Britain is Supreme in International Motor-Cycle Racing

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C. Posthumus reminds us that

Britain is Supreme in International Motor-Cycle Racing

A survey of our past and present success in the Two-Wheeler Field, in which, for example, since the Kaiser War British motor-cycles have won the 500-c.c. French Grand Prix no fewer than sixteen times.

In search of a distinctive British motor-racing feat, we can quote Segrave’s victory with the Sunbeam in the 1923 French Grand Prix, yet how many car folk realise, I wonder, that the premier — i.e., the 500-c.c. class — of the French Motor-cycle Grand Prix has fallen no less than sixteen times to British machines since the end of the Great War? Furthermore, the T.T. races, German G.P., Swiss G.P., G.P. of Europe, Belgian G.P., Italian G.P., Swedish G.P., the Targa Florio, Barcelona G.P., Dieppe G.P., and many other motor-cycle namesakes of famous car events have all been won by British machines, not once but repeatedly. To attempt to list our successes in the Senior (500-c.c.), Junior (850-c.c.) and Lightweight (250-c.c.) classes of Europe’s more important events is futile — it would, in fact, be more simple to list the races we haven’t won.

It was in July, 1921, at the very time and place at which Segrave was making his initial essay as a Grand Prix driver under the stern eye of Louis Coatalen, that Alec Bennett, Irish-born Canadian, scored the first big post-war motorcycle success for Britain overseas, by winning the 500-c.c. French Grand Prix at Le Mans on his Sunbeam. His win established a precedent and ever since that time gallant bands of English, Irish, Scots and Empire riders with British machines have embarked on that exciting annual expedition known as the “Continental Circus,” to do battle with the finest of Continental makes and riders in Europe’s classic road races. Their successes have been great, sometimes overwhelming, and British makes such as Sunbeam, Norton, A.J.S., Douglas, Rudge-Whitworth, Excelsior, Velocette, O.K. Supreme, New Imperial, etc., became famous, not only to Englishmen, but to the applauding thousands who thronged the big race meetings in Belgium, Holland, Germany, Switzerland, France, Italy, Spain, Sweden and elsewhere. Opposition to the British machines was strong and spirited; the tale of the “Circus’s” deeds in their overseas forays would make more monotonous reading than the sagas of Alfa, Bentley, Bugatti or E.R.A. successes in their respective heydays, were it not for the vigorous foreign challenge coming, at different periods, from the French Peugeots, Belgian F.N.s, Italian Garellis, Bianchis, Guzzis, Gileras, etc., Swiss Motosacoches, German N.S.U.s, D.K.W.s and B.M.W.s, Swedish Husqvarnas and other European marques. With such competition, the International aspect of the classic Continental events was enthralling indeed, yet such was the pre-eminence of our machines that “ace” Continental riders would race British motor-cycles in preference to those of their homeland. In car racing, we have become accustomed to seeing British drivers handling foreign cars, for in truth they have little option if they seek success in G.P.-type racing, yet for many years in the two-wheeler world we find a refreshing reversal of this situation. It must have been galling to racially conscious people like the Germans and Italians, particularly when under the hyper-patriotic spur of Fascism, not only to have their major events persistently won by British motor-cycles, but to witness their best riders astride A.J.S.s, Rudges, Velocettes and Nortons. Yet such was the rule rather than the exception before the mid-’30s, and among the many famous men who showed this preference at one time or other were Nuvolari, Varzi, Arcangeli, Tenni, Bandini and the Ghersi brothers, of Italy; Franconi and Cordey of Switzerland; Ley, Steinbach and Gall of Germany; Runtsch, the Austrian champion, and numerous Dutch, French and Belgian riders.

Such was the reputation of the British motor-cycle industry in the inter-war years, indeed, that British brains were hired to produce machines to combat the “Circus” triumphs. N.S.U.s of Germany employed Englishman Walter Moore, earlier of Nortons, to design and develop their o.h.c. racing machines. The Motosacoche of Switzerland, ridden at one time with great success by brilliant Walter Handley, was largely the work of Herbert Le Vack, eminent Brooklands expert, tuner and designer. The Belgian racing F.N. produced in 1930 was basically the design of Dougal Marchant, versatile tuner and rider associated with Blackburne and Chater-Lea. Czecho-Slovakia’s Jawa racing machines of the ’30s were designed by rider George W. Patchett, while even Germany’s famed transverse horizontal-twin B.M.W., which really did break Britain’s grip on the 500-c.c. class after 1936, owes its layout largely to Granville Bradshaw’s masterpiece, the A.B.C. of years before. Other foreign firms relied on British components such as J.A.P., Blackburne, Python and Sturmey-Archer engines, Burman, Albion and Sturrney-Archer gearboxes, Amal carburetters, etc., etc., both for touring and racing machines. In passing, it is of interest to note that William Harley and Walter Davidson, joint founders of the world-famous Harley-Davidson motor-cycle firm of Milwaukee, U.S.A., are themselves respectively of English and Scots origin.

