PRO­FILE

Nigel Bir­kett

Trial Magazine - - FRONT PAGE - WORDS: JOHN HULME • PIC­TURES: YOOMEE AR­CHIVE, ERIC KITCHEN, MOR­TON’S AR­CHIVE, NEIL STUR­GEON, COLLECTION GI­ULIO MAURI/FONTSERÈ, TOON VAN DE VLIET, JOHN SHIRT SNR

It’s amaz­ing that some people over a life­time never change their train of thought. Cut Nigel Bir­kett in half and it’s tri­als all the way. Bill and Ada Bir­kett soon found their son Nigel was, from a very early age, in­quis­i­tive about any­thing me­chan­i­cal he could find in his fa­ther’s coal yard at Broughton-in Fur­ness. As with many young kids back in the day, their fa­thers would soon find them a mo­tor­cy­cle to ride and in Bir­kett’s case it was an ex-GPO (Royal Mail) James he would ride around the yard. The eight year old loved it and soon his thoughts would be how to make it go faster and rid­ing it off-road. He would touch on scram­bling, as it was known prior to mo­tocross, be­fore find­ing his way into tri­als rid­ing. This was the start of an en­dur­ing re­la­tion­ship with the sport of tri­als as both a pro­fes­sional rider and im­porter and one he is very much in­volved with to the present day.

“He soon took about the task of con­vert­ing it into some­thing which re­sem­bled a ‘Pucka’ scram­bles ma­chine. He rode

it, con­stantly mod­i­fy­ing it, and,

over a cou­ple of sea­sons won many events on it.”

His early rec­ol­lec­tion of the James was of how good it was in a straight line but it took him quite a while to mas­ter go­ing around cor­ners. Var­i­ous other an­cient Bri­tish ma­chines fol­lowed and by the time Nigel was thir­teen he was com­pe­tent enough to win his first school­boy scram­ble, rid­ing a home­con­verted 80cc Suzuki. He still owns the win­ner’s plaque to this very day.

He re­mem­bers the race well as there were only four rid­ers but they were all mounted on su­pe­rior ma­chin­ery and it was a spir­ited win, shall we say, as he bat­tled his way to the front with his el­bows and feet com­ing to good use. That first race though had ig­nited some fire in his young belly!

Know­ing the young Bir­kett was happy to work on mo­tor­cy­cles his fa­ther pur­chased a pre­vi­ously crashed 125cc Yamaha two-stroke sin­gle cylin­der ma­chine. He soon took about the task of con­vert­ing it into some­thing which re­sem­bled a ‘Pucka’ scram­bles ma­chine. He rode it and was con­stantly mod­i­fy­ing it and over the next cou­ple of sea­sons he won many events mounted on it.

His fa­ther loved his son’s pas­sion for mo­tor­cy­cle sport and then pur­chased for him a 125cc Puch Dales­man which was a proper scram­bles ma­chine and he fin­ished sec­ond in the Bri­tish School­boy Cham­pi­onship. He still re­mem­bers the ‘scram­bling’ years with his late fa­ther as some of the best years of his life as they both just loved it.

He en­tered the se­nior ranks and made a very good rider. He still be­lieves he had the abil­ity to make it as a scram­bler but when he took up tri­als rid­ing to keep fit in the win­ter he showed out­stand­ing nat­u­ral abil­ity. He still wanted to ride in scram­bles though as this was his real pas­sion.

CROOKS SPE­CIAL

The tri­als ad­ven­ture though which would bring him suc­cess started way back in 1969 as a fif­teen year old school­boy.

On leav­ing school he pro­gressed, with his par­ents bless­ing, into the hands of Bar­row Mo­tor­cy­cle dealer, the late Ed­die Crooks, to serve his ap­pren­tice­ship. Crooks was well known as a guy who sup­ported many fa­mous road rac­ing names and was a reg­u­lar podium fin­isher in the Manx Grand Prix for many years and won the 1959 se­nior race achiev­ing lap and race records in the process.

