‘Giant-killer Bill Martin’ was the headline after the 23 year old Devonian had conquered rain, mud, rocks and raging water to win the gruelling Wye Valley Traders cup trial in April 1960. On his works James he was the only rider to master the long rock-filled gulley that formed the opening hazard at Hill Lane to scoop the premier award by one solitary mark ahead of Gordon Blakeway. That Wye Valley victory – the first for the AMC engined two stroke - was a great one for the popular young man from Newton Abbot who was undoubtedly one of the best trials riders of his generation. A glittering fourteen year career in which before he had reached the age of eighteen he would be awarded the prestigious Pinhard prize, qualify for the British experts and earn a works machine for his skill and endeavours.
Well over forty years have now passed since Bill hung up his Barbour jacket for the last time but he still lives just a stone’s throw from some of the sections he rode for perhaps his greatest triumph in winning the West of England Motor Cycle cup in October 1958. Born in Bristol in June 1936 he was aged ten when his family moved to Buckfastleigh in Devon and it was here on a hot summer’s day in 1951 he got his first taste of off-road motorcycling.
“From our house in the Old Totnes Road I could hear a lot of noisy engines roaring away at nearby Wallaford Down so I decided to cycle over to find out what was going on.
“On arrival I discovered it was the annual Patchquick trophy scramble and by the end of the afternoon’s racing I’d made my mind up that when I was old enough I was going to have my own motorcycle.
“Of course in those days there was no such thing as schoolboy sport and although he had no interest in motorcycling, my father was soon enrolled into the idea of me taking to two wheels. A couple of months later he dropped me off in nearby Newton Abbot to have my hair cut and afterwards I strolled around the corner to look at the machines inside Greens motorcycle showroom. Imagine my surprise when I looked through the window and there was my dad talking to the salesman; he turned and saw me and after beckoning me in his first words were; ‘what do you want then’?”
“By the end of that afternoon I was the proud owner of a 125cc Francis Barnett Merlin but I was still only fifteen so for the best part of nine months my riding was restricted to the paddock and orchard at the rear of our house. At that time I had little or no idea what a trial was but having to negotiate the muddy tracks with a ribbed front tyre was hard going and I got pretty good at riding feet-up on the little Barnett; a week after my sixteenth birthday in June 1952 I rode in my first event, an Otter vale novice trial in which I finished third.”
Bill’s debut ride was aboard a pukka 197cc trial’s ‘Franny’ Barnett — a 16th birthday present from his parents — which he took to like a duck to water and by the middle of the following month he won his first novice cup. This was quickly followed by a non-expert award and barely three months after he’d started riding, he was upgraded to an expert.
By the beginning of October he was competing in his first national and impressing some established stars, although as he recalled at the time he had no idea of who they were.
“I’d entered our local national — the West of England — and on the Friday before the trial my local dealer Freddie Hawken asked me if I would like to go out practising with him. About twenty of us met up at his shop in Newton Abbot, although I didn’t have a clue who any of the others were. We went to Gatcombe and then on to Harpers hill near Totnes and all I knew was that two of them were named Jeff — I later learnt that they were Jeff Smith and Geoff Duke — and there was another who parked his machine against a tree and smoked his pipe while closely watching me ride the Barnett up and down the muddy banks.”
What Bill didn’t realise at the time the man was AMC ace and competition chief, Hugh Viney, who was left extremely impressed by the ‘L’ plated youngster on the little two-stroke. At close quarters Viney could see the teenager’s huge potential which in the following day’s trial earned him a first class award and twelve months later the prestigious Pinhard trophy and a ride on the works James.
The Pinhard was awarded by the Sunbeam MCC to the young rider under twenty one judged to have made the most meritorious achievement in motorcycle sport and after a wonderful first season — in which he qualified for the British Experts — few could disagree with the winner for 1953.
“After the West of England I started doing quite a few of the nationals but I was still only sixteen so I didn’t have a car or van so my motorcycle and I were taken by one of our local star riders, Eddie Hayne, or ‘Nipper’ Parsons. This was all arranged by my father, who, although he had no interest in motorcycling himself, was very supportive of my trials riding career.
