Racing deadly street circuits to pay for the next meal: biking's Continental Circus

“Breakfast was a couple of cans of baked beans, heated up on the Primus stove”

Half a century ago it wasn’t easy being a grand prix motorcycle racer, unless you had the backing of Count Domenico Agusta, founder of MV Agusta, whose patronage made Giacomo Agostini the most successful grand prix rider of all time. An American journalist who spent a few days living la dolce vita with the Italian heart-throb described Ago’s life thus: “to race and skid and crash and then make love and drink wine”.

The poorer privateer riders did more racing, skidding and crashing than Agostini, but less making love and drinking wine. Among them was Ginger Molloy, a tough New Zealand coal miner who in 1963 loaded his Matchless G50 onto a boat in Wellington and six weeks later rolled it down a ramp at Southampton docks. Molloy spent the next eight years as a member of the so-called Continental Circus, plying his trade mostly around deadly street circuits, trying to stay alive and make enough money to put petrol in his bikes and food in his mouth.

During most of that time his home was a Ford Thames van, shared with Australian wife Claire (they met on the boat over), a 500cc Norton Manx, a 350cc AJS 7R and a 250cc Bultaco. While driving from race to race the couple often slept under the van.

Speed was always the thing, not comfort – but don’t get carried away…

“You tried hard not to crash because there were walls everywhere,” remembers Molloy. “There were always new guys arriving on the scene – they’d be very fast, then they’d have a big crash and disappear. “I didn’t think about the danger. Some people didn’t eat breakfast because they were that nervous, but on a hot day I’d go out to the grid still wearing shorts, eating an ice cream. Some of the riders didn’t like me doing that!”

Molloy won his first, and only, grand prix at the 1966 Ulster GP, riding the Bultaco. Four years later he rode a Kawasaki – which had replaced the Norton – to second place in the 500cc World Championship behind Agostini.

That summer he might have beaten Ago at the Finnish GP at the Imatra Circuit, but for the two-stroke’s thirst.

“I was leading when I had to make a stop for fuel. We didn’t have a quick filler, so I heard the roar of the MV as it went past and had to be happy with second.”

Premier-class podiums inevitably brought a whiff of luxury.

“If I earned some good money we’d have a meal in a restaurant. Otherwise we couldn’t afford that. Breakfast was a couple of cans of baked beans, heated up on the Primus stove, and washed down with a cup of tea. Once we only had rolled oats, so we had porridge for breakfast and the leftover porridge was left to go cold, so Claire could make it into porridge fritters for dinner.”

“Surviving financially took all sorts of ducking and diving”

Their favourite event of the motorcycle championship was the Dutch TT at Assen.

“Assen was something else. There were hot showers, the only riders’ camp in Europe to have them. And good toilets, something that always seemed to be forgotten in other places. And in the morning you were woken by the ring of the milkman’s bell – such luxury to have fresh milk and butter delivered to our doorstep each day, because we didn’t have a fridge.”

Surviving financially took all sorts of ducking and diving. As Jack Ahearn, an Australian rider from the same era said, “You had to be a bit of a rat or you wouldn’t survive.”

Molloy (and many others) made ends meet through extracurricular money-making schemes that included smuggling: booze and cigarettes, mostly, but never drugs, although the offer was always there.

“I was told by some chap that if I went to this garage in London when I went to Europe they’d change the driveshaft for me. They were welding drugs in there, but I hadn’t travelled halfway around the world to do that.”

Dodgy import/export deals were particularly lucrative.

“You could buy a Mark 2 3.8 Jag for less than £1000 in London and sell it for £3000 in New Zealand.” That’s the equivalent of more than £30,000 profit in today’s money.

Molloy was as streetwise as they came but sometimes even he fell victim to con artists.

In 1968 he was invited to join a race-fixing deal that would earn a well-known rider £500 (£8000 now). All Molloy had to do was let the other rider win. He agreed, for a 50% cut, and duly chased his rival over the finish line.

“I caught up with this guy’s wife later and asked her for my £250. She looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘He beat you fair and square, you b*****d!’ and walked away.”

During the winter the Molloys lived in London, sharing with other Aussies and Kiwis. Ginger worked as a car mechanic, Claire as a supply teacher.

Each spring before they returned to the continent they loaded up the Thames, not only with motorcycles and their worldly possessions, but also with food, most of it tinned, because that was cheapest way to eat.

“Some shops sold tins which had lost their labels for half price. A racer friend thought this was a great trick, so he bought a load. We had a great laugh because 90% of them contained bully beef, so that’s what he ate all summer!”

Molloy returned to New Zealand at the end of 1971 with £25,000, enough to buy a house and start a business.

Mat Oxley has covered motorcycle racing for many years – and also has the distinction of being an Isle of Man TT winner
Follow Mat on Twitter @matoxley