A World Champion within four seasons! To say that Mike Hailwood burst upon the motorcycle scene in 1957 would hardly be an exaggeration...
Bruce Cox charts the history (and the circumstances) around the motorcycles that carried the exquisite skill-set of Mike Hailwood through his travails. That includes something Mike’s father did that ultimately caused Mike a great deal of embarrassment.
In an age when all but the factory team racers transported their bikes to meetings in small vans, on trailers and even on motorcycle sidecar outfits, Mike’s bikes arrived in a large bus-sized transporter. Emblazoned across its sides were the chequered flag emblem of his personal ‘team’ – Ecurie Sportive – and the slogan “For the Love of the Sport”.then, as if that was not eye-catching enough, there was also a script above the windscreen telling the folks at the paddock gates: “Here Come Mike’s Bikes”! That was because his millionaire father, Stan, immediately applied the same colourful approach to the racing career of his son as he did to the motorcycle sales businesses that had made him rich. He followed the Ecurie Sportive transporter in his Bentley Continental with his shy teenage son hunkered down with embarrassment in the front seat, but that was the way that ‘Stan the Wallet’ (as he was soon nicknamed by the paddock wits of the time) did business. Embarrassed or not, it was up to Mike to live up to the hype. Live up to it he did – and this, combined with his polite and diffident personality, soon won over any critics who might at first have regarded him as a spoiled little rich boy. At Oulton Park on April 22, 1957, Mike finished a creditable 11th in his first race, riding a 125cc MV Agusta, and his first win came less than two months after his debut. On June 10 that year, he won with his MV Agusta 125 on the fast and dangerous course that used the roads of the Army camp at Blandford in Dorset. In the 32 years that followed, Mike raced no fewer than 42 different types of motorcycle for 18 different brands and either won or at least scored ‘top three’ podium paces with most of them. Surely, a record that is unlikely ever to be equalled? Mike started racing with Italian bikes in the
lightweight classes, including a tiny 50cc twostroke Itom on which he finished third at the same Blandford meeting where he scored his first win with the MV 125. Then there came a second place with the Itom at Oulton Park in August. He only rode the little 50 twice, however, and the most significant bikes that set him quickly on the path to success were both from MV Agusta. Cecil Sandford, one of Britain’s first world champions had won the 1952 125cc championship for MV and this win was followed by five more titles for the Italian Carlo Ubbiali between 1955 and 1960. The works racers that achieved those successes used single-cylinder, double overhead-camshaft engines whereas Mike’s first MV was the single overhead-camshaft ‘production’ racer offered for sale to privateer riders. Nevertheless, this ‘customer’ model proved more than good enough to win many races for Mike and many others. The other lightweight MV Agusta with which Mike was equipped for his first season was the 175cc Super Sport model with which Italian riders in the 1950s contested the great public road races like the ‘one lap of Italy’ Motogiro d’italia and the Milano-taranto race in which riders raced down almost the whole length of the Italian peninsula. Introduced in 1955, the Super Sport 175 was interesting in that it used the swingingarm front forks patented by British engineer Ernie Earles, and made famous by their use on the big BMW street bikes of the era. The Super Sport’s engine differed from the pure racers by having the single overheadcamshaft drive train and valve gear concealed in a tunnel within the cooling fins of the cylinder and cylinder head as this made for more suitable styling for what was essentially a sporty little road bike. In Britain, these engines were usually bored-out to their maximum possible 203cc capacity and used with success in the 250cc class by riders such as Mike O’rourke, Derek Minter and, of course, the young Mike Hailwood, who notably used his to win a national race at Crystal Palace in the south London suburbs. Prior to that meeting, he had raced both the 203 and the 125 MVS to a ‘double first’ in a Wirral 100 club meeting on the tight little Rhydymwyn circuit in North Wales. The track was only 16 feet wide and wound between the storage bunkers of an old Army depot. Only many years after racing had ceased there, and Government information restrictions lifted, was it revealed that the depot had once been the site of chemical weapons production! After Mike’s successful debut year, the competitive bikes just kept on arriving at the Ecurie Sportive workshops – along with an ever-increasing amount of silverware for the display cabinet in the Hailwood home. In 1958, Mike emphatically confirmed his talent by winning three ACU Stars – which were the equivalent of season-long British Championships. He took these in the 125cc, 250cc and 350cc classes, having added a Manx Norton to his bikes in the smaller categories. Not surprisingly, this earned him the Pinhard Prize, an annual award for the greatest achievement in any branch of motorcycle sport by a rider under 21. That season he finished third in the Lightweight 250cc TT on the Isle of Man and teamed with another young rider, Dan Shorey, to win the Thruxton 500 Miles endurance race on a 650cc Triumph Tiger 110.