He had also tasted the off-road scene in the In­ter­na­tional Six Days Trial. In 1963 Crooks Suzuki be­came one of the first au­tho­rised Suzuki deal­ers in the UK. The shop is still in the fam­ily with son Martin who took over at the helm when his fa­ther died in 2010.

The high speeds of road rac­ing never at­tracted Nigel but from work­ing on the many rac­ing ma­chines and in par­tic­u­lar the en­gines he soon turned the tricks of the trade he was rapidly learn­ing to his own ad­van­tage.

In the up­stairs store room at Crooks Suzuki a B120 model which had seen many parts re­moved from it over a pe­riod of time be­came the donor ma­chine for the first tri­als project. Crooks Suzuki em­ployee, Frank White­way, was well known in road rac­ing cir­cles but soon no­ticed the young Bir­kett’s enthusiasm for learn­ing the me­chan­ics of a mo­tor­cy­cle and af­forded all his knowl­edge and sup­port for the new tri­als project. He was a fan­tas­tic help to Nigel and he re­mem­bers the times in those early days with much fond­ness.

The frame was mod­i­fied for its tri­als use and a pair of Metal Pro­file front forks was at­tached. A fuel tank from an­other Suzuki model, the AS 50, was also used. Frank then used his knowl­edge as the young Bir­kett helped to build up a tri­als ver­sion of the Suzuki Trail Cat mo­tor us­ing a pis­ton from a Su­per Six road ma­chine to im­prove its per­for­mance. The new Crooks Suzuki was a rev­e­la­tion and Nigel took the Cen­tre tri­als com­pe­ti­tions by storm.

In 1971, at the age of seven­teen, Nigel took the Crooks Suzuki spe­cial to the Scot­tish Six Days Trial which be­gan a love af­fair with the SSDT that’s still there to the present day.

TRI­ALS IT IS

Ed­die Crooks then gave him an Ossa tri­als ma­chine and Nigel just missed a Spe­cial First Class Award in the 1972 ‘Scot­tish’. He was to have one fi­nal sea­son in mo­tocross rid­ing a 250cc CZ and a 400cc Suzuki, but it was not very suc­cess­ful and he reluc­tantly de­cided that per­haps his des­tiny lay in the tri­als world af­ter all.

At the back end of 1973 he de­cided to switch dis­ci­plines and con­cen­trate his ef­forts purely in tri­als. Fo­cus­ing on the tri­als scene he was soon re­warded with some re­sults, in­clud­ing top five fin­ishes in the all-im­por­tant Na­tion­als. He en­joyed

rid­ing the Ossa and ap­plied some of his new found knowl­edge on mak­ing the ma­chine bet­ter.

Dur­ing the first half of the tri­als sea­son in 1974 the re­sults con­tin­ued to im­prove and Kawasaki team man­ager, Don Smith, no­ticed this talent and he was of­fered a works Kawasaki. Smith was in­volved with Alec Wright and the Kawasaki off-road team who wanted to hire a rider who would show the ma­chine’s true ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

He had his first com­pet­i­tive ride on the ‘Green Ma­chine’ at the Allen Jef­feries trial in York­shire and was re­warded with a fine sixth place and Kawasaki was im­pressed. He was asked to do four World rounds and it was made clear that he needed to score a top ten fin­ish and se­cure a point (be­fore the of­fi­cial FIM WTC was in­tro­duced in 1975 only the top ten were awarded points) to keep the ride for 1975. He failed to make the points but fin­ished in the top fif­teen in Swe­den, Fin­land and Cze­choslo­vakia but rode well enough to claim tenth place in Switzer­land and score that vi­tal point.

