London Motorcycle Museum



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Tales from the Tarmac

Welcome to “Tales from the Tarmac”. At the LMM we have a wide range of volunteers, trustees and friends with a wealth of knowledge and stories. Over the coming months we will be sharing some of those stories with you.

So sit back, select a story from the left hand side, get comfortable and enjoy!

Tiger Cub 1.

I’ve never been a Biker. That is the idea of going around with a mob of other ‘Bikers’ is not my idea of what a motorcycle is for. At times I’ve been a motorcycle club member, but this is to some extent to enjoy the competition the club extends to its members. Often it is to assist the club in its activities.

So although I’ve lived through the Coffee Bar Cowboy and the Mods and Rockers era it meant nothing to me. To me a motorcycle meant freedom. To be out on my own and to go at my own pace, as fast as possible.

That isn’t to say I didn’t visit the various venues. The Ace Café, Barton’s, The Busy Bee and the Cellar were all looked at, more out of out of curiosity than anything. In the main I wanted to see the motorcycles as I had no interest in the blokes and the women were few and far between. The gory accident stories and brushes with the police were things to be avoided rather than to be revelled in.

There must have been a few like myself because when the Daily Mirror had a middle page spread about the curse of the Ton Up Cowboy, the picture showed an NSU Quickly, a Greeves trials iron and a 197cc. James. Hardly Ton Up stuff.

My first motorcycle was a Triumph Tiger Cub. I had been led astray by my cousin who was slightly older and was using his Royal Enfield Ensign back and forth to work. He’d let me ride his motorbike on Hounslow Heath one Saturday afternoon and like Mr. Toad in Wind in the Willows, I wanted one.

I’d been cycling to work for a year and saving like crazy, but at the end of the year I still didn’t have that much to spend. I thought I had just enough for a deposit so I went and asked my father if he would help me. The answer was a very firm NO. If I wanted a car he would help with the finances but if I wanted a motorcycle, I was on my own.

So I got a provisional licence and a pair of L plates and a crash helmet and went pillion with my cousin down the Great West Road to G K Ray on the Chiswick roundabout.

There wasn’t a huge choice for the sort of money I had. A 197cc. Norman or a Tiger Cub. To me who knew nothing about motorbikes the choice was obvious. The Norman was a rather gangly thing with ugly looking Armstrong leading link forks. The Tiger Cub was a metallic blue like the Tiger 110 so there was no contest.

I put my deposit money on a on the 1956 Cub. It was about 6 months old and I could arrange the remaining finances through the Westminster Bank over the next couple of years.

A careful ride home followed. The Sunday was spent pottering about the local streets and I was ready for work on Monday.

I lived in Heston and I was apprenticed to Wilkinson Sword in Colnbrook so my route between the two passed down the Bath Road on the north edge of London Airport Heathrow. At that time the Bath Road divided at the Peggy Bedford. The main A4 went down the Colnbrook Bypass and the old Bath Road followed the original coaching route through Longford. This was a much more motorcycling road as old roads often are. There were bends that could be tackled at speed and bridges to add variety.

The only speed limits at the time on the route were 30 mph. and only through Heston to the Vicarage Farm Road, through Cranford village, Longford and Colnbrook itself. The A4 Bath Road had no speed limit. It was a single carriageway and only two sets of traffic lights existed on the whole route. At the Coach and Horses pub, probably better known as the Ariel Hotel and the Airport Central. Which at the time was the main entrance to Heathrow.

Given reasonable traffic the Tiger Cub would be against the stop a fair proportion of the way.

My arrival at work on Monday was greeted with interest as the other apprentices wanted to see what motorbike I had bought. The first question asked was, how fast it was. I bragged that I had done 70 mph. down the Bath Road.

