John Shirt Jnr
Imagine having a father who is internationally recognised as one of the best development engineers in the more recent times of the trials motorcycle. John Shirt Snr developed and built a machine with Mick Andrews that would win a world round — the Majesty Yamaha in Great Britain 1980; some accolade you may think, but then it got even better. Shirt Snr then went on to help to develop the sport-changing mono-shock Yamaha, which changed the development of the trials motorcycle forever. His son, John Shirt Jnr, grew up around and witnessed first-hand all these changes, and he had a very successful schoolboy career. During that winning period, he had always ridden two-stroke Yamahas built and developed by his father. He was now riding what many would term the 'Ultimate' single-shock Yamaha. The engine internals was very much produced by his father, who was never frightened to push into new areas with his design ideas. The frame had been given more ground clearance — I could write a book on it! The phone rings and John Shirt Snr takes the call from HRC Honda trials mechanic Derrick Edmonson: "Honda works rider Eddy Lejeune is moving from the team at the end of 1987, and I have permission from my bosses in Belgium and Japan to run a young rider on the 250 Honda RTL. Would John Jnr be interested?". It was time for decisions. Article: John Hulme • Pictures: Eric Kitchen, Toon Van De Vliet, John Hulme, Yoomee Archive, Snr and Dennis Fowler
The story starts back in July at the FIM World Championship round in Austria where HRC Trials Team boss Francois Deley announced that the threeyear contract term for Belgium's Eddy Lejeune would run out and not be renewed. The three-time world trials champion for Honda from 1982-1984, Lejuene accepted the decision and would eventually move to the Spanish Merlin team for 1988. This decision would also make his mechanic and minder Derrick Edmondson redundant.
Derrick had joined the team with Steve Saunders in 1986 and was a mine of information on the four-stroke trials machines from Japan. The machines were very much his 'babies'. He had nurtured them through the development period with both Steve Saunders and Eddy Lejeune, and he was very well respected by his Japanese employers. After speaking with HRC in Japan and Francois Deley, they both agreed that they would send the 270 disc-braked development machine back to Japan at the close of the season but keep the three drumbraked 250cc machines which had been at the disposal of the team. He had been watching the progress of the best Youth A class riders in the UK and John Shirt Jnr in particular. The Shirt and Edmondson families had been friends for many years, and Derrick soon realised that it was the choice of 'Shirty' Jnr that he would take the ride on the Works 250cc RTL Honda.
With his world championship commitments over, Derrick spoke with John Shirt Snr about his 16-year-old son, also called John, riding the four-stroke machine in 1988. Derrick would remain very much involved with trials as the mechanic/minder for Steve Saunders with the Fantic for the 1988 season. Father and son agreed it was too good an opportunity to turn down and Derrick prepared a 250cc Honda for Jnr to test. This happened in late November 1987 at Hawk's Nest with Derrick in attendance to explain the machine and how it worked at its best for John. The test went very well despite the fact that Jnr had been getting very good results on the two-stroke Yamaha his father had developed and he felt sure he could soon adapt to the attributes of the single cylinder, air-cooled, four-stroke machine. Derrick explained to Jnr that all he wanted him to do was enjoy riding the machine and he would note his progress. The deal would be the use of the machine and a supply of the spares he had left over from his three years with Lejeune. He then dangled the 'golden carrot' with the parting words: "If your results are good I could always call Japan and see if they would release the development 270 disc brake model for you to use".
It's a well-known fact that the transition from a two-stroke engine to a four-stroke one is not easy. It would be a case of practice and more practice for the new partnership of John Shirt Jnr and the Honda. You must remember, at this time John Shirt Snr and his wife Margaret were still running their successful trials business at Stable Lane in Buxton and so time was at a much-valued premium. You must also remember that John Jnr was not old enough to hold a driving license, and so to help Jnr to get in some riding time on the Honda family friend John Hulme was on hand to drive to two main areas for practise, which would be Hawk's Nest and the home of Mick Andrews at Holloway near Matlock. He would have his first competitive ride on the Honda at the Northern Centre DR Burrows Trial in early December. It was a steep learning curve in the presence of some very good riders, but he did himself proud with a very strong second position behind Nigel Birkett.
The next ride would be in the Irish Experts, which was rewarded with a fourth position. Derrick reported back to Honda that he was happy with John's results and would it be possible to send the 270 model back to the UK for John Jnr to compete on.
The machine was shipped to John Shirts Snr's trials business premises at Stable Lane over the Christmas period. When it arrived, it was like a lottery win for the Shirt family. Apart from the Michelin tyres, it was a true 'Works' built trials motorcycle. Many of the parts had been hand machined, and it was very different from the drum brake model he had been riding. Apart from the obvious 'one-off ' parts, the main change was the increase in the cylinder capacity to 272cc. The engine was a little higher in the frame than the 250cc, and it was very obviously much more powerful, and John Snr applied his magic to make this power as usable as possible.
John Jnr rode the machine in competition as much as possible, and it was a case of practising at every opportunity. A few Centre victories came his way, but as he was not old enough to ride the machine on the public roads, he was missing the competition of riding against the very best riders.
