Best of Bri­tish

Classic Trial - - CONTENTS - Words: Yoomee • Pic­tures: Yoomee Ar­chive, Mor­ton’s Ar­chive,Alan Vines , Mal­colm Car­ling


A man with pas­sion and drive was much needed in the Bri­tish mo­tor­cy­cle in­dus­try in the 1960’s, a live wire to re­ju­ve­nate the ail­ing and once proud man­u­fac­tur­ers of com­pe­ti­tion ma­chines and Frank Hip­kin was that man. He knew it was a time for change well be­fore Sammy Miller started the trend with the Span­ish man­u­fac­tured Bul­taco in 1965. This tal­ented, larger than life char­ac­ter of a man al­most sin­gle-hand­edly dragged the en­tire es­tab­lished tri­als in­dus­try into the twen­ti­eth century with his ideas and pas­sion to build his own ma­chines which would even­tu­ally carry the Sprite name. In the early days he would spend any spare time in his cob­bled to­gether shed build­ing his own Hip­kin com­pe­ti­tion spe­cials on which he would then com­pete get­ting a mas­sive ‘buzz’ from beat­ing the masspro­duced com­pe­ti­tion ma­chines of the time.

Frank Hip­kin and his busi­ness part­ner Fred Evans were time served plumbers but their back­grounds, like so many oth­ers, started from their in­ter­est in any­thing me­chan­i­cal. Hip­kin soon learned more out­side of his trade about pipe-fit­ting and weld­ing.

His first com­pe­ti­tion in­ter­est came in the early six­ties when he was an up and com­ing scram­bler and he won the AMCA 250cc Cham­pi­onship from 1958-1961.

As a club­man scram­bler and oc­ca­sional tri­als rider of some talent he soon be­came no­ticed when he took over a run-down mo­tor­cy­cle deal­er­ship in Handsworth, Birm­ing­ham with the idea of spe­cial­is­ing in buy­ing and sell­ing sec­ond-hand com­pe­ti­tion mo­tor­cy­cles.

Be­fore the ad­vent of the Sprite name in early 1964, many rid­ers had seen his ‘home brewed’ spe­cials that he had been per­suaded to build for his friends who could also test them be­fore pur­chas­ing them. These were all Bri­tish ma­chines us­ing the best parts in­clud­ing mod­i­fied Cot­ton frames and Nor­ton forks and in the en­gine depart­ment Al­pha crankshafts and Greeves cylin­ders, etc.

Other com­pa­nies such as the Rick­man broth­ers with their Metisse ma­chines and in later years com­pa­nies such as Was­sel and Dales­man would fol­low this same style of pro­duc­ing off-road com­pe­ti­tion ma­chines with donor en­gines and com­po­nents.

Hip­kin’s ma­chines had not been seen out­side his small cir­cle of mo­tor­cy­cle en­thu­si­asts but they soon would be. From that sim­ple back street busi­ness, Hip­kin’s en­ter­prise in those early years took off like a rocket to the moon and in a mere two years he be­came the man­u­fac­turer and sup­plier of more light­weight tri­als ma­chines than any other man­u­fac­turer in the UK, proudly bear­ing the Sprite name.

1965: Har­vey Lloyd North­ern Ex­perts, Robin­sons Rocks – 250cc Sprite.

1966: Har­vey Lloyd Winsford Cen­tre Event – 250cc.

1966: Den­nis Jones Vic Brit­tain – 250cc.

1967: Frame Kit Brochure

for the Vil­liers En­gines.

1967: Frame Kit Brochure for the Tri­umph Tiger

Cub En­gines.

Kit Form Ma­chines

In his early busi­ness years Frank showed lit­tle of his hid­den talent for in­no­va­tion as he pushed his busi­ness ideas for­ward. Mo­tor­cy­cles, in­clud­ing com­pe­ti­tion ma­chines, were sup­plied by long es­tab­lished man­u­fac­tur­ers who sold their prod­ucts through equally long es­tab­lished deal­er­ships. You must try to imag­ine the ‘boom’ time for mo­tor­cy­cles af­ter the war and there were many large deal­er­ships who were dis­trib­u­tors for the Bri­tish man­u­fac­tured ma­chines which dom­i­nated the world of mo­tor­cy­cle pro­duc­tion.

