Part One of the Gus Kuhn Story by Cyril May
Speedway Express, October 1976 (Thanks to Steve Wilkes)

GUS KUHN was undoubtedly one of the greatest all-rounders of motorcycle sport, and he probably competed in more forms of the sport than anyone else in his particular era.

Lands End in 1919.  Gus Kuhn on his 2.5 hp Levis with Newey 3.5hp Ariel sidecar.
This photo was taken by George Dalby who competed on his 4hp Triumph model H and sidecar which he had converted to all chain drive.

Road racing, scrambling, trials riding, sand racing, hill climbing, rodeo riding, sprint riding, speedway riding, long distance reliability trials riding, motorcycle trick riding, and other amazing motorcycle exploits all provided the super-enthusiastic Gus with an immense amount of fun and enjoyment and he revelled in every minute of it. Phew! What an astonishing list. But it was in Speedway Racing that he attained his greatest fame.

It is imperative of course, and only fair that to correctly relate this man's notable career, I should start at the beginning of his competitive and other motorcycle activities.

It was in 1915 that Gus, at the early age of 16, took part in his first Hill Climb and Reliability Trial. But his wasn't a meteoric rise to the top for it took him about four years to reach that status, when he won the Birmingham Club's Open Victory Cup Trial on a 2¼ hp Levis in April, 1919. In fact not only did he gain the Victory Trophy but the Evans Trophy as well - considered a notable feat. Moreover a great feat even by today's standards (over fifty years on!) for rarely does a competitor win two Cups in one event.


Gus's victory was all the more remarkable as he was riding one of the lowest horse-power machines - just 2¼, while many of his opponents were mounted on machines of 4 hp, like the runner-up, G A Dalby on a Triumph and E A Bridgeman and R D Oliver who were both riding 7 hp Indian combinations! There were many 3½ hp models such as Dance's Sunbeam, Petty's Norton, Moffatt's Douglas, Kershaw's New Imperial and Wright's Humber twin.

Incidentally, Gus had only been demobbed from service in the RNAS after World War One, just a week earlier.

This big National Event took place on Easter Monday over a circular route in Worcestershire and Gloucestershire. The start at Griffin 's Hill, Selly Oak, was a scene of great interest, and many motorcyclists other than those competing were inspecting the machines of the 77 competitors.

The initial Test Hill was Beacon Hill, followed by Old Wyche, a famous hill almost dead straight with a top gradient of 1 in 3. Then came Portway and Birdlip Hills and afterwards the tit-bit of the afternoon - Gambles Lane or, as it was more commonly known, Rising Sun Hill. Abominably rough and very dry, several competitors jumped the road into the ditch, but good climbs were made by Gus Kuhn, George Dance (Sunbeam), E Kibble (Triumph) and A Milner (Diamond). Sudely Hill presented few difficulties and finally came the Speed Judging contest.

History fortunately does hold exploits, just a few of them, that remain unexampled even when held up nearly fifty-seven years later to the cold light of analysis. Such a one was Gus Kuhn's amazing trip on his belt-driven 2¼ hp Levis, a model that one could have bought brand new at the time for well under £60!

Dick Turpin's famous ride to York could hardly have been more fatiguing than the one Gus undertook in November 1919. Never had there previously been such a plucky rider's fight against incredibly severe weather conditions. Here is that story, of Gus's super-strenuous end-to-end trip on his little two-stroke. It is a tale of a determined attempt to overcome well-nigh insuperable difficulties caused by the vagaries of weather and temperature.

Roads impassable

The route however, was from Birmingham (where "Motor Cycling's representative sealed the machine's engine prior to the start) to John O'Groats. From John O'Groats to Birmingham; from Birmingham to Land's End, and from Land's End to London's Olympia. For a single-speed Popular Levis to have accomplished such a feat, speaks volumes for the extraordinary power developed by the engine.

The message that many roads on the itinerary were impassable owing to heavy snow also advised a postponement, but the courageous Gus Kuhn would not hear of it. With characteristic optimism he decided to "make a start, anyway." This took place on November 13 (note the date!) at 6.45 am. According to schedule, Edinburgh should have been reached the same evening, but owing to the very deep snow on Shap, which gave a foretaste of what was to come, Gus got no farther than Carlisle, a distance of 206 miles, reached at 9.30 pm.

Serious delays

Over Shap, the snow caused serious delays, the clogging of the belt rim throwing the belt off repeatedly. Gus reported that two lorries and five Fords were stuck on this portion of the route.

On day two the conditions were worse, deep snow being encountered, and once again the belt kept coming adrift in the Cheviot Hills section. But to have covered the 204 miles to Aberdeen in spite of this delay was an indication of what the machine would be capable of over good roads.

