The Missing Crooks Suzuki
The story of a search that’s been ongoing in the hunt for a specific motorcycle from the ages.
Throughout the 1950s Eddie Crooks was an outstanding motorcycle sport competitor, with highlights that included three international six-day trial gold medals, a second place finish in the 1953 Junior Clubman’s TT and a Senior Manx Grand Prix victory in 1959. On retirement from racing in 1960, Eddie set up a motorcycle business in Barrow-in-Furness and was one of the first Suzuki dealerships in the United Kingdom. It was through Crooks Suzuki that Eddie became known as ‘Mr Suzuki’ in the UK. The Crooks Suzuki name gained much publicity through racing exploits which resulted in victories at the TT, Manx Grand Prix, Thruxton 500 miler, plus numerous national and international races. Through various conversations with people who worked closely with Jim Lee there was always a rumour that Jim had manufactured a racing bike for the Crooks Suzuki team. Jim Lee, from Birstall, West Yorkshire, was an amateur motorcycle racer himself in the 1950s, however he became best known for setting up Jim Lee Racing Components which manufactured all sorts of motorcycle accessories including aftermarket frames (see Classic Racer issue 156 for further details on Jim). The hearsay relating to Jim building a bike for Eddie Crooks was that the completed machine was taken to an important race meeting. However, when the existing Crooks Suzuki racing frame supplier saw the bike, he stated that it broke an agreement between him and Crooks and as such Eddie was not allowed to race the Jim Lee framed machine. It is well established that Jim Lee had links with Crooks Suzuki, for example Jim made the large capacity alloy fuel tanks which were used on their T20 and T500 TT racing motorcycles. These motorcycles went on to win the Lightweight Manx GP and 500cc production TT with Frank Whiteway riding. Sadly, no further details were forthcoming to confirm that Jim had manufactured a complete motorcycle for the Crooks team.
Fast forward to March 2010
An advertisement for the sale of a 500cc Jim Lee Suzuki appeared in Old Bike Mart. There was very little history on the bike, other than it had been bought from Keith Brown in the Nottinghamshire area by the current owner in 2005. After inspecting the bike it was apparent that both the frame and the bike as a whole were Jim Lee’s work. The Suzuki was clearly based on Jim Lee’s own spine framed Yamaha TR2B which was raced so successfully by Mick Grant in 1970/71. Jim Lee was Mick’s first sponsor and made a range of bikes for him to race. Perhaps the most successful of these was the Yamaha TR2B engined special built for the start of the 1970 season. This bike utilised an engine purchased from Padgetts which was housed in an unorthodox spine type frame manufactured by Jim. The main spine of the frame used a 3in diameter straight tube that passed between the steering head and swinging arm pivot. Initially Metal Profile forks and an ex-rob Fitton four leading-shoe Manx Norton brake were used, but for the 1971 season the front end was replaced. Modified Seeley forks were fitted, for which Jim fabricated a very distinctive top yoke and a single disc brake setup. The Lockheed hydraulics were boughtin components, but the hub and clamp used to anchor the disc caliper to the fork leg were made in-house by Geoff Thorne. These changes made a big improvement to overall performance of the machine, with the Mick Grant/jl Yamaha becoming the top ‘special’ in the country at the time. A 7th place in the Junior TT, followed by a stunning 2nd behind John Cooper at the Post TT Mallory meeting in which he beat the works Yamahas, showed they were a serious force to be reckoned with. The season was finished off with 16 consecutive wins at national and club level. Based on this success, Jim placed an advertisement, offering to make similar spine frame kits for other interested parties. Put simply, if someone really wanted to make the best available special, they would be hard pushed to do better than this. Jim also had considerable experience with large diameter or spine tubed frames by now, the Drainpipe Dunstall Norton designed by Eddie Robinson and built by Jim in 1969 had also achieved an enviable reputation in the hands of riders such as Ray Pickrell and Ken Redfern. Looking in detail at the Suzuki, it is clear that it was built for the 1971 season. So many of the updates and improvements made to Jim’s own Yamaha were also incorporated into this machine. Most noticeable is the later front end. Jim’s top yoke was unusual in that it was fabricated from Reynolds 531 tubing that had been swaged to an oval section. The yoke is considerably dropped which was required due to the length of steering heads used on later JL frames. Seeley forks and the JL hydraulic disc brake conversion completed
