There have been many cool vehicles depicted in anime and gaming. JP’s sweet Trans Am in Redline and Spike Spiegel’s Swordfish II spring immediately to mind.
Gundams follow after that, but I’m not sure if a giant mech is technically a vehicle, and the only Gundam series I’ve watched to completion is G Gundam (I’ve heard the criticism, I acknowledge it, but ERUPTING BURNING FINGER), so I’ll move on.
But not every vehicle in anime or gaming is fictional. Real-world cars and motorcycles feature in many series, sometimes just to set a scene, but often in starring roles. Indeed, as we in the States start being able to import cars from the golden age of JDM performance, we’re coming face-to-grille with cars that became famous and desirable through video games or anime.
There’s also Kino’s Journey. Originally a light novel series written by Keiichi Sigsawa, in 2003 it was turned into a beloved anime series. This year saw the announcement and release of a new adaptation, entitled Kino’s Journey-The Beautiful World-The Animated Series. Both series tell the story of Kino, a traveler on a journey to experience the world, and all its peoples and wonders, with her talking motorcycle companion, Hermes.
Keiichi Sigsawa has a passion for motorcycles, as he detailed in a 2005 interview at Taiwan’s Comic Exhibition, which explains the choice of a bike as Kino’s companion on her travels (a 2017 interview reveals he wanted someone for Kino to speak to, which is why Hermes can talk). I’ve unfortunately never seen the 2003 series, but having started watching the newest series, that mechanical passion shines through in how Hermes is depicted.
The choice of a bike as a travel buddy isn’t therefore surprising, but I was intrigued by what kind of bike Hermes is. After doing a little digging, though, I think it suits Kino perfectly.
The fan-run wiki page for the show identifies Hermes as a Brough Superior SS100 (the official Wikipedia page just lists him as a “Brough Superior motorcycle”). The fan wiki states that the exact model year hasn’t been determined, but I think I can at least help narrow it down.
The SS100 (SS for “Super Sports”) was the signature bike of the Brough Superior company, and it was produced from 1919-1940. As is normal, the bike evolved a bit over the years. At the start of production, the SS100 used the same gear-selection method as other motorcycles of the time: a stick-shift, like you’d find in a car. However, as gearbox technology improved, George Brough moved to the foot-operated method in place to this day. For the SS100, that change-over occurred in 1935. Hermes doesn’t have a lever for changing gear, so he has to be based on an SS100 made no earlier than 1935.
But, the transmission wasn’t the only major change. After 1936, Brough switched from the original J.A.P. overhead-valve V-twin to an overhead-valve Matchless. Looking closely at stills from Episode 1 of the new series, and comparing similar images of SS100's...oh, we appear to hit a snag.
The right side of the engine looks like it has the Matchless cylinder head covers—albeit in black, not silver—but the left side has the silver rocker arms of the JAP. Luckily, this can be resolved.
This is T.E. Lawrence’s final SS100, which he unfortunately never got to ride. Who’s T.E. Lawrence? You may know him better as Lawrence of Arabia. We’ll get to him, and why he couldn’t ride this particular Brough Superior, in a little bit.
This particular SS100 is of the 1932 model year, meaning it was using the JAP motor. And it has silver cylinder head covers. Seeing as the Matchless engine was available with black cylinder head covers as well (see image at right), I’m fairly confident in saying that Hermes’ beating heart is a JAP V-twin.
In short, Hermes is either a 1935 or 1936 Brough Superior SS100.
But identifying the model year was only the start. Sigsawa-sensei surely put a lot of thought into figuring out what motorcycle Hermes should be. Looking at the history of the SS100 and Brough Superior as a whole, it’s not difficult to understand the casting choice.
Timeshift, a BBC documentary series focusing on Britain’s social and cultural history, had a rather excellent episode on British motorcycles. And roughly 6-7 minutes in, the discussion on Lawrence of Arabia and his steeds of choice, Brough Superior SS100's, begins.
As the narration explains, the SS100 was the world’s first superbike. Nowadays, it’s one of the most collectible bikes in the world. Think of this as the Ferrari 250 GTO of bikes, only British.
Even the name is extra: George Brough’s dad was the head of a motorcycle company called “Brough”, but dear George wanted to make an even better motorcycle and split from his father’s company to start his own, naming it “Brough Superior”.
Over the next 20 years, Brough Superior would produce around 3000 bikes, no two exactly alike. Only 383 of these were SS100s. His bikes were some of the most expensive machines on the road, customized to suit each customer’s exact specifications. Each one cost more than the average British worker’s yearly wage. But they were worth it. They were, after all, the “Rolls-Royce of motorbikes.”
While brand-name comparisons are nothing new these days, back then Rolls-Royce’s monocles fell into their Wedgwood teacups over mention of their name in relation to a motorcycle. Jay Leno, in discussing his 1930 SS100, detailed the story.
George Brough knew a Rolls-Royce rep were going to come by his factory, so he had his entire team dress in white lab coats and wear white gloves while they were assembling the bikes. If you’ve ever had a 5S inspection or event at work, basically that. Rolls-Royce were so impressed by this, they blessed the “Rolls-Royce of motorcycles” statement.
When I say that the Brough Superior team were assembling bikes, that’s all the company did. George Brough never actually manufactured anything, instead sourcing parts for his products from all over. Most of these parts were made in England, but a few came from elsewhere. The front forks, for instance, are from Harley-Davidson. Even the chassis was something Brough Superior brought in. But that doesn’t mean the bikes weren’t extraordinary.
