The Classic Motorcycle
TT racer, motorcycle dealer, Home Guard sergeant and man of mystery – the life of Ben Drinkwater is as varied as it is mysterious.
The name ‘Ben Drinkwater’ instantly conjures up images of the elongated S-bend at the 11th Milestone of the TT course. The section, flanked by rolling Manx farmland, is named after this Lancastrian rider, railway signalman, motor engineer and motorcycle dealer who raced in the TT from 1947 to 1949, having appeared in the Manx GP of 1937 and 1938, finishing sixth in the Lightweight class in the latter year. War intervened and there was no racing for Drinkwater, then aged in his 20s, nor anyone else until 1946, by which time he was 34.
But whatever else, it’s doubtful he would have reckoned his name would be become part of TT folklore decades after his death. The lad’s even got his own merchandise; there is a Ben Drinkwater jigsaw, and the section is also displayed in a LED-lit placement (with changing colours, no less).
Souvenirs aside, Drinkwater was a solid rider. He finished third on his Excelsior in the 1947 Lightweight TT (his bow at the TT proper) with a speed of 70.14mph and a total race time of 3.45.57 hours. According to reports, the race proved something of a battle, given the sheer power of Manliff Barrington’s and Maurice Cann’s leading Moto Guzzis. Added to this technical challenge was the power limitations beset by the use of post war ‘pool’ petrol, derived from the ‘pooled’ fuel from different suppliers. This 72 octane was the only fuel available and put paid to any hope of record-breaking speeds.
Despite this, the Lightweight race provided a thrilling and controversial race. Moto Guzzi-mounted Cann, who consistently lapped the race at a speed of more than 74mph (quite a feat on 72 octane fuel) in pole, was not conceded the winner. That mantle went to Manliff Barrington, who lapped at the fractionally slower speed of 73mph. Despite a protest to the ACU, the result stood.
Drinkwater returned for the 1948 Lightweight TT, this time with a Moto Guzzi, and finished fourth at a speed of 66.6mph. The Motor Cycle reported the race as thus: “In the second lap, Drinkwater overtook Pike’s Rudge while Cann and Barrington renewed their 1947 duel, Cann peeling off his rival's lead.
“Luckily, they all they all received far more attention around the course than at the Grandstand but they
inevitably seemed slow and quiet by comparison with the 500cc race.
“Lap three brought more retirements, two at least being of major importance. Barrington’s twin Guzzi gave up the ghost beyond Kirk Michael… while a longish pause slowed Drinkwater.”
Pauses aside, Drinkwater finished fourth. The following year, however, would be his last; Drinkwater crashed at the 11th Milestone and died from his injuries. The Motor Cycle reported the solemn event: “We regret to record that Ben Drinkwater crashed near the 11th Milestone on his fourth lap and died from his injuries. He was 37 years of age and a rider with considerable racing experience, especially on a 250cc machines. Recent successes included a second in 1946 Lightweight Manx GP, third in the 1947, Lightweight TT and fourth in last year’s Lightweight TT. Drinkwater, whose home is at Rochdale, leaves a wife and three children, to whom our deepest sympathy is extended.”
That was 1949. Fast-forward to the mid-1980s – a world apart from the pool petroleum 1940s – and the High Peak section of VMCC decided to create its own ‘Pennine’ section. The members invited the Rochdale Observer to cover the story of a new club section, and its motorcycle enthusiast reporter suggested that someone write an article on Drinkwater. That task fell to John Robinson.
John today remains fascinated by Ben Drinkwater’s life. “He, like so many other men of his era, had a six-year interruption from his racing,” he said. “It’s especially challenging with the TT; you can only do it once a year. So for Ben Drinkwater to do so well, it’s quite an achievement.”
As for Ben’s character, very little is known. “I'd really like to hear more about Ben because – being