‘Development’ at the BSA
“I saw an advert in the Birmingham Mail, requiring a personal assistant to the Chief Development Engineer, who was obviously Bert Perrigo, though I didn’t know that at the time. “Anyway, I got it and arrived to find out where to go. They said go to the Development Department and find a Mr Len Crisp. He was one of the original characters, sitting, like an ogre, behind a big desk. He lived in Coventry and came every day without fail on a sidecar outfit. It didn’t matter if there was 6ft of snow, he’d be there. So he had a look at me and said: ‘You don’t look like a clerk. What do you do then?’ So I gave him a resume of what I’d done and he says ‘Well funnily enough I can fix you up. If you want to I can get you some clothes and give you a bike to get you out on the road?’ I thought what the bloody hell is this? I’d applied for a job as assistant to Bert Perrigo, but thought I might as well go along with it and duly became a BSA Development Road Tester. Well, of course, you got paid for what you wanted to do anyway, riding bikes. The best job in the world!” To help things along he was already familiar with his workmate and future nemesis, from the film set of a low budget B-movie. Appropriately it had all taken place on three wheels. “They were making a film called the Black Rider and all the factories sent people. I had an Ariel square four with the biggest Watsonian sidecar you’ve ever seen, it was a bugger it really was. Chris (Vincent) was working for Norton’s at the time and he never went anywhere slowly. He was like a raving lunatic in those days and had a smash and wrote off his Norton completely. “The film stood us a big posh meal at a London Hotel. There were one or two cars
available but they couldn’t get everyone in, so they told me to take Chris. I was following one of the BSA works scramblers and I could not keep up with him on this square four. It meant rushing round islands at a fantastic rate of knots, with Chris banging around inside, with his neck in a collar. That’s when I first met Chris! “The next time around was when I joined BSA in Development, as a tester. We got to going around together and we had a wonderful time. His favourite trick was to find a road that he knew very well, so you couldn’t live with him, like the road from Meriden to Fillongley – very interesting, hard bends, over the brows of hills – and he’d be at the crossroads saying ‘where have you been, I’ve just had a cup of tea!’ So I went back and learned the roads and after that I stuck to him like glue!”
By this time Vincent was well ensconced at BSA, progressing from grasstrack to circuit racing with an increasing level of tacit approval. Brown, on the other hand, was competing in trials, until an ‘incident’ at the Wye Valley trial curtailed his further involvement and led, in a circuitous path, to his own debut on the track. “I was trundling around with Johnny Brittan. We had consecutive numbers and we arrived at one particularly nasty muddy thing and Johnny zoomed off on his Royal Enfield – and Johnny Brittan was a trials rider of some repute – and he got stuck. He got stuck good and proper and he failed! With my horrible big Ariel I cleaned it. The section, not the bike that is! And what happened in the results? I was down as failing it and Johnny Brittan was down as cleaning it. So I thought right I’m finished I aint riding in any more trials, which I didn’t. So I started scrambling, with moderate success.”
Out to grass
Marriage and, as Brown puts it: “The on-set of domesticity,” were contributory factors in a downturn in activities but an understanding wife led to some exploratory trials passenger-ing, with ex-u-boat cook Roman Ziel, and ultimately the purchase of an ex-dave Nourish grasstrack chassis. “I must have been getting objectionable as my wife said to me, ‘Go and buy yourself a motorcycle and start racing again!’ So I thought what shall I do? I know I’ll have a go on the grass, on an outfit! “I went to see Brian Martin, the BSA Competition Shop Manager, to tell him what I was up to and he said he had two A10 ex-international engines that hadn’t ever been used. He said ‘I don’t want them, you can have them,’ so I bought them for a tenner or something daft, and ended up being part of the Midland Centre Team, which won the ’64 National Sidecar Grass Track Championships. “Clive Bennett was also at BSA by this point and called me into the office – I was still on the road at the time – and he says: “Pete, time your fun and games is over. You’ve had a bloody good run but I want you in on the engine bench and I’d like you to take over the twins section with Graham Saunders. “So we were the BSA twin-cylinder team and coming along to ’65 we got commissions for doing engines for Terry Vinicombe, who wastom Kirby’s lad, while Chris was going to race in something called the Sidecar Race of the Year, at Mallory. So Graham and I got the job of building Chris’s engine, which we did and he rushes around and wins his heat and final.” Watching his engine win – he’d also built Hailwood’s Hutchinson 100 engine – was the spur Peter needed to change focus again. A £40 chassis from Bill Boddice’s front garden – which had once housed the abortive double Ariel Arrow – was the starting point, and chancing his arm he thought he’d try a direct approach to BSA again, when it came to sourcing an engine. “I went to see Bert Perrigo. I was very polite in those days and said since I’ve built this engine for Chris and since I’m going to start road racing if you could see your way clear to giving me some help I’d be very appreciative. This was the year after my grasstrack championship, so it obviously helped my machinations with Mr Perrigo. ‘What do you want?’ he says: ‘An engine? Well, I tell you what, you can have an engine, but you can’t work on it in work time. You can stay over, and work on it unpaid.’”