Dan hailed from Banbury, only 30 miles or so from Hailwood’s Oxfordshire home, and he had worked with Mike at the Triumph motorcycle factory. Both teenagers had been apprentices there because their motorcycle dealer fathers (who were both Triumph agents) had wanted their sons to gain some hands-on experience. Dan won the Pinhard Prize himself in 1959, winning many races on the ex-hailwood MV Agusta that he purchased when Mike moved on to other marques. He went on to be one of Britain’s best racers on both the UK short circuits and in international Grands Prix with his own Manx Nortons. The stint at Triumph obviously helped Dan as he maintained his own machines throughout his successful 15-year career. On the other hand, it obviously had the opposite effect on Mike who probably never laid a spanner on a bike ever again! Mike’s career path had an even steeper upward trajectory than Dan’s and he closed out the 1950s by winning all four ACU Stars in 1959 – 125cc, 250cc, 350cc and 500cc. Though 1958 was only his second season in racing, Mike had already proved himself ready to move on to the international stage and father Stan’s wallet was always open when it came to providing his son with the best possible chance of a race win. This is why Mike’s debut entry for the 1958 Isle of Man TT (run on the seven mile Clypse road circuit rather than the almost 37.75 miles of the Mountain Course) was at the last minute changed from his MV Agusta to a name previously unheard of. The Paton was the Italian creation of former FB Mondial chief mechanic Giuseppe Patoni and the famous designer of several successful racing motorcycles, Lino Tonti. The FB Mondial machines had won several world titles in the 1950s but, along with Gilera and Moto Guzzi, the company had quit the racing scene in 1957. Patoni and Tonti did not want to let their combined talents go to waste so came up with a neat little double-overhead camshaft singlecylinder 125 that drew on what Giuseppe had learned at Mondial but which had several improvements over the original. Stan Hailwood reasoned that the pedigree of the new Paton twin-cam 125 meant that it had to be a better bet than the single overhead-camshaft ‘customer’ version of the MV Agusta that Mike had been using – so out came that famous wallet. Mike did full justice to the purchase and in his debut at the Isle of Man TT he finished seventh, beaten only by factory machines from MV, Ducati and MZ. In 1958, Mike also moved on to a different 250. The most effective machine for the privateer rider in that class during the mid to late 1950s was without doubt the Sportmax model offered by the German NSU company. By the time of the TT Mike had swapped his MV Agusta for one of these single-cylinder racers and used it to take third place in the 250cc Lightweight race. It was only his second ride on the Isle of Man, just a couple of days after his seventh place in the 125cc race. He could hardly have had a better debut TT week. The Sportmax had belonged to John Surtees, who had ridden it to victory in many races in the mid-1950s. When it became superfluous to requirements after he had joined the MV Agusta factory team, he did a deal with Stan Hailwood for Mike to borrow it. According to John, he really did not want to sell it but Stan worked on the principle that possession is nine-tenths of the law and simply refused to give it back! Using the argument that John didn’t need it anymore whereas Mike did need a competitive 250, Stan allegedly just opened that famous wallet and kept taking cash out of it until John felt that there was enough money on the table and scooped it up. The 1959 season was only Mike’s third year in racing and he was already by then rated as undeniably the best rider in Britain. Much of this was down to his father continually shopping around for the best bikes in Mike’s early days and paying the best people to prepare them, but the best bikes are no good unless the rider is talented. Mike surely was and, in addition, he would think nothing of riding in four classes at a single meeting – 125, 250, 350 and 500cc. Therefore, offers
of machinery kept on rolling in from factory teams all the way through his career because of his prodigious talent and his eminently likeable and highly promotable personality. Encouraged by Mike’s TT performances in 1958, Stan next purchased two of the 1957 FB Mondial world championship-winning 250cc racers for 1959. Cecil Sandford had won the world title for Mondial in 1957 and then the company pulled out of racing while at the top. Stan, however, persuaded Mondial that its twin overhead camshaft 250 single could still be competitive in privateer hands in 1959 and Mike proved that was very much the case with a great ride in the Lightweight TT. Having overtaken the MV Agusta factory team riders, Carlo Ubbiali and Tarquinio Provini, he was leading the race until the Mondial’s engine quit with less than two laps of the seven-mile Clypse course to go. After this, the Mondials provided Mike with numerous wins on the British short circuits but there was another Italian