Len Ire­land

There are many hard rac­ers who con­tested the Ir­ish roads through­out the 1950s and 60s, and with­out doubt one of the great­est has to be Len Ire­land, who mixed it with the best and has all the mem­o­ries to prove it.

Classic Racer - - WHAT’S INSIDE -

A real fan favourite at the Ir­ish mo­tor­cy­cle road races through­out the 1960s, Len was one of the men to go wheel-to-wheel with if you wanted sil­ver­ware at races like the North West 200 and Car­row­dore 100. His story is a fas­ci­nat­ing ac­count of a man who loved his rac­ing and was as hard as nails.

Born and raised in Crossken­nan, Co. Antrim, not far from Belfast, Len Ire­land first got his hands on a mo­tor­bike, a 1949 BSA 350 B31, at the ten­der age of 15. This pretty much co­in­cided with his de­ci­sion to fin­ish up at the lo­cal Tec and to start as an ap­pren­tice me­chanic at the main Arm­strong Sid­de­ley deal­er­ship. The lit­tle BSA was ideal for the daily com­mute in and out of Belfast but it was at week­ends, when it was used for ‘fun’, that it gave Len the most sat­is­fac­tion. ‘Fun’ in­volved head­ing to Bells Cross­roads near Kells, Co. Antrim and to a net­work of lo­cal coun­try roads with a group of sim­i­larly-minded mo­tor­cy­cle own­ing youths for what Len ca­su­ally refers to as un­of­fi­cial rac­ing. These were un­doubt­edly thrilling times for young Len, not­with­stand­ing the fre­quency with which these lads ended up in­jured and Len re­calls one oc­ca­sion, round­ing a bend only to dis­cover a herd of dairy cows in the mid­dle of the road which, once again, re­sulted in a spell at the lo­cal Massereene Hos­pi­tal. So fre­quent were his visits there that the nurses joked about hav­ing a bed named af­ter him. Then, one week­end word came through that at a sim­i­lar un­of­fi­cial rac­ing event at an­other nearby set of roads known as the Rum­bler, a young rider was killed and Len re­alised that he’d have to take this pur­suit more se­ri­ously or he too would end up dead. And so it was, while re­turn­ing from a trip to the 1957 TT later that year, hav­ing watched Bob Mcin­tyre win both the Se­nior and Ju­nior TTS, that Len took the con­scious de­ci­sion to ac­quire a mo­tor­bike for the pur­pose of rac­ing. He soon heard about a 1955 Nor­ton 350 that was avail­able in the UK for the princely sum of £345 but, as Len re­calls, he didn’t have 345 shillings back then. But needs must and a Her­culean ef­fort that in­volved all sorts of wheel­ing and deal­ing, co­pi­ous amounts of se­crecy and the sale of most of his worldly pos­ses­sions, in­clud­ing his pre­cious ac­cor­dion, re­sulted in the ar­rival of a large, strange-look­ing, card­board-wrapped, two-wheeled pack­age at Antrim sta­tion. The ac­com­pa­ny­ing tag bore the name ‘Ire­land’ and the ad­dress ‘Antrim’ and some­body sent word to Len’s older brother to ask if it might be for him? He said: ‘No, I know noth­ing about a mo­tor­bike’ … ‘well, it’s got your name on it!’ but by the time the brother got to the sta­tion the pack­age had been col­lected and spir­ited to a small shed near home. It seemed that most of the lo­cal Antrim coun­try­side was abuzz with talk of this ma­chine and who it might be­long to and one evening his older brother asked Len out straight whether in fact the ma­chine that had ar­rived was in fact his and Len had to con­fess and ad­mit that it was. This sur­prise ac­knowl­edge­ment fu­elled fur­ther con­ver­sa­tion and gos­sip lo­cally but when he then an­nounced his in­ten­tion to race the ma­chine, re­ac­tions ranged from dis­be­lief to in­credulity to doubt, both at home and through­out the small vil­lage. Around this time word reached Len that prepa­ra­tions were well ad­vanced for an all-new 100-mile road race at Tan­dragee in Co. Ar­magh, so Len put in an en­try, which was ac­cepted, and the fol­low­ing April, at the in­au­gu­ral Tan­dragee, Len made his rac­ing de­but in the com­pany of sev­eral other first-time rac­ers in­clud­ing Dick Cre­ith, Fred Mc­caul and Jack Shannon. Len set out early on the morn­ing of the race and rode his 350 Nor­ton from Crossken­nan to Tan­dragee, a lengthy jour­ney that had him tired be­fore he’d even reached the start­ing line. Of course, there was no prac­tice for


