Nine long years before Mike Hawthorn became the first British World Champion driver, this country’s first-ever motor sporting world titles were shared by motorcyclists Les Graham, who won the inaugural 1949 500cc title with AJS, Freddie Frith, 350cc Champion with Velocette… and Eric Oliver, who won the Sidecar World Championship on his Norton-Watsonian combination, passengered by Denis Jenkinson – ‘Jenks’ of subsequent Motor Sport and Mille Miglia fame.
The FIM World Championship was launched that year with six qualifying rounds for the solo titles, and just three for up-to-600cc sidecars. Nobody knew if the public would engage with it. But it really caught on. The car people took notice, and launched their copycat Drivers’ Championship in 1950.
Jenks was a discreet winner. He’d explain: “Eric Oliver was World Champion – I just looked on in wonder!”
Oliver was certainly the most gifted sidecar rider of his era. He was champion in 1949-51 and ’53, only failing in ’52 after injury. He was a steel-tough ex-RAF flight-engineer with unusually long arms and legs and a clipped moustache. He’d raced solos pre-war, before grass-tracking sidecars and ruling Cadwell Park road racing in 1947. His totally committed style spelled great things, or an early grave! He was also adept at tuning his machine. He ‘went Continental’ in 1948, where he met wide-eyed Jenks.
Realising that motor racing was beyond his pocket, DSJ had sold his Frazer Nash to buy a 350cc Norton instead, for £100. He finished last in the Hutchinson ‘100’ at Dunholme Lodge, and also ran at Oliver’s Mount and Cadwell Park. Experienced rider David Whitworth told him Continental road racing paid start money, and encouraged him to join the circus for 1948. Packing all his worldly goods and himself onto the Norton, Jenks rode off to compete on successive weekends in three Belgian race meetings: Mettet, Brussels and Floreffe.
But in practice for the first race his engine seized. He’d been relying upon the £30 start money promised by race organiser Jules Tacheny so worked all night to cobble-up his engine, limped off the startline and retired. Friendly Tacheny still paid up, but Jenks’s Norton was still dead. However, at the prize-giving, Manx GP winner Eric Briggs said, “Tag along with me to Brussels as ‘a fettler’”. At the prize-giving there, Jenks sat at the same table as Eric Oliver, whose two regular passengers both had regular jobs and had used up their holiday leave. He was looking for “new ballast” after Floreffe. Jenks was desperate to stay with this intoxicating travelling circus and begged a ride. Eric offered him “a tryout before practice”.
After a few brisk laps Eric admitted, “You’ll be all right – you’re the right weight, and you don’t rock the boat; I never felt you move”. Regulation minimum weight for a sidecar passenger was 60kg. Jenks leathered and booted weighed 59.9. Eric took him on.
Jenks later wrote: “I learned at close quarters why real World Champions are naturals and not manufactured in a riding or driving school. On a starting grid Eric Oliver was there for one reason only – to win. If he did not, he wanted to know the reason why, but only from himself…” They learned the European racing ropes together, before building a new combination for 1949. The three new World Championship rounds were the Swiss GP (Bremgarten), the Belgian GP (Spa) and the Grand Prix des Nations (Monza), and a full European season was planned around them.
They initially used a single-cam Norton engine, pending delivery of the latest 596cc ‘double-knocker’ twin-cam unit. To maximise earnings they also crammed their solo motorcycles into a new Austin van; a 348cc Velocette and a 499cc Norton for Eric, and Jenks his 350 Norton. Quite apart from riding the bikes they also prepared them. They had no other mechanic. Races were often many hundreds of miles apart, over generally appalling roads through still war-shattered Europe. They shared the driving. In pouring rain they slept in the van. In dry weather they’d pitch a tent – on a warm night Jenks might sleep beneath the stars. Only after a really profitable weekend would they splash out on hotel rooms.