He and his father had decided to ride in the opening world round in Spain in March, and to help with this preparation John Snr spoke with the organisers of the first British Championship round, the Colmore, to see if young John Jnr could ride. He would ride the RTL in the hazards, and his friend, John Hulme, would ride it on the adjoining road sections, Jnr would follow him on his Yamaha DT50! Riding at the front of the entry he would not be allowed to be included in the final results. At the finish, his score would have put him in the top ten.
Competing in the opening round of the 1988 FIM World Trials Championship in Spain would be an eye-opener. On 6th March he made his world round debut, two days after 17th birthday. It was a tough world round by any standards, but towards the end of the first lap, the top front fork yoke broke. He and his minder John Hulme dashed back to the paddock, where the one from the drum brake machine was fitted. He was now very late starting his second lap, and despite rushing the majority of the hazards, he came home in 26th position.
At the UK round, held in the wet at Butser Lime Works in the south of the country, he came home in 25th position but just eight marks away from the points. One week later in Northern Ireland, it was a tough day, rewarded with a lowly 33rd finish. As all this championship activity was being funded from the pocket of his father the decision was made not to go to the next round in Luxembourg. He only rode the RTL in one more world round in Belgium, where he finished in 25th position.
Scottish Six Days Trial
Despite struggling with the four-stroke characteristics, after some very encouraging results including a seventh at the Wye Valley British Championship round and a fifth at the Victory, John Jnr decided that the project was worth staying with; especially with the SSDT just around the corner. It was a case of living the dream for John Jnr because as a small boy all he ever wanted to do was ride in the SSDT. The Honda had been prepared for the six days by his father, who would also supply the support.
The week started very steadily, and with his riding number 45, Jnr got his early day out of the way finishing in 11th position. He moved up to fourth after Wednesday and things were going well, but he felt the pressure and things slipped a little through the week.
After enjoying the road-ride day on Friday, Shirty was riding on the road with mentor and hero Nigel Birkett, and he stupidly overtook Birks racing on the road just before Rhubarb, and the Honda made a horrendous noise and stopped. After restarting the engine the horrible rattle slowly got better, and he rode Rhubarb holding his breath. It was a slow ride back to the paddock to be greeted by his father, and he then explained what had happened. John senior found that a pop-rivet was missing from the airbox which had gone through into the engine. Nothing could be done at this stage, and Shirty nervously rode the last day to finish 10th overall and to the Best Newcomer in a quality field.
The cylinder head was removed back in Buxton to find the rivet imbedded in it…very lucky indeed, was the verdict!
Not For Me
John was still struggling to find grip with the 272cc engine; one minute it was gripping, and the next second it would deliver the power very harsh. Derrick Edmondson told John that Eddy Lejeune had experienced the same problem and preferred the less powerful 250cc engine. Despite these problems, John recorded his only national win on the RTL at the Dave Rowland National. John Shirt Snr at this point was having to look after his business interests after the Yamaha years had finished, and had started to import the Gas Gas machines from Spain. Both father and son Shirts spoke with Derrick Edmondson and after a long test session with the new two-stroke Gas Gas John Jnr decided that was where his future would lie.
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On the rocks in the Wainwright National Trial in Yorkshire.
Concentrating and feeling for wheel grip in the Jack Wood National Trial.
His final appearance in the WTC on the RTL in Belgium where he finished in 25th position.
Great Britain: The world round was made more difficult as heavy rain affected the area, making for a difficult day for everyone as the mud changed the event.
SSDT: Focussing on staying on line in the water at Lagnaha, the final hazards of the fourth day.
SSDT: After some good solid riding, seen here at Creag Lundie, the reward was moving up to fourth overall at the close of day three.
SSDT: The dream of riding in the famous event becomes a reality.
SSDT: With the over-suit on and the RTL given the once over all was looking good as he headed out on day three.
Spain – WTC: Queuing up for technical inspection and signing on.
Spain – Team: John Jnr and John Hulme with the drum brake RTL and the disc brake model at the front.
Spain: It’s a relived father and son Shirt as he finishes his first ever world round in 26th position from an entry of 70 riders just days after his 17th birthday.
Great Britain – Butser Lime Works: The world round started just outside Petersfield.
Practising on the RTL at Sant Llorenc De Morunys in the spring sunshine in Spain.
It was a fully loaded Talbot van seen here on route to the opening round of the World Trials Championship in March 1988. This picture is at the French border crossing on the way to Spain.
John Jnr, seen here in his early years with his very proud mother Margaret. She was very instrumental in the business she and John Snr built between them. She sadly passed away in 2004.
John Snr and Jnr in 1984.
John Jnr with the Yamaha Mono-Shock his father was so involved with developing into a machine which changed the face of the trials world forever, after the earlier Yamaha trial involvement with the Majesty project. Seen here in this picture is a very...
As with many young riders the adventure into off-road motorcycle sport started with the good old Yamaha TY80. This is the Majesty version built by John Shirt Snr.
In 1988 John Snr had started to import the Gas Gas trials machines. John Jnr knew he needed this work to secure the future and he moved to the Gas Gas to ride and promote the product, he is still doing it some 30 years on. John Jnr is on the far left...
Now the million-dollar question, what did really happen to the Honda RTL John Shirt Jnr rode? He was reunited with the machine at the Telford Off-Road Show on the RTLR Honda Owners’ Club stand, seen here with Patrick Pissis who along with Olivier...