“I won two class awards in nationals during the 1952/53 season which meant that aged seventeen I qualified for the British Experts; I think that at the time I might have been the youngest ever rider. As a result the West of England ‘Chairman’ — and former top lady trials rider — Mrs Miriam Anning, put my name forward for the Pinhard prize and I was over the moon when I received the letter from the ACU to say that I’d won it. The trophy was presented to me by Graham Walker at the 1953 motorcycle show at Earls Court and standing on the edge of the stage was the same man who I’d seen at Harpers Lane, Hugh Viney. At the end of the presentation he approached me and asked if I would be interested in riding a works James, as you can imagine it didn’t take long for me to give my answer.
“The week after Christmas I drove up to Plumpstead — I now had my own Ford Thames van — and spent a week going through all the production stages at the factory and practising on my brand new J9 James. Much of this was either at Brands Hatch or at Gordon Jackson’s farm but on returning to Plumpstead my first job was to clean both of the machines. Hugh would leave me to wash them down and when I’d finished I had to ring the bell and he would come and inspect every nook and cranny to make sure they were to his requirements. He was a real stickler for presentation and one of the first lessons he taught me was that trials were won in the workshop and as a works rider I was at all times representing the factory. He was of course an outstandingly good rider and he certainly taught me a lot on how best to negotiate the slippery stuff up at Jackson’s farm. I think by the end of that wonderful week he had turned me from a good amateur into a decent professional, he helped me a lot and I had a great deal of respect for him”.
It only took a week for Bill to put Viney’s tuition into practice with an outstanding ride in the St David’s trade supported trial at Neath where he won the 200cc cup on the rigid framed J9 James; this followed a few weeks later by another class cup in a muddy Cotswold.
By May, Martin and his fellow team members, Brian Povey and Peter Stirland, were in the Highlands for the annual Six Days Trial. For a few hours on the fourth day he was briefly in the lead but sadly a dream debut victory was ruled out by a crash on the Thursday which, as he told me, left him with a nasty injury.
“In the week before the Scottish, Brian, Peter and I had ridden in the Travers trial and then spent several days practicing in the Highlands before the weigh-in on Sunday. I think the first day’s run was something like 184 miles — a long way on a little two stroke — but if I had any doubt about the route I just ‘followed my nose’ and tuned in to the smell of the burning oil from Jimmy Alves’ Triumph Terrier.
“I loved the rocks and I’d discovered that by using a lot of back brake — while still allowing the motor to pull against it — I could ride with no chain snatch which meant that the motor rarely broke traction. This was perfect for negotiating both rocks and slippery adverse cambers but as a result I was getting through two pairs of brake shoes a day.
“I was doing okay but on the fourth day I crashed avoiding a car on a narrow track and the machine landed on top of me in the ditch. Thankfully two other competitors stopped and dragged both me and the bike out onto the tarmac but I’d badly twisted my knee and I was in agony as I rode on to the lunch stop. This was at an old army camp where we managed to find a couple of bed slats which were taped around my leg to form a splint. As you can imagine it was okay pushing the gear lever down but impossible to pull it up so I rigged up a length of string between the petrol cap and the gear lever, it worked well and at least I managed to finish the trial.”
That Bill managed to ride the last two days and win a first class award with what was later discovered to be a broken knee cap speaks volumes for his tenacity; a trait which he had precious little time to show when in September of 1954 he made his ISDT debut in Wales. Unfortunately his International career proved to be an extremely short one as on day one he was involved in a head on collision with a Czech competitor who had gone the wrong way and with the works James badly damaged — and same knee injured again — he was an early retirement. He also tried his hand at scrambling but after being run over and badly bruised decided that he lacked the all-important aggression to be a successful racer and speed events were not for him.
On the work front Bill had gone to work for ex-TT and scrambles star Freddie Hawken as an apprentice mechanic — this conveniently kept him out of doing national service — which meant that his trials career continued unhindered. There were countless wins in local club and open to centre events, first class awards and class cups in many nationals — including the 1955 Scottish — on the 197cc James and his first national premier award in that years John Douglas in North Somerset, an unusually dry event which as Bill recalled was ideally suited to his little two-stroke.