name on the scene that was eventually to become indelibly and forever linked with that of Mike Hailwood. During the 1950s, Stan Hailwood had become the British importer for an Italian marque that had joined the international racing scene in 1956 – the now-familiar name of Ducati. Late in 1958, Mike rode one of the 125cc GP overhead-camshaft singles with success on the UK short circuits and in 1959 joined Italian riders Bruno Spaggiari and Alberto Gandossi and the Swiss star, Luigi Taveri, riding 125cc twins on the factory team. It was not, however, a happy Grand Prix season for Ducati in 1959 as there were all kinds of mechanical problems with its new twin-cylinder machines. There was only one Grand Prix victory for Ducati that season and that was when Mike got one of the singlecylinder ‘second string’ bikes home first in the Ulster GP. This was one of the new ’desmo’ models in which the usual valve return springs were done away with and the valves were both opened and closed by a mechanical system using triple overhead camshafts. It is a system now synonymous with Ducati, of course. Disillusioned with racing after its lack of success, and hit by a recession in the sales of road bikes, Ducati quit racing at the end of 1959 and sold off the ‘desmos’ to the former team riders. Mike used his to dominate the 125cc class in British short circuit racing in both 1960 and 1961, including winning the ‘single race’ British Championship at Oulton Park in each of those years. During the final season of its initial foray into racing, Ducati had been nothing but ambitious. As well as its 125cc singles and twins, the factory had also built a 125cc four-cylinder racer plus 250 and 350cc twins. It was rumoured that Stan Hailwood actually financed the factory development of the twins with Mike in mind. If that was the case, then it was one of the few times when Stan’s money was not well spent as both the 250 and 350 Ducati twins were still little more than prototype machines when they joined the Hailwood stable and lack of factory development meant that they were only destined for failure. Mike had no notable success with the Ducati twins in 1960, although he was still a winner with the faithful three-year-old Mondial. By 1961, Mike Hailwood had become one of the first British riders to ride for Honda, the Japanese factory whose twins and fourcylinder machines were beginning to eclipse the Italian and German opposition in the smaller capacity classes. In June 1961, using a Honda 125cc twin and a 250cc four along with a 500cc Manx Norton, Mike became the only man in the history of the Isle of Man TT during its world championship years to win three races in one week. He rode the Honda twin to win the 125cc Ultra-lightweight races and one of the factory’s fours to take the 250cc Lightweight class victory. Then, on the final day of TT racing that year, he made history by winning the Senior TT with the Norton. Amazingly, it could have been even better.
Earlier in the week, Mike had lost the chance of winning all four solo class races when his 350 AJS 7R failed with a broken piston pin while holding a comfortable lead. At the end of the season, if anyone really needed any proof that Mike was one of the best riders in the world, he won the 1961 250cc world championship for Honda even though he was not a full factory rider but got the bikes in a deal brokered by the UK importer. Rather surprisingly, considering his 1961 125/250 TT double and world 250c title Mike was not offered a full factory contract by Honda for the following season either. The Japanese factory was content to stick with its established team riders, the Rhodesian Jim Redman, Australian Tom Phillis and the Swiss, Luigi Taveri. Quite possibly, Honda’s decision was coloured by the fact that Hailwood had also acquired a factory ride in the bigger capacity classes by signing with MV Agusta to take over the 1962 riding duties of the Italian factory’s previously all-conquering 350 and 500cc fours after Gary Hocking moved on to car racing. Honda, of course, had its own plans for those classes, especially the 350cc category from 1962 onwards, The MV fours had previously taken John Surtees to seven world titles (three in the 350cc class and four in the 500cc category) between 1956 and 1960 and Gary Hocking to a 350/500 world championship double in 1961. Mike went on to go one step better than Surtees in the 500cc class and in 1965 became the first rider to win four consecutive world titles for MV Agusta in that premier category. In 1957, here had been a gap in Surtees’ string of 500cc successes when he and MV were beaten by Libero Liberati and Gilera to the World Championship. For the 1962 Isle of Man 250cc TT, Mike went back to Italian machinery and rode a twin-overhead camshaft Benelli entered by well-connected Cheshire dealer Fron Purslow. He was lying fourth behind the Honda fours of Derek Minter, Jim Redman and Tom Phillis until its engine gave up the unequal struggle. This was even after the bike’s fairing had come loose, causing Mike to stop and have it removed.