the front end. The rear brake and hub are modified Suzuki components, virtually all other components being manufactured by Jim Lee. The petrol tank was of the earlier design used by Jim on all manner of bikes at that time, including his own 1970 JL Yamaha and Crooks Suzuki T500 production racers. A photograph seen of when the bike was ‘found’ in 2002 shows a high-back Daytona Suzuki type seat fitted to the machine, although this had recently been replaced with a copy of the later JL type. It also showed the bike fitted with small volume, unsilenced expansion boxes of a type that were used on the early 1970s Crooks racers. In this photograph the bike had a right-hand gear change, although this had subsequently also been swapped. The frame design, geometry and detail are almost identical to that used in the JL Yamaha. However, to house a T500 engine some modifications were required, the engine being considerably larger and heavier than the Yamaha unit used in the original design. As the engine is also taller, the front duplex down-tubes were moved forward and less splayed apart as they had to fit between the Suzuki exhaust ports. On a T500 the inlet ports and carburettors are angled towards the centre-line of the machine and the main spine had to be scalloped to clear both the bell-mouths and chamber tops. The main spine also acts as an oil reservoir for the Posi-force auto-lube system. Finally the off-side engine mountings are clamped to the frame and can be turned to one side, enabling the engine to be removed. The current engine fitted is based on a Suzuki T500 unit, but has a number of TR500 parts fitted including heads, pistons and ignition system. Other modifications include the fitting of later cast-iron liner cylinder barrels modified to give TR port timings. The timing-side engine cover had been reduced in width to improve ground clearance, as the generator was no longer required. Straight cut primary drive gears and a close ratio gearbox were also included in the build. The bike is unusual in that Jim and his team clearly built the complete racing motorcycle around a supplied engine, at their premises in Birstall. When looking at the chassis and cycle parts it is obvious that the bike was built as a ‘one-off’ and with little regard to cost. This implies the person who commissioned the bike was a serious racer and had access to both considerable funds and the necessary Suzuki engine and parts. As the very successful Yamaha TR2B engine was by now far easier to obtain, it also suggests there was an alternative reason why it had to be a Suzuki. One can also assume there was a desire to race in the Senior 500cc class and in that they would be successful against an aging grid of Manx and G50 machines. In talking with Neil Procter-blain who worked with Jim Lee at the time, he clearly remembered working on the chassis and how awkward it was getting the engine to fit. He also remembered that the bike was commissioned “by a big Suzuki outfit on the coast”, but sadly could not confirm who.
Fast forward to 2015
A collection of photographs from the early 1970s were individually listed on ebay. One of these images was captioned as the ‘Jim Lee Yamaha’, although there were no other details given. It was listed amongst a group of photographs that were clearly taken in the TT paddock. For the JL Yamaha to be at the TT was not unusual in itself, as it finished successfully in both the 1970 and 1971 Junior races. What was unusual and initially caught the eye was the length of the expansion chambers. These extended to virtually the edge of the rear tyre, whereas generally 350cc Yamaha tailpipes would finish level with the rear wheel spindle. Further investigation of the image revealed that a Suzuki rear hub was fitted to the machine; it then became apparent that this was not the JL Yamaha at all. This was confirmed by the black numbers on the light coloured background, it had to be the Senior or 500cc class. The seat and fairing were both unusual in shape and unlike anything manufactured and supplied by Jim. The petrol tank was clearly Jim Lee and likewise the spine frame. Without a doubt it was the JL Suzuki. In studying the racing numbers on the machines shown in this and many of the other photographs listed on ebay, it became apparent they were all taken in the paddock at the 1972 TT. The stickers on, and the fairing itself also had a tale to tell. The fairing was painted in the same team colours and had the same Shell sponsorship and many of the stickers as the rest of the Crooks Suzuki entries. Even the sticker on the petrol tank appears to be the remaining half of a Crooks Suzuki decal. But without a doubt, it was the Lamplas stickers that generated the most interest. Lamplas were producers of glass fibre and plastic products and were based at Consett in the northeast. The firm was owned by Les Siddle, a keen racing motorcyclist and along with ‘Geordie’ Bell and Eddy Johnson, was a founder member of the NE Motorcycle Racing Club. Lamplas supplied the distinctive fairings with the hand cutaways and the square seat units to Eddie Crooks that were used on both this and the Stan Woods machines in 1972. The pieces of the jigsaw were beginning to fall into place. Another previously recorded detail suddenly springs to mind. In a conversation with Fred Broadbent who raced a Jim Lee framed Norton Commando in 1971, it was mentioned that Eddy Johnson of Newcastle also raced a JL bike at some point in the early 70s. Eureka! The programme from the 1972 Senior TT lists Eddy Johnson as rider number 57 and as such he is clearly the man to talk to. Eddy Johnson had been racing since 1958 and in 1969 purchased a second-hand TR250 from Eddie Crooks. He raced the bike with considerable success and was entered under the Crooks Suzuki banner in both the Lightweight and Junior classes at the 1969 TT. The bike was sold in 1970 as Eddy retired from racing to take over the family business. This business was eventually sold to Thorn EMI and in 1972 Eddy returned home to Tyneside and decided to start racing once more. Again he approached Eddie Crooks and this time was offered the Jim Lee framed 500 Suzuki that Crooks had commissioned. Eddy bought the bike in parts from Eddie Crooks in 1972. It was a complete bike that had been fully stripped and he bought it