“The John Douglas had a reputation for thick black mud and slippery rocks but after several weeks without rain, sections like the first one at ‘Cowsh’ were bone dry and the organisers had to resort to using lots of tape. The net result was plenty of tight ‘nadgery’ sections which were perfect for my rear brake riding style and in a great days sport I only lost two marks all day.” Three years would elapse before Bill won his next national but in between there were plenty of class wins, a change of machine and a frustrating year on the side-lines before he bounced back with perhaps his best ever season in 1958.
“The J9 was a good machine but I fancied a go on a ‘big un’ like Gordon Jackson’s so after talking to Hugh Viney he arranged for me to have a 350cc Matchless for the 1956 season. It was lovely and although I managed to win a few open to centre events I wasn’t as successful on it as the James twostroke and after twelve months I gave it back to the factory.
“I was having a lot of trouble with my knee — the one which had been injured in the Scottish and again in that head-on in the ISDT — so it meant an operation and I missed the whole of the 1957 season. I could easily have called it a day but in January 1958 I went to the West of England dinner/ dance and got talking to the James competition chief, Bob Bicknell, who said ‘want another go then Bill’, answering that I did he said ‘I’ll send one down on the train for you next week’. True to his word the bike — a works 201cc James TOE 431 — turned up at Newton Abbot railway station early on the following Sunday morning and after fuelling it up I rode it down to the White Hart pub in Buckfastleigh for the start for the local Knill trial which was regarded as a ‘mini’ West of England.”
Bill had been out of action for twelve months and he was on an untried machine but it was soon apparent he’d lost none of his old skill and at the end of a tough days sport he was a comfortable winner ahead of the best of the South Western centre stars.
Back with a Bang
He was back with a bang and in the following months won no fewer than eight successive club and open to centre events on the trot. Hundreds of miles were covered competing in important nationals, although it was fitting that his biggest win in 1958 came very close to home with the West of England Silver Jubilee trial, an event which as he recalled tested both the organising club and all of the riders to the extreme.
“Throughout Friday rain had lashed down in torrents and it was still pouring down when we lined up for the start on Saturday morning. As a result of flooding, four sections were cancelled but clerk of the course, Richard Walford, and his team had done a fantastic job marking out the route and despite the weather it was a terrific trial. By the finish we were all soaking wet but for me everything had gone perfectly and when the results were announced I discovered I’d beaten Peter Stirland by just one mark to take the premier.”
The legendary Scott timed and observation trial also left him extremely fatigued as he revealed. “I always carried spare clothes with me and made a point of wrapping them up around two hot water bottles, this meant that at the end of a cold trial I had some nice warm clothes to put on and also hot water to wash my hands and face. Other than that one day in the 1954 ISDT and the odd scramble I’d steered clear of speed events but for some reason in the winter of 1958 I decided to give the Scott time and observation trial a go. I managed to get round but I was absolutely exhausted, after the event I had to drive down to London to be on the James stand at the motorcycle show and I don’t think I could stand properly for about three days.”
After missing the 1958 Scottish, Bill was back in the Highlands for the 1959 trial but by now the 201cc James had been pensioned off and he was on the new AMC engined factory machine. It was now a full 250 but one, which as he told me, gave a very different power delivery to the old 197cc Villiers engine he was accustomed to.
“I used the 201cc bike for the winter of 1958/59 but as the factory were now using a 250cc Piatti engine in their road models, they decided to use the same motor in the new trials machine. The first time I saw it was when it arrived on the train from the factory in Birmingham and after running it in I disassembled it and squeezed it into the back of my car before heading off to Scotland.
“On arrival in Edinburgh the comp shop boys were thrown into a panic because at first they couldn’t work out where my machine was and when they discovered my James ‘flat pack’ they threw serious doubt into my ability to reassemble it in time for the Sunday weigh-in. I’m happy to say I managed it but as the trial progressed I had to alter my riding style to get the best from the AMC engine. There was plenty of top-end but little in the way of torque so the only way to ride it was to keep the engine buzzing and scream it in first gear. In fact I had quite a good ride and after most of the works BSA’s had dropped out with various electrical and mechanical problems, I won the 250cc cup that year.”
During the next two seasons Bill continued to develop and improve the 250cc James and despite the engine’s buzzy nature, he notched up some impressive wins; among them that memorable one at the wet Wye Valley in April 1960 which fifty years on he recalled with a wry smile.
