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...


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.


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

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