His trips to the events were the first time he had ever left Eng­land and gave him a taste of how life could be as a pro­fes­sional tri­als rider but then Kawasaki pulled the plug and it all ended on a sour note. Kawasaki cut their budget and tried to rene­go­ti­ate their con­tract with Nigel and his team-mate, Richard Sunter, on a ma­chine and parts ba­sis with no World Cham­pi­onship events and no fi­nan­cial sup­port which they both de­clined.

Nigel was very un­happy with this sit­u­a­tion as he had left the job at Ed­die Crooks to work in a nearby Hov­er­craft fac­tory at Mil­lom. When he ex­plained he needed time off to go to the World rounds he was told there would be no job when he re­turned!

He had dreamt of earn­ing enough money to ride tri­als full­time and now he had no job and no tri­als ma­chine. So it was back to Crooks and the Ossa with Ed­die smil­ing on the very green Bir­kett. He started again on the Ossa and found his old faith­ful eas­ier to ride than the works Kawasaki and saw the sea­son out with rea­son­able suc­cess.

‘WORKS’ SUZUKI

Then came the run-in to the 1975 Scot­tish with Nigel con­test­ing the BTC and Na­tion­als and won­der­ing whether the Ossa was up to the six days when Gra­ham Beamish phoned Ed­die Crooks with the of­fer of an RL 250 Suzuki for the event. Bir­kett was not that ex­cited over the prospect of rid­ing an­other Ja­panese ma­chine af­ter his Kawasaki ex­pe­ri­ence.

He rode the 250cc in one club trial just be­fore the Scot­tish and was still unim­pressed with the Ja­panese ma­chin­ery. But a cou­ple of days be­fore the SSDT, Beamish rang again to say that the 325cc ma­chines had ar­rived and did Nigel want one in­stead of the 250cc? He said yes with­out re­ally ex­pect­ing any­thing spe­cial and he ex­pected less when he first saw them. They looked aw­ful but when he fired it into life he got the big­gest shock of his life as it sounded in­cred­i­ble.

He did not ac­knowl­edge it at the time but Suzuki had pulled a win­ner out of the hat with this new en­gine. It had fan­tas­tic but us­able power and would ‘pull’ the high gears like a trac­tor! He and team­mate John ‘Mecca’ Met­calfe briefly prac­tised on the ma­chines be­fore head­ing to the Scot­tish in very high spir­its.

On day one the alu­minium fuel tank split and Nigel wres­tled with it for what seemed like ages and var­i­ous parts dropped off but it was all put right that night in the Parc Ferme and he was in an in­cred­i­ble sixth po­si­tion.

On day two Nigel tight­ened the crankshaft fly­wheel nut which was work­ing loose and locked it with a cen­tre punch on its thread as he climbed into third place.

At the close of day three Bir­kett had moved into sec­ond po­si­tion just one mark be­hind leader and World Cham­pion, Yrjo Ves­ter­i­nen, and the Suzuki was run­ning like a dream. The Ja­panese me­chanic who had been sent to keep his eye on the two works ma­chines was so ex­cited that he in­sisted on try­ing to get Nigel and John Met­calfe to bed early!

On day four though the chal­lenge for the win was over as Bir­kett parted with too many marks and the mo­tor in the Suzuki went ‘off tune’. He fin­ished the event in eighth po­si­tion con­vinced that the mo­tor had a prob­lem. He later found out that one of the reed valve petals had snapped off and gone through the mo­tor like a dose of salts with­out touch­ing any­thing. Suzuki had de­manded a full re­port and made some thicker reeds im­me­di­ately.

Beamish-Suzuki, who was the off-road im­porter for the Ja­panese com­pany, came up with a new two year con­tract for him. A brand new im­proved 325cc Suzuki was sup­plied. Again he went to Europe to con­test World Cham­pi­onships but this time he moved straight into points scor­ing po­si­tions: Swe­den sixth, Fin­land sixth, Switzer­land sec­ond, Cze­choslo­vakia ninth and Ger­many eleventh, fin­ish­ing the year in eleventh po­si­tion over­all in the se­ries.