Based on this busi­ness plan the mid­dle­men earned a healthy markup on each ma­chine sold. Hip­kin, how­ever, would soon change all that with his ‘kit form’ ma­chines. He would ob­tain sup­plies of all the ma­jor com­po­nents re­quired to pro­duce a mo­tor­cy­cle and then fab­ri­cate his own frames to sup­ply a ready to build ‘kit’ mo­tor­cy­cle to the pur­chaser, who, with a cer­tain amount of me­chan­i­cal knowl­edge, could build his own ma­chine car­ry­ing the Sprite badge us­ing the easy to fol­low in­struc­tions.

His bril­liant idea not only took ad­van­tage of a loop­hole in the Bri­tish tax laws of the day, which al­lowed a mo­tor ve­hi­cle in dis­man­tled or kit form to be sold tax free but, of equal im­por­tance, it also cut out the dealer or mid­dle­man, re­duc­ing the price of the ma­chine to the cus­tomer as Hip­kin sold his part-as­sem­bled ma­chines di­rect to them.

What was in­ter­est­ing, as a re­sult of this new mar­ket­ing strat­egy the rest of the hard-hit in­dus­try were obliged to fol­low his meth­ods or go out of busi­ness, which some ul­ti­mately did.

In 1965 the idea be­gan to gather rapid mo­men­tum as the Sprite was priced at £149.00 which pro­vided a very com­pet­i­tive tri­als ma­chine but more im­por­tantly it was cheaper than its ri­val brands. The new kit bikes ar­rived at the pur­chaser’s door vir­tu­ally built with just their en­gine and wheels taken out with a guar­an­tee from Hip­kin him­self that even the home as­sem­bler could com­plete putting the ma­chine to­gether in a max­i­mum of three hours from kit to com­ple­tion, which was well worth the ef­fort for a mas­sive sav­ing of over £100.00 against, for ex­am­ple, an equiv­a­lent Greeves model.

The early Sprite ma­chines were more func­tional and strong than fancy and it has to be said that al­though they did their job ex­ceed­ingly well as an ideal first com­pe­ti­tion ma­chine for the Novice rider, they were still very much built down to a price.

The frame tub­ing was more like cheaply pro­duced gas pipe than for in­stance the qual­ity and mar­ket leading Reynolds 531 tub­ing but it was strong enough for the job. Many new own­ers though were not happy to find that its steer­ing-head bear­ings were lo­cated and fixed in fi­bre­glass rather than an ac­cu­rate and finely turned pre­ci­sion head­stock.

Hip­kin’s own de­sign Gir­ling-damped leading-link front forks were both heavy yet spindly and the wheels were stan­dard full width Bri­tish Hub Com­pany prod­ucts. The en­gines used were the Vil­liers’ 32 or later 37A, us­ing the com­pany’s usual iron cylin­der bar­rel. Hip­kin was also more than pre­pared to pro­vide a base frame kit to ac­cept such items as Nor­ton long Road-holder front forks and Tri­umph’s 199cc Tiger Cub en­gine in­stead of the Vil­liers unit.

Mar­ket­ing Suc­cess

The whole idea of the kit form theme turned the brand into a ma­jor suc­cess story but Hip­kin was not slow to play his ‘ace’ card. To prove the worth of the new Sprite ma­chines in the com­pe­ti­tion mar­ket he soon re­alised that with the col­lapse of many of the ma­jor man­u­fac­tur­ers who no longer pro­duced pure tri­als com­pe­ti­tion ma­chin­ery such as BSA, that many ‘works’ rid­ers were with­out a team ride.

He pro­vided ma­chin­ery to a host of top rider names around the coun­try in­clud­ing Den­nis Jones, Roy Pe­plow, Sam Cooper, Chris Leighfield, Bill Wilkin­son, Ken Sed­g­ley, Rob Ed­wards, John Hem­ming­way, Nor­man Eyre, Den­nis Saun­ders and Jim San­di­ford to keep the ma­chines name in the na­tional tri­als re­sults so that it would sell it­self. The rest of the in­dus­try which in­cluded such names as Cot­ton, Chee­tah, Bul­taco, DMW, Dot, But­ler, Scor­pion, etc. would have to fol­low suit to re­main com­pet­i­tive with their pric­ing struc­ture and all sell di­rect and in kit form.

Greeves were the only man­u­fac­turer, who largely out of loy­alty to their deal­ers who wanted to con­tinue with them, were obliged to in­tro­duce cut-price ma­chines us­ing the ba­sic 37A Vil­liers’ en­gine with­out any of the ex­pen­sive al­loy trim­mings and the re­sult was the cheap and cheer­ful Greeves Wes­sex. Hip­kin al­ways ad­dressed any prob­lems with the ma­chines al­most im­me­di­ately and he soon re­alised that due to the ma­chine’s pop­u­lar­ity in the tri­als mar­ket he would have to tidy up its ap­pear­ance which he duly did.

