Rowena wants a Douglas Dragonfly. Why does she want a Douglas Dragonfly? Why would anyone want a Douglas Dragonfly, exactly?
There is no rhyme nor reason to the wanting of a motorcycle. There is no explicable rationale to explain my increasingly demanding desire to own a Douglas Dragonfly. When it began I had never ridden a Douglas Dragonfly. I don’t think I had ever even sat on a Douglas Dragonfly. But every time I see one offered for sale, I’m transfixed by the prospect, severely tempted. I can’t walk past one at an event without my head swivelling through an unnatural progression of degrees. The sight of a Douglas Dragonfly causes me to deviate, hesitate and repeat under my breath: ‘Isn’t it lovely? Isn’t it just lovely? They’re so lovely. Lovely lovely lovely…’
I need a classic to use as my staffbike for the coming summer season. Moreover, I need a classic which actually… you know… works! Thus far, the few Dragonflies which have been offered for sale have been too far away or too suspicious-sounding. The one on eBay which doesn’t engage all its gears and might have a carb problem did not fill me with glee. ‘Carb problems’ have also afflicted both my A65 and Hurricane, and despite fixing the carbs in the most profound way – by fitting new ones – the mysterious problems have remained. So I’m keeping an eye open for a well sorted, regularly run Duggie, maybe being sold by someone who has decided to move onto something a little bigger, a little faster, with a little more crowd-pleasing appeal.
Not everyone likes the Dragonfly. I have learned that. What fills me with gleeful anticipation leaves others cold. The poor thing doesn’t even get a mention in my husband’s book, for crying out loud! But I don’t care.
Actually, that’s a whopper. Let me shrink my nose and explain why. I DO care that most people don’t even know what the Douglas Dragonfly is, let alone come close to liking it. I’m intrigued by its rarity, fascinated by its novelty, wowed by its wonderful weirdness. I’m delighted by the prospect of owning something this strange, by the idea of riding a motorcycle this unusual. Yes, it’ll be slow and have dreadful brakes by the standards of the 1960s let alone the 2000s – do tell me something I don’t already know. It can’t possibly be any slower than the Hurricane right at the moment (current potential velocity: zero mph), and I bet it won’t be that much less quick than the none-too-lively-unless-marmelised Snarley.
Speed ain’t what I need.
What I need is a Dragonfly.
What you need is to know what the hell a Dragonfly actually is…
Once upon a time there was Douglas, a family firm based in Bristol. That time was 1900 or so. The three brothers, William, Arthur and Edward, started out as blacksmiths but soon turned their business into a foundry, and that concern then took up with the new-fangled forms of motorised transport. Douglas were building some components for a company which failed, Light Motors Ltd, and Douglas took on Light’s projects and its designer, Joseph J Barter, when it finally folded. For 50 long years after 1906 Douglas built opposed-twin engined bikes – flat twins that is, boxers, like those modern beefy Bavarians – around the designs of JJ Barter.
Douglas built a range of sidevalve twins and (mostly) ohv twins, dedicating themselves to the pursuit of quality. The flat-twin engine configuration provided a low centre of gravity, was evenly balanced and well cooled. Douglas machines proved themselves in competition, and so the company won big chunks of the WW1 supply contracts, making thousands of motorcycles for the military which also found their way onto the civilian market once de-mobbed.
Douglas experimented with the first type of disc brakes on a two-wheeler in the 1920s. They were even the first British marque to try their hand a purpose-building a speedway machine. The bikes were generally good performers, although quality control was patchy and reliability was something to be striven for and not necessarily achieved. Didn’t stop King George V owning a Douglas in the 1920s, which rather boosted the bike’s standing as a status symbol. The Douglas concern broadened during these years to take on aeroplane engines, tractors, trucks, cars. Then came the Great Depression (which was an historical period, you understand, and not merely an understanding that Nothing Good comes out of a judicial enquiry) and the Douglas family exited stage left, c1932.
