PART ONE Think youth is a new thing? Think again…
Is it the fountain of youth at which Mr Berry has been sipping? No, just a view that youth isn’t a new thing.
The schoolboy movement of the late Sixties revolutionised the sport of motocross and a few years down the line would produce world champions in Graham Noyce, Neil Hudson and Dave Thorpe. But long before these superstars materialised, tearaway teenagers had been making their mark in the sport, much to the annoyance of the established stars of the day.
One such youngster was future double world champion, Jeff Smith. Having made his mark as a trials rider and captured the first of two ACU Stars in 1953 at the age of 18, the precocious teen turned to scrambling, winning the Dutch GP in 1954 and taking both the supporting races at the British GP the same year; his father wouldn’t let him race in the GP as he thought it was too dangerous.
More surprises were in store the following season, as he won the prestigious Experts GN, beating his illustrious BSA team-mates Brian Stonebridge and John Avery and days after his 20th birthday, won the Lancashire Grand National, toughest scramble of them all, beating the likes of Geoff Ward, at the time a double ACU Scrambles’ Star winner, and BSA team-mates Terry Cheshire and David Tye. Jeff went on to reach the very pinnacle of the sport, but was only a few days short of his 30th birthday by the time he was crowned world champion. Like a good wine he matured with age.
Within a few years Jeff, in turn, would find himself challenged by younger riders such as Greeves’ star in the making, Dave Bickers, and Vic Eastwood, a deceptively strong rider who handled his 500 Matchless with great aplomb. Bickers would achieve greatness at a tender age; just 22 years old when he won the first of his two 250cc European championships and Eastwood, who was dealt so much bad luck in a long career, emerged as the strongest challenger to Smith’s domination in the 500 class, winning ACU Star races on the heavy, outmoded Matchless, before joining BSA in 1965.
In 1967, Vic came very close to winning his first GP, an honour he experienced the following year when he famously won the British GP at Farleigh Castle, on a Husqvarna, in spite of a rear wheel puncture. Sadly, that winter an horrendous crash in a TV meeting at an icebound Hawkstone Park, effectively curtailed his career. He came back strong, but most who had seen him race in 1968 agree that he was never quite the same rider again.
Another rider who came good as a teen was Bryan Goss. Mentored by grasstrack ace Lew Coffin, ‘Badger’ was a prolific winner, especially on his home patch in the SouthWest, where on his lightweight two-strokes he took on the Sharp brothers, Triss and Bryan, and the Rickmans, Don and Derek, all on full-500s. Early successes attracted Cotton, who supplied his first factory machine, but he was then snapped up by Greeves, joining the likes of Bickers and Alan Clough. Though he challenged for 250 honours for several years, ironically his British championship success came in 1970 on a 400 Husqvarna, when he was crowned champion just a few days short of his 30th birthday.
In the mid-1960s a new crop of very talented riders emerged, led by the likes of John Banks, Malcolm Davis and Bryan Wade, all multiple British champions. Banks won a factory ride with Dot as a teenager and enjoyed 250 GP experience travelling with Bickers and Dot team-mate John Griffiths. But he matured into a champion in his mid-20s and came within a point of being world champion on his BSA in 1968. Davis and Wade were great rivals for 250 titles in the late 1960s and their contrasting styles, Davis a silky-smooth rider and Wade ragged and frequently pushing beyond the limit (tagged ‘Wild’ by Murray Walker), entertained spectators with each rider having his band of loyal fans.
But as mentioned in my opening paragraph, a new training ground for future stars was taking shape as the Sixties drew to a close. Schoolboy Scrambling Clubs were being established across the land and by the early Seventies a national championship had been established. Amongst the earliest success in this new venture was Geoff Mayes, brother of 1966 250cc British champion, Freddie, himself a very early starter. Senior Schoolboy champion in 1970, he may not have scaled the heady heights of Noyce, Hudson and Thorpe as an adult, but improved steadily enough to emulate his brother when he became British champion in 1980.
So, by the mid-1970s the British motocross scene appeared to be in a very healthy state and there was great hope that one of the graduates from the schoolboy ranks would fill the void left by Jeff Smith and Dave Bickers. We all know how that panned out, but I’ll pick up on that again next time.