In early 1966 the du­plex steel tube main frame was cleaned up some­what and light­ened by over 6lb. The works team which was led by Den­nis ‘Jonah’ Jones had their ma­chines equipped with thinly dis­guised Ce­ri­ani-type tele­scopic front forks pro­vid­ing a hefty 7 ½ in move­ment which were be­ing pro­duced for the com­pany by Robin Humphries at Crowthorne in Berk­shire. That was the first of Sprite’s re­ally big years as com­pe­ti­tion suc­cess came their way. It was be­com­ing in­creas­ingly ob­vi­ous that it was only a mat­ter of time be­fore the ma­chines would start to play a ma­jor part in tri­als suc­cess.

In the Bri­tish Cham­pi­onship Den­nis Jones was prov­ing the Sprite names worth and at the Na­tional Vic­tory trial he missed the pre­mier award fol­low­ing an un­lucky five af­ter leading for the ma­jor­ity of the event. Rid­ing the iron bar­relled 37A Vil­liers-en­gined ma­chine which had been bored out to 254cc he had taken the over 250cc award in the West of Eng­land but it was rid­ing close to home at the Birm­ing­ham based Na­tional Green­smith Trial that he shook the es­tab­lished stars by tak­ing the pre­mier award.

At the Scot­tish Six Days trial he kept the ma­chine on the leader board all week de­spite the Iron bar­relled Vil­liers en­gine hav­ing con­stant elec­tri­cal prob­lems and he then took an­other well-de­served win at the Manx Two Day trial. These re­sults were re­flected in the pop­u­lar­ity of the Sprite ma­chines in the face of the new ma­chines from Spain in­clud­ing the Bul­taco, Mon­tesa and Ossa.

Be­cause Jones was us­ing the cheaper Vil­liers’ 37A iron en­gine it per­suaded the aver­age club­man to look favourably at it. Why would you want to spend up to an ex­tra £100 on some­thing like a Greeves Anglian with its alu­minium top end cylin­der bar­rel and head when Jones was court­ing suc­cess and telling ev­ery­one how much he pre­ferred the cheaper Iron bar­rel ver­sion and he was prov­ing it was not just talk with Na­tional and nu­mer­ous lo­cal wins ev­ery week.

Time to Move

Never one to rest on his lau­rels Hip­kin had been very busy try­ing to se­cure the long term fu­ture of his com­pany and had ne­go­ti­ated and dis­patched what would be the first of many large or­ders for off-road ma­chines in­clud­ing tri­als and scram­bling mod­els from the Amer­i­can Ea­gle Cor­po­ra­tion of Cal­i­for­nia in Amer­ica.

Due to the growth of the brand the man­u­fac­tur­ing com­pany were forced to move into much larger premises at Eel Street in Old­bury, Stafford­shire where he also started to cast his own com­po­nents in the foundry he had cre­ated.

With the kit-form ma­chines now very pop­u­lar it was in­ter­est­ing to note that other man­u­fac­tur­ers such as Cot­ton and DOT had also seen an in­crease in de­mand for their ma­chines which were all us­ing dif­fer­ent vari­ants of the tried and trusted Vil­liers en­gines. In 1967 Hip­kin made the de­ci­sion to of­fer op­tional ex­tras to the Sprite range so that cus­tomers could up­grade their ma­chines when or­der­ing them new by adding more ex­pen­sive parts, or, if they wanted, at a later date they could pur­chase them.

The Robin Humphries Ce­ri­ani type front forks were prov­ing very pop­u­lar and they be­came op­tional Sprite fit­tings adding £20.00 to the price of the kit ma­chine or they could be sup­plied separately at £33.00 for up­dat­ing ear­lier Hip­kin ma­chines or even ri­val brands. Frank was never shy at sup­ply­ing com­po­nents to other man­u­fac­tur­ers if profit could be made. For long dis­tance events or Na­tional tri­als which cov­ered many miles he of­fered a two gal­lon ca­pac­ity fuel tank to re­place the one and a half gal­lon one which sported a uni­ver­sal fit­ting so once again it could be used on other ma­chines.

Due to in­creased pro­duc­tion costs the com­plete ma­chine price was pushed up to £164.00 if it was sup­plied with tele­scopic front forks but a less ex­pen­sive op­tion was avail­able with the leading-link front forks fit­ted at £134.00.

