Motorcycles: December 2018

The centenary of the Great War’s conclusion is a good time to remember a British fighter ace who went on to become the world’s fastest motorcyclist

Eleven o’clock on November 11 heralds 100 years since the end of the so-called war to end all wars. Royal Air Force fighter pilot Captain Owen Baldwin marked the occasion with this entry in his service record. “War ends on a spectacularly noisy note – a splendid show of Very lights accompanied by much hooting of klaxons.”

Baldwin was a late arrival to the first air war. His mechanical skills, learned while tinkering in his father’s garage in the early years of the 20th century, had got him a post with the Mechanical Transport section of the Army Service Corps, where he was kept busy fixing and riding motorcycles. He got his chance to be a pilot following the so-called Bloody April of 1917, when British pilots were being shot out of the sky at a terrifying rate by the better-equipped Germans.

The Royal Flying Corps (which became the RAF in April 1918) desperately needed new recruits. Baldwin fitted the bill perfectly, because if you had the mechanical skills to master an engine in a motorcycle, you could most likely master an engine in an aeroplane. His transfer papers read thus: “Sobriety? Good. Is he reliable? Yes. Is he intelligent? Very.”

Baldwin got his wings in January 1918; perfect timing, because the RFC was taking its first deliveries of the Sopwith Camel, an excellent plane that helped Britain recapture the skies above the Western Front. And he didn’t waste time getting down to business. He shot down his first Fokker in April. By October he had downed a further 15 German planes, including five in one day during September, as the Allies pushed home their advantage.

The French awarded Baldwin the Croix de Guerre and Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur. The RAF gave him the Distinguished Flying Cross and bar. “A gallant and skilful pilot, showing at all times fearlessness and resource,” wrote the DFC citation.

When the war ended many pilots didn’t know what to do with themselves. How could you follow the thrill (and terror) of fighting, wing to wing, at 10,000 feet? Baldwin, however, knew exactly what he wanted to do. He returned home to Twyford, Berkshire, where he prepared a Matchless-JAP for his racing comeback at Brooklands. The war had rudely interrupted Baldwin’s fledgling racing career, but no doubt his hand-to-eye coordination had been sharpened to a cutting edge by his wartime experiences.

Sure enough, the 32-year-old beat Brooklands legends Bert Le Vack, Joe Wright and another former RAF pilot Claude Temple to win the 1924 Brooklands 1000cc championship, riding a Zenith-Blackburne, which used an engine made in (of all places) Farnham, Surrey.

Like most top riders of the era, Baldwin’s ambitions turned towards the crown that brought the most prestige and the biggest bonuses: the land-speed record. In 1927 his bid to become the world’s fastest motorcyclist gained official support from Zenith, using a 996cc JAP engine, manufactured in John Alfred Prestwich’s factory in Tottenham, north London. Baldwin prepared the bike with his father, Louis Napoleon, who had worked at Twyford’s village mill until he saw the future and became a motor mechanic.

The latest JAP engine used plenty of technology that had been developed in wartime aero engines: overhead valves, aluminium-alloy pistons, valve overlap and so on. Interestingly, the man who had pioneered aluminium pistons was Walter Bentley, who before the war had contested the Isle of Man TT races on an Indian.

In August 1928 Baldwin returned to France, aiming for the old Roman road that runs straight and true for four miles outside the town of Arpajon, south of Paris. Unlike the British, the French were happy to close public highways to indulge their love of the internal combustion engine, so for two days each summer the Paris-based Fédération Internationale des Clubs Motocyclistes helped turn this stretch of blacktop into Europe’s speed mecca. The annual event was a hit with the locals; with 5000 folding chairs provided for spectators, who bought food, wine and coffee from open-air buffets along the course, as a small army of gendarmes kept them on the right side of the fence.

Baldwin’s aim was to better the 121.4mph record established two years earlier at Arpajon by Temple, riding an OEC-JAP. His Zenith featured various differences from his Brooklands bikes – most obviously lower handlebars and higher gearing, plus small dished fairings either side of the front wheel, not unlike the dished undercarriage wheels fitted to the Sopwith Camel. The JAP vee-twin engine produced almost 60 horsepower at 4800rpm.

Baldwin wore his usual racing attire of cork pudding-basin helmet, pilot’s goggles, white cotton overalls and leather shoes. And he had just three two-way runs in which to attack the record. His final flying kilometre was very fast, but a tenth of a second outside Temple’s 18 seconds. Too close to give up, he paid the FICM another few francs for one more two-way attempt.

He knew there was nothing he could do to make his bike faster, so he wrapped a split innertube around his torso, then wound sticky tape around the tube, his arms and legs to stop the overalls flapping in the wind. His final northward run took 17.56sec, his final southward run 18.34sec. The record was his, at 124.62mph.

The following year a new power emerged in the race for the land-speed record. BMW broke Baldwin’s record with a supercharged boxer twin, designed by Max Friz, the creator of BMW’s first engine, an inline six that had powered the final iteration of Fokker fighter planes. By 1937, BMW – with Hitler’s backing – had raised the record to 173.67mph.

Mat Oxley has covered premier-class motorcycle racing for many years – and also has the distinction of being an Isle of Man TT winner