The summer of 57 was a particularly wet affair and to ward off the weather I bought a ‘waterproof’ suit. The Bellstaff Black Prince was made from Vinyl sheet welded at the seams. In theory it should have been impervious to outside wet. In practice its construction had the unfortunate fault that where there were positions where four seams met, the weld was incomplete. This had the unfortunate result of letting water in at the crouch of the trousers. Of course you realise this when you are have covered about three quarters of the way to work. The resulting damp patch as well as being uncomfortable was also a cause of much amusement and ribbing when the suit was stepped out of.

It’s probably because of the low traffic density that I survived my riding style. Zooming in and out of the traffic, sweeping round bends and passing everything that could be passed. The percentage of running into trouble was running high.

The Tiger Cub was a development of the earlier Terrier. The 150cc. Terrier was designed as economical transport. Designers at that time seemed to think that any motorcycle of less than 500cc. was only meant for a ride to work by older and stayed persons. They had no concept of the new generation that had come through a war where their heroes were fighter pilots and they had aspirations of getting as near to flying as they could.

The only thing that would suffice was a motorbike and as a 500 was too expensive to buy and maintain then something smaller had to fill the bill.

This meant that the Tiger Cub was pushed to its limit most of the time. I soon found that if the throttle was closed the resulting loss of speed took a long time to regain. So I developed a style of reducing speed by the minimum amount in order to maintain a high average.

It wasn’t long before I reached the limit of what the Tiger Cub could do.

It was the 56 Cub with plunger sprung rear suspension, like the Terrier. The forks although looking strong were actually quite spindly underneath the covers. All very fine if you are plodding to work but quite unsuitable for howling into a bend, having only reduced your speed by a smidgen. The un-damped rear would pogo the front forks would twist and the frame allowed the engine swing like a pendulum. Not necessarily all together or in any particular order.

You rode what you got and I didn’t know any better. Riding to and from work and off somewhere at the weekends, just within the capabilities of the bike continued.

Longford had a 30 mph. speed limit so that had to be the speed that was maintained.

Going home one warm Thursday evening I was doing just that, 30. As I approached the White Horse I had no intention of slackening off to take the right hand bend after the pub. The car driver coming the other way had no intention of deviating from is intention of getting a drink and drove his Austin A95 straight across the road in front of me. He saw me and stopped.

My braking only slowed me a little, the Cub brakes weren’t that powerful.

There wasn’t any way I could go round the front of him. The pub car park was a narrow apron of loose gravel ending in a low wall in front of some cottages. I had no option but to try to get round the back of the car. I swerved to try to pull the bike round but to no avail.

The car was diagonally on to me and I hit it in the middle of the nearside rear door. Ouch!

Anyone who says you can have a crash and not be hurt is a liar! My foot was the first to feel the impact. I wobbled passed the A95, stopped in the curb beyond and limped back to the car.

The driver was still sitting there, shocked.

My first question was to ask why he had stopped? Had he continued to the car park there would have been enough room to pass behind safely. He said he saw me coming and thought there was enough room for me to go round the front. Not realising there was only gravel to turn on.

Fortunately for me it had only been a glancing blow. The Cub’s left footrest was bent up and the clutch leaver had curled forward. My little finger was starting to throb.

When we examined the car, we discovered that I had left an imprint on the side of the car. There in the middle of the back door was a melted vinyl smear from the Black Prince suit. Just beyond that was a groove, made by the clutch lever. The rear hub cap was dented in by my foot. Now wonder my foot was sore.

The chap had only bought the car the previous weekend and I had damaged it 5 days later.

Nothing like being up to date.

Iwade?  I lost my Speedway Virginity there...

And like most adolescents, it was a memorable if unspectacular experience.  Not that Barry Thomas or his brother Ivor could be blamed.  No, it was my natural Virgoan character trait of not being a natural sportsman coupled to my intense fear of pain...

“Speedway?  I've always fancied a go at that”.  Those were the eight words that spawned a great motorcycling friendship and arguably, sowed the seed that much later grew into a thriving amateur speedway scene.