He then restarted and continued flat on the tank of the now-naked bike in hot pursuit of the Hondas. All to no avail as his pursuit of the Japanese fours overstressed the Benelli’s single cylinder engine. Apart from the 50cc Itom in his earliest days, Mike rarely rode any two-stroke racers during his Grand Prix career but there were a couple of notable exceptions. In 1959, he rode one of the East German MZ 250cc rotary valve singles at Monza in the Italian GP (always termed the ‘Grand Prix of Nations’ in those days). He finished ninth and was impressed enough with the little bike to return to the team and ride both 125 and 250cc machines on odd occasions in the years to come. The MZ, of course, was the brainchild of the legendary Walter Kaaden – the father of modern racing two-strokes who was the genius that first fully exploited the use of expansion chamber exhaust pipes and booster ports in the cylinder walls. These altered the pressure waves of the exhaust gases and thereby maximised the flow of the fuel/air charge through the two-stroke’s cylinders. In 1962, Mike returned to MZ and in the East German 250cc GP, urged on by some 200,000 frantic home fans, he used the team’s two-stroke twin to hound the fourcylinder Honda of Jim Redman all the way to the chequered flag, eventually finishing just two-tenths of a second behind in a photo finish. A year later, he returned to the Sachsenring with MZ and this time won the 250cc East German Grand Prix to send the massive crowd delirious with joy at the home team victory. Two years previously, in 1961, Mike had also formed an association with another two-stroke guru, Dr Joe Erlich – an Austrian engineer working with the De Havilland aircraft company in the UK. He rode Erlich’s single-cylinder 125 (which closely resembled the MZ) to a couple of Grand Prix fourth places in Spain and France and in the next season repeated those placings in Spain (again) and Belgium. Finally, he used the EMC to take him to the third step on the podium in the West German GP. Back in the bigger classes, by 1962 the
heavy old four-cylinder 350cc MV Agusta was getting too long in the tooth to dominate as it had done in the days of Surtees and Hocking. Essentially it was just the 500cc bike with a smaller engine and, as such, even with Hailwood on board it was consistently out-sped over the four seasons from 1962 through 1965 by the lighter and more nimble Honda four – a bike that had arrived in the 350cc category via the diametrically opposite route of being expanded from a successful 250. MV Agusta came out with a lighter, more compact three-cylinder 350 that would challenge the Hondas in 1965 but it was a bike destined more for use by MV Agusta’s new kid on the block, Giacomo Agostini, rather than as a payback for Mike’s sterling service in fighting losing battles on the hefty old 350cc four. Ago was the answer to Count Agusta’s dream of seeing an Italian winning on his red and silver racers so it is hardly surprising that he became Agusta’s ‘special one’ once he had showed his potential. During 1965, when his MV Agusta Grand Prix commitments allowed, Mike also entered selected UK events riding for the team run by Essex motorcycle dealer, Tom Kirby, on Matchless G50 and AJS 7R machines. Essentially these were the factory team bikes of the Associated Motorcycles Group, the parent company of those two marques, Kirby was also a BSA dealer and entered Mike in the 1965 Hutchinson 100 Production race at the Silverstone on a BSA Lightning Clubman. The ‘Hutch’ was one of the main production races of the season and, therefore, very important for manufacturers looking to establish a performance image for their current models. In heavy rain, Mike won the race from Phil Read on a Triumph Bonneville. Back at MV Agusta, Mike got his hands on the 350cc triple in 1965 but mostly had to make do with the hefty old ‘four’. So at the end of the season, after ironically using the triple to win the final 350cc Grand Prix of the year on Honda’s own circuit at Suzuka, Mike did the logical thing. He stayed on in Japan to sign for Honda and so rejoined the Japanese factory for which he had won the 250cc world title in 1961.
Mike Hailwood storms round the Scarborough circuit in 1957 on his 175cc MV Agusta.
Stan (left) provided more than a few bank notes to aid his son’s career.
Mike Hailwood on The Mountain Mile 1959 Juniortt.
Hailwood, 125cc Ducati, leads 1959 mass start TT.
Left: Hailwood wins 1961 Race Of Year, Mallory (Norton).
Above: John Surtees and Mike Hailwood push off 1961 TT.
Mike Hailwood made it a triple during his memorable TT week of 1961.
Below: Mike’s Arter Matchless won the Race of Aces, 1964.
Left: Historymaker Hailwood on his way to winning the 1961 Senior TT.
Right: Next year, another win – Mike en route to the 1962 Senior TT on his MV.
Left: Mike guides the 350 AJS to victory at Brands Hatch in 1964.
Back on board – Mike Hailwood on his MV 500 won the 1965 TT despite crashing and remounting.