Thursday, June 16, 2016

VINTAGE TRIUMPH WINS MEXICAN 1000

[My article is republished from Cycle World - check the original here]

Julian Heppekausen is the first ever to win Baja with a ‘60s Bonneville desert sled.

Sand is perhaps the most difficult terrain for a motorcycle, but the Triumphs weight was an advantage over newer, lighter machines.

Dirt; it’s how Americans race. That was the story in 1961 anyway, when Daytona still referred to a beach.  Honda wanted to crack the American market, and that meant building dirt bikes; they’d dominated global GP racing, but were mostly absent on the rough stuff. The machine they developed to spearhead an off-road push was the CL 72 Scrambler, which used the sophisticated OHC twin-cylinder motor of the CB 72 Hawk, installed in a new full-cradle frame with a bash plate and high ground clearance, high-level exhausts, minimal fenders, and a small fuel tank.  To modern eyes, the Honda CL 72 Scrambler looks more enduro or street scrambler, as it was fully road legal with lights and all, but pure motocross machines were rare in 1962 – most scramblers were roadsters with their lights removed.
The easy part - a lousy dirt road is the best road you'll find in the Mexican 1000
American Honda’s lightbulb moment to launch the CL 72 was a record run over the wide-open desert of Baja, Mexico. While plenty of SoCal racing took place in California’s Mojave desert, very little happened south of Tijuana, and an audacious 1000-mile endurance test could be conducted out of the public eye.  Legendary desert racer Bud Ekins was tapped, but his contract with Triumph meant Honda was a no-go, so he passed the opportunity to his equally talented younger brother Dave, who teamed with LA Honda dealer Bill Robertson Jr. No official record existed on the run from Tijuana to La Paz, so the bikes only needed to finish the 963-mile ride, and send telegrams from each end to confirm their time. That didn’t mean the prospect was easy; with no gas stations from Ensenada to La Paz (851 miles), and few villages, the riders would need to be supplied en route. The going had only a few miles of pavement, and long stretches were untracked sand through desert wilderness.
Baja buggies from vintage to new compete side by side with motorcycles
The riders’ route was scouted by air, then food, gasoline, and support were provided the same way.  John McLaughlin, former Catalina GP winner (on Velocettes) piloted a Cessna 160 with Cycle World founder Joe Parkhurst and photographer Don Miller as passengers. A larger Cessna 140, piloted by Walt Fulton, carried the food and fuel for the riders, along with Bill Robertson Sr.  The bikes needed 9 refills, and landable spots were chosen for riders to meet the planes. Come ride day, Ekins and Robertson sent their telegrams from Tijuana at midnight, and headed south on Highway 1.  There were hardships and lots of crashes; they got strung up on barbed wire fences while sun-blinded, Ekins fell 13 times in one night, and they were lost and rode in circles for 6 hours.  Robertson’s Honda holed a piston 130 miles from La Paz after crushing his air cleaner in a crash, and grit entered the motor, but he carried on with one cylinder, catching up to Ekins 2 hours after he’d clocked a 39hour, 49minute elapsed time.  The point had been proven, and the publicity for Honda was certainly worthwhile, as they sold 89,000 CL 72s from 1962-68.
Historic Era entry Mark Post's highly modifed 1992 Ford F-150 racer
Not long after Honda’s ride, Bruce Meyers took his prototype Meyers Manx VW dune buggy along the same route, and lopped 5 hours off Ekins’ time – those hours spent lost at night no doubt. Thus was born a car/bike rivalry, which sparked the idea for a proper race, and Ed Pearlman founded the National Off-Road Racing Association (NORRA), which ran the first Mexican 1000 race in 1967.  Motorcycles, cars, and trucks ran the same route, using a rally format, with mandatory checkpoints in the multi-day event.  The Mexican 1000 was run for 6 years, before the Oil Crisis of ‘73 dampened everyone’s spirits; NORRA was disbanded, and there was no race that year.  But nobody had asked Mexico’s opinion on the matter; the attention focused on the nearly vacant Baja peninsula was too good to let lapse, so they promptly announced their own Baja 1000 race over the same course. They contracted Mickey Thompson of Southern California Off-Road Enterprises (SCORE) for organization, who hired Sal Fish (of Hot Rod magazine) to created SCORE International to organize the Baja 1000, which it has done since 1974.
Hayden Roberts ('65 Triumph TR6) chats with Julian Heppekausen ('66 Triumph T120)
