Jim Curry. Pushing it.
Qualifying a written-off road bike on the front row of a Grand Prix grid ahead of Phil Read and Jarno Saarinen was just one high point in a career that embraced some of the best days of the continental circus. Pete Crawford got the full story while chatti
The story of a man who wouldn’t let‘no’be the answer to anything. Not even when he got his hands on a write-off road bike and had a plan to get it to the front of a Grand Prix grid.
We’ll let the man himself explain the moment that, arguably, he may well be the most remembered for. Here’s how Jim Curryy introduces that race in which he qualified a wri te-off on the front row of a Grand Prix grid: “For 1970 it turned out to be typical Eifelrennen weatther, and for that you could read ‘typical Isle of Maan weather.” “Tthe 350 practice went as planned. The Métissse was a perfect bike around the ‘Ring’ and I made the front row, grabbing the last spot availaable, which was a blooming good result amonng all these new-fangled Yamahas. How abou t that slow old insurance write-off? That ‘dog’ of a CB250 Honda Super Sport? During practtice it had just the right characteristics to makee it ideal, while the TD2/TR2 rocket-ship Yamaahas became a real handful. “It was wet and awful, but the powerband on the Honda was absolutely perfect, brilliant actually. It must be the only time that a written-off road bike has ever qualified on the front row of a Grand Prix!” Come race day normal service was resumed. The heavens smiled on the German Grand Prix, the rain stopped, and Jim’s Honda was left in the two-strokes’ wake. But in the 350s he held fourth on the final lap, until drafted down the last, long, Nürburgring straight by two trailing TD2 Yamahas, demoting him to sixth. Jim said: “I was the first four-stroke home though, which was now a dying breed to be fair, discounting Ago’s bike of course, and I gained six World Championship points. During my career riding in GPS, mostly in the period when points were only allocated to the first six finishers, I managed to finish in the first six in all four of the solo capacity classes I ever rode in, of which I’m very proud.”
These results perhaps encapsulated Jim’s achievements, delivering ‘best of the rest’ performances against works machinery for over a decade. But if Aermacchi and Honda road bikes looked second string in 1970, they were a marked step-up from his machinery 10 years earlier, when the sight of a similarly mounted rider at Silverstone saw his road bike pressed into service. Jim: “I couldn’t afford a Goldie, or anything that I considered to be approaching a race bike and I still had no idea how I would be able to cross the yawning chasm between the ‘bes’ and ‘wannabes’ of the road racing kingdom. That was until the Hutchinson 100 in 1959 where I watched a 250 Villiers twin being raced. When I got home, I said: ‘Mum, I’m going to turn my Cotton into a road racer!’, leaving poor old mum stunned into silence.” He was lapped in his first race but he said: “It had been eight minutes or so of pure magic!” The Vulcan roadster had potential. It took him to his first win at Silverstone in July 1961, but the Villiers engine was already developed to its maximum and he realised he had to move on. “It wasn’t anything you would choose but it was good at the end. But having sold the Cotton in the winter of 1962 I scraped up enough money to purchase one of the new, all-singing, all-dancing, 250cc wet clutch Aermacchi Ala d’oros, one of the new five-speeders, which I’d bought from Fred Warr’s ‘Hardley-goingsome’ emporium in London." The word play was apt, since the Aermacchi did very rarely go, at least as planned, apart from one performance at the Southern 100. Given the Aermacchi’s frailty,
the Manx street circuit was the last place Jim expected to excel, but he finished second and on his return to the mainland he called on his former colleague Johnny Jacques and his new employer. For local garage owner Tony Jenkins, who was flirting with sponsorship, Jim walked through the door at exactly the right time. He was swapping his Aermacchi for a 250 Bultaco at the time, so something of a different capacity was required from Jenkins. Jim explains: “What we really wanted – really, really wanted, was one of those lovely, new-in-the-country Honda CR93S. One of which I’d slobbered over during the Southern 100, not too long previously. Who didn’t? But they were £600 each, including spares kits and fairing, which was far too much for Tony. “Then we got the whisper that Dan Shorey had a surplus 125cc racer for sale. It was a 1956 ex-works Ducati, so we bought it off him for £350 and it was great. It wasn’t as fast as the CR, but it handled and stopped well. That Bultaco turned out to be another quarter litre class disaster for me, but the small and by this time five-owner, ex-works, ex-purslow, ex-hailwood, ex-shorey Ducati was sublime. It revved to 11,500rpm and ran like a turbine. It was a really great bike – valve spring, double knockers and with that lovely cam box – a real Ducati. Who knows what that would be worth now?” ‘A lot’ is the answer, but this was by the by in 1964. Good as the Ducati was, those CR93S were still faster and Jenkins bowed to the inevitable after the offer of a £100 discount in lieu of fairing and spares kit. The lack of the latter proved no great blow since – as anyone familiar with CR93S will attest – their reliability was legendary. For the rest of
1964 Jim and his CR93 were never out of the top six and the Southern 100 proved to be instrumental in the development of his career once again. He won with a new race record.