races back then, new and, to add to his woes the bike was se­verely un­der-geared and was scream­ing it’s head off, but Len still man­aged a very re­spectable third in the hand­i­cap and sixth in class and one of the first to con­grat­u­late him was Tom Steele from Bal­ly­mena. Tom was the main spon­sor for Billy Mc­cosh, who was a ris­ing star in Ir­ish road rac­ing at the time. Tom could hardly be­lieve it when he learned that Len had rid­den his ma­chine all the way to Tan­dragee and ended up giv­ing him and his Nor­ton a lift back to Antrim, and so be­gan a last­ing friendship. For the 1960 sea­son, Tom de­cided to get a more mod­ern ma­chine for Len to ride. He con­tacted Reg Dear­den and the bike he pur­chased had been rid­den by Ed­die Crooks in The Manx the pre­vi­ous year on which he was lead­ing the race un­til the last lap when the mag­neto spin­dle broke, thus forc­ing his re­tire­ment just a few short miles from the fin­ish. Len had some im­pres­sive re­sults on this ma­chine through­out 1960 and achieved a win at the Cook­stown 100, as well as his first 350cc scratch win at the Car­row­dore 100 to­gether with the fastest lap and the 100-mile road race cham­pi­onship. Buoyed by this suc­cess, Len ap­proached Gil­bert Smith, the man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of Nor­ton to be­gin the ar­range­ments for Tom to pur­chase a brand new 350 Nor­ton for Len to race in the 1961 sea­son, but Mr Smith flatly told him that the only way they would be con­sid­ered for a new Nor­ton was if Len agreed to race the TT on it. Never one to shirk a chal­lenge, Len took the boat to Liver­pool a few days be­fore the start of the 1961 TT and, by ar­range­ment, col­lected his new Nor­ton, which he wheeled onto the boat and dis­em­barked at Dou­glas two hours later. Len fin­ished in 30th place in Mon­day’s Ju­nior TT, a feat that earned him a sil­ver replica and he rode the same 350 Nor­ton in the Se­nior TT on the Fri­day, re­tir­ing on the third lap. Later that year he won at Car­row­dore and did so again in 1962 and 1963 to make it four-in-a-row. Through­out these years the Ir­ish Cham­pi­onship was staged over 14 races and in­cluded rounds at Lur­gan Park, Bish­op­scourt, Maghaberry, The Cur­ragh, Sk­er­ries, Ath­boy Co. Meath, Dun­boyne Co. Meath, Tan­dragee, Cook­stown, The North West, Killinchy 150, The Tem­ple, The Mid-antrim, The Ul­ster GP and Car­row­dore. When I asked which win was the most mem­o­rable, Len didn’t hes­i­tate, his mem­ory is en­cy­clopaedic: ‘‘It was Dun­boyne in 1965. Dun­boyne was first run in 1958 when it was run counter-clock­wise, I first raced it the fol­low­ing year, but my first win there was in 1965. It was my best be­cause it was my hard­est-fought. I was up against Fred Stevens, who was rid­ing Tom Arter’s six-speed 350 AJS, a far quicker ma­chine, and Fred was a top class rider, and I chased him hard through­out the clos­ing laps, but I took a big risk and passed him on the fi­nal left-han­der into the vil­lage and held that lead all the way to the flag.” Len also took an­other fine win at the 1967 Dun­boyne in very wet con­di­tions, win­ning the 350cc class and with it The Hutchin­son Tro­phy by pass­ing all but one of the 500cc ma­chines. That was the last ever Dun­boyne as a year-on-year se­ries of mas­sive ac­ci­dents in the car races claimed the lives of four com­peti­tors and cul­mi­nated in the event be­ing dropped from the Ir­ish cal­en­dar. An­other friend to Len was Scot­tish busi­ness­man Glen Hen­der­son, who was a spon­sor of Ralph Bryans, pro­vid­ing him with a Honda CR72. In con­ver­sa­tion in 1965, Glen of­fered Len a ride on the lit­tle CR72 and fur­ther told him that he could have it for the North West 200 that year, as Ralph would be out of the coun­try then and there­fore not avail­able to race the wee Honda at that event. Len takes up the story: “So the Honda was en­tered and I was to ride it. Nearer the date Bryans re­turned home un­ex­pect­edly and heard that Glen had en­tered me on the Honda and he was very an­noyed and an­gry. Any­how, when the time came to go to the NW races in May, the trans­porter was loaded up and Bryans put his leathers, boots and hel­met in as well, de­ter­mined to have a change of rider in the pro­gramme and he lodged an ap­peal with the of­fi­cials to have a change of rider, but this was re­jected and a se­nior of­fi­cial told Ralph Bryans: ‘Len is on it and is stay­ing on it’. “Not happy with that and de­ter­mined to p pre­vent the ride go­ing to any­one else, Bryans h had a brain­wave. On­thurs­day’s prac­tice B Bryans told me to go out, do one lap and pull i n at the end of the lap. I won­dered why, as