The rising interest in vintage dirt racing in recent years spurred Ed Pearlman’s son Mike to revive NORRA, and bring back the original Mexican 1000, with its multi-day rally format.  Started in 2009, the race originally catered to pre-1998 motorcycles, cars, and trucks; now there are classes for modern vehicles as well, in case your 800hp trophy truck needs exercise between professional Baja bashes.   Running superfast modern desert tools alongside vintage motorcycles and cars is daunting, but also part of the fun, at least according to Julian Heppekausen.  He recently rode his 1966 Triumph T120 desert sled, ‘Terry’, to victory in the Vintage Triumph Thumper class, becoming the first rider ever to win, and one of only 3 to complete a 1000-mile Baja race on a Triumph.
Julian's lucky number!  An arcane mix of family numerology, which apparently works
You might know Julian Heppekausen as CEO of the Deus store in Venice, CA, or for his exploits on Terry the Triumph in the Barstow-Las Vegas off-road race, which he’s finished 4 times.   He credits this success to the quality of Terry’s original construction by motorcycle industry icon Terry Prat, for whom the bike is named.  Prat was the European MX correspondent for several magazines in the 1970s, then a manager at Cycle News from 1979 – 2011.  The ’66 Triumph T120 desert sled was his last build, which he raced in the Barstow-Las Vegas Rally in 2011 (it’s not a race; that’s not allowed in the tortoise sanctuary – but everyone knows who finished first).  Heppekausen bought the bike in 2012, and carried on competing across the Mojave desert every year since, finishing the ‘hard’ route twice.   The means riding with new KTMs and Honda 450s, and his Triumph is the only 1960s bike to finish the Rally in a very long time.  “They really don’t have a class for such an old bike – they call 1980s twin-shock motocrossers vintage!’
Viet Nguyen's 1969 Triumph T100 at dawn, ready for the day's stage on his 500cc twin
Keeping a 50-year old Triumph from grenading mid-desert exposes Heppekausen as a sensitive hooligan; “You need to know your bike really well. There’s a harmonic hum at certain rpms, where it seems like the motor will go forever, and in a long race you have to bring it back to that pace when you can. I continually pat the tank and thank Terry for not breaking!”  Some vintage riders are scared of breakdowns on gentle street rides, but the old saw ‘the more you ride them, the better they get’ seems to apply here. Julian shipped Terry the Triumph to Europe in 2014, competing at events in Germany and England; it’s also been filmed wheelying in front of the Eiffel Tower under Dimitri Coste. After successes in Vegas-Barstow, he decided to try the revived NORRA Mexican 1000, along with several friends on their own vintage Triumph dirt bikes, although Terry the Triumph was the only finisher.
Classic rally roll-charts keep the riders from getting lost...too often
That’s perfectly understandable – all the bikes were at least 50 years old, and 1000 miles of desert racing is insanely demanding.  Julian notes, “Modern trophy trucks with special tube-frame chassis and high-HP motors run 36” of suspension; they can run over a basketball and not feel it. I can’t do that on a Triumph with 3” of travel, and when the road is full of rocks, I could hit a baseball and be thrown off.  Near the end of the race was a 15-mile stretch of rocky downhill, which was mentally challenging after 1000 miles, especially with trophy trucks passing at 140mph!  I have to go to work on Monday, so kept way left to preserve myself.”  While running with $200k, 600hp specialized desert trucks is hairy scary, it has benefits too, “Robbie Gordon passed me around a corner, driving like I’ve never seen a car driven. I was doing 60mph, and he was doing 110mph – I don’t know how he got around!  And I was the only one watching – it’s the best view of the race, from the saddle.”
Viet Nguyen's T100; unit Triumph 500cc twins are considered very reliable, but none has ever finished the Mexican 1000
While Julian races Terry the Triumph far and wide, it isn’t actually his machine; when purchased from Terry Prat, he immediately gifted the Triumph to his son Henry, as a legacy. Henry isn’t big enough to ride a Triumph yet, but he likes to remind his dad whose bike it is, “My wife and kids met me at the finish in La Paz, and Henry told me to clean the bike!  I said let’s leave it dirty a little bit yet.  Terry’s had some real adventures, including wheelies in front of the Eiffel Tower.  The best people have worked on it, and it’s been in many hands, but you know, we build these bikes for ourselves, and they eventually end up with someone else.  That’s why I gave it to Henry - for the future.”  And the future will remember that Terry was the first Triumph to win (let alone finish) a 1000-mile Baja race, an epic accomplishment in any decade - our hearty congratulations to Julian Heppekausen and all who helped make his win possible.
Julian abandons the roll-chart for an impromptu mileage-based warning system for sand washes and potholes
Mark Stahl's Legend category '78 Ford F-100 pickup
Julian finishes a stage, alone again
John Crain's beautiful 1953 Rickman-Triumph pre-unit racer, the most exotic Triumph in the race
Nate Hudson's 1969 Triumph T100 after a day in the desert
Hayden Roberts exits Tijuana on his 1965 Triumph TR6

