Fifty years ago this summer, Barry Sheene was preparing to make his grand prix debut, at the 1970 Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona, a few days after his 20th birthday.
Sheene had already enjoyed a meteoric rise through the ranks of British racing. His career had only started in earnest at the end of 1968, his talent obvious to the knowledgeable from the moment he first turned a wheel in anger.
As is often the case with successful racers, the self-styled cheeky cockney (in fact, Sheene was born in Holborn) had more than riding skill on his side.
His father Frank Sheene was an early master of the two-stroke engine, which during the 1960s grew to dominate the smaller capacity classes of 125cc, 250cc and 350cc. Sheene the elder had started racing at Brooklands before World War II and contested several post-war Isle of Man TTs on Nortons and other British four-strokes, before switching to two-strokes, with Italian-made Itoms.
The two-stroke is a strange engine, which at that time revealed its secrets only to those prepared to dedicate their lives to its odd ways. Frank did exactly that, using the workshop that came with his job as a maintenance man at the Royal College of Surgeons.
Inevitably, his only son grew up tinkering with bikes and engines, absorbing the know-how that took him to the pinnacle in the 1970s. When Sheene started racing in his teens, he already knew more than many experienced racers, and he had expert back-up.
He also had some of the best machinery. In July 1959, the Sheene family embarked on their first foreign holiday to Barcelona, where the Montjuïc 24 Hours happened to be taking place. During the event, Sheene’s dad spotted a new brand of motorcycle and got chatting to its maker.
Don Paco Bultó, who had fought with General Franco in the Spanish Civil War, established Bultaco in June 1958, focusing on racing and selling small-capacity two-strokes. His air-cooled, single-cylinder racers were basic but effective. Bultó and the Sheenes became good friends and racing partners, with Bulto supplying the family with his latest machines, to which Frank (nicknamed Franko by his son) added his magic in his workshop in Queen’s Square WC1.
“Sheene ran in engines for his dad, but was too quick to ignore”
Barry had no real plans to go racing. He seemed happier with a spanner in his hand than with a throttle, and only ventured onto a racetrack to run in new engines for his father – but he was too quick to ignore.
He contested his first races in the spring of 1968, then put his leathers and pudding-basin helmet aside to take a job as a mechanic for British privateer Lewis Young, who had entered his Bultacos in several continental grands prix. Only when Sheene returned from that adventure did he know what he wanted to do.
Sheene made a big impression on the British scene in 1969, riding 125cc and 250cc Bultacos. In 1970, he dominated the British 125cc championship aboard his TSS125 and made preparations for his World Championship debut.<
In June of 1970, Frank dug deep into his savings and bought an ex-factory twin-cylinder Suzuki RT67 125 from former Suzuki and Honda rider Stuart Graham. The bike was three years old, but still ahead of a Bultaco single: 35bhp against 29.
“For me, there was only one level of competition I really wanted to ride in, and that was World Championship level,” wrote Sheene in his 1977 autobiography The Story So Far… “No point in leaving it too late, I reckoned, so I chanced my arm in the final round of the 125cc World Championship.”
Sheene contested three events with the RT67, the Spanish GP at Montjuïc Park and two non-championship meetings in Spain.
First came the Trofeo de la Merced race in Jerez, a jarring 1500-mile journey from London in a battered Ford Thames van on Franco-era roads. Sheene made it worthwhile, defeating local hero and reigning 50cc World Champion Ángel Nieto around a triangular street circuit in the suburb of San Benito.
The following weekend Sheene was back at a grand prix, this time as a rider, not as a mechanic. “Most of the crowd had come to Montjuïc expecting to see Nieto thrash the opposition out of sight,” he remembered. “The name Sheene meant practically nothing to them. Well, I had a shock for Ángel! In practice I was only half a second down on him, and I’d never ridden the circuit before.”
Sheene led the race, but the RT67 was under-geared, so he had to roll off through the parkland circuit’s faster sections. Nieto won aboard his factory-prepared single-cylinder Derbi, another Spanish brand built in Catalunya. Sheene took the chequered flag in second place, a podium finisher on his world-class debut.
The week after that came another street race, in Zaragoza, where Sheene again took second, this time finishing behind the Swedish ace, Börje Jansson.
These three events convinced Sheene that he was now more than ready for a full-time attack on the 125cc World Championship in 1971. “I was determined to make my mark among the world’s elite,” he wrote. The next summer Sheene won his first grand prix and might have won the 125 world title if he hadn’t hurt himself in a couple of non-championship races. Nevertheless, Sheene was well on his way.