I knew I needed at least three laps to qual­ify for the race and as many more as I could to help me get used to the strange ma­chine, but I as­sumed that he wanted to do a plug check to see if the car­bu­ra­tion was rich enough, par­tic­u­larly at sea level. “When I pulled in af­ter one lap and sat on the ma­chine while wait­ing for Ralph to re­move the spark plugs, he never did, he just said ‘get off’. I stood up and he wheeled the Honda from un­der me and put it into the trans­porter, so end­ing my prac­tice ses­sion. “Even from a stand­ing start, and with a slow­ing down fin­ish, my one lap was the fastest lap of the 250cc prac­tice ses­sion. Con­sid­er­ing that Tommy Robb and Sammy Miller were both rid­ing works Bul­ta­cos and all the other good rid­ers who were tak­ing part in that ses­sion, I had run re­ally well. “Bryans’ move was a crafty one but the of­fi­cial he’d spo­ken with ear­lier when try­ing to lodge a change of rider knew what Bryans was try­ing to do and turned a blind eye to the three-lap qual­i­fy­ing rule and made it pos­si­ble for me to take pole po­si­tion on the start­ing grid for the race. “Just be­fore the race I asked Bryans, ‘What’s the se­cret to op­er­at­ing the throt­tle?’ as I didn’t want to oil a plug, he didn’t an­swer my ques­tion but said: ‘Get on and ride the bloody thing.’ “I pushed and bump-started the Honda but sadly it only fired on one cylin­der. I was last away but then, as I reached Henry’s Cor­ner, it sud­denly fired on both cylin­ders and I was away! I headed off in pur­suitp of the pack of rid­ers well ahead of me and by the end of the first lap I wasn’t even in the top 10 rid­ers cross­ing the line. I started to feel more com­fort­able on the strange bike and rode a lot quicker. By the third lap I had caught and passed all of the rid­ers in front of me, ex­cept Tommy Robb. On the fifth and fi­nal lap I passed Tommy as we both ap­proached Mill­burn Cor­ner at Col­eraine. “I was lead­ing the race at this stage and was first at Metropole Cor­ner, but some­where on the Coast Road Tommy got past me. He had a lot more ex­pe­ri­ence of rac­ing than I had. I was tempted to try a pass­ing ma­noeu­vre at the right-hand bend just be­fore the chequered flag as I was right on Robb’s rear wheel and could have taken a tighter line but in do­ing this could have caused the Bul­taco rider to go wide and off his proper line. It was not the place to make con­tact with an­other com­peti­tor! So, rather than risk the move on some­one I had a lot of re­spect for, I fin­ished one se­cond be­hind Tommy. I also recorded the fastest lap of the race. I re­ally ap­pre­ci­ated Glen Hen­der­son’s trust in me to ride his CR72 Honda. Also many thanks must go to the race of­fi­cial who made it pos­si­ble