Lord Hes­keth’s ill-fated foray into mo­tor­cy­cle man­u­fac­ture is one of bik­ing’s best-known heroic fail­ures. How­ever, Frank Melling sug­gests that the big V-twin’s time might finally have come…

Real Classic - - Contents - Photos by Carol Melling

Lord Hes­keth’s ill-fated foray into mo­tor­cy­cle man­u­fac­ture is one of bik­ing’s best-known heroic fail­ures. Has the big V-twin’s time finally ar­rived?

There’s a much quoted adage from the ocean rac­ing yacht world. ‘How do you make a small fortune from yacht rac­ing?’ ‘Start with a big one!’ If the adage ap­plies to su­per yachts then it is even more ap­po­site for a pri­vately-funded For­mula 1 car rac­ing team. If you re­ally want to up your game, be­come a mo­tor­cy­cle man­u­fac­turer when you have ab­so­lutely zero ex­per­tise or prior ex­pe­ri­ence. Then you re­ally can whizz through some se­ri­ous piles of cash. This is just what Thomas Alexander Fer­morHes­keth, the Third Baron Hes­keth, man­aged to do… and with some con­sid­er­able aplomb.

Lord Hes­keth in­her­ited 3300 acres of Northamp­ton­shire coun­try­side in­clud­ing the Grade I listed Eas­ton Ne­ston House, Towces­ter race­course and the en­tire vil­lage of Hul­cote. Af­ter briefly work­ing as a stock­bro­ker in San Francisco, Lord Hes­keth re­turned to Eas­ton Ne­ston to manage the fam­ily es­tate. He had a re­fresh­ingly novel ap­proach to money: spend as much as you rea­son­ably (or un­rea­son­ably) can, as fast as pos­si­ble. In 1972, he es­tab­lished Hes­keth Rac­ing, which was run by a suit­ably pol­ished ex-rac­ing driver and sec­ond­hand car dealer, An­thony ‘Bub­bles’ Hors­ley. Two years later the team made its first F1 ap­pear­ance at the 1973 Monaco Grand Prix. In typ­i­cal Hes­keth Rac­ing style, they ar­rived in the har­bour via the Lord’s yacht.

There was a Bell Jet Ranger heli­copter to avoid the queues of peas­ants wait­ing to get into race meet­ings and a pin­striped Rolls Royce as a pit car – much classier than the

vans which lesser teams used. Lord Hes­keth felt that ac­cept­ing spon­sor­ship was vul­gar, and so he fi­nanced the whole £350,000 rac­ing project (around £2½ mil­lion in to­day’s money) en­tirely from his own per­sonal wealth. Al­though far less than other F1 teams’ bud­gets this was still a lot of money.

How­ever, by late 1975 even the very wealthy Lord Hes­keth was begin­ning to feel the pinch and so wound up the team.

His next ven­ture demon­strated three very im­por­tant lessons. Firstly, peo­ple will take any amount of any­thing for free but it’s dif­fer­ent mat­ter if they have to spend their own money. While free cham­pers and canapés flowed, the queue of Hes­keth’s mates stretched all the way down the Eas­ton Ne­ston drive. Things were dif­fer­ent when he wanted money for his new project: an English Su­per Grand Tourer (ESGT) mo­tor­cy­cle in the style of a Brough Su­pe­rior or Vin­cent. From day one the ex­er­cise was un­der­funded.

Sim­i­larly, lots of rich, so­phis­ti­cated peo­ple would have had a Hes­keth free of charge but it was a very dif­fer­ent story when it came to get­ting those same wealthy peo­ple to part with their money. At launch, the Hes­keth was a wal­lop­ing 30% more ex­pen­sive than the truly up­mar­ket king of the ‘su­per grand tour­ers’, the BMW R100RS. The BMW was al­ready rid­den by mer­chant bankers and the up­per classes, as well as high-mileage ded­i­cated mo­tor­cy­clists. Could the Hes­keth be 30% bet­ter?