Back home young Bir­kett con­tin­ued to deliver the re­sults in the BTC and Na­tional events. He was third in the South­ern, third in the Hoad, won the Perce Si­mon and sec­ond in the Dick Far­quhar­son.

PRO­FES­SIONAL RIDER

He car­ried the good form into 1976 when he won the Vic Brit­tan and Kick­ham Na­tional tri­als. His run ended just be­fore the Scot­tish when Nigel had a big crash rid­ing be­tween the haz­ards at the Vic­tory trial which re­sulted in a very bent rider and ma­chine. A phys­io­ther­a­pist got him more or less sorted out in time for the Scot­tish but he was still badly bruised and far from match fit­ness for such an im­por­tant event but he still man­aged to fin­ish eighth.

He and team-mate John Met­calfe were fre­quently try­ing dif­fer­ent ver­sions of ba­si­cally the same ma­chine. Met­calfe beat Nigel in the 1976 Scot­tish when the two were try­ing dif­fer­ent rear sus­pen­sion set ups. Es­sen­tially Met­calfe’s worked well and Bir­kett’s did not. Then BeamishSuz­uki came up with a brand new mod­i­fied 325cc. It was the one with the rear shock­ers sharply an­gled on struts from the swing­ing arm. Nigel didn’t like it but he still man­aged a splen­did win in the Mitchell trial, the third round of the Bri­tish Cham­pi­onship. The vic­tory was no way for Nigel to prove his point but

the fact was that he still felt far hap­pier on the pre­vi­ous model. He even­tu­ally per­suaded Gra­ham Beamish to build a com­pro­mise for him.

It was the 325cc with the old type rear end and the lat­est front end with an ex­tra half a de­gree out­wards on the steer­ing head an­gle and it worked like a dream. This ma­chine formed the ba­sis of the pro­duc­tion Beamish Suzuki RL 250S. His three year Suzuki deal en­tered its fi­nal year in 1977 and they be­gan to use the su­perb Mick Whit­lock framed ma­chines with the 325cc mo­tors housed in them. This was ef­fec­tively the last year of de­vel­op­ment be­fore pro­duc­tion but they had been three good years for Bir­kett. He had es­tab­lished him­self as a pro­fes­sional rider with ex­cel­lent de­vel­op­ment knowl­edge with lots of abil­ity and com­mit­ment.

That fi­nal 325cc Suzuki was a fan­tas­tic ma­chine and to­tally dif­fer­ent to the pro­duc­tion Beamish Suzuki ma­chines that were due to ap­pear but he was told that they would not be re­new­ing his con­tract. For 1978 Suzuki had in­vested heav­ily in Mal­colm Rath­mell to ride the new Beamish Suzuki tri­als ma­chines.

ALL CHANGE

It was all change in 1978 as Mon­tesa im­porter, Jim San­di­ford, of­fered Bir­kett a con­tract to ride the Cota 348 which at the time was a very pop­u­lar ma­chine. He re­ally liked the new chal­lenge and also his new ma­chine. Dur­ing a busy sea­son he took many Na­tional wins as well as scor­ing some points in the WTC.

For the SSDT a new pre-pro­duc­tion 350cc model promised so much but he was plagued in the early part of the week by elec­tri­cal prob­lems and he was very dis­ap­pointed with his four­teenth place fin­ish. The ig­ni­tion sta­tor plate re­tain­ing screws were too long and when he thought the plate was safely in po­si­tion it would move slightly, af­fect­ing the ig­ni­tion tim­ing. It was day four, Thurs­day, of the six day week be­fore they traced the prob­lem.