All around them would be their rivals – the rest of this gipsy ‘circus’ wandering Europe. It was hand-to-mouth, shoe-string and utterly addictive. Eric was very much the boss – but Jenks learned fast! Their tour began at Pau on Easter Sunday. Jenks wrote: “It’s the first time we’ve ever motored in these parts and we began to despair of ever reaching the Pyrenees! Pau is a delightful meeting, but how dangerous!” Eric took fourth place on his 350 Velo solo, before a 700-mile drive into Belgium for Floreffe: “The downhill leg from Sart St Laurent to Floreffe finishes in a series of swerves [which] can be taken ‘flat’ by the really fast lads, even on 500s, while Eric gets the chair through them without shutting off, and we are doing close on 95mph at the time which keeps me pretty busy.
“The sidecar race was our first with the new Watsonian hitched to the faithful old Norton, somewhat tidied up since last year, and against us were Hans Haldemann and Frans Vanderschrick, also on 596cc Nortons, and Roland Benz with a BMW. It was a bit of a walkover for us, for Hans insisted on doing 6300rpm down the two-mile hill and Vanderschrick had only finished building the model the night before and had done no practice. Hans, of course, stopped with a big bang… so we toured in to win our first sidecar race of the season. After the prize-giving in a little café in Namur, the various English ‘circus’ riders were seen poring over vast maps, trying to decide how to get to Spain for next week’s meeting at Barcelona. When we left at 11.30pm we were hot on the heels of Ernie Thomas and Norman Croft in their Morris van, while Tommy Wood was still deciding which way to point his Ford V8 [and] Eric Briggs’s van was still in the car park.
“As I write, breakfast is in the offing and Tommy Wood has just gone by blowing a familiar English fanfare on his horn; we lost Ernie Thomas last night when we had to stop and take on some 60 gallons of fuel. Yes, it is a very long way to Spain, and practice begins on Thursday…”
Eric finished third 350 solo in Barcelona while on the chair they again won easily. Jenks reported: “The most disturbing thing was the way the spectators stood three to four deep along the kerb with hardly any protection. On left-hand bends my head frequently passed over a pair of polished shoes, or past a pair of silk stockings. As the organisers said ‘They pay their money to watch and feel they are entitled to some of the danger!’”
A punishing 850-mile drive back to Mettet in Belgium was wasted with complete failure in the races there, including Jenks dropping his 350 Norton at 85mph. Despite his bruises he then tore to Ostend in a borrowed Jeep to collect their new ‘double-knocker’ 596cc Norton engine from the Dover ferry, before rejoining Eric in Brussels to rebuild all their machines ready for Erlen, Switzerland. There, “we led from the start and without straining the motor at all we finished 27sec in front of Haldemann”. The following weekend, Eric finished sixth 350 in the Olten street race before they won again on the sidecar.
Eric rode in the Isle of Man TT, and after a flying visit there the travel-stained Austin van carried them back to Brussels to collect the chair, and on to Berne, for the World Championship-opening Swiss Grand Prix.
Jenks: “Actually we had made a bit of a boob when we built the new outfit, for we estimated our fuel consumption to be not less than 25mpg and cut the fuel tank capacity accordingly. However, in practice we found it was nearer 21mpg which meant that our 15 litres capacity was not quite enough for ‘the Swiss’, which is the longest of the GP events. We got over this by arranging an extra 2-litre tank in the nose of the chair, with a feed pipe up to the main tank, the idea being that on the straights, while I was lying on my stomach out of the wind, I could blow into the lower tank and feed the extra fuel up into the main one. This all worked perfectly in a tryout and at the scrutineering everyone was highly amused and quite happy.
“But about half an hour before the race, when we went to have out tanks sealed, the officials decided we could not use the overload tank and off it had to come. Fortunately, Norton came to our rescue and Rex McCandless agreed to refuel us when we stopped, halfway through the race.
“From the fall of the flag we really had to motor to some effect to build up sufficient lead to make a pitstop. It was a gamble, but the only way, and as luck would have it by 10 laps we had a 50sec lead over Haldemann and [Ercole] Frigerio, who were scrapping for second place. We took on five litres of petrol, and on the next lap were still 20sec in front. We built this lead up again to nearly 50sec by the end of the race, and so won the first leg of the World Championship.”
