… the Spanish made trials bikes.
The elder statesman of trials journalism relates the life and times of the Spanish and Italian motorcycle factories.
I've been asked more than a few times what it was like ‘back in the day’ at the old Spanish trials factories. First of all, I'm not actually THAT old, thanks for asking, and in any case you'd get a much better story from the chaps who were actually there. Sammy is almost too obvious – Dave Thorpe would be a great place to start if you are looking for unlikely stories and don't mind sore ribs from laughing. I once rode all day with Dave one day at the Scottish, and I'm still laughing now!
What we all want to hear, of course, is that the Spanish motorcycle industry of the Sixties and Seventies was a bucolic throwback, with bikes built in backstreet sheds by swarthy, oily, gnarled engineers of the old school, fingernails black as axle grease, chain smoking rough, skinny, foul-smelling roll-ups. They then took long, leisurely lunches in the yard, casually lobbing empty wine bottles on to a slowly growing mountain of glass, while noisily, and with lots of arm-waving gesticulations, discussing the merits of Vesty, Mart, Rat, Magical, Soler, Thorpey, Rob Edwards and co.
And there's no way I'm going to spoil that lovely image.
Birks did fill me in on one tit-bit from a long ago visit to Barcelona, saying: "I used to wonder why no two Montesas handled the same until I saw the frames being built. They were built fine, hand welded in a nice sturdy jig – until each one was finished, when it was removed from the jig and, with the joints still cooling, casually lobbed the length of the workshop into a growing pile..."
I did visit Montesa in the early Eighties, just after Honda had taken over, for a model launch and the harsh truth is it really was not a happy place. Resentment seethed from the old-school workers and the smiles were very much fixed as the latest machine was unveiled and then it was off to lunch.
The divide was even greater away from the factory with the handful of Japanese personnel sat on their own being ignored by the indigenous staff. I foolishly enquired to a Spanish boss how much input Honda had in the latest model and was dismissed with a terse, "What do they know about trials!"
It was actually all rather sad, a way of life was, clearly, ended forever.
Things couldn't have been more different in Italy round about the same time, when I spent a week skipping between the Fantic and SWM factories in Milan, in between the Italian and Austrian world rounds.
Fantic was an awesome set-up, a brand new factory from the ground up, although effectively only an assembly plant as most components were bought in. The stores department was fully computer controlled – space age stuff at the time – and full to bursting.
The best bit was the competition department, though; there was no messing around, factory bikes, straight from the world round, were put on benches and anything they wanted they got. Problem with the forks? Just stick a new set in. Problem solved. Next.
SWM was very different – and I couldn't really see how the economics stacked up. Then again, in the trials world the economics seldom do stack up! The production facility was a small, new-build shed which seemed sparsely manned and only appeared to contain enough parts to build half a dozen bikes at a time. It was eerily quiet.
In contrast their competition department was an old building in town, full of character – and teemed with mechanics. Half were working on enduro bikes, the other half on trials models – and the place was absolutely buzzing! It was like a crazy contest between the trials and enduro camps as to how much new stuff they could swap on to their mounts. It was all done in the most Italian way imaginable with lots of manic arm-waving, shouting and throwing things around.
Going back to Spain, the original Gas Gas set-up was very close to our Sixties vision. The original prototype Halley models were actually built in a tiny corner – and I mean tiny – of a warehouse.
The vision of Narcis Casas and Joseph Pibernat, there was a very real feeling of family in the Gas Gas works. Everyone was on first name terms, all lived and breathed trials and most of the workforce appeared to be there 24/7.
In the Nineties they staged an annual party where they just pulled a wagon load of brand new bikes off the production line and everyone present had a fabulous time trialling in the woods, followed by a monumental party with bottles piling up in the corner. They ran out of trials bikes so I blagged a Pampera – on road tyres – and everyone fell about laughing shouting, "English rides trials on slicks...!"
It was, if you closed your eyes, not a million miles from our image of a Sixties Spanish trials factory... Happy days indeed.
It was all done in the most Italian way imaginable with lots of manic arm-waving, shouting and throwing things around