Friday, June 03, 2016

MATCHLESS RASING FUNDS FOR MOTORCYCLE PRODUCTION

The 'Mail on Sunday' gives details of the Matchless bond offer, to raise cash for making motorcycles...
The Matchless name, currently embroidered on a line of moto-inspired clothing, was purchased by the Malenotti family of Italy, back in 2012.  They'd previously purchased the Belstaff brand, and found considerable success selling updated moto-ish gear, after hiring supermodel Kate Moss for ads, and product-placing their gear in movies and TV shows.  Rapid expansion of Belstaff retail shops around Europe meant borrowing lots of money from Italian banks, and when those banks got nervous and made 'the call' for their cash back, the Malenottis were forced to sell Belstaff.  But they pulled a rabbit out of a hat, as the brand was sold for nearly 100M euros more than they owed the banks, and the Malenottis walked away smelling like a rose.
The Matchless 'Model X Reloaded' prototype
With Matchless, they've been running the same playbook, immediately hiring the evergreen Kate Moss for the next round of Matchless logo gear.  The Malenottis went a step further with Matchless, though, and have stated their intention to begin limited production of Matchless branded motorcycles, and have shown the prototype Model X Reloaded, as shown here.  Last Sunday's 'Mail on Sunday' newspaper noted the Original Matchless Motorcycle Company will offer a bond to investors through the online finance platform Karadoo, with the promise of a 6% annual interest rate for 5 years - considerably more than any bank offers at the moment.  The £5M they intend to raise will fund the launch of 'two superbike models', neither of which is Kate Moss.  But surely she'll be in the picture; she's their lucky charm.  Whether the Model X Reloaded will be produced in the same configuration as the prototype shown is unclear, and I'll refrain from passing judgement on the design, except to say,
The Model X Reloaded...
Michele Malenotti designed the Model X Reloaded, and is quoted saying, "We want to build the Rolls-Royce of motorcycles...I spoke with the Rolls-Royce CEO and he told me 'congratulations, you have found a place in the market where nobody is selling right now."   I don't expect the Rolls CEO to know his bikes (although their parent company BMW happens to produce motorcycles), but that's not an accurate statement. Several boutique motorcycle firms have price points far beyond typical production models, including the revamped Brough Superior SS100, and the Ecosse Moto Works Founder's Edition Titanium XX, which currently holds the #1 spot for most expensive new motorcycle at $300,000.  Brough Superior's tagline has been 'The Rolls Royce of Motorcycles' since 1921, so the Matchless claim is audacious...and Brough is already delivering new bikes.  In fact, I'll be test riding one next week!  Stay tuned...


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Thursday, June 02, 2016

1913 FN RESTORATION - A DIFFERENT KIND




While an actual motorcycle is the most widely understood subject of a 'restoration', in truth far more cosmetic work is performed on photographs of old motorcycles than on actual machines today. Digital media workers spend hours clarifying the information from rough old photographs - it's unsung work, done every day, by people like me.  Every photo - even digital - is raw material to be shaped for particular impact; to expose technical details, establish a mood, emphasize action, or separate a machine from its background.  Vintagent reader Marco Bakker sent this short film of his 'restoration' of a 1913 FN four-cylinder, from venerable arms manufacturer Fabrique Nationale d’Armes de Guerre in Herstal, Belgium.   The photograph was taken in 1917, with its owner Jan Lodewijk van Bekkum and his sons, taken in Giessendam, Holland.  As Marco says, "Photoshop is the workshop."

