A full report from the 39th Annual Classic Motorcycle Festival
My first impression was — wow! So many classic and rare motorcycles with their riders ready to tackle the Pukekohe Park race track. The organizer of the 39th Annual Classic Motorcycle Festival — the New Zealand Classic Motorcycle Racing Register (NZCMRR) — had done its utmost to make sure this would be a top event with a line-up of celebrity riders. The whole event was dedicated to the memory of Geoff Perry.
Geoff was an amazing New Zealand racer who competed successfully in the early 1970s before losing his life when the Pan Am flight he was on crashed shortly after take-off from Tahiti in 1973. Geoff was just 23 years old. I grew up in the Auckland suburb of Greenlane not far from his father Len Perry’s motorbike shop and often saw Geoff blatting around the local streets but I did not know him well personally. I saw him race on the Levin circuit once and his talent was clearly remarkable. Had he not been on that plane, I am certain he would have become a multiple world champion and a household name around the world.
The weather, again
Despite the efforts by the NZCMRR to organize a cracker event, the weather did its best to put a spanner in the works. Saturday saw just enough time to run a few practice sessions before the rain pelted down, forcing the track to be closed. You would think it would be safe to plan a race meeting over the weekend of February 3–4, with our weather usually being the most settled at that time of year.
The upside to this was that I was able
to talk with several riders who had interesting stories to tell about their bikes while they waited in the pits for the rain to clear. The organizers took the opportunity to broadcast interviews and included a chat with Geoff Perry’s sister, Dale.
Most of the thrill of watching is seeing the bravery of the riders and swingers
In my wanderings around the pits, I was fascinated by the variety of devices for starting up these classic bikes. (It brings out the engineer in me.) We’re talking classic racing motorcycles here, which were usually started by the rider pushing the bike until it was going quickly enough to drop the clutch and start while swinging their leg over. As time has gone by, some of these bikes have got more cantankerous and difficult to start. At the same time many of the riders who own them have got a bit less youthful.
The solution is to use an external starter that spins up the rear wheel. Genius! It’s probably possible to buy such a thing, but the ones I saw all looked home-made and none was the same as another. Most
were electric-motor driven. I saw one with a small petrol motor and even one using an angle grinder to power it. I guess that would be taken off and used as an angle grinder again after the weekend’s racing.
Sidecar racing has always been a favourite of mine. Not actually doing it you understand, just watching. Most of the thrill of watching is seeing the bravery of the riders and swingers doing something that I definitely would not risk doing myself.
Most forms of motor sport today are made safe by regulations that have been tightened progressively every year to the point at which risk of injury is far less than for anyone travelling on public roads. Sidecar racing and motorcycle racing can only be made safer by helmet and clothing improvements, which have progressed greatly, but it still hurts if you fall off.
For the swinger on a sidecar, it boils down to how good your grip is to counter the G-force trying to fling you off. I appreciate the skill it takes to do that job well and the teamwork it takes to get the best from the sidecar outfit. There were plenty of sidecars racing at the classic festival weekend.
Sidecar outfits are often home-made specials too, so there is a lot of ingenuity to be seen. Of the more than a dozen entries very few had the same power unit and they all looked different in construction. One even had a Coventry Climax engine. These were the motors that powered the Cooper F1 race cars in the days when Bruce McLaren was racing for that team.
It seemed fitting that I came across a Norton racing bike that was the one Len Perry rode at the Isle of Man in 1951. Back then, a team of New Zealand’s best riders were sent over to Europe to take part in the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy (TT), among other top events. Len captained the team of Rod Coleman, Ken Mudford, and himself. They were given two new Norton Featherbed race bikes to run at the Isle of Man by the Norton factory. The results were good, with second place in the team’s category, and Len came ninth in the senior TT, and collected the trophy for Best Colonial.
The owner of this Norton, Artie Laven from Great Barrier Island, told me that this was the actual bike that Len rode at the Isle of Man in 1951. He detailed the
history to me. After being raced by Len in Europe, both Nortons were shipped to the New Zealand Norton agent, Whites. Whites sold both bikes before Len Perry returned from Europe and there was quite an argument when he eventually made it back home. Len thought that the bikes were his, so was very unhappy that they’d been sold. It’s not clear how things were resolved, but the bikes didn’t return to Len.
Jim Swarbrick, also known as ‘The Flying Milkman’, bought the 500cc Norton Featherbed that Len had raced as well as another 350cc machine. Swarbrick then sold the bikes to fellow Christchurch racer Selwyn Burt, who, together with Mick Holland, short stroked the engine. Norton itself did this to its race bikes in 1953. Selwyn sold to Ron Taggart in 1959, who, after a year, swapped the motor over with a Triumph engine. The history is a little hazy for a few years after that, and it was rumoured that it was used as a road bike and at one time had a Vincent V-twin engine.
After Artie acquired the bike, he set about tracking down the original engine. He managed to buy it in 2009 and after many hours of work got it all back together and in the bike just two weeks before this classic race meeting. Artie entered in the regularity laps runs, which comprise four laps of the track with the objective being to maintain consistent lap times. The winner is not necessarily the fastest but the rider whose lap times have the least variation. A perfect event for having some fun without pushing the bike to its limits.
Rare as BSA
Barry Deane has a lovely 1940 BSA B29. They only made 125 of these so you can imagine how rare they are. This one was not all that intact when Barry bought it. In fact, all he got for his money was the frame, gearbox, and front forks. Over time he has cobbled the rest of the bike together with found parts but has had to make some replica parts when he couldn’t track down originals.
The B29 model is the basis of the postwar B31 model. Barry has been racing this bike for around five years. Like Artie, Barry was running the BSA in the regularity laps, but he also had a 1930 Rudge Ulster 500cc bike that he was running in the pre-war races. This was a trend I noticed — more than 40 of the riders had more than one bike that they were competing on, so this classic bike racing bug must be serious.
The camaraderie among these guys is strong. I overheard a conversation on the Saturday between Ginger Malloy and a rider who had a problem with the gearbox on his Bultaco. Now, Ginger is a bit of an expert on Bultacos as well as being a renowned rider. He offered to fix it that night as long as the rider could get it out of the bike and pop it around to his home workshop in Huntly. The rider was stunned, as it seemed he hardly knew Ginger, but out came the spanners and I am sure that he was all sorted for Sunday’s racing.
Here’s hoping for some decent weather for next year. I reckon I will be there to take in the sights, sounds, and the smells for sure.
Over time he has cobbled the rest of the bike together with found parts
Immaculate BSA Metisse
A trio of Triumphs
Melissa Tate shows that all riders weren’t greyhaired men
A bit more than a tune up!
Don’t you love summer
The two Brittens were popular with fans
Sidecars head out of pit lane for their practice session
Artie Laven and his Norton racing bike
More-elaborate starting set-up
Douglas flat-twin. Note the exposed cams