At Locarno, Eric then finished second 350, with Jenks sixth. “The sidecars ran over 45 laps and there were 11 starters. With the Belgian GP one week ahead we saved our ‘double-knocker’ and used the old single-camshaft engine; it proved to be a fraction slower than Haldemann’s ‘double-knocker’, while both Nortons outpaced Frigerio’s Gilera. It was an excellent duel until Hans had one of the arms break off the carburettor banjo union. This let Frigerio into second place, with Hans limping home third.”
The following weekend, after a 30-hour drive and an engine change back to the ‘double-knocker’, they attacked the World Championship Belgian GP: “Having taken the lead at the start and gained about 100 yards lead over Haldemann by the end of the Burnenville turn, we were just settling down to the three-mile full-throttle blind along the Masta straight when the motor fluffed. I looked up to see fuel pouring from the float chamber, the near-side banjo union having broken exactly as it did on Haldemann’s machine last week. Turning off the fuel from that side of the tank, I stuck my thumb over the broken union, the motor picked up, and so we continued, but by this time Hans was in front. We could not catch him, as on the bends I couldn’t move more than an arm’s length from the carburettor, so could not get out of the chair on the bends. We rode the whole seven laps like that, with Eric riding as if he had ballast in the chair which he might as well have done, for all the use I was. You know the old story about the Dutch boy and the hole in the dyke? That’s me!
“Not knowing what had happened, Hans was pressing on as hard as he could, and we could just keep our distance; eventually his big-end decided it had had enough and he went out of the race, but not before he had recorded the fastest lap. We managed to keep Vanderschrick at bay, although he was riding remarkably well, for it was his passenger Martin Witney’s first race and he is also rather on the big side for a passenger.
“It was most embarrassing to have to sit gormlessly in the chair, while Eric struggled it round left-handers with the wheel about a foot off the ground. Frigerio was put out by valve trouble, and Albino Milani broke his front wheel spindle.” Having held his thumb hard against the wildly vibrating carburettor for most of the race, Jenks told me his entire hand and most of the arm remained ‘frozen’ for several days. But his alarm that this might be permanent was eased by having won the first two of the three World Championship rounds, so he and Eric were the inaugural Sidecar World Champions.
But the ‘circus’ wasn’t over. At nearby Gedinne, Eric was fifth 350 and Jenks 18th before a laugh-a-minute sidecar race in which the champions twice slithered up an escape road on wet tar, recaught Hans Haldemann for the lead and flustered him into making the same mistake, eventually beating him to the flag by just three seconds. “At the prize-giving the organisers were so pleased with the day that the wine flowed freely and practically everybody was incapable… I have dim memories of our sidecar motoring back to the paddock campsite so loaded it looked like a Brussels tram.” They awoke next morning to find themselves fully clothed, while Eric had put his pyjamas on top.
They then headed deep into southern France for the Mont Ventoux mountain climb, where Eric reasoned that if they stayed on full-chat over the summit they could “scratch like hell down the other side and round the bottom in time to start in all three classes” – trebling their earning opportunities. Eric set third fastest solo time overall (ahead of Jean Behra’s Guzzi). On the chair Jenks admitted: “I have never experienced a more concentrated 15 minutes’ motoring and it certainly taxed all our skill to get to the top.”
From Mont Ventoux to Comminges was a mere 250 miles, broken by wonderful swimming in the warm Mediterranean. At Comminges Eric finished seventh 350 and amongst the 500s he and Haldemann placed fifth and sixth, “as evenly matched as they are on the sidecar outfits”.
Some 750 miles away in their heavily-laden van lay Lugano, where David Whitworth won the 350 race with Eric third and Jenks sixth. On the sidecar, facing the Gileras of Frigerio and Alfredo Milani, they suffered a punctured carburettor float. Jenks fiddled about in full flight and they were able to fight back against Frigerio, “until he packed up with valve gear trouble. We learned afterwards that he had cut a right-hand bend a bit fine and clouted his passenger’s head on a stone wall so hard that it made a large dent in his crash-hat! He was a bit annoyed and saw stars for a minute or two, but did not suffer a headache.”