The SS100 was named so because each one was certified to run to at least 100 mph. This is back in 1919—can you imagine going 100 miles an hour down a backcountry road at that time? The roads weren’t pothole-d so much as made of potholes. Hell, ‘doing the ton’ (going 100 mph) was an accomplishment for motorcycle riders all the way into the 1970s. And here’s a bike made almost half a century earlier that’s certified to do that as a minimum! It’s no wonder Lawrence of Arabia owned seven Brough Superiors (all called George—seriously).
When T.E. Lawrence returned home to England, he was a bit despondent. He lived in a country home—which didn’t even have a kitchen, as Peter Egan details—and the only thing that could alleviate his mood was hurling his SS100 around the British countryside for hours on end. It distracted him from his dissatisfaction over the borders drawn after WWI in the Middle East. It was perhaps the only thing that made him feel alive. He died following an accident while riding his SS100, crashing to avoid two boys riding their bikes. The SS100 he had on order is currently on loan to a museum..
That ability to run at 100 mph across miles of rough roads speaks of the level of engineering the SS100 possessed. British cars and motorcycles have a reputation for breaking down constantly, but I can’t imagine the SS100 being included in that. It’s that inherent quality that makes it perfect for Kino’s companion. Kino never stays more than three days in a country she visits, traveling through forests, fields, and other terrain. The SS100 came with two chain lubrication systems, and dual-float carbs to make the the engine was never starved of fuel. Yes, looking from an outsider’s perspective the sheer amount of valves and riding prep-work seems overwhelming. And it might seem odd that Kino should be riding a 1930s motorcycle, considering the world she inhabits has access to the kind of technology usually seen in mecha series (albeit said access is extremely limited).
But beyond the aesthetics and sound—the production team recorded actual SS100 sounds for the show—there’s a good reason why Hermes is a Brough Superior SS100. Everything on that bike is mechanical, fixable with enough knowledge, time, and a good toolkit. And certifying a bike in 1919 for running at 100 mph is no small feat. T.E. Lawrence may’ve been a speed freak, but he wouldn’t have bought seven bikes from the company if they were too delicate to accompany him through thick and thin.
A modern bike might be more reliable, and doesn’t chug its oil as quickly, but on long-distance journeys simplicity and ease of maintenance is key. It’s why I ride a steel-frame adventure bike. I pay a weight penalty, but if the frame gets damaged in the middle of nowhere, it’s a hell of a lot easier to weld than an aluminum one. Kino may be a self-reliant, quick-drawing badass, but fixing a modern motorcycle’s electronic systems would require a hell of a lot more specialized equipment than is common in her world. Kino’s world may have isolated cases of sci-fi technology, it’s also a world where they’ve just started investigating heavier-than-air aircraft. I can’t imagine they have CAN BUS code scanners in high supply.
I also have reason to believe that Sigsawa-sensei had roughly this model year range in mind when he was creating Hermes. George Brough started his company with the goal of making the fastest, sportiest motorbikes in the world. His early models are all low-weight, high-performance beasts. In later years, however, although the bikes were still fast, they became more touring-focused, with a little more comfort for long-distance riding. Kino doesn’t need a sportsbike, but a stalwart companion that will carry her over hill, dale, and unknown terrain. A later-model SS100 sounds perfect for that.
Finally, I return to the Ferrari 250 GTO comparison. You’d think, as the SS100 is considered a superbike, that a better comparison would be the Lamborghini Miura, widely considered to be the first supercar. But that isn’t the case.
The GTO is quite possibly the most desirable car ever constructed. Only 39 were ever made, and nowadays rarely appear in public auctions. But when they do, oooh boy. The most expensive car ever sold at auction is the 250 GTO #3851GT; in August 2014, it sold for $38,115,000. While the most recent publicly auctioned SS100, the 1928 model nicknamed ‘Moby Dick’, can’t come anywhere close to that in terms of price—it sold for a mere £210,500, or $283,481 in 2011, and failed to sell this year at $469,590—the two share something in common: they are archetypes.
Although the 250 GTO is so beloved today, it really didn’t further automotive technology that much. Nothing on it was really revolutionary. Hell, Phil Hill, the Ferrari race driver who raced in the GTO in its first ever race back in 1962, was even a bit miffed before he drove it—he’d been driving Ferrari prototypes in F1 and at Le Mans before then. But the GTO isn’t valuable because it moved the engineering needle. It ranks so high on collector lists because it is quite possible the finest distillation of what a Ferrari, what a car, should be. Glorious noise, gorgeous looks, and driver involvement.
The Brough Superior SS100 wasn’t made of novel materials for the time, using some new-fangled construction method. But George Brough knew what the best parts were, where the highest-quality engineering could be found. He wasn’t trying to advance the science of the motorcycle. He just wanted to build the best damn bikes in the world. The Platonic ideal of the motorcycle. That’s what makes the SS100, what makes Hermes, so special.
In Greek mythology, Hermes was quite a busy god. He was the divine messenger, as well as the god of tricksters. But he was also the god of boundaries, and a protector of all travelers and roads. A guide for all those making journeys throughout the world. Kino’s motorcycle may not be a god, but he’s certainly a superior companion.