It was 1979 and as a recent recruit to the sales team of Kawasaki, I found myself in their Slough headquarters talking to their then Technical Training Guru, Mike Coombes.  The chat was, as ever, about bikes.  What I rode, what branch of bikesport I liked best, that sort of thing.  Turned out that we had a mutual interest in shale action.

Now of course, Coombsey had had some experience having ridden second halves at West Ham's Custom House track.  Me, I was just a terrace pundit, the archetypal loud mouth who actually knows two tenths of bugger all!  I had been watching Leicester Lions with a passion from 1968, a regular at the old Blackbird Road stadium and following the team to various away tracks.   But less of that, back to the story.

What I didn't know about Mike at that time was his unerring ability to make things happen.  No sooner had I said those words than he was already half way to making up a league team!  

So it was, a short while later, that a group of somewhat apprehensive people met in Kawasaki's car park for the trek across London to Iwade...

Of course, before we could venture out on to the track, we needed to acquire suitable equipment: leathers, sliding shoe and not forgetting a bike of course.  The first of these essential bits of kit was found lurking in the cupboard of one of the greats of that time, Ray Wilson.  Both he and his mentor, Norman Hunter were Kawasaki dealers and in my patch.

I can still remember the look on Wilson's face when I said, “You'll never guess what Ray, I am having a crack at Speedway down at Barry Thomas' place.”  “Well Youth, best of luck” was his helpful riposte.  He did however chuck two sets of leathers at me and set me another dilemma.  One set was a full on Speedway suit with his name and past sponsors emblazoned, the other a set of ancient Kett Silverstone leathers that guaranteed anonymity.  I chose the latter!

The sliding shoe was another matter but the resourceful Coombes came to everyone's rescue.  “Deluxe or Economy version” was all he asked.  Maximum flash for minimum cash drove me to deluxe of course and along with Mike, I became the owner of a custom built slider (which I still have) fashioned from ship plate left over from the Ark Royal, lightweight it ain't!

To Kawasaki parts management, those who chose the economy option presented a mystery.  They never could understand how the boot shaped holes in their Dexion racking came to be there...

As the time drew close, a 2 valve Jawa was borrowed from somewhere and we were almost there.  Just time for 2 last pieces of sage advice from the pros:

“One day it will just click and you'll wonder what the fuss was about”, Norman Hunter told me and, from the legendary pocket sized ex-Swindon hero George White, “Stand up and when you get into the arse of the bend wind it on.”  Well that's all there is to it then...

The day dawned bright and clear, the Jawa was strapped precariously to my company car and we set off in convoy.  The trip across 'The Smoke' was only memorable for 2 things: there was no real congestion (or charge) and the coining of the phrase that stuck for years; “Make way, Speedway Team!”

In all there were nine of us: Mike and myself, Mike's Boss and head of Kawasaki technical department, Nick Jeffery together with his 2-IC, Dave Hill. The 2 'factory technicians' Alex Dell and Nick Davies also joined as did Randal Thomas from the parts department who brought along his brother Kim.  Robin Vincent from the accounts section made up a keen - if unlikely – ninth.  We had a full league team and 2 for the second half!

The actual track time is now a bit hazy for all of us.  However some things did embed in the collective memories.  None the least of these was the track itself.  Being used to British League Division 1 tracks, I wasn't quite prepared for the safety fence made of pallets and packing cases or the somewhat patchy nature of the dirt itself.  

I thankfully didn't make a close acquaintance with the fence, others however were not so lucky!  The cries of “Don't shut off” going largely unheeded...

Noticeable was the fact that our organiser - Coombes - was holding back (unusual for anyone who knows him!).  Being the only one of us who had ever done it before, he had to 'put his race face on' and build up to it.  He needn't have worried: being a leading exponent of the 2 position throttle - full hole and stop – he was soon power-sliding around the turns.

For the rest of us, it was a day of mixed fortune and thankfully few injuries.  None of us really got close to Mike's prowess but as we all took a much needed breather, Barry jumped on his 4 valver which it turns out we had only been 'running in' for him and gave it large!  This was memorable not only for his speed and grace but also the fact he was only wearing jeans, trainers and an old 'Rally Jacket'!!

