Sri Lankan racers
Sri Lankan-born Chris Pereira has lived in England since 1955 and is the author of several books on the history of motorcycle racing. Here he reveals the little-known background to aspiring international riders from his home country.
Despite being in the Indian Ocean, thousands of miles from Europe and the Isle of Man, during the late 1940s and early 1950s, Sri Lanka had a small group of motorcycle enthusiasts who were very knowledgable about the TT Races. Foremost amongst them was arch enthusiast Andrew Mirando who had been to the TT in 1949. Inevitably several riders had ambitions to ride in the TT.
Following the successful running of the first road race in Sri Lanka at Nuwara Eliya in January 1950, the Ceylon Motor Cycle Club launched a fund raising campaign, to send a team of riders to the 1950 TT Races. A ballot was held among club members and four of the best riders were selected. Pat Helsham, Wally de Zylva, Peter Fernando and Colin Silva. Pat Helsham and Peter Fernando were entered in the Junior TT. Wally de Zylva and Colin Silva were entered in the Clubmans races.
Early in 1950, Andrew Mirando had imported a new Mk8 KTT Velocette. This machine was eventually bought by Peter Fernando to be ridden in the TT. Pat Helsham had previously bought the ex-Brown and Co 1948 500cc Manx Norton on which he had set the fastest lap at the Nuwara Eliya road races. But this machine was now obsolete and Pat ordered a new Mk8 KTT Velocette from the factory through Velocette agent Andrew Mirando. Wally de Zylva was in business with Triumph agent Allan Jefferies in the UK and ordered a new Triumph T100 through him. Colin Silva arranged to buy a new 350cc Clubman’s BSA Gold Star from the factory through the local BSA agents Cargills. Having sorted out their various machines, the team eventually sailed for the UK in the company of Australian TT riders Harry Hinton and George Morrison.
In the races, Pat Helsham was the most successful, finishing 57th out of 64 finishers at an average speed of 73.62mph, winning a Bronze TT Replica; the only Sri Lankan rider to win a Replica. Peter Fernando finished 61st at an average speed of 70.06mph. Wally de Zylva and Colin Silva both had bad luck in the Clubman’s races. Wally retired on the first lap when he lost the gear lever on his T100. Colin had really cruel luck. The regulations for the Clubman’s races required riders to kick start their machines from cold and many riders experienced problems. Poor Colin kicked away at his machine and changed plugs without success, eventually after half an hour, to cheers from the spectators in the stands he eventually got his BSA started and set off. He was reported to be going well and completed 3 laps, but had to be flagged off because he had run out of time. A photograph in the book “History of the Clubman’s TT” shows Colin working on his bike by the start line. Peter Fernando returned to the TT in 1952 with a new 350cc Manx Norton and was 47th in the Junior TT at 74.42mph, but retired in the Senior TT with mechanical problems. He then went over to Holland for the Dutch TT where he finished 19th in the 350cc race. To the casual reader the results achieved by the Sri Lankan riders may seem disappointing, but it must be remembered that the Sri Lankan riders had relatively little road racing experience, while the TT races usually had between 80 and 100 starters.
The next rider to set off for the Isle of Man was Rally Dean, the eldest of the Dean brothers. Rally had ridden in a few races in Sri Lanka in 1950 on his Triumph T100. In 1951 his father sent him to the UK and bought him a new 350cc Manx Norton to ride in the Manx Grand Prix, basically a race for amateur riders on the TT course, run each year in September. Rally finished 58th in the Junior race and later rode in the International Hutchinson 100 race meeting at Silverstone, before returning to Sri Lanka with his new Norton.
Rally returned to England in 1952 and over the next four years he rode a pair of 350 and 500cc Nortons in the TT and on the Continent. In 1952 he was unlucky to retire in both the Junior and Senior TTs with mechanical problems. In 1953 he finished 52nd in the Junior TT but retired in the Senior TT. He rode in the Ulster GP in 1952, 1953 and 1955 and also travelled on the Continent with a van, his wife and his two Nortons, riding in some of the major Grand Prix races and other minor events. In the winter months Rally lived in Birmingham and worked in the racing department at the Norton factory.
Rally’s younger brother Zacky had started racing in 1951 on a Norton Dominator and in 1953 he rode in the TT on Rally’s original 350 Manx Norton, on which he did quite well, finishing 54th in the Junior TT and 35th in the Senior TT on the same machine. He also rode in the Ulster Grand Prix in Northern Ireland finishing 24th in the 350cc race.
In 1953 Ralph Wijesinghe who had been winning races in Sri Lanka on his Tiger 100, emigrated to the UK to do a course in Engineering. In 1955 he bought a 350cc Clubmans BSA Gold Star which he rode in virtually standard trim in the TT. He retired in the Junior TT, but did extremely well to finish 44th in the Senior TT at 77.85mph, the fastest speed set by a Sri Lankan rider. He also rode in the Ulster Grand Prix finishing 30th in the 350cc race. For 1956 Ralph carried out a few modifications to his Gold Star and in the Junior TT which was run in damp conditions, he slid off at Ramsey hairpin and had to retire with a broken footrest. In the Senior TT he finished 43rd just missing out on a TT replica. Basically that brought to an end any involvement by Sri Lankan riders in the Isle of Man and Europe for several decades.
Fast forward now to 1984, when I finally achieved a life-long ambition to race in the Isle of Man. I had raced in Sri Lanka in the early 1950s and emigrated to England in 1955 and eventually started racing in England in the 1960s, by which time the TT races were now beyond my meagre resources. Unlike my predecessors I chose to race on British circuits. During the 1960s I raced a Honda CB77 in Club events. Between 1978 and 1981 I rode a borrowed 1937 MSS Velocette in Vintage races and in the 1982, started racing a 250cc Ducati in Classic races.
My final opportunity arose in 1983 when a new race for Classic machines was inaugurated to be run with the Manx Grand Prix on the TT circuit in September. In 1984 I rode my 250cc Ducati in the Junior Classic Manx Grand Prix, finishing 31st at a modest 72.81mph. In the 1990s I also rode in Historic events at Hockenheim and the Nurburgring in Germany and Chimay in Belgium, but finally retired in 2017 due to health problems.
ABOVE RIGHT Pat Helsham on his KTT Velocette at the 1950 Junior TT. MAIN Chris Pereira on his 250 Ducati in the 1984 Classic Manx Grand Prix.
TOP LEFT Norton-mounted Peter Fernando in the 1952 Junior TT. TOP RIGHT Rally Dean rounds Braddan Bridge on his Norton during the 1952 Junior TT. ABOVE Ralph Wijesinghe trying hard over the Mountain during the 1955 Junior TT.