Bill Martin

Classic Trial - - CONTENTS - Words: Andy West­lake with Bill and Jean Martin. Thanks also to Dave Cole for his help and en­thu­si­asm.

‘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’?”

Proud Owner

“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.

Na­tion­als

“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”.

Cup Win­ner

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.

Work

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.

New En­gine

“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.”

Fran­cis Bar­nett

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

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