I reckon this time-lapse Photoshop journey would take 3 or 4 hours in real time, which is typical for restoring a lightly damaged photograph.  There's no magic button to press which makes creases, water stains, and dirt spots disappear, just a lot of skilled, detailed work.  The result is a vastly more readable photograph, which is a pleasure to share.  


Sunday, May 29, 2016

'NORTON' GEORGE COHEN

Dr. George Cohen at the Brooklands Centenary in 2007
One of my favorite characters in the old bike scene has left the saddle, and the world is poorer for his absence. Dr. George Cohen, otherwise known as 'Norton George' for his devotion to single-cylinder Nortons (plus a certain Rem Fowler's Peugeot-engined TT racer), fought well against an aggressive cancer diagnosed late last year, but knew the jig was up, that swarf had fouled his mains and blocked the oil lines.  What he leaves behind for those lucky enough to have called him friend, is a ton of wry memories, and his distinctive voice echoing through our heads, with some crack about our terrible workshops, ill-prepared machinery, or silly ideas.  He was mad as a hatter for sure, but a hell of a lot of fun to be around.
A favorite image of George Cohen blasting along on his 1927 Norton Model 18 TT racer on the Isle of Man
George was also a devotee of using his vintage machinery to the hilt, blasting his favorite 1927 Model 18 Norton racer on the Isle of Man, and the roads around his 'Somerset Shed'.  Arriving by train for a visit to George's sprawling country estate was an exercise in bravery, as he'd likely pick you up in his 1926 Norton Model 44 racer with alloy 'zeppelin' sidecar. Strapping your luggage on the back, and no helmet required, meant you experienced the full terror of an ancient, poorly braked but surprisingly quick big single in flight along the ultra-narrow, deeply dug-in Roman roads of the area. The mighty Bonk of the Norton's empty Brooklands 'can' reverberated along the 8' deep earthen walls, as we tore around blind corners of these unique Somerset roads like Mr Toad and Co., headed for home the fastest way possible.  Unforgettable!
George and myself in 2008, with my Velocette KTT and Sunbeam TT90 - sorry no Nortons that day!
George visited the USA a few times, and we were fellow judges at the Legends of the Motorcycle Concours in 2008, at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Half Moon Bay.  I'd brought two bikes for us to swap on the Sunday morning Legends Ride - neither a Norton, although I had a 1925 Model 18 racer at the time (it was hors de combat from my own relentless flogging).   So George got to experience a vintage Sunbeam for the first time, as the photos show, which he quite liked ('My Norton is faster', of course he said), but preferred a spin on 'The Mule', my 1933 Velocette KTT mk4, which shared his favorite Norton's camshaft up top.  Well actually it was the other way 'round, as Norton copied the Velocette design!  Which he grudgingly admitted with a half-smile as he hand-rolled another cig.
George on his only Sunbeam outing, in 2008
A few days prior, we'd picked up a pair of racing Nortons from California collector Paul Adams, which were entered into the Concours, and it would be hard to imagine two more dissimilar characters, who both loved Nortons with passion.  Paul Adams is an ex-Navy pilot of many years' experience, with the unflappable reserve of a military man, and George, well, flapped.  Those two were chalk and cheese, and barely kept from breaking into open argument! Still, George later admitted Paul had a very nice collection, and that his workshop was really clean.
George with one of his many 'specials' built for customers like Dunhill.
Something else he left behind; his incredible self-published love poem to Norton, created from his personal archive of early factory press materials, photos, and documents - 'Flat Tank Norton'. If you're a fan of early Nortons, it's essential reading, and an entertaining mix - some of the early photos of James Landsdowne Norton himself can be found nowhere else.  'Flat Tank Norton' is the kind of book only a devoted enthusiast can produce, as a publisher would have squeezed out the quirks to increase 'general interest', but they would have taken out the George factor, which is what give the book its tremendous charm.  It needs a reprint, as copies run on Amazon for nearly $1000!
Another memorable moment with George came not on a bike, but in one of his select few cars, at the 2013 Vintage Revival Montlhéry meeting.  He'd brought his c.1908 Brasier Voiture de Course after breaking down somewhere in France, while driving the all-chain drive monster all the way from his Somerset home.  He'd sorted the brakeless beast, and was enjoying flying laps around the banking, and offered me a ride, which I accepted with something like fear.  George drove like he rode, and the Brasier had no seat belts, roll bars, suspension to speak of, or front brakes, but it did have an enormous 12 Liter Hispano-Suiza V-8 OHC aeroplane engine with 220hp on tap!  I put myself in the hands of Fate, and George.  I climbed aboard, clinging to the scuttle, and filmed the ordeal with one hand, laughing 100% of the time, as he slid the rear end on the short corners, and got as high up the banking as he could, while the behemoth shuddered, roared, bucked, and squealed.  Unforgettable, just like the man.
With George in his epic 1908 Brasier de Course, with its 12 liter OHC Hispano-suiza aero engine, with 220hp!  Insane for a car with no brakes, and all-chain drive...
George with the re-created Rem Fowler Norton, winner of the very first Isle of Man TT in 1907.  He rebuilt the machine entirely after the disastrous National Motorcycle Museum fire. 
Thumbs up George!  I hate to say it, but goodbye friend.