The fi­nal les­son was per­haps the hard­est of all. Pro­duc­tion en­gi­neer­ing is noth­ing, but noth­ing, like mak­ing tiny num­bers of pro­to­types or rac­ing cars. The project was re­port­edly touted around City of Lon­don in­vestors, based on build­ing 5000 units a year. That sounds like a good num­ber in terms of amor­tis­ing pro­duc­tion costs but it’s also fan­tasy-land high for a start-up project. Based on a 49 week pro­duc­tion year, 5000 units rep­re­sents 102 bikes ev­ery week – four­teen­plus a day. That’s seven be­fore lunch and seven af­ter­wards, all head­ing re­lent­lessly for the de­liv­ery bay – day af­ter day and week af­ter week.

To make this num­ber of mo­tor­cy­cles (or any­thing else for that mat­ter), you need a real stock con­trol sys­tem; pur­chas­ing man­agers chas­ing down ev­ery penny of pro­duc­tion costs; ho­molo­ga­tion en­gi­neers to en­sure com­pli­ance, and ac­tual staff to look af­ter all the ut­terly es­sen­tial minu­tiae of run­ning a fac­tory. All of this is a galaxy away from the free-wheel­ing can-do at­mos­phere of rac­ing en­gi­neer­ing.

The ini­tial idea for the ESGT al­legedly came from Har­vey Postleth­waite, who de­signed the Hes­keth F1 cars. Mr Postleth­waite was a bike fan and thought that there was a va­cant slot in the mar­ket for a true English Su­per Grand Tourer, laden with top spec equip­ment and cov­ered with inch deep lay­ers of nos­tal­gia. With the ghosts of Vin­cent and Brough Su­pe­rior – and it’s worth not­ing that both of th­ese lux­ury brands orig­i­nally failed – hov­er­ing over the work­shop at Eas­ton Ne­ston, the bike had to be a tra­di­tional Bri­tish V-twin. No-one at Hes­keth could de­sign this en­gine, so the job was put out to un­of­fi­cial ten­der and the well- es­tab­lished Bri­tish Wes­lake com­pany got the con­tract.

Wes­lake was highly re­spected in the car rac­ing world, hav­ing built a very suc­cess­ful V12, and they also had ex­pe­ri­ence of mo­tor­cy­cle man­u­fac­tur­ing. In 1968, they had made a 490cc con­ver­sion for the BSA B44 moto-crosser and then later a 500cc four-valve speed­way en­gine which car­ried Peter Collins to the 1976 world ti­tle. The Wes­lake speed­way en­gine was de­signed by Ron Valen­tine, and he came up with a rather clever 1000cc V-twin which used two, four-valve 500cc speed­way en­gines on a com­mon crank­case. If you in­tended to make a 1000cc, four-valve ESGT you would go to some­one who had al­ready proved that they could do the job – su­per­fi­cially, Wes­lake looked like a good fit. But in fact…

The Wes­lake en­gines were all race mo­tors and, what­ever other manifold weak­nesses rac­ers have both in­tel­lec­tu­ally and emo­tion­ally, we are good with en­gines. We know about care­ful, pre-race warm­ing and we know about main­te­nance and metic­u­lous oil changes too. Road en­gines, and their users, are very dif­fer­ent. A road rider might ham­mer the man-bits off a bike, or pot­ter round the coun­try lanes at 50mph or nip down into town on a blis­ter­ingly hot sum­mer’s day when the traf­fic barely moves. A road bike en­gine has to do all th­ese jobs with­out go­ing bang.

I think that a fur­ther prob­lem was that the orig­i­nal Wes­lake V-twin was de­signed to run on al­co­hol, and this keeps en­gines very cool. By con­trast, the Hes­keth en­gine used stan­dard pump fuel with its 36mm Dell’Orto carbs, and was ex­pected to per­form well in a very wide range of con­di­tions: it didn’t. From the out­set, the mo­tor did not make good power, the rear cylin­der ran hot and the por­ous crankcases leaked co­pi­ous amount of oil. Then things got worse…

As an SGT the new Hes­keth was ex­pected to have shaft drive, à la BMW. Why wouldn’t it? Be­cause BMW had al­ready threat­ened to sue the chop­sticks off Yamaha for patent in­fringe­ment, when they had tried to use a shaft drive sys­tem sus­pi­ciously like that em­a­nat­ing from Bavaria. Hes­keth in­tended to use the same de­sign as Yamaha but, wholly sen­si­bly, took fright. The fi­nal drive fix wasn’t re­ally a so­lu­tion at all. The gear­box was con­verted to chain drive and proved to be a clonky, im­pre­cise af­fair.