home from Barrow-in-furness in his wife’s car. He picked it up in early April and it took two months to rebuild and prepare for the TT. It had the minimum of testing at a Croft practice session and in a single race at the same venue, before heading off for the IOM. He was entered in the Senior 500cc race and stayed with Eddie Crooks at his mother’s and shared their garage facilities. Eddy said the JL framed bike handled beautifully at the TT, in complete contrast to the standard Suzuki framed “water-buffalo of the Crooks production racers” which bucked and dived at every turn. Unfortunately during the second lap of the race, a wire to the battery broke along the Cronk Y Voddy straight and he coasted to a halt. A marshal rushed across and noticed the severed wire, but insisted that no outside help could be given. A penknife from the assembled crowd was thrown to the ground in front of Eddy and he made good a repair. On returning to his pit at the end of the lap to refuel, he found his crew missing. Geordie Bell who was helping him that day had heard that Eddy had broken down and retired himself to the pub! In the end Peter Padgett in the adjoining pit filled him up and off he went to continue the race, but the time lost in both incidents contributed to his poor finishing result of 34th. The bike was raced at the Cadwell Park International in September of that year, but Eddy considered it uncompetitive on the short circuits against the all-conquering Yamahas. It was eventually sold in 1973 to ‘Big’ Frank Kennedy, one of the ‘Armoy Armada’ whom Eddy had met at the UGP earlier in the year. After seeing a photograph, Frank came over on the ferry from Northern Ireland to collect the bike and paid Eddy in cash with one pound notes! Frank’s brother Bill was able to shed some light onto the history of the Suzuki whilst it was in Northern Ireland. He recalled that the bike was “never the most reliable”, but Frank raced it until towards the end of 1975 with the Ulster Grand Prix being the last time he rode it. Unfortunately, there are currently no pictures or further race details of the bike in Frank’s hands, so if any reader could provide any more information it would be much appreciated. It is believed that the bike returned to the mainland, as Frank was over every week at motor auctions. The only other later references for a Jim Lee Suzuki 500 comes in a few meetings at Croft in 1976 entered by T L Clough of Lancaster.
2018 and conclusions
We still have not covered the fundamental question: what did the JL Suzuki have to do with Team Crooks? Come 2018 and an interesting period photo is obtained in a collection of racing related photographs. To our surprise one bike is readily identifiable in Crooks Suzuki livery – the Jim Lee Suzuki. No details of the meeting are available, but by looking at other photos in the collection and by referencing old programmes, it is clear that the meeting is the 1971 Mallory Park ‘Race of the Year’ September International. Looking at the programme, in the Senior race there are only two people entered on 500cc Suzukis; The first is Barry Sheene, the second is Crooks rider Stan Woods.
Further examination of the photo shows that a Fontana drum brake is fitted instead of the Jim Lee disc brake that was used on the bike in 1972. It is apparent that the Fontana drum brake has been hastily fitted, as chain links are utilised to allow the brake to be used with its existing cables, which were most likely taken off another machine as a pair. It begs the question, why would a drum brake be hastily fitted instead of the superior Jim Lee disc brake? Looking at other Crooks Suzuki machines that Stan Woods rode it is apparent that this brake setup was his preference (e.g. machine used in the 1972 International Formula 750cc race at the TT). What we cannot currently say for certain is if Stan Woods and the Crooks team raced the bike at the 1971 Mallory ‘Race of the Year’, or whether it was just practiced. There is still a further question though; why after placing an order with Jim, supplying the Suzuki engine and parts and then waiting for the bike to be made, did they likely only use the bike on the one occasion? History shows this is the period that it would have been at its most competitive. It also shows Crooks and Suzuki were generally struggling with the handling of the standard framed bikes when fitted with a tuned or TR500 spec engine. There must be an explanation as to why it was not used. One thing is apparent, Eddie Crooks and Jim Lee did not have a falling out over the issues surrounding the JL Suzuki. Jim went on supplying tanks for both the T500 production racer and the Crooks Suzuki trials bike that was introduced a few years later. Clearly the problem was not between those two. One must say all the above add substance to the earlier hearsay, in that Eddie Crooks was not allowed to race the bike. I guess we will never have the definitive answer.
Above: Jim Lee Suzuki chassis during restoration. (Jim Lee archive)Below: Jim Lee Suzuki following restoration. (Jim Lee archive)
The photo from ebay; Jim Lee Suzuki in the paddock at the 1972 TT. (Jim Lee archive)
1972 Senior TT entry list
Picture found in 2018 showing the Jim Lee Suzuki at the 1971 Mallory Park ‘Race of the Year’. (Jim Lee archive)
Above: Eddy and Geordie in the pits at the 1972 TT. (Eddy Johnson archive) Left: Stan Woods
Top: JL Suzuki and Yamaha back at home at the old Birstall factory with Jim’s son Rob. (Jim Lee archive)
Above: 1971 Mallory Park Race of the Year September International.