Hes­keth Re­visted

Old Bike Australasia - - CONTENTS - Story and pho­tos Terry Wright

While pre­par­ing for my an­nual mi­gra­tion from Aus­tralia to the English sum­mer of 2018, I’ve been re­call­ing my first such trip way back in 1978. I had de­cided to set­tle in Aus­tralia and was re­turn­ing to sell our lit­tle house in Stony Strat­ford which was just within earshot (with the right wind) of Sil­ver­stone cir­cuit.

Apart from my day job, I had started to write and some­times pho­to­graph free­lance for Aus­tralia’s

Revs Mo­tor­cy­cle News and the Aus­tralian, and New Zealand con­tin­gent at the Sil­ver­stone Bri­tish GP that year was one of my tar­gets. I in­ter­viewed and pho­tographed Gregg Hans­ford, Jack Find­lay, Mike Hail­wood, and Den­nis Ire­land. It was the year of Mike Hail­wood’s re­turn to the Isle of Man and he, for a while then an an­tipodean, was also in the frame. It’s mainly dis­tant mem­o­ries now. How­ever, I have no trou­ble re­mem­ber­ing the day that Alexan­der, Lord Hes­keth, (prop­erly Alexan­der Fer­nor-Hes­keth, Baron Hes­keth) who lived even closer to Sil­ver­stone, turned up at my front door to try and shut me up about the new mo­tor­cy­cle he was plan­ning to make. I had heard on the grapevine that Ron Valen­tine, tech­ni­cal head of the Wes­lake con­cern, was de­vel­op­ing a V-twin ver­sion of their very suc­cess­ful speed­way 500cc sin­gle. Such an idea in­ter­ested me and to find out more I rang Ron, and af­ter speak­ing some vin­tage JAP, soon had an in­vi­ta­tion to visit his works in Rye on the south coast. Ron was most hos­pitable; we spoke a lot more JAP; he took me to lunch and then I had a tour of the works. They did ev­ery­thing there – cast crankcases and cylin­ders even – and my freely-taken pho­tos show piles of these in var­i­ous stages of ma­chin­ing. In the foundry, at­ten­tion that day was fo­cussed on the first cast­ing of the left side crank­case of the new V twin which Ron told me was to power a mo­tor­cy­cle that Lord Hes­keth was plan­ning. The other crank­case half had al­ready been cast and heat-treated and was be­ing milled in the ma­chine shop, so that scene was added to the pictures I had taken in the foundry. This wasn’t the race en­gine I had ex­pected to see. It was much more in­ter­est­ing than that. As far as my nascent free­lance jour­nal­ism was con­cerned, I had a mo­tor­cy­cle ‘scoop’. Hes­keth had be­come world fa­mous with James Hunt driv­ing the F1 cars built in his sta­ble block – maybe he could re­vive the al­most dead Bri­tish mo­tor­cy­cle in­dus­try? This was pretty ex­cit­ing stuff in those days, I can tell you, with Bri­tish man­u­fac­tur­ing on its knees and Mar­garet Thatcher yet to give the coun­try some tough eco­nomic medicine.

Back in Stony Strat­ford, I rang the nearby Nicholas Hawksmoor de­signed Hes­keth stately home of Eas­ton Ne­ston near Towces­ter and soon found my­self ask­ing his lord­ship for de­tails of his mo­tor­cy­cle man­u­fac­tur­ing plans. I told him about the pho­to­graphs I had and af­ter a few sec­onds of seem­ingly stunned si­lence he said, ‘Where are you?’ ‘Just down the road in Stony Strat­ford’, I replied. ‘Can I come round – I can be there in 20 min­utes’, he said. So Hes­keth turned up in his Rolls-Royce, drank tea in the kitchen and laid out the deal he had in mind. If I held off pub­lish­ing my pho­to­graphs he would

give me exclusive ac­cess to all the Hes­keth ma­te­rial well be­fore the of­fi­cial an­nounce­ment was made.

Revs would have the full story be­fore any other mo­tor­cy­cle mag­a­zine world­wide.

