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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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...
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
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