When the pro­duc­tion Cota 349 ar­rived he hoped it would be as good as ev­ery­one ex­pected but it was in fact very dis­ap­point­ing. In truth the wheel­base was too long which meant it gripped well but would not go around cor­ners. Such was Bir­kett’s con­cern that he tried to make a Cota 349 look like a Cota

Photo: © G. Mauri 348. Mon­tesa im­porter Jim San­di­ford knew the im­por­tance to the buy­ing pub­lic to see sup­ported rid­ers do­ing well on pro­duc­tion ma­chines and was not happy at all with the sit­u­a­tion.

His high­light of the year on the Cota 349 though was third place at the World round in Hol­land af­ter also scor­ing points in Ire­land at the open­ing round.

Apart from these good rides his other re­sults were not so good and in the Au­gust it was made clear to Bir­kett that he would not be re­new­ing his Mon­tesa con­tract for 1980. The new white Cota 200cc was launched and San­di­ford de­cided to mount Nigel on it for the re­main­der of the year. He was a rev­e­la­tion, win­ning two Bri­tish Cham­pi­onship rounds, the Red Rose and the Travers and also tak­ing fifth place in the tough Scott trial.

The in­ter­est to sign the pop­u­lar Cum­brian rider ini­tially came from Ital­jet and also San­di­ford but an­other Ital­ian man­u­fac­turer, Fan­tic, knew that Bir­kett could achieve ex­cel­lent re­sults on the smaller ca­pac­ity ma­chines and they de­cided he would be the ideal pi­lot for the 200 model. He loved the new Fan­tic and scored some very con­sis­tent re­sults in­clud­ing a sixth at the SSDT.

His form had suf­fered in the WTC with the 156cc en­gine not prov­ing pow­er­ful enough in the Fan­tic for the tough haz­ards. In Au­gust the new 240 model Fan­tic ar­rived and later in the year he took it to a fan­tas­tic sec­ond place in the Scott trial set­ting stan­dard time. He car­ried on through 1982 with the 240 model be­fore the re­la­tion­ship de­te­ri­o­rated and he de­cided to look for pas­tures new.

He was friends with John Shirt Snr who had heard that he was un­happy with the Fan­tic sit­u­a­tion and sent him a 250cc ‘S’ model Majesty to try. Nigel de­cided that the Fan­tic sit­u­a­tion could not be re­solved and moved to the Majesty team run by Shirt Snr for 1983.

TURN­ING JA­PANESE

As fate some­times plays a hand he ended up once again back on Ja­panese ma­chin­ery. Shirt had hinted to Bir­kett that Yamaha may have a new tri­als ma­chine com­ing along and that if he was on his Yamaha pow­ered Majesty ma­chines, maybe he could be­come in­volved with the de­vel­op­ment.

It was in the Fe­bru­ary that ‘Shirty’ called Nigel to see if he would go to Ja­pan to test the new ma­chine for Yamaha. He was sworn to se­crecy and had to sign a twenty page con­fi­den­tial­ity agree­ment! He knew from his pre­vi­ous ex­pe­ri­ence with the Ja­panese that pro­duc­ing tri­als ma­chines was not their forte but when he wit­nessed the new rev­o­lu­tion­ary ma­chine it blew him away.

He spent nine days test­ing dif­fer­ent vari­ants of the new ma­chine. Its sin­gle rear shock ab­sorber sys­tem would change the world of tri­als for­ever. He re­turned full of enthusiasm for the new ma­chine and rode the Majesty un­til he de­buted the new ma­chine in the Jack Wood Na­tional trial near Sh­effield.

The crowds flocked to see the ma­chine in ac­tion and it was only pi­lot er­ror in the last sec­tion of the day at the top of ‘River Kwai’ which he at­tacked in the wrong gear that cost him the win. The Yamaha mono-shock gave Nigel a new lease of life.

His maiden win was at the Travers but he set a new record in tri­als when he won the 1984 Scott trial, the first ever win for a Ja­panese ma­chine in the tough York­shire event. He con­tin­ued with the ma­chine for the next ten years be­fore the wa­ter-cooled TYZ was launched. It was good but noth­ing like the air-cooled ver­sion he first saw in 1983.