“From early morning it was pouring down with rain and as the trial got underway we had to negotiate streams which had turned into frightening torrents, crossing one of these I dropped the machine and was soaked from head to toe. Wet and cold I struggled on but had a spate of punctures — four in total — and with the tyre flat I managed to limp to a garage where I carried out some hasty repairs. With it mended and re-inflated I seriously considered retiring but on arrival at the next section — and yet another puncture — I was told by the observer that due to the weather the final group had been cancelled and this would be the last one. I was so fed up I didn’t even walk the section and attacked it flat out in second gear; much to my surprise I went clean and was told by the observer it was the first feet up climb of the day. I got to the finish and was all for loading up and heading for home until an official approached me and asked if I wanted to sign off. I scribbled my name and when the results arrived a couple of days later I was glad that I had, because much to my surprise I’d won the premier award by one mark from Gordon Blakeway. I think I’m correct in saying it was the first and last trade supported trials win for the Piatti engined model.
“I persevered with it for two seasons and had some good rides in both open to centre and national events before the factory decided to revert back to a 32A Villiers motor in 1962 and my new bike 284 FON duly turned up on the train.
“Living so far from Birmingham I had little direct contact with the factory so it was very much a case of them supplying me with a free motorcycle and I was left to maintain and ride it; they in turn sorted out and paid for all of my entries and also covered my expenses for competing in major events.
“I only rode 284 FON for one season and was then told that the James trials team was being disbanded so the competition shop could concentrate their efforts on scrambles and all of the works riders were being transferred to Francis Barnett’s.”
Fitted with its 32A Villiers engine and Marcelle square barrel, the works ‘Franny B’ turned out to be quite a useful tool but despite Bill’s best efforts it failed to last the distance in the 1963 Scottish and he was forced to retire on the final day.
“The gearbox broke on the Tuesday but I managed to bodge it up and then had the choice of either first or third which meant it was first for all the sections and flat out in third on the road. I managed to reach the overnight stop but then had to leave it in the ‘Park Ferme’ until the Wednesday morning where in the permitted fifteen minutes before restart I managed to change the complete gear cluster and selectors. I nursed it for the next three days but on the Saturday it developed a serious ‘death rattle’ and seized near Glen Ogle. I was determined to finish and when I saw a another machine on a trailer I managed to persuade a retiree to let me have his barrel and piston — I’m glad to report that the factory sent him new parts for his help — but sadly I only got as far as Stirling and the crankshaft broke. That was the end of my Scottish and at the finish I was met by Hugh Viney who smiled and said ‘well at least you tried’.”
The 1963 Highland classic would be Bill’s last trip to Scotland — an event he reflects on as being his favourite in the trials calendar — and at the end of the year the works Barnett was returned to the factory.
“After chasing round the country riding in all the major trials for ten years I felt I was past my best and decided to retire from the nationals and concentrate on events in my home South Western centre. My works Barnett went back to the factory and it was replaced by a semi-works Greeves supplied through Freddie Hawken’s who was their agent in south Devon. It was great in a straight line and I had a few decent results on it but I didn’t like the handling characteristics of the leading link forks and at the end of the 1965 season decided it was time to call it a day.”
Later in 1970 Bill rode a 250cc Bultaco for a season ‘just for fun’ and in the early eighties did a few Pre-65 events on his old James. Fourteen magnificent seasons in which the quiet lad from south Devon took on and beat the trials world’s best, summed up by the man himself as ‘a good life’.
His dad’s big Buick car with the trailer on
Mortonhampstead trial 1952 on the 197 Francis Barnett – Ron Lake looking on
9th June 1953 — 17th birthday present — a new 197cc Francis Barnett
The works James team at the start of the Scottish Six Days in 1954
1953 Southern Experts on 197cc Francis Barnett
Welsh two day trial 1954
Scottish Six Days in 1954
Tiverton MC 1958 ‘Rock n Roll’ section - Wilf Hadon, Des May and Mr Leigh watch the action
West of England October 1959 Upper Diamond Lane
Bill with some of his silverware in 1959
Beggars Roost event in 1959
On the Villiers 32A engined model in 1962
Taunton MC Edwards’ trial in 1962. Photo: Gordon Francis
On arrival at the 1961 Scottish with AMC engined bike in the boot of his car
Competing on the 250cc Greeves in 1964
Riding just for fun on the 250cc Bultaco in 1971