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A lifetime’s love affair with motorcycle racing

By dan shaw  |  Posted: January 07, 2013

  • Racing the 500cc Gold Star at Oulton Park, 1960

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IT was back in September, in Bugle 1048, that we printed a photograph sent in by Mr R. Moore of Coseley showing Tony Groucutt with his Manx Norton motorcycle at a race meeting at Press Heath, Shropshire, in the early 1960s. That picture prompted Tony, who lives in Penn, to have a look through his own collection of pictures and to put pen to paper to record some of his recollections from a lifetime’s love affair with motorcycles and racing.

Tony writes, “As a lad I couldn’t wait for Friday night’s Express and Star; there were always hundreds of motorcycles for sale, with Greys, Heywood, Kings, George Lathes, Copes, so many dealer around us. There were so many motorcycles to choose from. Frank Cope raced a sleeved-down 350cc Manx Norton that in the winter months he put on show in his Dudley shop window and I cycled from school many times to ogle at that most beautiful motorcycle.

“Not long after leaving school I started work at Tipton Tub and Tube, or as it was known locally, The Smosh. One lad who worked with me was Trevor Whale, who later became my brother-in-law, who had a 250 BSA. Another bloke who worked there, and who was a big influence on my love of motorcycles, apart from my dad, was a chap named Gilbert Perks, who had a BSA Gold Flash. He also had the Motorcycling and Motorcycle mags every week and gave me loads of back numbers, including lots of TT numbers, and to this day I have kept my old Isle of Man TT mags. They really fascinated me, I just loved reading about those road racing stars.

“At last, I neared my 18th birthday, and with a deposit saved, Dad took me to one of the best motorcycle dealers in the area, Tommy Somerton of Cradley Heath. He specialised in fitting Vincent Black Shadow engines into Manx Norton frames. They were named Viscounts, but as wonderful as they looked they were out of reach of my pocket and a bit too quick for a 17-year-old, though at 14 I had ridden Dad’s 600cc Panther, albeit along the beach at Brean Down. I had gone to Tommy Somerton’s to look at a 500cc Norton but my eyes fell on a 1954 B32 350cc BSA Gold Star in clubmans trim, clip-on rear sets, the works. It was £148. Today you would be hard pushed to get one for under £12,000. And it had been raced on the IoM in the 1954 Clubmans TT by local rider Maurice J. Gittins from Shifnal.

“Tommy delivered it to our house in Gough Road and I well remember his words to me, ‘This, my lad, is a lethal weapon, not a motorbike’.

“I was not supposed to take it out until my 18th birthday but whenever the old man was out for the day I could not keep my hands off it. And it was quick; like most lads with a fast motorcycle, the magic ton was not far from my mind and four days after I had it I did 107mph on the Birmingham New Road, coming down from the King Arthur pub, past the Jubilee Park, to the Clifton, Coseley. 55 years ago, no lights and speed limits and a lot less traffic.

“The dangers of motorcycles were very soon brought home to me, when I lost a very close friend. We had gone all through school together, as lads we had pushbike scramblers and spent hours riding over the humps and bumps of old pit mounds near Batmans Hill. I remember him taking a right tumble one day and next day, at Ladymore School, as we changed for PT, he showed me were he had hurt himself, his underpants were still covered in blood. We fell about laughing; no wonder he could not show his mom. He was never without a smile on his face, always laughing. He, like me, could not wait to get his first motorcycle, and like my father, his dad also had a motorcycle, a Triumph, and like his dad he had to have a Triumph. But within a few weeks, near Batmans Hill, a dog ran out in front of him, he hit a lamppost and Tommy Gibbons lost his life. I still think of him often.

“A clique of us used to meet at the New Inn in Roseville, or Timmins as we used to know it. My close friend Alan Parkins had a 350 AJS and later went on to ride Vincents; ‘Boxer’ Moore had a Matchless and also a Scott Squirrel; George ‘Pudding’ Evans had a Norton Dommie; there were quite a lot of us and I cannot remember them all. One chap had a Rocket Gold Star but I can’t think of his name, though I remember he was courting Olwen Sheppard who lived near the pub.

“Most bank holidays found us off to Oulton Park road races to see riders like Hartle, Surtees, McIntyre and Hailwood, stars of the ’50s and ’60s, and they were great days out. We all thought we were race stars as we returned home. The girlfriends that used to ride pillion and cling on to us had loads of bottle. No leather suits and boots in those days, just jeans, pop socks and little shoes and on more than one occasion they went flying up the road on their backsides.