In many ways, that day at Iwade was a 'Field of Dreams' for the assembled group.  Mike ultimately took on and beat the Speedway Promoters to allow amateurs to race as well as rubbing shoulders and handlebars with the greats; Fundin, Briggs et al in the Classic Speedway series.

Randal bought a Harley XR750 Flat Tracker and still is involved with that branch of dirt track sport, along with his son Adam.  Nick J continued to set himself new challenges - riding the Edinburgh Trial on a Z1000 fitted with a rear trials tyre to name but one!

For me, the highlight was finally racing against Ivor Thomas at the Vintage Club Speedway Championship of 1987, on the Kings Lynn track.  In heat 20, he was second to Manuel Hughes and I was third – I was on a petrol engined 350cc Triumph though and I am certain there wasn't much in it at the flag!

My First Racing Experience

I always wanted to race a motorbike. I'd been helping my cousin Mike with his early efforts and it lead me to think I can do that. I'd been invalided out of the 1961 and awarded a small pension. Something like £2,7/6d a week for 2 years.

Not long after I'd been home for a while I got a letter to say I had a choice, either to continue with the pension for the next 2 years or I could have the money in a lump sum. The lump £250 sounded much more attractive than £2,7/6d (£2.37.5p.) a week that would disappear on trivial things easily.

The cheque duly arrived and I lent some money to my father, as the business wasn't doing too well. I didn't want him complaining about what I was going to spend the rest on. I spent it on a RACER.

In the 1950's and early 60's there wasn't much choice of racing bike in the 250cc. class. A typical race grid would comprise a selection of specials and a few foreign bikes. Those that had the money could buy ex-works MV Augusta or NSU, those that had workshops could produce sleeved down Manx Norton or Velocette. The remains would turn up on pre-war 250 Rudges tuned Tiger Cubs and a James with a Villiers twin.

A RACER? Well not quite, what I bought was a 500cc Matchless outfit. A bit of a mongrel of a bike with the engine going back to 1947 in a later 'Jam Pot' suspended frame and a Canterbury chassis with a 'U' channel in place of the sidecar body. That was going to be my transport, as it happened for the next few years.

Comerfords at Thames Ditton were advertising a 250 Greeves that had belonged to Richard Wyler. Richard Wyler was an American actor who had stared in a television spy series and had written some articles in one of the weekly motorcycle magazines.

Comerfords had made a sort of copy of the most successful club racer of the day, that is Reg Everet's Racing Greeves. Reg had seen the potential of the Greeves square barrel scrambler. It had been winning loads of scrambles nationally and on the continent and was, by comparison with other specials easily the most powerful 250 available.

Reg had basically put racing tyres on to the scrambler and changed the straight bars for an 'Ace' bar and with an open megger, barked his way to victory round Brands Hatch and other circuits across the country.

I'd seen the results and it looked easy.

So I bought the Comerfords Greeves. Their version was the frame and tank from the Essex twin, the Villiers 34A engine with a Greeves square barrel from the scrambler. A big plastic racing seat and some Dunlop racing tyres.

I took it home on my Matchless outfit thinking I had bought a potential winner.

My first effort was at Snetterton. I took the bike off the outfit and started it. All was fine so I went out in practise only to return with a soaking wet boot. The petrol tank had split at the bottom and had started to leak. It wasn't too bad just a bit weepy along the seam so I decided to go out in the race.

2 laps done and the engine stopped, which was very disappointing because I had made a good start. I examined the bike only to find the choke slide, still fitted to the Monoblock carburettor, had dropped in. I pulled out the choke and restarted only to find that the split in the tank opened up when the engine was revved. This sprayed fuel all over the top of the engine. I called it a day and went home. That was the last race that season.

The winter was spent on improvements.

Geoff Selvidge, Speedway

Pete Rogers,

Tiger Cub 1.

First Racing Experience