If you care to send a note to his wife Sarah and his family, I'll gladly forward George's address - shoot me an email.

Friday, May 13, 2016

MOTORCYCLE SPECIALS #1 - GRINDLAY-PEERLESS 'HUNDRED MODEL'

[This is the first of a new series featuring artist Martin Squires' fantastic illustrations!] 

I was overjoyed to see this machine at Stafford Showground on 26th April 2015. I had seen the Original Bill Lacey Grindlay Peerless at Brooklands, but this original condition "Hundred Model" bought a true smile to my face. This particular machine is one of 2 known survivors. The Grindlay Peerless factory produced the “Hundred Model" to celebrate C W G 'Bill' Lacey becoming the first man to cover 100 miles in an hour on British soil in August 1928 on a sub 500cc machine. It’s Believed that the Coventry mark only sold 5 to 6 machines, possibly due to the lack of demand for such a specialist machine. Bill achieved 103.3 miles in that hour on the Grindlay Peerless JAP, an incredible feet of endurance riding on such an early machine. Eariler in the 1920’s the 100 miles in 60 minutes was the ultimate goal for motorcycle manufacturers and their riders. Claude Temple was the first man to do so, averaging almost 102mph at Montlhéry in 1925 on his 996cc OEC-Temple-JAP. The following year at Monthlery Norton rider Bert Denly broke 100mph on a '500' for the first time.


In order to encourage such riding in England The Motor Cycle offered a silver trophy to the first person to break the 100mph mark. Brooklands was the only circuit for such an attempt, an unforgiving course with it’s renowned bumpy surface that launched its riders into the air at any given opportunity. On 1st August 1928 Bill Lacey raised the record to 103.3mph, hitting a top speed of over 105mph which in turn broke the 750cc and 1000cc records. Bill went on to dominate at Brooklands throughout 1928 finishing on the podium at every meeting.

In 1929 Bill increased his distance to 105.25mph setting yet another record. After this continued success Grindlay Peerles produced the “Hundred Model” these machines were essentially the same as the original record breaking machine, complete with nickel plated frame. The replicas were assembled at the Coventry works and then shipped to Lacey’s workshop at Brooklands where Wal Phillips, Lacey’s assistant, would tune the machines to enable them to reach the record speed. Lacey himself would then test each machine to above 100mph on the outer circuit in order to issue an official certificate.

J.D. Potts raced this particular Hundred Model at Brooklands in 1929, in September of the same year he went on to win the Amateur Isle of Man TT. Unfortunately he was disqualified after it was thought he had received factory support, were Grindlay Peerless trying to sell more of these replicas off the back of this, who knows.

