My father was born in 1921 and died just four years ago. It was he who fostered my lifelong love of cars and motorcycles. Pre-War, he’d been apprenticed to The Caterham Motor Company in Oxted Surrey and had been heavily involved in pre-war motorcycle grass track racing at places like Brands Hatch and Layhams Farm. He was a keen supporter of New Cross Speedway too and I believe had a ‘try out’ just as WW2 intervened and put paid to such nonsense. He’d already become a sort of ‘sponsored’ ‘tracker for a colleague named Reg Marsh who supplied a dope burning 350 JAP engined New Imperial…Reg emigrated to NZ after the war and set up a motorcycle business there.
The arrival of the second world war saw him signed up as a mechanic for the RAF in North Africa, working on whatever needed fixing, from Spitfires and Hurricanes to transport planes. In order to give the men some constructive R’ n’ R the armed services had initiated an inter-services speedway league which followed the allies through Sicily and into mainland Italy. Machinery was very much of the home-brewed variety. There was no shortage of engineering know-how and equipment in the REME, RAF and RN workshops, and as you can see from the shots, rough approximations were made as to the look of the speedway machines back in blighty…the old man specialised in the tiny petrol tank variety! The speedway irons started life as trashed dispatch riders bikes. All parts were scrounged and they were generally run on ‘liberated’ aviation spirit. The ultimate tool required an ohv engine of course, but with so many sidevalve hacks knocking about this called for much creativity. Accounts of Wermacht ohv BMW heads being grafted onto Brit crankcases via the expedient of a barrel turned from the bronze of a salvaged ship’s propellor were recorded. Both wheels often carried brake drums but with no internals. Competition was fierce and it wasn’t unknown for teams to recruit ‘ringers’ like speedway professional, Split Waterman to boost their chances of success.
As you can see, the machines had the ‘Oily Rag’ look built -in.Dad never lost the touch either; when I was a young teenager and a group of us rode field bikes at a friend’s farm, the old man turned up one day and put us all to shame by grabbing an old 350 Velo and put it into a continuous slide with consummate ease. My mother discouraged such activities, but when he finally retired from aviation in 1980 he built himself a very quick Vincent Rapide from the proverbial ‘box of bits’, assuring her that it was just an old machine and very slow!
- Jon Dudley
Posted on January 22, 2013 by