It was in 1935 that the foreign challenge began to assume the proportions of a real menace to Britain’s supremacy, when Stanley Woods, brilliant Irish rider with a record of victories on a par with that of Caracciola in the car world, won both the Lightweight and Senior T.T. races over the world-famous 37 1/2-mile course in the Isle of Man, with Italian Guzzi motor-cycles. Hitherto the Guzzis had been making serious inroads into our 250-c.c. domains, but Woods’ Senior win marked their greatest 500-c.c. success so far. Italy’s Axis partner’ Germany, administered a further shock to British race followers at the close of the 1936 season, when two extremely fleet shaft-driven blown twin B.M.W.s defeated Jimmy Guthrie’s single-cylinder Norton, in the Swedish Grand Prix. In the Senior class thereafter we fought a game but losing battle with the blown multis, and B.M.W.s ruled the Continental roost, chiefly through the masterly riding of Georg Meier (remember him? Auto-Union driver in 1939), only to be themselves displaced by a new Italian challenger, the Gilera supercharged four. This remarkable machine was designed by famous car driver Piero Taruffi, who was in the news in 1948 for his epic Class I car records on the highly unconventional Guzzi-engined “Tarf” but was frequently in the public eye nearly twenty years before as a successful motorcyclist, winning, among other races, the 1931 Monza G.P. and the Grand Prix of Europe in 1932 — riding Norton “500s.” Contemporary with the B.M.W.-Gilera onslaught on Senior honours, D.K.W., Guzzi and Benelli were at each other’s throats in the Lightweight class, to the discomfiture of older, less nimble British 250s, so that at the close of pre-Hitler-war racing, our supremacy was maintained in the 350-c.c. class alone. Britain temporarily drew in her horns while fresh designs were developing to meet the new situation in the Senior class. A.J.S. spent much time on a blown vee-four, first with air cooling, then with water cooling, but just as it began to feel its feet war intervened. Its performance in the 1939 Ulster G.P., where it clocked the first and so far only 100 m.p.h. lap on the famous Clady circuit, ridden by daring Irishman, Walter Rusk, considerably shook Dorino Serafini, the ultimate winner with a Gilera. (Yes, Serafini drives cars too! — he partnered Count Lurani on the class-winning Healey in the 1948 Targa Florio.) That same year, another promising “reply potential,” the Velocette blown twin, appeared, but the untimely death of its designer, Harold Willis, followed by the gloomy happening of September, 1939, rendered this machine stillborn.

The current situation is interesting in the extreme. Among the 250s, with Germany’s D.K.W.s out of the way and Britain — still badly in need of a new lightweight racer — only able to field somewhat antique Excelsiors and New Imperials, the Italian Guzzis predominate, though hustled on occasions by their compatriot Benrllis. The 350-c.c. category remains virtually an all-British Norton versus Velocette affair, with new A.J.S.s up and coming. In the 500-c.c. class, things are much more open, for with superchargers banned under the new regulations, Britain’s most formidable adversaries are the highly potent Guzzis, in both twin and single-cylinder forms, backed up by an ultra-light and very rapid unblown Gilera four. The Italians undoubtedly have their teeth well into this motor-cycle racing, and must be watched if Britain is to retain her two-wheeler prestige. Their long-recognised prowess as riders and drivers is paralleled by a first-class record as designers and technicians. Car race followers will need no reminding of Italy’s status in the Grand Prix sphere. England is represented by the omnipresent Nortons, of conventional single-cylinder o.h.c. design, which though slightly slower in acceleration and maximum speed than the Italian multis, make up for it by unsurpassed road holding and stening qualities and high-speed stamina. With Senior wins in the I.O.M. T.T.s, Dutch T.T.s and Belgian G.P.s in both 1947 and 1948, and in the 1947 Ulster and 1948 Swiss G.P.s, plus 350-c.c. wins in the Belgian and Ulster G.P.s of 1947, and the Swiss G.P. of 1948, the doughty Bracebridge Street bikes have taken the lion’s share of the post-war classics so far. The debt wed by the British motor-cycle industry to the Norton concern must surely be immeasurable. This time, however, they are not entirely alone in defending the flag, and car folk anxiously awaiting the B.R.M. may be interested to know that an equivalent “pukka G.P. job regardless . . .” in the motor-cycle sphere has emerged in the shape of the new 500-c.c. twin o.h.c. parallel twin A.J.S., a machine which promises much when finally matured. Already it is winning races, including the 1948 Comminges G.P. in France, a win which aroused little comment in success-pampered motor-cycle circles, the opposition being negligible — yet imagine the ferment if a British racing car won the Comminges car G.P.! Another supporting British “500” is the vertical twin “Grand Prix” Triumph, which is not raced officially by the works, but can be purchased “off the line” by fortunate customers.