“I remember one daytrip to Rhyl. On the way home I arrived at one of those Welsh mountain hairpins far too quick to get round, shot across the road and up a pile of frost grit, took off and cleared the low fence like Evel Knievel. We landed in a field and, luckily, all three of us, my girlfriend at the time, Christine, the bike, and myself, apart from my bloodied nose and both lenses of my goggles smashed where my face hit the speedo and taco clocks, were OK. As we had sailed over the hedge I thought I saw a figure that looked like a policeman diving out of the way. It was, and as we picked ourselves up he came striding into the field with notebook and pencil in hand. I asked if he was going to book me and in a strong Welsh accent he replied, ‘Bet your life I’m going to book you lad, you nearly bloody killed me.’ Denbighshire County Court fined me £5. Lord knows what they would do today.

“In the spring of 1959 Kings Motorcycles, at the top of Snow Hill, Wolverhampton, had two B34 500cc Gold Stars in their showrooms. Most Gold Stars went for export in those days, so this was rare. At £325 they were expensive but they took my 350 BSA as part exchange and I was the very proud owner of one of thebest British classic motorcycles, and, blimey, was it quick! With the RRT2 close ratio gearbox, first gear was so high that you were slipping the clutch at over 70mph, hardly the tool for town riding, but out in the country it was terrific.

“Being a member of Wolverhampton Motorcycle Club I met up with Fred Flavel, who lived in Woodcross. He also had a 500cc Gold Star so we decided to have a crack at road racing, just for the fun of being able to have a thrash around circuits like Oulton Park, Aintree, Mallory Park and anywhere we could get a ride. Joining the Wirral 100, Nantwich and Cheshire motorcycle road racing clubs we had plenty of meetings to attend. We also went to circuits like Brands Hatch and Wallasey promenade races. This place was unique, for you could race around the town prom, round traffic islands, keep left signs and solid stuff like that. The first time I raced the Gold Star there I qualified fourth in my heat, which got me into the final. With a lap to go and lying fifth I tried to pass Brum rider Don Ryder. He told me later, in the first aid tent, he did not think I would get round that island and he was right. More bumps and bruises and a new pair of rims for the Goldie.

“Later that year found me at the small Welsh park circuit of Aberdare, where I found myself lined up against some real class international riders, one of which was Mike Hailwood. This was, I think, his last short circuit meeting before he went to ride for Count Agusta and the works MV. He had no need to worry, although I made the final. I did my usual party trick and finished up the wrong side of a row of straw bales. Mind you, there was a plus side to this tumble; as I picked myself up four young lads were lined up with their programmes and wanted my autograph. I thought that was nice as I had nearly flattened them with a 500cc racing motorcycle, so I gladly signed.

“Around this time the Cheshire Road Racing Club managed to get Prees Heath, a WWII airfield that was turned into a racing circuit, near Whitchurch. This suited me and Fred down to the ground as it was just 45 minutes from Wolverhampton.

“I tried to get the Goldie to a go a little quicker. Eddie Dow of Banbury specialised in Gold Stars and in 1960 he was selling 11-1 pistons and SWS valve springs from the USA that would allow the bike to rev to 11,000rpm. With a 24-tooth engine sprocket I reckoned on the drop down to Knicker Brook at Oulton Park I would be doing 130mph plus.

“At Prees Heath we would enter expert and non-expert races to get more rides. In the first expert race I entered I finished fifth. With stars like Bill Smith, Steve Murray, Alan Dugdale and Manx GP and TT winners Malcolm Uphill and Keith Heckles around, our kid and I thought, roll on the nonexpert races. Imagine our disappointment when a G50 Matchless and really quick looking Manx Nortons with the same riders on board lined up on the grid around us. No matter, I finished fifth again and was awarded £5 at the end of the meeting. These weekends were all great fun and very exciting, usually accompanied by lots of friends like the Barker brothers, Wilf, Barry, Larry, John, and Tommy Pearce from Woodcross.

“For the 1961 season I decided on going the whole hog and got myself a real thoroughbred. Bill Smith had a 350cc Manx Norton for sale, so once again the BSA went in part exchange. This was a gorgeous machine, Derdon tuned, and Dave Chadwick had finished second to John Surtees in the 1958 Junior TT on it. On stripping it, I had never seen an engine like it, everything that moved was polished.

