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

Classic Racer - - WHAT’S INSIDE - Pic­tures: Jim Curry/karl Sch­leuter

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.

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