After Huntly, the snow became deeper and deeper to Elgin, and as no signs of improvement were indicated at Inverness (104 miles for that day's run) Gus decided to call a halt. He had not stopped for any food all day, and in view of his experience the following day it was perhaps as well that he pulled up where he did.

The next day's run was the worst of the series, as snow was falling heavily at the start and continued to do as far as Golspie. Anyone who has ever ridden in heavy snow will realise what this meant to a rider already tired and not equipped with snow goggles. The astounded spectators en route - and there were many - all advised the gallant Gus to abandon the attempt, but having got so far he decided to keep going until definitely brought to a standstill. And so, armed with a shovel supplied by a cottager, which he strapped on his back he continued to force his way through the drifts.

Eventually, machine and rider ran into a heavy snow drift, which completely covered up the former. A kindly cottager offered shelter, of which Gus felt much in need. The day's journey eventually finished at Lybster - 103 miles, but it was impossible to measure the achievement by a mere mileage-covered-statement. Snow drifts were succeeded by good stretches and on rounding a corner it was nothing unusual to run into a huge drift, from which Gus had to extricate himself and his machine, and find a way through by skirting the edge of the drift or by digging a path by means of his shovel.

Naturally by this time, Gus was thoroughly exhausted, the bitter cold making things much worse. A rainstorm came on just after leaving Lybster, which caused the ice-bound roads to become incredibly treacherous. After numerous falls which bent the footrests so that the aid of a blacksmith had to be requisitioned, the plucky rider decided to go no further than John O'Groats and spend a few hours relaxing in order to regain some of his lost strength. He had covered 647 miles out of the near-on 2,000 which he had set out to cover.


On day six, Gus was riding in a rain storm over frozen roads, as before, but covered a further 90 adventurous miles. Fatigued almost to the point of collapse, wet through, and chilled to the bone and often without food for hours at a stretch, it is difficult to realise - even today - that a combination of these abominable circumstances failed to make Gus Kuhn withdraw from his exceptionally ambitious task.

The mileage for the next two days was 147 ending at Edinburgh . Conditions were becoming slightly easier but on the route to Birmingham Gus had the misfortune to lose his way and arrived a little late.

The remainder of the journey from Birmingham to Land's End (287 miles) and Land's End to Olympia (290 miles) occupied two days, the little Levis engine developing amazing power and simply devouring all the hills with ease. Gus actually arrived at Olympia very late at night, and finding no one to receive him, retired to his quarters to enjoy a well-earned rest. The next day he returned to Olympia to be received by the photographers and other officials waiting to welcome and congratulate him.

A classic

This exploit certainly ranked as a classic, carried out in the face of overwhelming difficulties. One did not know which to praise the most, the machine and its accessories or the pluck and courage with which the rider was able to triumph over all the various obstacles. Gus had reason to congratulate himself on the fact that his Dunlop tyres carried him through without a single puncture or other trouble. The machine was then sent to Birmingham where the seals were broken and the engine dismantled.

Interviewed several years later, Gus had this to say. "I hate to think about it now," and shuddering he continued, "I was working for the Levis motorcycle company at the time and the idea was for me to arrive at the Motorcycle Show at Olympia as it opened. It was November and I lost count of the number of times I had to dig myself and my machine out of the snowdrifts and ditches. No one has ever fallen off a motorcycle so much! To cap it all I finally arrived at Olympia at ten o'clock at night, by which time everyone had gone home!"

Consider the facts regarding the machine and Gus Kuhn's FEAT OF ENDURANCE will be all that more astounding. Exploits like this don't happen today [1976] - they belong to Motorcycling's great and glorious past - unfortunately!

Gus's model was an "over-the-counter" Levis, the manufacturing Company being Butterfields Ltd. of Stretchford, Birmingham. It was 2¼ hp (211cc) single-cylinder two-stroke; drip-feed lubrication; chain-driven magneto; single-speed gear; outside flywheel; belt drive and 24 x 2¼ tyres. Price £55.

Great interest was being shown in a Levis consumption test when an identical model to Gus's had a fantastic petrol consumption of 320 miles-per-gallon when it was tested over a 50-mile course averaging 20 mph and it was officially observed by the ACU!

For Gus Kuhn - now 21 - he would be competing in a greater number of meetings in 1920 and would be an entrant in the illustrious Isle of Man TT races. Meanwhile Dirt Track Racing was going on apace at the Toronto track in Canada where great public interest was being shown. Sensational finishes usually occurred and five sidecars were always in one race! In America too, similar racing was attracting tremendous audiences and the flexible sidecars were clocking 9m 10s for the 10-mile events! Machines were mostly Indians and Harley-Davidsons.