“There were still the same blokes to try and beat, though, and in this class there were some very fast Aermacchis about and some damned quick riders, including young Stuart Graham who went on to be a Honda works rider a few years later, son of the 1949 world 500 champion Les. No matter who was next to you on the grid, it was the most exciting moment. The smell of Castrol R, the deafening noise of some 30 machines, all with megaphones, being warmed up, you could only lip read what lads around you were saying. With your heart pounding, you would cut all engines and a deathly hush would fall across the grid. The bikes would be pulled back onto compression with first gear engaged, the flag would drop and all you could hear was the patter of feet on tarmac and the squeak of suspension units. You would then jump on board side saddle, drop the clutch, the all hell was let loose and an almighty noise as all 30 bikes burst into life and you all rushed to the first bend. Mind blowing! “One rider who was very quick around all the Cheshire circuits was Eric Cheers, who had an Aermacchi. At one meeting at Prees Heath in 1962 Eric was drawn next to me. I nodded to our John, as much to say, look what Eric’s riding this season. We both thought that was the last we’d see of him. However, in that first heat and ten laps later I finished second to Malcolm Uphill and in front of Eric and in the final Eric was still behind me when I finished fifth. So brother John and I sank a few beers in celebration that night. 40 years later I was on the grid marshalling on the Isle of Man and the classic bikes were lined up for the start of the parade lap and Eric was there on an Aermacchi. I told him all about those years ago and how I was chuffed to beat him on his 350 Aermacchi. He then said he had never owned a 350, only a 250. No wonder I sodding beat him, I had 100cc more in my motor.

“That Norton frame also did what it said on the tin, with short road holder forks and the featherbed frame it was fantastic. The BSA was a bitch once you were in a wobble – that was it and over the bars you went. It was OK on smooth circuits like Aintree, that was beautiful to race on, but on bumpy tracks like Castle Combe and parts of Prees and Oulton the Goldie I found was a handful. But with the Norton I have been off to the point when I have seen the marshals running to pick me up, then without me knowing what was happening, the bike would shake itself upright with me just hanging on – an amazing piece of kit.

“Having said that, in September 1962 I managed to find the limits of adhesion on the Manx Norton when, just half a lap left in the final of the main 350cc race of the day, when once again lying second to Malcolm Uphill, I had a big off and put myself in Chester hospital for two weeks and out of work for three months. I turned up at Alan and Judy Parkins’ wedding as best man with my arm in a sling.

“It was damned hard work, not to mention expensive and ruddy painful, trying to keep up with the fast men. Around the start of the 1964 season the Cheshire RR Club decided to stop paying out prize money and give trophies instead. For years the stars like Smith, Murray, Dugdale, Uphill, Graham and Derek Woodman, who at the time was on the verge of becoming a works Suzuki rider, had been cleaning up with £15 and £10 for first places and some riders were entered in as many as four classes. 53 years ago that was a good week’s pay packet, I think I was on around £9 a week. I decided to knock the road racing on the head, what with the expense, trips to A&E and the threat of ‘the wedding will be off’ from my now wife of 48 years, but I don’t regret a minute of it. I met some great people and had some really exciting times.

“But that was not the end of motorcycles. All the family had motorcycles, the old man had a Panther 600, brother John a 250 BSA, youngest brother Michael (Kelly Groucutt of ELO) a Norton 250 Jubilee, brother-in-law Trevor a 600 Matchless. My youngest sister Barbara’s husband Tim is a very good trails rider and beat trails star Sammy Miller on one occasion. And my nephew David is a brilliant trails rider, like his dad Tim, winning lots of trophies.

“Although for me the road racing was over, motorcycle competition was not. With trips to the Isle of Man going on for over 52 years and being a marshal life member, I still mix with bikers of all ages. Salt of the earth, never mind what you may read in the press. For the last 30 years I have played with a Norton Commando that I have fitted in a featherbed frame and made alloy tanks and other smart bits for. In 2003 I won the Norton Owners’ TT Reunion Best Special award.

“Now in my 70s, I still get out on what is known on the IoM as Mad Sunday, buzzing along the Mountain Mile, clinging onto the Norton clipons, and as I am passed by the young lions at 180mph plus, on their latest Japanese superbikes, I think, yes, youth, been there, done that, and definitely got the t-shirt.”

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