An hour with…
Some people seem to pack enough into their lives to cover three lifetimes and just such apersonisalf Hagon. CDB spent an hour in his company to celebrate the diamond anniversary of the business that bears his name
… the legend Alf Hagon. We sit down with the forward thinker and try to keep up as he talks about bikes, bike sport and howling over an airfield on a v-twin JAP.
Interviews are all well and good – a list of questions to ask and information to gain based on what the interviewer knows about the interviewee and so forth, but sometimes it’s better just to sit and chat, go with the flow and see what comes up… which is what we did with Alf Hagon. Let’s be honest about this from the outset, there’s no way a few pages in a magazine could ever deliver the full flavour of a life lived by someone like Alf Hagon, it would take a full mag to even come close. So, in a light and airy room upstairs at Hagon Shocks, which houses a selection of the motorcycles and accessories his fertile and often unconventional mind has conceived, Alfred Joseph Hagon chatted about his motorcycling life, a life into which he has packed so much that it is hard to believe he’s only 86. Squeezing so much into his life must have meant he started this motorcycling lark quite early, at which the bespectacled racer laughed: “Yes, a few of us were riding bikes on the bombed out waste grounds in the area shortly after the end of the war. We got in trouble with the police quite frequently as they couldn’t figure out how we were running motorcycles when petrol was strictly rationed.”
What it seems the law couldn’t understand was Alf and his pals were using methanol fuel which wasn’t rationed. “They would stop us and quiz us to see how we were getting petrol, we kept telling them it wasn’t petrol but they wouldn’t have it.”
After such informality in the beginning, Alf’s motorcycling took a more structured approach when he joined the local motorcycle club in his home town of Ilford in Essex. “They were great days of club motorcycling and there were loads of us local lads in Ilford Amateur Motorcycle Club and the club ran all sorts of events, as I suppose did lots of other clubs in those days.”
It was Ilford Amateur Motorcycle Club which would help young Mr Hagon take his first steps towards a competition career.
“The club was looking for volunteers to help at a grasstrack meeting. I asked what I’d have to do and they told me I would be marshalling the riders – this seemed okay to me and I asked if I could have a ride too, they said yes and that was the start of it all.”
Once Alf saw there were other events besides grasstrack, he embraced the whole lot. “I did everything I could, trials, scrambles, speedway, hill climbs, it was all fun.”
But what I wanted to know, was which machine started all this sporting interest off?
Alf told me: “I got hold of a 1937 2H Triumph single, 250cc, not the most glamorous motorcycle in the world but I did a few modifications to it such as fitting BSA telescopic forks and a Triumph sprunghub rear wheel to modernise it a bit. The motor was in need of attention and at that time I was working in an engineering place and they let me take in the flywheels so I could replace the big end bearing with the proper equipment.”
While he was at it, Alf also added a high compression piston from a twin Triumph and bored out the 250’s inlet tract so a bigger carburettor could be used. “Once it was settled down and performing correctly it would see off my mate’s 350 Clubman Goldie,” he grins. Speaking of the Clubman Goldie reminded Alf he’d had a crack at the Clubman TT on a special Norton International from Norton themselves. “It was okay but there’s a lot of standing around waiting at the TT and the whole experience wasn’t good.” What Alf went on to explain was the Norton hit problems over in the Isle of Man. “I’d ridden it to the TT and was sharing a garage with Terry Shepherd, and in one of the practices I managed to bend a valve and destroy the front brake. Luckily Ferodo sorted the brake and I did the valve and got the bike running properly again.”
It was running so well Alf was lying eighth until the points in the magneto closed up and affected performance. “I was in the Isle of Man for a fortnight and got one race, at the time I was still racing speedway and was doing four meetings a week so it was obvious what I should be concentrating on.”
Asking Alf how he took to the cinder tracks brought the revelation he’d been asked by Wal Phillips. “I’d been along to watch speedway but never thought of trying it until Wal Phillips invited me along. I’d been doing okay at grasstrack and Phillips had heard of me and said I should go along to a practice session. I rode there in my leathers one afternoon, hopped on the spare track bike and proceeded to fall off a lot. I was invited back to try again, this time Wal gave me some tips and I stopped falling off and did more proper laps then he put me in some races and I did alright. So, suddenly, I was a speedway racer.”
At this time Alf was also beginning his business activities and a slight steering of the conversation in the direction of work
began with the question “what did you want to do after you left school?” I felt sure the answer would be some form of mechanical occupation but it seemed young Alf fancied the idea of being a cabinet maker. However, work was scarce in that area and his first occupation was at an engineering firm which made moulds for the glass fibre industry. The skills learnt in that area would stand him in good stead when making parts in such material for his customers.
He followed this with a stint in the patternmaking shop at Ford, before joining Plessey’s Electrical Engineers. All the while Alf had been making bits and pieces for all sorts of motorcycle sports, based in a basic shed in the family garden.
“I’d always enjoyed doing bits and pieces for other racers and it contributed to my racing fund too. A lot of the things I made were because we – racers – couldn’t get certain things or what was available wasn’t quite right.”
He started by polishing con rods to relieve metallurgical stress and thus allowing them to last longer in race engines, then moved on to making frames for grasstrack racers.
By 1958 the shed was long outgrown and proper business premises had to be sourced. These premises were to become famous throughout not only the speedway and grasstrack world but general motorcycling too and many a famous and not so famous name beat a path to 350 High Road, Leyton in East London.
Naturally enough the speedway, grasstrack and longtrack fraternity were regular visitors, with people like Barry Briggs, Peter Collins, Egon Muller, Ole Olsen, Don Godden and Malcolm Simmons in and out of the place. Alf was also on first name terms with industry notables such as BSA’S Bert Perrigo, Cosworth’s Keith Duckworth and former BSA man Bill Nicholson who went to Jaguar cars.
“These lads would all pop in for a chat and discuss what was happening in the industry at any one time, of course there were also lads who wanted things doing. I recall Ivan Mauger rushing in with a sketch for a frame one Monday – he was testing it on a track by Thursday,” says Alf, as if it was something anyone could do.
“Vic Eastwood too had some ideas about a sheet alloy framed bike and we did a few of those in solo and sidecar form; Dutch rider Ton van Heughton was European champion on one of our alloy chassis Yamaha outfits,” he muses. Fellow East London businessman Don Smith also popped in: “Don had some great ideas about using Kawasaki engines for speedway and we did a bit of work on the project until it turned out Kawasaki didn’t know about it. I think Don got into a little bit of bother over that.”
During this period of working Alf got the reputation of being a bit of a problem solver for people. “I enjoyed being able to figure out what was wrong and offer a solution or two and we had people like Bob Leppan approaching us for frame advice,” he says.
Alf did it first – grass bikes on a hill climb.
Speedway formed amajor part of Alf’s sporting life.