Motorcycles with Mat Oxley: Manx TT 110th anniversary

There has been great excitement in the motor sport world following the news that race events can be staged on public roads. However, it’s worth remembering that the Isle of Man TT, first staged 110 years ago this summer, would never have existed without the British government’s longstanding refusal to allow such riotous behaviour on the mainland.

The Light Locomotives Act of 1896 and the Motor Car Act of 1903 were strict, forbidding speeds exceeding 12mph and then 20mph. Who was to blame? The British establishment of horse-loving “motor-phobic cranks”.

Ireland and the IoM had their own legislatures, so could make their own laws. The 1903 Gordon Bennett car race was held in Ireland and in 1904 the Isle of Man passed a bill to allow road racing, in this case for the Gordon Bennett international elimination trials.

This was made possible by the island’s Lieutenant-Governor Lord Raglan, a motoring enthusiast and the son of the man largely responsible for sending several hundred British cavalrymen to their deaths in the Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War. Raglan’s hope was to extend the island’s holiday season in the brand-new seaside resort of Douglas, built to lure factory workers from the Midlands for their first ‘overseas’ holiday.

The Isle of Man’s first motorcycle race took place on May 31, 1905, to choose Britain’s team for the Coupe Internationale racing event, staged on the continent. Britain contested the Coupe Internationale on three occasions and was beaten every time. Suspecting their rivals of skulduggery, the Brits decided to organise their own international motorcycle races on the Isle of Man in the summer of 1907.

Britain’s Anglophile team manager, the Marquis de Mouzilly de St Mars, had an exotic trophy made for the occasion, based on the existing car TT prize that featured Mercury, the Roman god of financial gain, travellers and luck, and the guide of souls to the underworld. The same trophy is still awarded to the winner of the Senior TT, this year staged on June 9.

The inaugural Isle of Man TT was staged on May 28, 1907, over a 15.5-mile course between Peel, Ballacraine and Kirk Michael. The roads were little more than cart tracks.

The greatest challenge for the mostly single-speed machines was the steep climb up Creg Willeys hill out of the Glen Helen section. Some riders resorted to pedal assistance, while others jumped off and pushed.

Victors in the twin-cylinder class were Rem Fowler and Norton, both competing in their first race. Fowler rode James Lansdowne Norton’s latest machine, a beast of a thing powered by a direct-drive, five-horsepower Peugeot v-twin; no clutch or gearbox. At that time the French were the kings of internal combustion technology, but Pa Norton didn’t want his customers to know he was using a foreign engine, so he had the PF logo (for Peugeot Frères) erased from its crankcases.

Fowler completed the 10 laps in 4hrs 21mins, at 36.2mph and 87mpg. He also set fastest lap, at 43mph, but finished 13min behind single-cylinder winner Charlie Collier, after losing time due to punctures, oiled spark plugs and at least one near-death experience.

“As I approached the Devil’s Elbow between Kirk Michael and Peel I saw clouds of black smoke on the hill ahead,” Fowler later recalled. “As I rounded the bend there was a machine, well alight, with flaming oil and petrol all over the road. I had to make up my mind instantly – obey the violent flag-waving of the Boy Scout on duty, or take a chance and dash through it. Realising that I had a good chance of winning I decided to make a dash. The Boy Scout and others only just got out of the way as I vanished into the flames. The burning machine was hidden in flames and smoke; however I managed to dodge it and got through okay. All I felt was the hot blast.”

Most riders of that era wore little protection: perhaps a thick overcoat, flat cap and goggles, the last of which did more than protect eyes from the dust. Most Manx roads were unpaved, so during TT week they were sprayed with calcium chloride solution to suppress dust. 

“The track was dusty in dry weather, slippery in the wet and had plenty of loose stones,” said Jack Marshall, who finished second to Collier in the singles category, on a Triumph. “In an attempt to damp down the dust, officials sprayed the course with an acid solution that was supposed to keep things moist. The acid got to our clothes and in a couple of days they looked as though the rats had been at them.”

This procedure had another downside: calcium chloride is painful to the eyes and skin, a real problem for riders who had their faces cut or goggles smashed by flying stones.

Collier, creator of the Matchless marque and already a veteran racer, averaged 38.5mph and 94.5mpg on his pedal-assisted Matchless-JAP. “To climb Creg Willeys hill required vigorous pedalling, but that was not a problem for me because in my younger days I was crowned Woolwich cycling club champion,” said Collier.

 Pedals were banned from TT machines the following year.