The V1000 chas­sis was good. If there was one area of ex­per­tise where Britain still ruled the world in 1980 it was in mak­ing bikes which han­dled and steered. The bronzewelded Reynolds 531 frame – bright nickel plated in the best tra­di­tion – worked well. Top qual­ity, state of the art 38mm Mar­zoc­chi forks and equally high qual­ity, 11-inch Brembo disc brakes made the best use of the chas­sis. As­tralite al­loy wheels (the rear one was a new, spe­cially-de­vel­oped 17-incher) car­ried the very first V-rated Avon Venom tyres.

Even so, the V1000 was a truly enor­mous lump of mo­tor­cy­cle. The bike has a near 60” wheel­base and the seat height is 32”. This is a fine con­fig­u­ra­tion for an ex­pe­ri­enced adult, male rider. How­ever, for­get it if you are un­der 5’ 10”. In­dulging in stop-start rid­ing is a se­ri­ously tricky ac­tiv­ity. At 220kg, the V1000 isn’t a bike for drag­ging around car parks ei­ther. This is an SGT and needs to live ex­clu­sively on the open road.

As the most ex­pen­sive pro­duc­tion bike on the mar­ket there should have been at­ten­tion to the finest de­tail – but there wasn’t. The in­stru­ment clus­ter looked very down­mar­ket, and this was a con­stant re­minder to own­ers that al­though the Hes­keth talked well, it wasn’t quite there.

The first time I saw the bike was at the Birm­ing­ham Bike Show. The whole Hes­keth stand was roped off and ac­cess was via a big, tough look­ing se­cu­rity bloke. You ei­ther had an in­vi­ta­tion and were per­mit­ted en­try, or you pre­sented your busi­ness card and hoped for the best. Be­hind the vel­vet, Lord Hes­keth smiled and en­ter­tained. Af­ter twenty min­utes I gave up and went to the com­pletely open and very wel­com­ing Honda stand to ad­mire their new GL1100 Gold­wing. This re­ally was a high speed, gen­tle­man’s SGT.

At launch, the me­dia greeted the new Hes­keth with ex­tremely re­strained en­thu­si­asm. Bri­tish moto-journos faced a huge emo­tional prob­lem. Tri­umph was ef­fec­tively dead, as was Nor­ton, and we des­per­ately wanted a new flag car­rier for the Union Jack. Sadly, Hes­keth wasn’t to be the an­swer. I never rode a Hes­keth at the start of its life but I did so about five years later. An up­mar­ket car dealer that I knew had taken one in part ex­change. The bike was ex­actly in keep­ing with its rep­u­ta­tion: un­der-pow­ered com­pared with the Ja­panese op­po­si­tion and

with a crude, old fash­ioned feel about it.

Back to the story. The pro­to­types were pro­duced on Lord Hes­keth’s es­tate, and Mick Broom be­came one of the key play­ers s in the Hes­keth story. ‘We were based in the e sta­ble block. I was em­ployed as de­vel­opme ent engi­neer and we steadily lurched on from dis­as­ter to dis­as­ter. The Hes­keth was go­ing to be the su­per­bike of its time, so we chose a big V-twin as it mir­rored the Vin­cents and Brou ugh Su­pe­ri­ors.