As one door closes…
Jim: “Tony was, of course, very pleased for all of us, but he’d been saving up his bad news until after the race was won. The Honda had to go. It had to be sold, as he required the capital to fund another more important task. I was dumbstruck and distraught. “The next day we loaded up and caught one of the Steam Packet’s finest back to Liverpool. On deck I bumped into a plus-four clad Ralph Varden. I bemoaned my fate to him. Instantly on hearing my news about the winning bike being up for sale, Ralph, who’d been impressed with my performance in victory, declared his intention of buying her back and letting me continue riding her for him.” Better still, Varden planned a full season on the continent in 1966, with a 250 added to the stable: “Would I be interested in the job? Would I!” The 250 was a no-brainer for Jim, since on the Island he’d seen the Pladdys brothers with an over-bored 182cc CR93. This seemed easily as competitive as a full blown 250, with the bonus of almost total parts interchangeability. With initial starts agreed, on Monday, April 18, 1966 Jim set off in his 15cwt Thames van for the ferry to join the circus.
Life on the road
The Curry equipe woke early for its first continental meeting at the Nürburgring to a carpet of snow. It was of no concern. Jim diced throughout with Walter Scheimann taking fifth behind the German champion Luigi Taveri’s Honda-4, and the works Suzuki pairing of Hans-georg Anscheidt and Hugh Anderson. In the process he beat hero Jack Findlay, rubbed shoulders with the likes of Kel Carruthers and Ginger Molloy and rounded off his baptism with celebratory drinks. Jim: “The interesting thing for me as a newcomer, in more ways than one, was that we didn’t have to pay for drinks, as they were served up. The waiter just made a tick on our beer mats. ‘Really civilised this,’ I thought. However, after about two hours I noticed that there were fewer of us around the table than when we had started, in fact a lot fewer. Just us four in the end! ‘Funny that, perhaps they’re all in the toilet,’ I remember thinking, but they didn’t return. “We signalled the waiter over, and he came and started totting up all the ticks on all the beer mats adjacent to the recently vacated seats as well as ours! Next morning I indignantly accused the others of leaving us in the mire. They only laughed and explained they often took a powder, or ‘slide’, as it was colloquially known. ‘Well’ I thought, ‘this really is the continental circus!’” A fifth in Mettet followed, with the same placing at Chimay next, in front of 75,000 fans. That was nothing compared to the 200,000 at a memorable Dutch TT where he raced throughout with Angelo Bergamonti’s Patton twin, and got a classic lapping from Mike Hailwood. Jim: “I just swivelled my eyes to the left as he drifted past me. My chin was still stuck to the tank-top and he laughed across and down at me, giving me his full Hailwood laugh, because he could see I was really trying my little heart out. As he accelerated away towards the final left-hander (that sound!) he glanced back over his right shoulder at me, grinned again, took his left hand off the bars and hung it behind his back. Then with his two index fingers, he simply invited me to ‘tuck in’ behind the six! How’s that for a memory of the greatest to carry in your head? Priceless!” A successful trip behind the Iron Curtain was followed by a ninth and eighth at the Finnish GP, while at the TT – delayed due to the seamen’s strike – he finished ninth on the CR93. This was still a good result given that the first eight were all works machines, with the three immediately ahead of him being Hondas of the five-cylinder variety! Due to
Ralph Varden’s ‘no start money, no race’ policy that was it for 1966, but everyone was full steam ahead for 1967. The weather for the Nürburgring season opener was as foul as ever, resulting in a fourth in the 125s and second behind Jack Findlay in the 250s. At Tubbergen he scored two third places, followed by a seventh in the 250cc Belgium GP and sixth with the 125cc on his return to the TT. Then came eighth on the 250 and 10th on the 125 at the East German Grand Prix, followed by sixth in the 125s and 10th in the 250s at the Czech. His best results continued to be in the 125 class, signing off the season with a seventh at Imatra and sixth at Monza. They were fantastic results but by the season’s end there was no works contract on the table. Jim: “It had dawned on me that I wasn’t ever likely to grasp my holy grail and become a world champion. Although I am not a defeatist, I am a realist, and there was a dearth of machinery capable of winning a GP, due to the withdrawal and slimming down of the three main factories that had provided the machinery capable of doing so. Of what remained I didn’t think one was likely to end up under my bum. I’d given it my best shot and failed.” A harsh self-assessment, but it gave Jim the impetus to look for titles elsewhere.