In the 1930’s Cyril Norris acquired the Hundred Model. In 1934 Norris had E.C.E. Baragwanath a renowned Brough Superior rider and tuner fit a single port head as this got some more out of the JAP than the twin port the replica was originally fitted with. In order to compete in the 1936 Senior Manx Grand Prix an Albion 4 speed gearbox and an uprated front brake were fitted expressly for the race. These are still present on the machine today. Norris finished 23rd, with a best lap of 33 minutes 37 seconds, averaging 66.9mph.

In the early 50’s Norris used the machine on the road complete with close ratio gearbox and no kickstart! Norris kept the machine until his death in 2000 when it was bought form the family by it’s current owner. Seeing motorcycles like this is such a great experience as you can see the history not only in it's original condition but by the changes from the original factory specification.

Illustration and Words by Martin Squires
Special thanks to Peter Lancaster for his help researching this article.


Thursday, May 05, 2016

2016 QUAIL MOTORCYCLE GATHERING

Buy your tickets HERE for the Quail Motorcycle Gathering on May 14th, 2016
It's Quail time again!  What's become the best moto-Concours show in America has its 8th edition next week, with the Quail Ride (an instant sellout - fehgeddaboutit) on Friday May 13th, and the Quail Motorcycle Gathering on Saturday May 15th.  The show gained real traction about 3 years ago, with participants and machines coming from all over the US and abroad, as word spread about the superb facilities and organization of the Quail Lodge event.  This year there's a Cycle World tour on Saturday morning - click here for details - for those not quick enough to snatch Quail Ride tickets, and the roads around Carmel Valley are fantastic.
Cycle World will lead a ride through the winding roads of Carmel Valley on Saturday morning
There aren't many motorcycle shows where you can rub elbows with World Champion GP racers (Kenny Roberts, Wayne Rainey, and Eddie Lawson are regulars) and superstars like Mert Lawill, while strolling in a beautiful spot, eating fantastic food (and drinks!) and looking at a world-class selection of motorcycles.  The Quail is top-class, as anyone who's attended knows, and why more folks show up every year.  Still, it never feels crowded, as the facility simply expands as necessary, and more vendor/exhibit/food/champagne tents line the field. The Quail put together a terrific video of last year's event, check it out:
As usual, I'll be your emcee for the event, and if I can duck out of Concours judging duty this year, might have time for a chat if you collar me on the field.  I definitely prefer offers of a ride on your groovy bike!
The cool mix of machines typical of the Quail's field display
Taking care of emcee duties with the captain of the ship, Gordon McCall
Fringe benefits; riding the rare and unique!  In this case, a 1930 HRD-Vincent Python
Be there!
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Monday, May 02, 2016