It was ru­moured at the time that Vil­liers would sup­ply com­plete en­gines at around £70.00. It was in­ter­est­ing to note that they sold more of the more ex­pen­sive model than the cheaper ver­sion.

Sales fig­ures con­tin­ued to climb as the both the Ex­pert and Club­man ap­pre­ci­ated that Sprite could of­fer a ma­chine to suit all the rid­ers re­quirments at a price they could struc­ture them­selves with the choice of their own spec­i­fi­ca­tions. They also knew that in the right hands it was a proven win­ner.

Higher Spec­i­fi­ca­tion

It was not just in the UK that the ma­chine range was prov­ing pop­u­lar as the or­ders for both Europe and the USA were also very healthy for the ma­chines and the se­cret, the price!

Other leading man­u­fac­tur­ers at the time had wit­nessed the Sprite suc­cess story and soon changed the way they mar­keted their prod­ucts. Cot­ton and now Greeves had adopted sim­i­lar mar­ket­ing tech­niques and with bet­ter qual­ity prod­ucts had dra­mat­i­cally closed the price gap but they never knew what the busi­ness mind of Hip­kin was think­ing and it was time for him to re­view his stan­dard of prod­uct yet again. He went for an all new lighter and higher qual­ity spec­i­fi­ca­tion ma­chine named the Mk 2 250cc Tri­als ma­chine which went on sale in Au­gust 1967 at the price of £169.00. It fea­tured many im­prove­ments and the main frame had lost its twin seat sup­port­ing tubes which were re­placed by a full rear seat top loop which also in­cor­po­rated a rear mud­guard sup­port.

To en­hance the qual­ity of the ma­chine’s ap­pear­ance the frame fin­ish was bright nickel plated. The wheel hubs were re­lieved of the cool­ing fins for neat­ness which also saved a few ounces and the wheel­base was re­duced by one and a half inches giv­ing an over­all wheel­base of 51” mak­ing it more nim­ble and eas­ier to turn. Hip­kin had also de­vel­oped a new ex­haust sys­tem fea­tur­ing an ex­pan­sion cham­ber that he claimed im­proved the ma­chine’s per­for­mance at the ex­pense of a lit­tle ex­tra weight.

It’s a fact that Frank Hip­kin sacked his num­ber one rider, Den­nis Jones, on a reg­u­lar ba­sis but, as they say, they al­ways ‘kissed and made up’. In late 1967 it looked like the re­la­tion­ship was over for good as he moved to ride the ‘Mi­cro’ Suzuki pow­ered ma­chines.

Rapidly im­prov­ing York­shire cen­tre rider John Hem­ing­way took over the role of se­nior works rider and started to win ev­ery­thing on the new odd look­ing short wheel­base ma­chine which the tri­als buy­ing pub­lic did not have much faith in but Hip­kin had an even big­ger prob­lem on the hori­zon to deal with.

Around 1968 the Man­ganese Bronze Com­pany buy-out of Vil­liers had hit the sup­ply of the en­gines which had rapidly be­gun to dry up re­mov­ing the Sprite ma­chines fu­ture pro­duc­tion. They briefly turned to the rac­ing Star­maker en­gine which were freely avail­able af­ter Vil­liers had stock piled them but de­spite the best ef­forts of Hip­kin and the other tri­als man­u­fac­tur­ers they could not get it to per­form cor­rectly. He also had other op­tions as the foundry side of the busi­ness could pro­duce com­po­nents for man­u­fac­tur­ing of en­gines such as cylin­der bar­rels and crankcases.

On the mo­tocross side of the busi­ness he had got around the en­gine sup­ply prob­lems by in­stalling Swedish Husq­varna en­gines into the Sprites.

For­eign Power

In 1969 Sprite em­ployed a work­force of seventy five people in three sites around the Birm­ing­ham area pro­duc­ing off-road mo­tor­cy­cles and Hip­kin was not go­ing to let a small prob­lem like en­gine sup­ply get in his way.

Hip­kin had loosely copied the Husq­varna en­gine and started to pro­duce his own vari­ant with many ‘Husky’ parts in­ter­change­able. He

had also started to play with a home man­u­fac­tured hy­brid 400cc tri­als en­gine but his in­terim an­swer for the tri­als mar­ket was an­nounced in Fe­bru­ary 1970 with the all-new 5 speed gear­box 125cc Sachs en­gined Sprite Goldfin­ger.