‘It took about three months to put the fir rst bike to­gether, but the de­sign was al­ready done be­fore­hand. We launched the bike in 1980, out­side the big house. Mike Hail­wood d was there along with all the world’s press. They loved the bike and thought it was what the coun­try needed, but the fact was we launched it so we could find some­one to in­vest in the project. We didn’t have the man­u­fac­tur­ing skills, only the de­sign ones. But no one came out of the wood­work to back us. Then the City launched its ven­ture-capit tal scheme and was look­ing for com­pa­nies to back. They gave Lord Hes­keth the back­ing.’

Af­ter the first few bikes, pro­duc­tion was moved to a new fac­tory in nearby Daven­try y where the big USP was an all-new CNC wor rk sta­tion ca­pa­ble of pro­duc­ing very high qua al­ity ma­chin­ing. This was state of the art at the time. Un­for­tu­nately, the rest of the works was far be­hind and, in par­tic­u­lar, the qualit of cast­ings for the new en­gine was dreadfu ul. Even­tu­ally, a to­tal of around 250 V1000s trick­led out of the two as­sem­bly ar­eas.

The money ran out and, de­spite var­i­ous at­tempts to keep the V1000 alive, it fell to Mick Broom to look af­ter the ma­chines which had been made and to in­cor­po­rate what are called the EN10 (fol­lowed by EN12) mod­i­fi­ca­tions. Th­ese ef­fec­tively cured the leak­ing crankcases by adding a ‘sock’ to seal the joint where the cam­chain case met the crank, and made the gear­box use­able. New main bear­ings were spec­i­fied which could han­dle the stresses of the big en­gine. Broom De­vel­op­ment En­gi­neer­ing con­tin­ued im­prov­ing the Hes­keth de­sign, ser­viced and main­tained the ex­ist­ing mo­tor­cy­cles, and built com­plete ma­chines un­til the com­pany changed hands in 2010. This brings us to our test bike.

This V1000 was thor­oughly sorted out be­fore owner Ron Wil­lis pur­chased it. Ron said: ‘I al­ways fan­cied a Hes­keth but I wanted one which had ev­ery­thing done to it. This bike fit­ted the bill per­fectly.’

First im­pres­sions are al­ways in­ter­est­ing and mine are now very much in­flu­enced by the cur­rent pop­u­lar­ity of retro bikes. Where orig­i­nally the Hes­keth looked dull and old fash­hioned com­pared with the op­po­si­tion, now it to be right on mes­sage. It’s easy to lookk at the V1000 through only a slightly roset­inted vi­sor and think that some new, niche nu­fac­turer has pro­duced the bike. And ile its price might’ve been un­ac­cept­ably h in 1982 – th­ese days you can buy a new ugh Su­pe­rior for £60k. Per­haps the V1000 s sim­ply three decades ahead of its time? There is no doubt that Ron’s Hes­keth re­ally has been sorted. All air-cooled big twins sortt of wheeze into life and this is what the Hess­keth does. Orig­i­nally, the ca­coph­ony whi­ich em­anated from the en­gine was truly off-putting, but on the fet­tled Hes­keth it’s all rath­her in­ter­est­ing and quirky. What isn’t any dif­feer­ent is the height of the bike. I’m 5’ 11” in rid­ing boots and I was just about com­fort­able wrigggling the bike round in Ron’s drive.

How­ever, there is an in­ter­est­ing shift in per­cep­tion re­gard­ing the bike’s weight. 37 years ago, 550lb was a se­ri­ously porky bike: now it isn’t. In fact, find­ing any­thing other than a sports bike which is sub-400lb is dif­fi­cult. Tri­umph’s Thrux­ton R, which prides it­self on svelte pro­por­tions, tips the scales at 446lb, so the Hes­keth is no longer enor­mously portly. From the out­set, it be­comes ap­par­ent that the gear­box works fine. It’s not feather light and laser ac­cu­rate but, by ap­ply­ing a bit of thought, I never missed a gear dur­ing my ride, so it is clearly func­tional. The power too is very in­ter­est­ing. The Wes­lake en­gine was touted as giv­ing 82bhp at a mere 6800rpm and 78ft/lb of torque at a 1000rpm less. Prob­a­bly, none of the orig­i­nal mo­tors pro­duced th­ese fig­ures in real life be­cause they ran so hot, but Ron’s Hes­keth does make bet­ter power than a good 850 Nor­ton Com­mando and so, in the real world, the rid­ing ex­pe­ri­ence is very pleas­ant. On the fast, English coun­try lanes which formed our test run, the bike bur­bled along very sat­is­fac­to­rily in the 65mph range, and on a short stretch of dual car­riage­way an­other 10mph was in­stantly avail­able. Best of all, it was just the sort of vin­tage-y, Vin­centy, Brough Su­pe­ri­ory power which the Hes­keth team promised at the time.