THE ENGLISH DIRIGIBLES

A 1930 BSA S30 Sloper Deluxe captured in 1930 in St. Hubert, Quebec, during the R100's cross-Atlantic tour that year - evidence of damage on the lower tailfin, incurred while crossing the Atlantic, give the clue, as does the Canadian registration of the bike!
A picture proverbially equals a thousand words, but if those words are lost to popular history, they bear repeating. A pair of images posted by Jim 'Buster' Culling on Instagram piqued my interest; their superficial charm lays with the old bike/dirigible mashup, but there's a terrific tale behind these images, pinpointing exactly where and when they were taken, and what was happening with British aviation.  The photos show a couple of friends posing aboard a 1930 BSA 'Sloper' S30 Deluxe (the model # changed by year from 1927-35), with its chrome tank and fishtail muffler, which was designed by Harold Briggs (who'd left Daimler) for BSA in 1926, for the '27 season.  It used a wet-sump design, and proved a very quiet and fast machine, and a big seller for BSA. The gents in the photo are enjoying their triple good fortune on that day, with clear bluebird skies, a lovely BSA to ride, and the added interest of Britain's fantastic new dirigible, the R100, moored on a special mast which allowed 360deg of movement in case of shifts in the wind. The photos are shot in St. Hubert, Quebec, the only dirigible mooring in Canada, where the R100 arrived on August 1st, 1930, and stayed until August 11th, after which it traveled to Toronto.  The lower failfin had been damaged on the Atlantic crossing, as shown in the top (higher resolution) photo.  Photos of the R100 over Toronto on Aug. 12/13 show the lower tailfin had been repaired, so these photos must have been shot the first week of August, 1930.
Likely a friend of the BSA's owner with the new 1930 BSA Sloper and the R100 moored in St Huber, Canada.
The origins of lighter-than-air craft is documented as far back as the AD200s in China, when floating lanterns were used for signaling - 'Kongming lanterns'. The first Europeans saw of aerial lanterns was during the invasion of the Khans in the 1200s, as the Mongols studied captured Chinese signal-lanterns, and replicated them... which is exactly how Europeans were introduced to gunpowder,too. It took another 500 years for the first documented human flight in a hot-air balloon, in 1709, when Bartolomeu de Gusmao demonstrated the principle to the King of Portugal. Balloons grew in popularity through the 1700s and into the 1800s, for both popular and military/surveillance uses. Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin witnessed observation balloons on a visit to the US during the Civil War, and was keenly interested in their potential.  A lecture on lighter-than-air craft for postal and commercial travel in 1874 inspired Zeppelin to sketch out his first dirigible that year, a rigid-framed airship using bags of hydrogen to lift the craft, and engines slung beneath for direction and power. Zeppelin patented his design in Germany and the US, and his first, privately-funded airship, the LZ-1, flew over the beguiling waters of the Bodensee on July 2, 1900.  Experiments, crashes, and a huge public interest in the project meant by 1914 the new Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmbH factory (still in business!) had built 24 ever more capable dirigibles, with over 1500 flights and 10,000 paying passengers under its belt. They proved unreliable and dangerous for anything but observation during WW1, and most bombers-dirigibles were destroyed by weather or enemy bullets, as giant hydrogen bas bags are easy, and spectacularly flammable targets.
The R100 on its mooring mast in Cardington, the HQ of the British Dirigible Project, looking very much like the landscape in our BSA Sloper photos
Post-war, the dream of regular dirigible airline service was realized by the Zeppelin company, who circumvented postwar restrictions on large aircraft by building Zeppelins for American companies!  And while they knew helium was the safer lighter-than-air medium, American patent holders on helium production refused to license rights, so the rest of the world carried on with hydrogen dirigibles, with occasionally spectacular failures. While Britain experimented with its own dirigibles in the 'Teens, they weren't particularly successful.  Still, it galled the British Air Ministry that Zeppelins were making great strides in Arctic exploration, global circumnavigation, and a popular passenger service.  In 1924, the Air Ministry launched the Imperial Airship Scheme to connect its far-flung empire with dirigibles. Two teams competed for a new design; the R100 by Vickers-Armstrongs, and the R101 by the Air Ministry itself. The R100 was built using 'conventional' Zeppelin practice, headed by Barnes Wallis who had experience with dirigible design (and who later used the truss dirigible frame design for the structure of Wellington bombers), which proved an exceptionally air-worthy craft, while the R101 was more experimental, terribly overweight, and unstable.  The R100 successfully crossed the Atlantic, made numerous test flights, and garnered excellent press. Politics within the Air Ministry meant the R101 was pushed into service.  In October 1930, the R101, on its first overseas flight, crashed in France, killing its design team and the Air Minister himself, Lord Thomson. That was the end of the British Dirigible project; the R100 was immediately grounded, and destroyed the following year. The story of the R100 is fascinating, and told brilliantly by engineer Nevil Shute in his book 'Slide Rule'.  Shute was Deputy Engineer on the R100 project under Barnes Wallis, and took over as Chief Engineer in 1929.  'Slide Rule' was recommended to me by Dennis Quinlan, and I'm passing the favor along to you; like books by Phil Irving, or Kevin Cameron's Cycle World columns, Shute manages to wrest very technical matters into an entertaining read.
The majesty of an enormous Zeppelin is undeniable, and when the LZ-26 was flown over the White House in 1926, president Calvin Coolidge called it 'an angel of peace.' After Count von Zeppelin died in 1917, the company was taken over by Dr Hugo Eckener, who was adamant the airship be used for peaceful purposes.  He was a vocal anti-nazi, and made an official 'non-person' during WW2, and only intervention by Hindenburg prevented his arrest.