Motorcycles that mattered: Chater-Lea Copperknob


The ‘Copperknob’ looks one of the most extraordinary machines in British motorcycle racing history. But its existence was a result of several happy accidents, as Rachael Clegg discovers…

Of all the materials one would associate with a motorcycle, copper isn’t one of them.

Small change, yes. Wiring, yes. Piping, yes (even the ancient Egyptians had copper plumbing systems). But not motorcycles.

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Yet, in the National Motorcycle Museum stands a machine whose lush plating glistens in Number 29 of the periodic table.

And perhaps unsurprisingly, this machine – a Chater-Lea/JAP-engine hybrid – is a one-off hybrid that became known as the ‘Copperknob’.

This edition of Machines that Matter explores the incidental history of the Copperknob – a machine whose existence is thanks to – of all things – a dare…

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In 1928 former civil servant and latter-day garage proprietor, Ben Bickell, was set a personal motorcycle challenge at a grasstrack.

This singular event confirmed his love for speed and, needless to say, the 33-year-old was soon afflicted with the racing ‘bug’.

By the end of the year this one-off dare had become a serious hobby: Bickell had started making appearances at Brooklands and, by the end of the season, he was starting to turn heads in the racing scene.

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Clearly, Bickell was a natural and before the year was out he was mixing with the front-runners.

There was no turning back: the grasstrack challenge, along with his successful racing debut year, had whet his appetite and – as we will later discover – altered his fate. But more of that later.

For now, the task at hand – for Ben Bickell at least – was to build his own racing machine and it was in this context that Bickell, along with his brother, Joe, concocted their one-off copper creation at the Bickell Bros garage they ran on Archer Road, Highgate.

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The pair took an ex-AA patrolman’s Chater-Lea – a marque of notorious reliability and quality, which no doubt contributed to it being the AA’s choice fleet machine – and re-hashed it to meet their own needs. Racing needs, that is.

Read more and view more images in the November 2019 issue of CBG – on sale now!

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