Champion and so close to more…
As Ralph Varden still had eyes on the continent a CR93 was purchased to compete in the British Championship, matched by a 250 Aermacchi from Syd Lawton, for whom he’d ridden at the TT. The season kicked off with a second in the 125s at Mallory, followed by a third at Brands Hatch, where the 250 was fifth. Next it was Oulton Park, where he was first in the 125s and sixth in the 250s. This was a generic pattern for the rest of the season, where the 250 usually competed for the title of ‘best four-stroke’, while the CR93 was rarely off the podium. And this was no small feat. For 1968 the 125 grid featured Dave Croxford, Chas Mortimer, Derek Chatterton, Cliff Carr, Martin Carney and a young Barry Sheene. And these were just the Bultaco runners. There were plenty more riders on identical Honda machines. Throughout the season 125cc points came easily but at Mallory Park on May 5 Lawton asked Jim to try a 350cc Métisse framed version of the Aermacchi for size, employing classic reverse psychology to get the best out of him in his first race. Jim: “Come the 350 race final I remember Syd gave me some of his ‘Lawton advice’ saying: ‘Look Jim I know you had a good ride in the heat (he’d won – Ed), but this is the final and you’ve got some hard blokes out there who won’t like having the mickey taken out of them by a novice, so watch out for them.’” Watch out for them? He only saw them as he passed them on his way to the win. From June onwards his 350 results eclipsed even those on the CR93. At the prestigious Mallory Park post-tt meeting he was third behind Hailwood on the Honda 6 and Read on his works Yamaha. He won the Southern 100, again, with new lap and race records before achieving probably his most impressive 350 class podium position to date. He was third behind Hailwood’s Honda 6 and Agostini’s MV at the Mallory Park Race of the Year. Could anything be better? Well, perhaps. Praise from the man himself. Hailwood had sat out the 1968 TT and in the following Wednesday’s Motor Cycle, he wrote a column generally critical of the talent on display. Jim: “Then my big surprise: ‘However, I was impressed by the speed and style of Alan Barnett and Jim Curry.’ How about that! To be picked out and praised by ‘The Man’ was a fantastic boost for all of us in the camp. Especially me of course!” In truth, he didn’t need a boost. He was already building an unassailable lead in the 125cc championship, but an agonising reality was materialising. In the 350 class he was gaining on the leader – the very same Alan Barnett – hand over fist, but having started only mid-season he was running out of meetings. The pendulum swung in Barnett’s favour when Jim dropped the Métisse while
dicing with Dave Croxford – Jim’s admitted bogeyman – in the penultimate race of the season. It left him seven tantalising points short of a double.
Glass half empty or half full?
That CV could have secured a plum domestic ride for 1969, but with the ‘title’ monkey off his back, it was back to the continent on Ralph Varden’s CR93 and a 350 Aermacchi-métisse, bought from Carruthers. For a 250, instead of a bored out CR93, a doubled-up version was envisaged, creating a unique home-brewed Honda 250/4, but in discussion with the talented Pladdys brothers, a better idea was hatched. Varden would pay for a ‘CR93 and a half’. A 250cc triple. The year started with a shakedown win at Snetterton over Peter Williams (Arter Matchless) and Barry Sheene (Bultaco), auguring well for the season ahead. And how it started. The Nürburgring was a special place for Jim and while he could only qualify 11th on the 350, poor conditions in the race favoured him again for an easy victory. Jim: “That was the icing on the cake. If there was one thing that I was ever proud of it was winning at the Nürburgring, on my first visit to the ‘big’, 24km-long circuit. Walter Sommer knew it like the back of his hand, because he used to do road tests for Das Motorrad magazine. He was always there. And I was two minutes in front of Billie Nelson and I’m not knocking Billie. I’m using Billie as a yardstick because I admired and respected his riding so much. The Germans couldn’t believe that I’d won. Walter Sommer couldn’t believe I’d beaten him either. Neither could I, to be honest!” However, the performance flattered to deceive and the rest of the season fell rather flat. A seize while testing the experimental Pladdys triple saw him sidelined from the TT and a ninth at the Finnish and 10th at the Italian GPS were about as good as it got. With a change of machinery it was hoped that 1970 would be a better season, but the gamble didn’t quite work out as planned. Jim: “Sadly, I left behind the chance to campaign Varden’s very promising 250cc three-cylinder Honda, which had been built mainly at my instigation. I felt very bad about that, but I had my eye on the promise of a works-honda ride at the TT.” The works Hondas would only arrive in May so the Aermacchi continued, with an insurance write-off Honda