The big chas­sis also suits the bike. With mod­ern tyres, the ride re­ally was very pleas­ant as I bur­bled down the Hamp­shire coun­try lanes. Ev­ery­thing works re­ally quite well. There are acres of space for the pi­lot, and the Mem­sahib too should she deign to ride pil­lion. The brakes are not up to mod­ern stan­dards, but who would make a hur­ried stop on a con­veyance of the Hes­keth’s sta­tus? To do so would be thor­oughly undig­ni­fied.

In short, I re­ally en­joyed the whole ex­pe­ri­ence.

It’s not only me who thinks this – there is now a grow­ing in­ter­est in be­com­ing a mem­ber of the Hes­kethisti. Maybe 15 years ago, a V1000 was a quirky mo­tor­cy­cling anachro­nism and prices re­flected this. By the time of the Bon­hams Oc­to­ber 2011 auc­tion, a fully-sorted V1000 with 4197 miles show­ing on the odome­ter sold for £6325. In 2016, a 2000 miles from new ex­am­ple sold for £9500 (but no men­tion was made of the al­limpor­tant EN up­grades). When one was listed in last au­tumn’s Stafford sale, the es­ti­mate started at £8000 and ranged to £12k. £10,000 is a fairly stan­dard price for a pri­vate sale.

That amount of money cov­ers a range of other de­sir­able clas­sic mo­tor­cy­cles. You could choose a mint Mk3 Nor­ton Com­mando, or maybe a Mk1 Moto Guzzi Le Mans or a BMW R90S. None of th­ese will carry the Hes­keth her­itage – but they are all bet­ter bikes with ex­ten­sive spe­cial­ist spares and ser­vice ex­per­tise. As Lord Hes­keth first noted in 1978, there is al­ways a price to pay for ex­clu­siv­ity!

Above: Quite a high-class start. Pic from the 1980 launch, with Mike Hail­wood on the right and Lord Hes­keth him­self, look­ing a lit­tle pen­sive Above: The noble lord alone, relaxing on his es­tate Below: Brochures and pub­lic­ity ma­te­ri­als were top class

The Hes­keth V1000 4-valve V-twin is huge and very heavy. It’s fairly clear from this shot how heat re­ten­tion in traf­fic be­came a prob­lem. Very lit­tle air­flow over the fins un­less the bike’s be­ing rid­den briskly Above: This is one se­ri­ously im­pres­sive...

The mighty Hes­keth front end is stan­dard for a big V-twin of the era, com­plete with Mar­zoc­chi forks and Brembo brakes

The Hes­keth V1000 has the ap­pear­ance of a very high qual­ity home built spe­cial, claims our Mr Melling

The frame is tra­di­tional English crafts­man­ship fab­ri­cated from Reynolds 531 tub­ing and bronze welded

Com­pre­hen­sive clocks, in­clud­ing a clock, but the in­stru­ment set was bor­rowed from a Honda and failed to im­press buy­ers at the time. Rather less im­por­tant now, how­ever Above: The in­ten­tion was to pro­duce a Grand Tourer in the great V-twin tra­di­tion....

Inset: The V1000 is big, tall and heavy… Right: …but it is no slouch

No Hes­keth pi­lot is ever short of space. The rid­ing po­si­tion is roomy and well sorted, al­though long legs help the rider when pad­dling in traf­fic Hes­keth V1000. The ul­ti­mate Bri­tish Grand Tour­ing ma­chine?

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