The ‘Mi­cro’ tri­als ma­chine was in full flight with good strong English mo­tor­cy­cle names such as Cot­ton, Dales­man, DOT, Sara­cen and later Was­sel all plac­ing their faith in such tiny for­eign en­gines out of ne­ces­sity rather than choice and Sprite were no dif­fer­ent.

Sprite was the envy of many of the mo­tor­cy­cling man­u­fac­tur­ing gi­ants as some dis­ap­peared for­ever but no not Sprite! The new tri­als ma­chine was an in­stant hit with its light weight of 163lbs mak­ing it very pop­u­lar both at home, and more im­por­tantly, abroad.

It be­gan to achieve much suc­cess in the hands of Ex­perts rid­ers such as Roy Pe­plow, Jim San­di­ford, John Hem­ming­way, Rob Ed­wards, Nor­man Eyre and Ger­ald Rath­mell de­spite its very limited power and very nar­row per­for­mance band which equated very much to the like­ness of an elec­tric switch; it was ei­ther on or off! Ini­tially and with a favourable price the sales were strong as the new ma­chine was mar­keted well in the press and the works rid­ers had some good re­sults.

Soon though the buy­ing pub­lic re­alised the only other op­tion and the best choice were the Span­ish ma­chines from Bul­taco, Mon­tesa and Ossa. Sprite changed from Sachs to Zun­dapp pow­ered ma­chines to im­prove per­for­mance but to no avail.

Den­nis Jones would re­turn in the early seven­ties as Hip­kin played with his new tri­als ma­chine pow­ered by the Husq­varna in­spired mo­tocross en­gine with both 250cc and 400cc mod­els. The 250cc would be the Ven­turer and the 400cc the Rustler.

Jones com­peted on them in a few events such as the Bem­rose Tro­phy in 1972 where he took the Up to 500cc Award but the ma­chine was not as com­pet­i­tive as its Span­ish ri­vals and only a small batch were pro­duced.

Sprite’s down­fall came dur­ing late 1973/1974 when their home mar­ket for tri­als and mo­tocross mod­els had dwin­dled to lit­tle more than a hand­ful of ma­chines be­ing pro­duced each week.

A con­tract with McCormack In­ter­na­tional USA to sup­ply 250cc, 360cc and 400cc mo­tocross mod­els to be sold as Amer­i­can Ea­gles was Hip­kin’s big­gest ex­port or­der.

It was an­tic­i­pated that the ma­chines would sell in their thou­sands but af­ter two thou­sand had been sup­plied the McCormack en­ter­prise col­lapsed re­sult­ing in the ul­ti­mate fail­ure for Sprite De­vel­op­ments in 1975.

In re­al­ity the US im­porters were the only re­main­ing cus­tomers for the Birm­ing­ham com­pany and by then the prod­ucts had fallen out of favour on the lu­cra­tive Amer­i­can mar­ket, bring­ing an end to the pro­duc­tion of Sprite com­pe­ti­tion ma­chines for­ever.

1965: Har­vey Lloyd Peak Trial – 250cc Sprite.

1967: The new Sprite Front Forks brochure.1967: Chris Leighfield Wye Val­ley Traders – 250cc. 1967: Den­nis Jones Col­more Cup – 250cc.

1967: The Com­plete Sprite Kit ma­chine, fit­tedwith the Vil­liers En­gine. 1968: A very rare shot of a pro­to­type model withSprite’s own en­gine. 1967: Brian Hutchin­son in a North­ern Cen­tre Event – 250cc. 1968: John Hem­ing­way at the Bri­tish Ex­perts Trial – 125cc. 1968: Nor­man Eyre rides up Hollinsclough in the Bem­rose – 125cc.

1969: The new 125cc brochure. 1970: Ger­ald Rath­mell fin­ished a very cred­itable 17th on the 125cc. 1970: Ger­ald Rath­mell takes a very solid ‘dab’ at Wash­fold in the Scott – 125cc. 1969: John Hem­ing­way atthe Vic­tory Trial – 125cc.

1971: Brian Hutchin­son on the 125cc at the Vic­tory Trial. 1972: In the early seven­tiesthe mo­tor was changed to a Zun­dapp 125cc.1971: Den­nis Jones at the North­ern Ex­perts – 125cc

1972/1973: The brochure shot of the 250cc Ven­turer.1972: The sec­tion is Hawks Nest as we seeDen­nis Jones on the pro­to­type 405 model inthe Bem­rose Trial.

1974: It had been a long wait for the new 405cc.This re­stored 405cc was shown at the Dirt Bike Show in 2012.

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