for me to take part in the race.” Len en­joyed mixed for­tunes at the Ul­ster Grand Prix. Prob­a­bly the most ex­cit­ing race was the 350 of 1963 when he shared the front row with Mike Hail­wood on the MV, Jim Red­man on the Honda 4, Ralph Bryans on a Nor­ton, Luigi Taveri on a 305 Honda twin-cylin­der and Len on his 350 Nor­ton that he pi­loted to sixth across the line and achieved one world cham­pi­onship point for his ef­forts. Then there was the 1967 Ul­ster GP win which he lined up on the gird for the 250cc race along­side some more of the best names ever to grace the sport, in­clud­ing Bill Ivy, Phil Read, works Bul­taco mounted Gin­ger Mol­loy, with both Mike Hail­wood and Ralph Bryans on 250/6 Hon­das. Len was rac­ing a 250 Greeves Sil­ver­stone that day and recorded the fastest lap in prac­tice as a pri­va­teer. But in the race, a nasty ac­ci­dent at Deer’s Leap, caused by a seized en­gine, kept Len out of ac­tion for most of 1968. He ap­peared briefly in Septem­ber on­board a TD1C and he took a win ahead of Ian Mcgre­gor, Ray Mc­cul­lough, Tom Her­ron, Alex Ge­orge and oth­ers. Len’s last race was at Lur­gan Park in 1970. He was rid­ing an Aer­ma­c­chi and man­aged the run­ner-up spot be­hind Ce­cil Craw­ford and just ahead of Billy Guthrie, both rid­ing 350 Yamaha bikes. He was en­tered at Maghaberry the fol­low­ing week­end but loaned his ma­chine to Gor­don Bell and Gor­don ended up buy­ing it from Len. With­out a ma­chine, Len dropped out of cir­cu­la­tion and didn’t re­ally mix within rac­ing cir­cles for sev­eral years. These days Len is a reg­u­lar vis­i­tor and spec­ta­tor at clas­sic events through­out Ire­land. Last Septem­ber he was made hon­orary pres­i­dent of Dun­boyne Mo­tor Club, the very cir­cuit where he en­joyed his hard­est fought vic­tory. He trav­els to many clas­sic rac­ing events with his lovely wife Claire. We look for­ward to greet­ing Len and Claire at Ir­ish clas­sic events for many years to come.

Len ap­proaches the mon­u­ment at the 1964 Sk­er­ries 100.

Len tak­ing th he win at the 19 967 South­ern 1000 (IOM) on the 350 Nor­ton.

Le en on a 250cc Gr reeves at The Te em­ple in 1963, fin nish­ing se­cond to Ra ay Mc­cul­lough.

Len Ire­land sit­ting on the start­ing grid at The Tem­ple 1961.

A small col­lec­tion of the su­per­stars at the start of the 350cc class at the 1963 Ul­ster GP. From left to right: 46 (350 Nor­ton) Len Ire­land; 2 (305 Honda twin-cylin­der) Luigi Taveri; 28 Sid Mizen; 43 (Nor­ton) Ralph Bryans; 26 Ge­orge Purvis; 1 (Honda 4)...

Len pi­lot­ing the CR72 off Har­bour Road at the 1965 North West 200. He started last but came se­cond.

Len n ex­it­ing Par rlia­ment Sq uare at the e 1961 Jun nior TT.

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