The Douglas company was taken over by BAC and reorganisation and a touch of streamlining followed, which allowed prices to be reduced somewhat. The range stabilised to incorporate standard models at 250, 350, 500 and 600cc. There was also a remarkable beastie of 498cc, the Endeavour, which was a transverse mounted flat-twin, with a unit construction engine and shaft drive. It bristled with unusual touches – a hand gearchange when everyone else was swapping to foot; a clutch which was so light you could operate it with one little finger. There was a huge kerfuff about this model when it was first seen in 1934. But the Endeavour was nearly twice as expensive as the normal 500cc Douglas, so you can imagine what came of it in the long run. Maybe 50 were built and sold – wonder how many are left today? (The 148cc 2-stroke of the same period didn’t go down a storm, either).
After WW2, financial restraint forced Douglas to concentrate on their 348cc flat-twin design, with its ohv motor mounted transversely across the frame, pots cheekily poking out into the cooling breeze. Douglas bikes weren’t unusual in this respect alone; they employed ingenious approaches to motorcycle suspension in their quest for ‘higher touring speed and less rider fatigue.’ Their torsion-bar spring frame and Radiadraulic forks were supposed to even out all the lumps and bumps of 1950’s road surfaces, and give the rider an armchair to relax into. For a stunt, factory riders bounced the current model up and down kerbs at 30mph – although we can’t recommend that you try this at home, children!
(Although the torsion-bar suspension seemed impressive it came with its own drawbacks, not least the need for frequent greasing. It was also undamped so, while things were fine with a pillion on the back, reports from the time suggest that it was rather like taking a trip on top of Skippy the Bush Kangaroo when riding solo).
Douglas also became the British importer / constructor for Vespa scooters as the 1950s took off – a sideline which eventually developed into the company’s only connection with the two wheeled world. But for the 1951 Motor Cycle Show, Douglas presented a new 498cc twin. Its cycle parts were developed from those of the existing Mark V 348cc model – torsion bar rear suspension and Radiadraulic forks. The huge difference was the monster motor which seemed to have been barely squeezed into the duplex frame. Although under the skin it shared many characteristics with the 350, it looked wildly different as it had a be-finned casting under the tank, encompassing the magdyno and air cleaner. The shape of the cylinder heads and rocker covers changed too, becoming sleeker and streamlined. It was a bold attempt at a handsome, touring motorcycle for the heyday of the British bike industry, but Douglas weren’t in a financial position to actually build it.
Like other manufacturers of the time – Velocette with their LE and BSA with the Sunbeams – Douglas believed the public when they said they wanted something practical, sturdy and solid to get them to work and back. At the start of the 1950s the feeling was that a motorcycle for Everyman would be a bestseller. The quest for ultimate speed wasn’t so important – the common man needed instead low maintenance workaday wheels. Hence the craze for bathtubs and other enclosures, all foretelling the future success of the scooter and the Honda Cub and – oh dear – the Mini. Before the bike-buying public deserted in droves, however, the British bike industry recorded its best ever sales, reaching a peak in 1959. But by then Douglas had been and gone. Their little Dragonfly didn’t stand comparison with the sleek speed machines which Edward Turner was turning out. When it came down to it, riders wanted high-speed glamour and performance after all.
But the delicious little Dragonfly, which took to wing in 1955, is even so a fascinating motorcycle with its leading link forks, 4-speed gearbox, conventional swinging arm suspension and clean, simple lines. The model was known as the Dart while in development, but I’m glad that the production version won its rather more whimsical moniker (couldn’t have called it a Dart, anyway. Daimler would have sulked). Although the Dragonfly was a development of the Mark V Douglas, it also reflected the work done on the earlier 500cc prototype, and it aimed to revitalise the sales of Douglas machines.
The designers set about tidying up the looks of the bike, attempting to make it appear as an intended whole thing and not a development of this-bit-here and that-bit-there as tends to happen over the years. But the changes were by no means simply cosmetic. Douglas were not having a great time of it and the Dragonfly would be their last chance to crack a mass market, so the bike had to be reliable – and it had to able to compete with what the big factories were producing.