I ran all this past Revs edi­tor Mike Es­daile. Hes­keth’s of­fer seemed gen­uine enough. It seemed a pity to put a damper on his plans by pre­ma­turely re­leas­ing the story for the sake of be­ing first with it. His lord­ship had been very friendly and per­sua­sive and so we agreed to his pro­posal. Even­tu­ally I found out that Hes­keth was no gen­tle­man as far as his word was con­cerned. Nei­ther Revs nor I heard a word from him again and my pho­tos of the pro­to­type Hes­keth en­gine haven’t seen the light of day un­til now. The Wes­lake en­gine which I had seen in its early stages was ready to ride in 1980 and of­fered all sorts of novel – for Bri­tish breeds – tech­nol­ogy such as four valves per cylin­der and chain driven twin over­head camshafts. Hes­keth’s suc­cess with his For­mula 1 team gave ev­ery­one hopes that his mo­tor­cy­cle project would suc­ceed at a time when there was lit­tle pub­lic con­fi­dence in Bri­tain’s man­u­fac­tur­ing com­pe­tence. De­signer and car­toon­ist John Mock­ett has writ­ten about the project’s de­vel­op­ment, ‘I was work­ing for Yamaha Europe, mak­ing pro­to­types and con­cept mod­els … Yamaha en­cour­aged me to get in­volved … and paid for some of my time there be­cause they thought there should be an­other Bri­tish mo­tor­cy­cle. The first pro­to­type I saw didn’t need a side-stand be­cause the ex­haust pipes held it up, so you just lent it on the pipe! That was the stage they’d got to – they didn’t have any­one in a se­nior role who knew any­thing about mo­tor­cy­cles.’ Mo­toGP jour­nal­ist Michael Scott was at the cham­pagne and caviar launch in 1981 and he wrote, ‘We all had a test ride, and the bike was lovely, a bit big and heavy, but it had this ter­ri­ble gear change ... the Hes­keth peo­ple would ask us what the bike was like and we’d say it’s re­ally nice but, er, the gear­box is a bit clunky. I do re­mem­ber my cov­er­line … To The Span­ner Born.’ Hes­keth Mo­tor­cy­cles PLC was formed and a fac­tory was set up in nearby Daven­try to as­sem­ble out­sourced com­po­nents. It was, says Alan Cath­cart, con­ceived as a ‘two-wheel As­ton Martin – a classy, ex­pen­sive, gen­tle­man’s ex­press’. But the bike soon demon­strated a mul­ti­tude of faults. It was heavy, un­re­li­able and the rear cylin­der over­heated. With un­favourable press re­ports and the mo­tor­cy­cle mar­ket then fall­ing, only 139 bikes were pro­duced be­fore the com­pany went into re­ceiver­ship in 1982. Ca­giva and the Tri­umph co­op­er­a­tive looked at buy­ing the rights and then Lord Hes­keth formed a new com­pany in 1983 to man­u­fac­ture a full-faired ver­sion called the Vam­pire. How­ever, the old faults were still there and this ven­ture only made 40 bikes be­fore clos­ing in 1984. Mick Broom, one of Hes­keth’s team on his es­tate, then took on de­vel­op­ment and sup­port and re­solved the V1000’s over­heat­ing prob­lem with im­proved oil flow. He made a few bikes a year un­til the mar­que was sold in 2010 to a new com­pany headed by Paul Slee­man, which an­nounced it was go­ing to make just 24 bikes in to­tal with a 1917cc S&S en­gine made in Wis­con­sin – the very same one they put in the recre­ated Mor­gan three-wheel­ers. The price when it was launched in 2014 was a whop­ping GBP35,000. Mo­tor­cy­cle News said it had ‘style, char­ac­ter, qual­ity and ex­clu­siv­ity’ and they all sold. Last year the Hes­keth Son­net was put on the mar­ket with a more af­ford­able (for some) price of about GBP25,000. For that you got an even big­ger 2163cc, triple camshaft S&S en­gine pro­duc­ing 145bhp at 6000rpm. ‘It de­liv­ers a com­pletely unique blend of An­glo-Amer­i­can per­for­mance that no­body else of­fers on two wheels right now’, writes Cath­cart. And now for 2018 there is the su­per­charged Valiant SC with 200bhp for GBP50,000.

It’s all amaz­ing, re­ally. Forty years ago the Bri­tish mo­tor­cy­cle busi­ness was go­ing out back­wards. Now there are new Tri­umphs, Nor­tons, Ariels (def­i­nitely not a Pixie re­vival) and even a ques­tion­able re­cre­ation of the Brough Su­pe­rior made in France. It seems to me that if you want a clas­sic ex­pe­ri­ence you should get a clas­sic bike but good luck to them. I’m stick­ing with my big-twin JAPs.

LEFT AND ABOVE Terry Wright’s pho­tos from Au­gust 1978 show ma­chin­ing of the pro­to­type en­gine’s first crank­case half and the cast­ing of the other side along with piles of 500cc speed­way en­gines. RIGHT The source of the photo of Mike Hail­wood be­hind Lord Hes­keth on the first Hes­keth V1000 is un­known. It was taken at the launch at Heas­ton Ne­ston in 1981.

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