CB250 road bike, converted by Worcester dealer John Skellern, filling the 250 void. This 350/250 combination resulted in those fairy-tale German Grand Prix qualifications, along with a reasonable result at Tubbergen. “The Macchi-métisse was still pretty competitive, but a TR2 in the hands of a good rider could make mincemeat of it in a race. So for me to slot home into sixth place in the dry, I’d had to ride my socks off.” The new Hondas were a washout at the TT. None finished. Some cylinder-head work by Roland Pike protégé Bert Dyde eventually improved the now ‘ex-works’ 350 Honda, but in truth it was never the CR93’S big brother as hoped. As such, 1970 proved to be a watershed, not for activity on the track, but off it. Jim had a daughter on the way and while thought had to be put to the future, a full season was still planned for 1971. An ex-derek Woodman Seeley G50 was added to the stable. The very bike that Mike Hailwood had ridden in the 1969 Mallory Park Race of the Year. Early season UK meetings placed Jim’s 350 Honda consistently the first four-stroke home,
but in the 500s things looked much more promising. The Seeley was quick, especially after Bert had had his hands on that too and Jim’s lucky circuit, the Nürburgring, was the first continental meeting on the calendar. Jim: “My biggest opposition was Dave Simmonds on his works H1R Kawasaki and in the race I managed to hang onto him all the way round that first lap of 14-odd miles and tailed him down the long straight leading back to the pits chicane. “However, in a straight-line that triple cylinder engine was more than a match for my G50 and he cleared off to win. But I managed to best all the others, mainly Jack Findlay and Tommy Robb and I don’t think I’ve ever hoped for someone to breakdown in front of me as much as I did for Simmo that day, which is a bit unmanly to admit. The following weekend, at the German Grand Prix, he was in fourth with three laps to go when the primary chain broke. While at Assen he was fifth behind Ago’s MV, Dave Simmonds’ Kawasaki (again) and the Suzukis of Rob Bron and Keith Turner. At Spa, for the Belgium Grand Prix, he actually led before settling into fourth, behind his regular two-stroke adversaries, until he realised their slipstream was pulling him beyond 140mph and 8000rpm – too much for a G50, so he sat up to break the tow down the Masta Straight and save the engine, all to no avail. Of all things the magneto seized, ending what could have been another impressive result. That effectively ended his European campaign but a bonus was a record £100 start money offer, for one race at the big Oulton Park August Bank Holiday International. Qualifying first ahead of Peter Williams, Dave Croxford and Phil Read – who was out on Barry Sheene’s water-cooled 500 Suzuki – it was Williams who took the win. Jim: “I beat Croxy into second spot on his works-seeley. He was a wild racer. You didn’t know what he was going to do and he frightened me. I admit it. He was the only racer who frightened me. You didn’t know where he was going to come at you from!”
A proper job
By the end of 1971 it was clear that Jim’s game was up. ‘Fastest four-stroke’ wasn’t a title that paid the bills, so a business was started and by 1975 he had a full Honda franchise. The racing never truly stopped though and while the Seeley was sold to Steve Harris – it now resides in the National Motorcycle Museum – John Skellern provided a later type 450 Honda engine, which was slotted into a frame from Colin Lister, originally built for Lister’s own DOHC twin project. This took him to one ill-fated but well paid trip to Chimay in July 1972, but when the organisers tried to halve his agreed start money, he decided it was time to concentrate on business. As such 1973 was intended to be his swansong, with a seventh in the 250 Production TT on another Skellern CB250 the best of a mixed bag of results, were it not for the end of season Thruxton Endurance meeting in 1974, that is. The last thing he remembered of that, on a barely tested TZ350 he was sharing with John Kidson, was going the long way round Darryl Pendlebury’s Triumph Triple in the damp, while breaking Tony Rutter’s lap record. Jim: “Dave Moss was quite adamant about that lap-time, sitting alongside me in the back of an ambulance taking us to the army hospital at Tidworth Barracks and consoling me with his news, utterly convinced that his figures were correct. ‘How did I end up here then Dave?’” That would have been an unsatisfactory end to Jim’s career, were it not for the lure of the Historic TT in 1984 and the subsequent decade of ‘classic racing’ that ensued. That alone could fill a book. So it’s just as well that Jim did that himself, two years ago, with his excellent ‘Lap of my Life’. Painting a vivid picture of his final days in the continental circus, it’s a fitting legacy of one of its true characters. If you fancy a copy catch Jim at the Stafford Classic Bike Show on October 14 & 15, when he’ll be signing copies on both days.