Just why one industry should so ardently support racing while another seems largely indifferent is principally a question, I imagine, of economics. Obviously, the motor-cycle manufacturers must find that success in racing reaps a good dividend in world sales, whereas the majority of car makers presumably hold that racing does not pay. Obviously, too, the cost of producing and operating a team of racing two-wheelers, though considerable, is far less than the fabulously expensive business of building and racing a Grand Prix team, or even a single car. How the Italians, impoverished by defeat in war, contrive to produce new and costly multi-cylindered G.P. cars and racing motor-cycles is quite a mystery, but no small part of the answer must lie in their almost fanatical enthusiasm for racing of all kinds. The Italians, it is said, are artists, not logicians, but doubtless they expect considerable benefits in sales by such expensive but impressive advertising of their technical prowess. With Britain suffering the apparently greater impoverishments of victory in war, our manufacturers are all too urgently engaged in the export drive to be able to embark individually on such ventures at present, but possibly a satiation of the world’s markets for new cars later on, and a stiffening of what the Americans call “consumer resistance” may stir some of our makers from their abstinence from racing, since custom will have to be courted by advertisement, which is, after all, a primary raison d’etre of racing.

Be that as it may, the British motorcycle industry has undoubtedly derived considerable benefits from racing. In the simple words of Mr. Joe Craig, Norton team manager for years and one of our foremost road racing authorities: “British motor-cycles are the finest in the world,” and racing has without doubt played a great part in making them so and in demonstrating the fact to the world at large. Britain is the world’s greatest producer of motorcycles and has long enjoyed a worldwide market for them. Our machines are foremost in design, performance and quality and, in their neat, balanced appearance and fine finish, are second to none — indeed, those foreign machines acclaimed as good lookers seem invariably to follow British fashions, a situation very different from that current in the car world, where Transatlantic styles are aped slavishly. In gratifying contradistinction the latest American motorcycles, as instanced by the new Indian vertical-twin, closely follow British lines.

There are other aspects of this motorcycle racing which prove its very close kinship with the four-wheelers. It is widely held that two-wheeler racing forms the finest apprenticeship to car racing, and certainly many of Europe’s finest drivers gained their initiation to high speed this way. Tazio Nuvolari is the classic example, for he won innumerable motorcycle races in the ’20s, riding British Nortons, American Indians and Italian Bianchis. He visited the Isle of Man for the T.T. races with the latter team in 1926, but it is alleged that, in view of Tazio’s renowned “do or die” methods, his team manager deemed it wiser not to let him start. His great rival, the late Achille Varzi, was twice Italian motor cycling champion on British Sunbeam machines, before he took to Bugatti and Alfa-Romeo cars, and was a frequent and successful visitor to Manx shores. Pietro Bordino, one of Italy’s finest drivers in the early ’20s with G.P. F.I.A.T.s, used to race Motosacoche and Harley-Davidson motor cycles. Luigi Arcangeli, fiery Italian driver of Maseratis and Alfas, raced Motosacoche, Sunbeam and Guzzi motor-cycles and numbered among his successes a second place in the 1927 Lightweight T.T. Rudolf Caracciola, Germany’s greatest driver, successfully rode an N.S.U. before he drove his first racing car — a Fafnir, incidentally, not a Mercédès, as is popularly supposed. Hermann Muller, Auto-Union driver and winner of the 1939 French G.P., gained many successes with D.K.W. motor-cycles prior to 1940, and races them to this day in German national events. His initials, H.P., earned for him the joyous nickname of “Saucy” Muller. Bernd Rosemeyer, too, rode D.K.W.s before finding his metier at the wheel of an Auto-Union. Clemente Biondetti, veteran Italian driver and winner of the 1948 Targa Florio and Mile Miglia, used to race English A.J.S. machines in his youth. Hermann Lang, Mercédès driver and winner of five Grands Prix in 1939, was at one time the German sidecar racing champion, and a hill-climb expert with two wheels. E. G. Burgaller, noted German Bugatti exponent, used to race on B.S.A.s. The late Ralph Hepburn, whose 1946 Indianapolis lap-record remains unbeaten, was renowned nearly thirty years ago as a daring Harley-Davidson and Indian rider in American events. Among our own men, Freddy Dixon and Charlie Dodson are notable examples, both T.T. winners on two wheels and four, and men of top-rate reputations in both spheres. Sir Malcolm Campbell and Kaye Don both raced motor-cycles before taking to cars, as did Norman Black, Chris. Staniland, Pat Driscoll, Mrs. Gwenda Hawkes, Johnny Wakefield, H. G. Dobbs, Leslie Brooke, Arthur Dobson and others.

The British motor-cycle and car movements have much in common. Success in either benefits their respective industries and enhances our national prestige. Both use the same fuels, the same oils, the same tyres and, very often, the same courses — Rheims, Nurburg, Montlhèry, Dieppe, Monza, Spa, Albi, Nice, Bremgarten, Pau, Pescara, St. Gaudens, Milan, Barcelona — all are circuits as familiar to the two-wheeled racing fraternity as to the car racers. Both experience the same difficulties and adventures, the glamour of success, the grimness of failure. Like a good car Grand Prix, a classic motor-cycle race is spectacular’ and thrilling, intensely interesting from the International aspect and intriguing mechanically and historically. As for radio listening, few race commentaries could be as expertly and stirringly put over as those by ex-rider, now Motor Cycling’s Editor, Graham Walker, on events like the I.O.M. T.T.s and the Ulster Grand Prix. Let us hope the R.A.C. and B.B.C. can find a Graham Walker for the next Silverstone broadcast.

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