Mat Oxley

Remembering an original thinker

Seven decades ago a farmer's son from County Down changed the course of motorcycle racing history. Rex McCandless was a self-taught engineer with a brilliant, creative mind, quick temper, deep mistrust of authority and a fondness for a drink. To call him a maverick would be gross understatement.

His crowning achievement was a chassis design that became the standard, for racing and road bikes, for the next 35 years or so. He attributed his success to curiosity, enthusiasm and what he called uncommon sense.

When racing returned after the Second World War, the new multi-cylinder machines built by Moto Guzzi, Gilera and MV Agusta made Norton’s once mighty single-cylinder Manx look positively antiquated.

Everyone seemed convinced that more horsepower was the way forward, except McCandless. “Rex believed that in typical road races more was to be gained by making the machine handle better through the twisty and bumpy bits,” wrote biographer RL Jennings in To Make A Better Mousetrap.

At that time most road bikes still had rigid rear ends and even the Gilera four that won the 1950 500cc World Championship used a friction-damped rear.

McCandless’s moment of epiphany came during a wartime hill climb in County Dublin, where he nearly lost control of his ill-handling Triumph Tiger 100. “It was forcibly imparted that it was a struggle between the bike and me as to who was in charge,” he later recalled.

Thus while he spent the war repairing trucks and other transport for the Ministry of Supply, he was really thinking about how to make motorcycles handle better. He worked tirelessly – often toiling away for days in his corrugated-iron shack of a workshop with barely any sleep – and meandered his way towards the answer.

First, he tried to sell his know-how to Triumph, over dinner. When the Triumph engineer told him the company had no interest in any ‘foreign’ invention, McCandless upended the table in his face.

Norton wasn’t much more receptive. After starting work for the renowned Birmingham-based marque in the late 1940s – on a strictly freelance basis, because he couldn’t abide working under a boss – McCandless spent several years fighting to get the company just to try his chassis technology on its Manx race bikes. In the end, a stand-up argument with race chief Joe Craig was settled in the MD’s office, where McCandless issued a direct challenge: try my chassis or I’m off.

A back-to-back test was duly arranged on a section of the Isle of Man TT course in January 1950, with Norton’s recently signed Geoff Duke and Rex’s business partner Artie Bell, another TT winner, doing the riding. Duke recalls hammering through the fearsome Kate’s Cottage left-hander aboard the McCandless Manx a good 10 miles per hour faster than he had managed on the factory bike with its rudimentary ‘garden gate’ chassis.

“I soon realised that this machine set an entirely new standard in road-holding,” Duke later wrote. The McCandless chassis was a thing of great beauty. Its secret was its seminal all-welded, twin-loop tubular steel frame that provided greatly improved rigidity and a wide base for the swing-arm, which put the arm’s pivot close to the gearbox sprocket to allow more suspension travel and therefore softer springing. This is why it held the road so well.

Also crucial were new welding methods, his patented remote-reservoir hydraulic rear shocks – which several decades later became de rigueur on high-performance road bikes – and a change in t he balance of the motorcycle. While most engineers put engine and rider as far back as possible to improve rear traction, McCandless moved them forward to put more weight over the front wheel. This is why his motorcycles turned so well.

After the Isle of Man tryout, Norton equipped its top factory riders with McCandless chassis for the 1950 TT. They destroyed the opposition, monopolising the Junior and Senior podiums. Duke (shown here hurtling through the bottom of Bray Hill) bettered the Senior race record by almost 11 minutes. When Norton’s former TT winner Harold Daniell told people that the bike was as comfortable to ride as a feather bed, the name stuck and gained a capital F.

The following summer Duke took his first 500 world title, riding a Featherbed Manx that had 30 per cent fewer horsepower than the Gileras he defeated. Eventually, of course, the Italians and everyone else worked out where they’d been going wrong and copied the design. The age of the single-cylinder GP bike was over but McCandless’s idea remained the blueprint until the mid-1980s, when the Japanese copied the aluminium beam-type frame originated by Spaniard Antonio Cobas.

While developing the Featherbed, McCandless’s quicksilver mind found time to create a four-wheel-drive racing car (powered by a Manx engine) and a four-wheel-drive off-roader (with a Norton Dominator twin).

And he still liked to ride a bit. During the 1952 North West 200 race he was enjoying a battle with a rival when they collided and crashed. McCandless continued his duel, right there by the racetrack, with a spot of fisticuffs.

In a reasonable world, Norton would have incorporated the Featherbed design into its road bikes, but it didn’t. McCandless drew plans to equip the entire Norton range, only to be told the factory had a five-year supply of existing frame lugs, so it would be too costly to retool. That’s how the British motorcycle industry was run into the ground.

McCandless later built a Triumph-powered autogyro, devised a technique for burning coal at lower temperatures (saving the National Coal Board millions) and perfected the technique for brewing blackberry wine, which he made in batches of up to 450 gallons.

When asked by a friend why he brewed in such large quantities, McCandless looked perplexed and replied, “I drink half of it and give the other half to friends”.