He de­cided to make his own ma­chine util­is­ing the TYZ en­gine and com­po­nents and the ‘Bir­kett’ ma­chine was born. The idea was to build a rolling chas­sis kit where rid­ers could up­grade their older ma­chines but noth­ing be­came of it, or so he thought at the time.

French mo­tor­cy­cle man­u­fac­turer, Scorpa, had shown an in­ter­est in the ‘Bir­kett’ ma­chine around 2000 and in 2005 he be­came the of­fi­cial UK im­porter for the brand. This proved a suc­cess story in its own right and in 2011 he also added the Span­ish Ossa brand to his busi­ness in­ter­ests.

Nigel is still very much in­volved in the mod­ern day tri­als scene, spon­sor­ing the young rid­ers on both Scorpa and Ossa. He still continues to ride in the SSDT hav­ing started way back in 1971, has never missed out any years and has also fin­ished all the events.

He still com­petes and en­joys lo­cal events on a reg­u­lar ba­sis. Mo­tor­cy­cle tri­als have been very good to Nigel Bir­kett and no doubt it’s still a case of “Tri­als For­ever” for the fore­see­able fu­ture.

1983 WTC – GBR: The start of the Yamaha years on the su­perb Majesty 250S

1986 SSDT

1982 WTC – GBR: Sec­tion in­spec­tion

1984 Scott: The first win for a Ja­panese ma­chine and one of Nigel Bir­ketts proud­est mo­ments

1979 SSDT: A dis­ap­point­ing week on the Mon­tesa 11th po­si­tion

“Af­ter my poor run of re­sults im­porter Jim San­di­ford told me he would not be re­new­ing my con­tract for 1981. The new Cota 200cc had been launched mid-sea­son and he in­formed me that I would be fin­ish­ing the sea­son on the pre-pro­duc­tion model which had...

1980 WTC: On the 156ccc Fan­tic

1978 WTC – BEL: Bat­tling with the ice and snow on the Mon­tesa

1977: Shoot­ing the rapids at the Su­per­stars trial on the Suzuki

Test­ing the pro­to­type Suzuki’s in Ja­pan

1977: Talk­ing to the World Cham­pion Yr­jorjo Ves­ter­i­nen

1976 SSDT

In Ja­pan with my team mate big John ‘Mecca’ Met­calfe

1975 SSDT: On the ‘Works’ Suzuki 325cc

“My first SSDT on the fac­tory supplied Suzuki RL 325cc was in 1975 and I rode re­ally well un­til the fourth day. The ma­chine had lost all its po­ten­tial but I got the blame be­cause the man­age­ment thought I had been out par­ty­ing ev­ery night but I knew it...

1975 SSDT

1973 SSDT in the cold on the Ossa 2,000 above sea level on Cail­lich

MY MA­CHINES – 1974 KAWASAKI KT 250CC: “The truth is that the KT 250cc was never that good. Af­ter chang­ing the steer­ing head an­gle and the ge­om­e­try I went to test it on a sec­tion I used to test the Ossa on, it con­sisted of three logs. On the Ossa it was...

1973: Manx Two Day Trial – An event he would later win in the 80’s

Scram­bling was his first love as a teenager

1971 SSDT: The love af­fair with the ‘Scot­tish’ be­gins

Soon the awards would start to come

Scorpa im­porter

2013 SSDT: Still en­joy­ing the event on the Ossa

“Af­ter the work with the Majesty monoshock Yamaha projects I wanted to put some­thing in place to se­cure my fu­ture em­ploy­ment and open­ing the tri­als shop in 1987 seemed to be a nat­u­ral pro­gres­sion. I met my wife June in 1985 and we got mar­ried in 1990....

Trial Mag­a­zine Test – Happy Days

The Yamaha pow­ered Birkett tri­als ma­chine

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