So the substantial, arc-welded duplex frame (from the Reynolds Tube Company) now carried an improved 348cc engine fitted with an AC generator and distributor, topped with a light-alloy casing (not the huge finned flummery of the 500 prototype, thankfully) to conceal the electrical gubbins. Inside, the engine benefited from a raft of upgrades including a stiffer crankcase, bolt-through cast iron cylinders and heads and duralumin pushrods. The Radiadraulic fork was binned and an Earles-type leading-link system arrived, and at the back a ‘normal’ swinging arm finally got rid of the solo rider’s jitters. Both ends were controlled by Girling units.
Yet for some Douglas owners the Dragonfly appeared to be a backward step. It was physically bigger and heavier than its predecessors but no more powerful. The motor made something of a din, too, which seemed out of step with its intended genteel application. The Dragonfly was supposed to be a practical touring motorcycle. It wasn’t engineered for breath-taking acceleration or ultimate high speeds, but instead could maintain a healthy average for mile after mile, incurring little cost and carrying its pilot and bestest chum in comfort. 70mph is fast enough for anyone, surely?
It seems not. Motorcycle production stopped completely in 1957 when Douglas’ owner at that time (Westinghouse Brake and Signal) opted to concentrate on churning out Vespa scooters. Shame. You hear of many ex-workers from Small Heath and Meriden talking about their lives at ‘The BSA’ or at Triumph, and it’s almost taken as read that many young lads started their careers as apprentices in these vast factories and then devoted the better part of their working lives to the marque. But it happened with smaller bike manufacturers, too. The Douglas business employed many people from the local area around Kingswood, and some of its loyal staff had never worked for anyone else.
The story of the Douglas company ends with information that only 1600 Dragonfly bikes were built. However, you’ve probably seen plenty of them at shows thanks to the great displays put on by the extremely active London Douglas Club. The club’s efforts make owning one of these bikes less of a chore now than it would have been 20 years ago!
I first fell in love with the Dragonfly when I was spending an early morning at the finish of the National Rally. I was supposed to be reporting for a modern bike mag but then these three Dragonflies grumbled in together, all gleaming green and gold in the dawn sunshine. Me: heart: lost.
So earlier this month when Frank and I were judging at the Newbury Show, you can imagine how ditzy I got when a stunning little Dragonfly rolled into the concours ring. It was gorgeous! I loved it! It wasn’t for sale!
But once the owner realised I was a woman besotted he was enormously kind enough to let me take the Dragonfly for a trip around the car park. He probably has no idea of the risk he was taking – any old bike might never work again after 10 minutes with me on it…
This Dragonfly doesn’t get ridden much – it came to the show in a van – but it started with minimal fuss. A little tickle and a couple of kicks and it was chattering away. The noise didn’t seem too bad to me – but I have been made partially deaf by riding Harry Matchless of late. I hopped on board, clumped it up for first and with no fuss at all we were off and away.
If I’d had time to think about it then I might have worried about how the steering would feel with those funny forks, but the truth was that I didn’t even notice them. The Dragonfly responded easily to light pressure for each turn, and I was making a lot of them in a figure of eight pattern around all the traders who were packing up. They thought I was mad. It was freezing cold. I was riding a shiny-shiny bike in the sleet and didn’t even have gloves on. Hah!
It seemed amazingly stable – that’ll be the low centre of gravity, then. The gears engaged smoothly, the engine pulled willingly, the clutch was light and the rider’s sense of objectivity had been packed off on holiday and good riddance. Even the braking didn’t cause kittens. If I’d been wearing my riding kit then I’d have been off down the petrol station, brimmed it up and called ‘cheerio! See you at home!’ to the old fella. The Dragonfly felt welcoming, comfortable, easy to ride and ready to roll. The very best Britbikes of all eras share this characteristic: they invite you onto the saddle and then onto the open road. I could see me and the Dragonfly riding for miles.
I gave back the Douglas to its owner with my mind made up.