Though never Brown’s official sponsor – as was the case with Chris Vincent – Peter Chapman arranged entries and in the years to come he negotiated the money side of things, which was useful, as to quote Peter: “The people who organised these things were miserable b*****ds!” – his views on the organisation of the TT at the time are equally unprintable. However, Chapman’s assistance came with no small degree of pressure. “Around that time Mallory, Brands, Silverstone, the conglomerate, was running ‘Stars of the Future’ events. So Chapman said: ‘Now I’ve entered you in all of them, you’ve got to win ‘em!’ Well, I thought, hell, I’d never raced on the road. Thanks a lot! Whatever, the first one I won and the second. Then we went to Mallory Park and for the first time I was affected by ‘swill’. But I won that too, even though every time I went round Gerrards I was on one cylinder. Actually, I was a bit overawed at the end of 1965 because Chapman was on about getting me entries for this and that Grand Prix in 1966. I thought ‘I don’t think I’m ready for this?’ So I got entered by Fred Hanks in 1966, but went back to Chapman in 1967, as he was a businessman and knew how to negotiate with the course owners, as they were all trying to get something for nothing and paying peanuts. “Testing road bikes during the day and with plenty of off-road experience he was no novice, but to win first time out and be offered Grand Prix rides in his first full season was no mean feat. It made for a busy 1967 and his first race involvement provided a windfall of future spares. “These A50 Daytona engines came in, with special magnesium crankcases, and we built them as best we could. I remember Roy Bevis and Alan Preece also worked on them too, but it was me they sent to Daytona, which was excellent, except that it wasn’t. The crankcases were made out of what I can only describe as Gorgonzola cheese. I mean it. They were totally porous. The bearings fell out, they leaked oil and I was surrounded by this stuff, gluing them with all sorts of things, trying to get them back together, but for the life of me I can’t remember whether one ever finished. Shortly after the event boxes and boxes of dismembered engines came back into the ‘shop’, so I mooched through and got the best bits I could find and thought: ‘Why can’t this be a 650?’”
This was all a bit in the future, however, as 1967 was to be his second full season on the tarmac and more successful than 1966. “I went to the TT in 1966 with a 500 but it was a complete failure. I mustn’t have talked to the fairies properly. In 1967 on the very first lap the front brake, which was a 190mm Gold Star brake, exploded out at unions Mills and locked the front wheel and forks in a gentle right-hand curve. I ended up going up some old girl’s drive, who then gave us cups of tea and great big slices of fruit cake. “My main memory of the practice periods was the difficulty I had in using all of the road. For years, testing bikes at a fair lick for Ariel’s and then BSA, I subconsciously made sure that I kept to the left-hand half of the road whatever the bends. It took a real effort with the brain to let the outfit drift from gutter to gutter.”
Left: Peter Brown and GRG Webb at the 66 Mallory gold cup. The trophies did not match the effort put in (or the acheivement made). Right: Peter Brown’s 500 power chart – plenty of power coming in sharply.Below: Braddan Bridge, Isle of Man.
Below: Peter at the Victory Trial in February 1954Left: Norman Hanks leads Vincent with Peter pulling a tight line to get early drive out.
Above: Brown and Webb lead Meade and Reynolds at Mallory in 1966.Below: Peter at the Wye Valley Traders in 1954.