With its long, angular petrol tank, bicycle-style saddle, unsuspended “hard-tail” frame, and wide handlebar sweeping back from below a large, sticking-up headlight, the Black Douglas Sterling looks – to all but a fairly expert eye – like a roadster from motorcycling’s pioneering days of a century ago.
Even the name hints at the Bristol-based Douglas firm that was among Britain’s leading early marques, winning its first Isle of Man TT in 1912, and establishing a reputation for flat-twin roadsters that lasted until production ended in the Fifties.
But the Black Douglas is very different. It’s a new bike: designed in Birmingham, produced near Milan, and powered by a 230cc, single-cylinder engine from Taiwan. Far from being a fragile piece of history best appreciated by elderly enthusiasts, the Sterling is a modern motorcycle that combines its old-school look with simplicity of use.This unique and curious machine comes from the workshop of Fabio Cardoni, an Italian entrepreneur and bike enthusiast who, a few years ago, found his enjoyment of his collection of classic and modern machines fading. Having previously commissioned two custom Harley-Davidsons from Birmingham-based Boneshaker Choppers, Cardoni returned with a request for a simple bike with an emphasis on low-speed enjoyment.
Boneshaker engineer Benny Thomas created three prototypes, of which the vintage-style “flat tanker” was Cardoni’s favourite. Such was the positive response, when the new owner rode it on his native Lombardy roads, that he decided to found a company, Black Douglas – named after his hero James Douglas, the 14th-century Scottish knight – to put a similar bike into production.
The Sterling’s 14bhp, air-cooled engine, produced by Zongshen, is a copy of Honda’s CG230 unit. The Italian-made steel frame, whose top tube runs above the aluminium petrol tank, supports an old-style girder front suspension system, with central single spring. Rear suspension is provided simply by two springs under the hinged leather saddle.
Wheels are huge of diameter and narrow of width, with generous mudguards; brakes are small-diameter drums at each end. This first model, the Sterling Original Drayton, features deep green paintwork and numerous neat details including a small speedometer that resembles an oil pressure gauge. The minimalist switchgear incorporates a button for the electric starter.
Motorbikes that look this old are not normally so easy to ride. The Sterling feels bizarre as you settle into the saddle and look forward over the huge headlight, wide bars and slender tank. But unlike a genuine vintage bike, the Black Douglas has no confusing levers for throttle, ignition advance or fuel mixture; just a familiar twist-grip, clutch and five-speed gearbox.
In a straight line it’s as rider-friendly as any commuter bike: pulling away easily, accelerating fairly briskly, and cruising happily at close to 60mph. In traffic there’s occasionally some snatching from the long drive chain, but the Sterling compensates with manoeuvrability. It is long but slim and, at around 100kg, so light that it slips through gaps almost like a bicycle.
In bends the sprung, undamped saddle gives a distinctly vague sensation, but the bike’s light steering is matched by reasonable stability, despite the narrow tyres. Braking is adequate if not strong, the drums’ modest power mitigated by the bike’s light weight.
Any such limitations, or doubts about the Sterling’s brazen lack of authenticity, are easily forgiven because it is so much fun to ride, and seems to elicit a cheery response from most pedestrians and motorists that it encounters. Some vintage diehards, of course, may disagree.
The Sterling has just gone on sale, at about £9,500 for the basic Original Drayton. Its suitably eccentric accessory list includes a wicker basket, canvas saddlebags and an umbrella holder, some of which are included in the upmarket Sport Imperial and Countryman Deluxe models.
Many commuter bikes offer more performance and practicality for much less money, but few come even close to matching a Black Douglas’s ability to put a smile on its rider’s face.
Black Douglas Sterling Original Drayton
TESTED 230cc four-stroke single, five-speed transmission
PRICE/ON SALE €10,908 (currently £9,300 approx)/now – more info: www.haywards.co.uk/black- douglas
POWER/TORQUE 14bhp @ 6,000rpm/14lb ft @ 4,500rpm
TOP SPEED 65mph (estimated)
VERDICT Engaging Italian-built, Taiwanese-engined single that combines vintage style with enjoyably modern and rider-friendly performance
TELEGRAPH RATING Three stars out of five
Report by Telegraph