Before Monza, they spent 12 days camped on the shores of Lake Lugano, together with David Whitworth and his wife who parked their van alongside and unloaded a war surplus ‘Folbot’ commando kayak. Jenks wrote: “I thought sidecaring was exciting until we got into the wash from one of the lake paddle steamers!” It was an idyllic holiday, punctuated by the sad news that ‘circus’ member Norman Croft had crashed fatally at Pilzen, Czechoslovakia. Seven months later David Whitworth would follow – killed at Spa during the 1950 Belgian GP…
Jenks revelled in seeing the hallowed Monza Autodrome: “We arrived at about 10pm on the evening before practice and even at that hour the caretakers were most enthusiastic, and after doing a gentle tour of the track in the van, we were shown to a lock-up in the paddock, given the key and told to make ourselves at home.
“We were very pleased to see that Ercole Frigerio had brought along his long-promised four-cylinder Gilera sidecar outfit, and we wasted no time getting on his tail in practice. Unlike many Italians, he rides with his head and it was soon obvious to the onlookers that neither of us were being honest about our speed past the Tribunes!”
On race day: “As we headed the procession out of the paddock we were very conscious that we were ‘playing away’. Knowing Frigerio’s capabilities we determined to make a good start and were so successful that it took him a whole lap to catch us, and as he whanged past along the straight we nipped into his slipstream and then had the most enjoyable race, while it lasted, of the whole season.”
Years later, Jenks told me that when Eric Oliver slipstreamed another sidecar, “he really slipstreamed it – with our front wheel poked in between the cycle and the chair ahead of us. All I could see were the soles of Frigerio’s passenger’s plimsolls!”
At the time he reported: “For six laps we ran neck and neck, pushing all we knew for we felt that our only chance of winning was to force the Gilera so hard that it either blew up or wore its rider out, for with its superior speed we could not rely on merely outriding him on the bends.
“As it turned out, it was we who could not stand the pace, for our plug cooked and we had to stop and fit another, which dropped us back to last place, with all hope of catching the four-cylinder gone. We gradually worked out way into fifth place and thus we finished, gaining valuable points for the marque championship which Norton won, while we retained the individual.
“We shall certainly not return home dissatisfied, for 10 first places and one fifth can, I suppose, be regarded as a successful season… and of course Les Graham and Freddie Frith together with their respective firms are on top of the world.”
DSJ and Oliver: survivors in a perilous age
For 1950 Eric Oliver decided to return home between European races, while Jenks wanted to stay with the ‘circus’. So they went their separate ways, Eric using passengers Peter Glover and Lorenzo Dobelli, while Jenks based himself in Brussels, riding with the Belgian Marcel Masuy, who raced a Norton combination and a Veritas sports car. Jenks also had a crush on Masuy’s lady, Annette…
Eric and Dobelli won the 1951 Sidecar World title, but missed out in ’52 after they crashed at Bordeaux and each broke a leg. In ’53 Dobelli was replaced by Stan Dibben of Norton’s staff, with Eric winning his final world title, and for ’54 Leslie Nutt joined Eric while Dibben rode with ’52 champion Cyril Smith. In a race near Frankfurt, Eric crashed, breaking an arm. He was never quite the same rider thereafter, retiring in 1955 aged 44 to run his motorcycle dealership in Staines. He came back in ’58, but broke his back in the 1960 TT. He later raced Vintage machines – and a Lotus Elan – before a fatal stroke in 1980.
Jenks continued riding with Masuy until his last professional race at Solitude, Germany, in 1952. That year had seen the dangers of the game claim old friends and rivals. Six-times Belgian sidecar champion Frans Vanderschrick was killed in a grass track meeting at Poperinge when his front wheel spindle snapped and the sidecar crashed into a telegraph pole, severely injuring his passenger Jean-Marie Stas. Ercole Frigerio had been killed in the Swiss GP, his crash also breaking his passenger Ezio Ricotti’s leg. And three years later, on the penultimate lap at Senigallia, Italy, Masuy died after crashing his combination due – it was said – to his passenger Marino Saguato having baled out.
Sidecar required two gifted individuals to merge as one. In those days, on those tracks, they lived and died together. Jenks had been there, done that. And he was uniquely equipped to share his experience…