This exquisite V-twin might have a mysterious background, but there’s no doubt that the Packer board track bike is the result of an obsession with mechanical perfection
Firing up the amazing Packer tracker, a desmo V-twin with direct drive, no brakes and an even more intriguing background
This amazing Packer board track bike is a one-off and a bit of a mystery. There is no record of the Packer Manufacturing Company of Penna, Pennsylvania, and no record of the machine itself.
Which means we can only speculate about the reasons for its existence. Board track was a booming sport in the early years of the last century. Following the construction of the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1909, similar timber speed bowls sprung up across the USA, all of them serving up vicious, high-speed racing that provided the ‘nerve pulsations that the public looks for’; so much so that the ‘speed fans felt the blood creeping up to the roots of their hair’.
Board track was hideously dangerous, but it made some riders rich and, more importantly, some promoters very rich; most of all Briton Jack Prince, a bowler-hatwearing former cycling champion from Coventry, who built many of the tracks and signed lucrative contracts with many of the riders.
Several board track venues were built in Pennsylvania. The Pointe Breeze Park Motordrome in Philadelphia opened in 1912, to be followed by others at Bridgeville, Starting it results in something akin to a terrible accident in the trouser department East Stroudsburg, Uniontown and Altoona. Presumably the boss of the Packer Manufacturing Company decided that making board track bikes would be good business.
The configuration of the Packer follows the traditional format for board racers: a narrow-ish angle 1000cc V-twin set in a rigid frame, running on narrow tyres, with a tiny bicycle saddle, no clutch, no gears and no brakes – the essence of purity and minimalism. It’s not easy to imagine what it must’ve been like rattling this machine around 60° wooden banking at close to the ton.
The Packer therefore looks much like the more famous makes that were lords of the boards: Indian, Harley-davidson, Excelsior, Peugeot, Flying Merkel, Cyclone and Thor. Except for one important detail: the Packer features desmodromic valves.
But hang on a minute… news just in from the Sammy Miller Museum, which has owned the Packer for the last few decades. The Packer wasn’t made in Pennsylvania, it wasn’t even made in the USA and it wasn’t constructed by a motorcycle manufacturer. It was made some years ago in Britain, in Clitheroe, Lancashire, by a talented maintenance engineer called Paul Newsham. At least, that’s what we’re told...
‘THE PACKER’S CONFIGURATION FOLLOWS THE TRADITIONAL FORMAT FOR BOARD RACERS’
This doesn’t make the Packer any less interesting; in fact it makes it more intriguing. How did one man go about fabricating this machine, with its intricate desmodromic valve actuation? Miller has little information from Newsham; not even the engine’s bore and stroke, just a handwritten note explaining the workings of the desmodromics and their adjustment. And would the engine run? Sammy, his chief mechanic Bob Stanley and assistant John Ring didn’t know, but they gave it a go; bravely indeed, because they had never started it before, so had no idea what would happen if it did rumble into life. After much toiling and oiling they got it running with a roller starter. Cue much smoke, noise and rattling as the desmodromics did their fascinating work with the exposed valve train. Renowned desmo expert Henk Cloosterman likens Newsham’s desmodromics to the very earliest systems that eschewed the fragile valve springs of the era in favour of a system which both opens and closes the inlet and exhaust valves via positive mechanical means. In other words, they have nothing to do with the Ducati system engineered by Fabio Taglioni in the ’50s.
Newsham’s desmodromics are closer to those used in two French car engines which made their debut at the 1914 Lyon Grand Prix: the 4.5-litre Delage and the Schneider. It’s almost certainly no coincidence that
Newsham’s cover for his creation claims that the Packer was built in the same year.
The cam-follower boxes attached to the right side of the fore and aft cylinders contain horizontally-mounted cams (one opening and two closing) that operate the overhead valves (two inlet, one exhaust) via bevel cam drive and rocker arms. Starting procedure is about as complicated as it gets. First, fill the cam-follower boxes with oil through the flip-lid oilers (which contain enough lubricant to last one race); then lubricate the rocker-shaft bearings and valve guides. Next, squirt some neat petrol into the cylinder through the spark plug hole, because the carburettor can’t be primed.
This is where things get really interesting, because there are twist grips on both handlebars! The left twistgrip is connected via a complex series of linkages to the decompressors and the magneto’s advance and retard, while the right grip looks after mixture and throttle opening. Twisting the left ’grip simultaneously opens the decompressors and retards the ignition, then you pedal like hell to turn the engine over. Once it’s running, release the left ’grip to close the decompressors, then twist it again to advance the spark. And away you go, whether you like it or not, because once the engine is running you’re moving. The only way to kill the engine is by opening the decompressors.
Newsham certainly knew what he was doing. The execution throughout is perfect, from the engine castings complete with Packer Motor logos, to the beautiful tubular frame and tiny bicycle saddle, mounted just inches from the 26in rear tyre.
There is no clue anywhere that this is a one-off, modern-day machine created in Lancashire to pay homage to a bygone era of American motorcycle racing. The Packer is an awesome achievement, a real labour of love. Perhaps the only hint that it isn’t what it purports to be is that it’s all just too good to be true.
‘AN AWESOME ACHIEVEMENT, A REAL LABOUR OF LOVE’
Left-hand twistgrip is connected by linkages to the decompressors and advance/retard mechanism
LEFT: Magneto drive is by chain off the crankshaft
LEFT: Two opening cams, one closing; two inlet valves, one exhaust
Pedalling like Billy-o is the traditional way to start these things
Go on, Google it and see what you find...
It wouldn’t look out of place on 60° wooden banking, eh?
ABOVE: Sammy Miller has given the Packer a home for the last few decades