 90s, bought a pig farm in Italy, almost bought Bimota a few years back before settling in middle England, where he now acts as 'Mortal Facilitator' for the resurrected Phantom Motorcycle Company.
On first hearing, the story he tells would stretch the credibility of even the most hysterical Living TV presenters, but I've spent much of the last 20 years listening to Japanese motorcycle manufacturer's new model press conferences - and many of those are far less believable than this one. In front of us, is the most beautiful modern take on a 1920s Brooklands racer, available for you and I to buy and ride.
So, are you sitting comfortably? Then I shall begin.
The story starts in 1919, a time of unbridled optimism. WWI was over and back then, it seemed there was no problem that couldn't be solved with cast iron, hydraulics and cogs. The Phantom Motorcycle Company, run by young engineer Erasmus Thump, and his employees Titus Bottomly, Enoch Podsnap and company secretary Mabel Ramsbottom, was just one of hundreds
Below: This rare shot of an original Phantom shows Erasmus and Titus mistakenly turning up for the 1908 Brooklands Pillion 500 a week early. Undeterred and ashamed to admit their error, the pair canied on and finshed sixth. Out of six. Thankfully, the prize money for 'the biggest hat' helped pay for the additional haemorrhoid cream.
of small manufacturers vying for success and racing to within an inch of their sanity on crazy, high-speed wooden circuits every weekend. The bikes were very much of the time - long, low and brutally fast. Fascinating engineering answers to the question of 'How do I cross the line before he does?'
However, as quickly as they'd become fascinated by motorcycles, Erasmus and Titus moved on. One evening In 1929, the works closed as normal, but when Mabel turned up for work the following morning there was a note on the still padlocked gate telling her to pay the employees a month's wages and not to return. That was that - or so she imagined.
A lifetime (literally) passed, but five years ago, Mabel (now aged 108) received a message from The Other Side. Erasmus informed her where the
Above: $55,000 worth of hand-built motorcycle, crafted with assistance from The Other Side should surely be able to stand up on its own. And doesn't that Norton engine look just right in that chassis.
Right: The detail is amazing and yes, the Phantom logo really docs glow in the dark.
key to the Phantom works lay and she was instructed to find some 'Mortal Facilitators' (Erasmus had obviously spent the remainder of his life working in the department of Ballspeak for the British government) who could build Phantom motorcycles once again. Those first three facilitators were Mr Mark Frost (who is relaying this tale), Ed Wimble of Ace Classics and Dick Smith from the Baron's Speed Shop, although the list is fluid and the latest bikes have the involvement of other facilitators as the company's revival continues.
Whether you believe this or not doesn't really matter. What is important is that the Phantom lives - and you can buy one. What's more, if you have the money, you probably should. For no other reason than this is a beautiful and pretty much unique motorcycle.
"Every one is different," explains Mark. "When someone contacts us, we spend a lot of time talking through the bike. It's a commission rather than a purchase. The design of the bike is such that it can be built using almost any engine. The first four have all used Norton twins, but the next one will have a J.A.P single and the one after will have a 1920s inline four cylinder motor. If you want to build a Phantom around a big J.A.P twin from a Brough Superior, we can do that too. We can source the engine and all other parts, and we'll get it rebuilt to 'as-new' spec by the finest marque specialists too, so you can have confidence in your new Phantom. You'll need a little more money for that Brough-powered bike though than the $55,000 that the American buyer of this machine paid."
The Phantom frame is hand built with the most immaculate construction. A rigid rear end, Vincent style Girdraulic forks, hand built Swedish brakes and the kind
__:_1__, ^llllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll, phantom eg specification wiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiimiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiwiiih of attention to detail that would make your wife very jealous, make justifying the price a lot easier than you'd think. For those people lucky enough to already have a shed full of classic cars and Vincents coming out of their ears, (and you'd be surprised how many of those there are) this is a bargain. For the rest of us, it's maybe an inspiration for our next home-brewed special.
The design is true (ish) to the post WW1 Brooklands race bikes that inspired it. 21 inch wheels run modern Michelin tyres. Use of period materials like brass, copper and bronze, all polished just enough to look gorgeous but not over done. The hand painted pin striping and softly sprung racing saddle. The thought that's gone into the design is spellbinding. Some of it hits you straight away, other things sort of drift into your attention. Like the rear 'sprotor' - a combined brake disc and sprocket that leaves the back end looking clean as it should do but still giving the rider a powerful back brake.
"The first bike took almost three years to build," explains Mark. "Getting everything just so and finding the people who could supply the right parts that Phantom doesn't make in-house was a huge task. Now that's done we are quicker. The Phantom works can now build six bikes a year depending on what engine is required and how long it takes to source the right one and rebuild it. You can of course supply your own engine which will also reduce the price significantly."
So, with a whole raft of old motorcycle manufacturers coming back to life in the last few years, why choose the 1920s route instead of just building a street fighter or a BMW GS clone? "We believe there's a synergy between the two periods of time. Back then, there was enormous optimism and opportunity allied to a certain innocence and naivety. It was a golden age - a time of change with huge parallels to today. The Phantom gives riders a chance to sample the experience of a special time in motorcycling. Did Meat Loaf really ride one? "You'd have to ask Erasmus that."
Top: SU carb not only looks very cool, but makes for smoother running too.
Bottom left: Funky brake master cyclinders are very neatly disguised.
Bottom right: Vincent style girdraulic forks and perfectly retro bronze bar clamps.
Steel tube frame, girdraulic forks, sprung saddle rear suspension. Integrated Speed Retarding (ISR) braking system. Six-piston caliper (front) two-piston rear.
Wheelbase: 70in Dry weight: 300lb Seat height: 31 in Fuel capacity: 1.3 gal
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