The Introduction of Motorcycle Racing in 1908

Published on 15 October 2023 at 20:15

By Martin Gegg: First Published in the Brooklands Members Bulletin No: 63 May 2020

Prior to 1908, motorcycle sport in mainland Britain was restricted to timed regularity trials held on open roads as well some record breaking events at velodromes. Meanwhile, in Europe long-distance car races were being held and even after SF Edge won the Gordon Bennett race from Paris to Innsbruck, hosting the return event in 1903 was not possible on mainland Britain due to speed limits. Instead, the event was held in Ireland after an Act was passed enabling roads to be closed for racing. The Isle of Man also allowed pre-event testing to take place on a route which was later to become the TT course.

In the early 1900s, various plans were being drawn up for race tracks on private land and eventually Hugh Locke King came forward to build the Circuit on his land at Weybridge. This was initially conceived as a motor car racing circuit but the 2 January, 1907 editorial in The Motorcycle Magazine was already looking forward to the opening of the new Brooklands Racing Circuit where it said ‘Riders will start in positions according to their handicap and it will provide much excitement.’

Pioneer motorcycle manufacturers saw the opening of the track as an opportunity to reach high speeds in controlled conditions. By June, and a month before the opening of the Surrey Motordrome, Charlie Collier of Matchless announced that he was developing a special motorcycle with the intention of being the first to register a speed of 100mph. In the same month, it was announced that ‘A French Manufacturer’, almost certainly Peugeot, was also preparing a machine to reach 100mph at the circuit.

On 17 June, 1907 Brooklands was opened and following a lunch, Edith Locke King led a procession of cars round the circuit. Despite the track being designed for high-speed racing, the effects on vehicles, their drivers and riders was unknown. Prior to Selwyn Edge’s planned 24-hour car run, doctors had warned that his body may not stand the strain and he could even become insane due to the monotony. At this stage, the Brooklands authorities felt the track was unfit for motorcycles and there was a fear their engines would seize or even disintegrate if run at full throttle for long periods around the banked circuit.

There was perhaps another reason why it would be undesirable to run bikes at high speed. Just 11 days after the track was opened, and Selwyn Edge was completing his momentous record-breaking run in a Napier car, the newly laid concrete track was already beginning to break up in places. By this time, motorcycle racing had been taking place at Canning Town Velodrome and a purpose-built motor racing track at Bexhill. The 1907 season closed without any motorcycle events at Brooklands, but in early December two unidentified naval officers rode the track and reported serious overheating, although they did say that the surface was very much better than anticipated.

Rapid progress

At the same time, the Auto Cycle Union was lobbying Brooklands to introduce motorcycle racing, but still there seemed to be no appetite for motorcycles at the track. However, things progressed fast and the experience of the early car races, developments in motorcycle design and smaller than expected spectator numbers for the first car races in 1907 meant that by February 1908, motorcycle racing had been included in that year’s programme, beginning with an Easter Weekend Meeting.

On 25 February, an unpublished private race of one lap was run between two Oxford graduates, W Gordon McMinnies riding a single cylinder 3hp light TT Triumph without pedals or mudguards, and Oscar Bickford riding a 5hp twin-cylinder light TT Vindec. The Triumph made the better start and by half-way was leading by 100 yards. It was reported that a small piece of metal preventing full compression in one of the Vindec’s cylinders led to a rather underwhelming race, with McMinnies winning by 150 yards.

While this event is well-known by Brooklands aficionados, what is less well known is that McMinnies also went on to become the fastest Brooklands motorcycle rider that day by making two timed halfmile runs of 57.88mph against the wind and 59.80mph with a following wind. This fact was immediately picked up by Dunlop with a full-page advert proclaiming ‘Almost 60 Miles Per Hour at Brooklands’ on Dunlop Tyres. Whilst researching this piece, it was interesting to see one reference, dealing with the history of The South British Trading Company that read: ‘1908: early in the year came more success in a private match race at Brooklands – the first ever two-wheeled event on the track, when Oscar Bickford came second on his Vindec Special.’ True, but second in a two-horse race is also last!

During the last week of March, Charlie and Harry Collier of Matchless, AG Reynolds, and WH Wells representing the South British Trading Company, suppliers of Vindec, travelled to Brooklands with F Straight, the Secretary of the Auto Cycle Union, to get a look at the track in advance of the first official races. Wells was one of the first off and at high speed he left the main finishing straight and rode up onto the banking, just missing an area of wet concrete. Reynolds and Wells, keen to restore the reputation of Vindec after its apparent failure to impress in February, allowed representatives from The Motorcycle Magazine to have a ride and they duly reported the Vindec’s excellent performance. It appears the Matchless machines fared less well on that occasion. During a break, Baron Ernst de Rodakowski, the Clerk of the Course, was persuaded to have a go on Reynolds’ Vindec. Despite being a complete novice and never ridden before; he was able to comment on the Vindec’s excellent handling.

Racing begins

On Easter Monday, 20 April 24 riders lined up for the first official motorcycle race run as part of the Brooklands Automobile Racing Club’s Easter Weekend Meeting. The handicap system that was hinted at prior to the event did not materialise and so, somewhat inevitably, the big 7.9hp

Peugeot-powered NLG (North London Garages) motorcycle built by AG Forster and ridden by William Cook made a good start and romped home 5/8ths of a mile in front of E Kirkham on a 7hp PeugeotLeader. Charlie Collier had clearly learnt from his trial and came in third, 100 yards behind on a 6hp JAP-powered Matchless. McMinnies again won the Triumph versus Vindec grudge match, coming in fourth ahead of WH Wells, while Bickford was 12th and Harry Collier 13th.

By May, when the second motorcycle race was held, the organisers had introduced a handicap system which produced a more interesting result. H Shanks won on a 2 ¾hp Chater-Lea with H Partridge second on a 6hp NSU and WH Bashall on a 3 ½hp Triumph in third place. A 5hp Vindec was eighth piloted by A Sproston with McMinnies 10th on his 3 ½hp Triumph beating William Cook on the Peugeot-NLG in 18th. Reynolds could only manage 22nd on the second Vindec and Wells suffered a puncture on the third of these machines. This month also saw court action taken against Brooklands for noise and disturbance which included petrol fumes and spoiling raspberries in adjoining properties. While the records seem to suggest the action may have been brought following the Edge 24-hour record run, it was the poor old motorcyclists who suffered and were not able to race again until October.

In the meantime, McMinnies competed in hill climbs and regularity trials on his Triumph. Correspondents in the letters pages of The Motorcycle Magazine complained that his motorcycle had an unfair advantage as it was not a standard road machine having had pedals, tool bags, horn and lamp removed. In August, he was also caught speeding with another motorcyclist. The case was dismissed as only one of two constables gave evidence of speed, commenting that McMinnies was travelling very fast but neither officer had timed the riders over the required distance.

In June, Oscar Bickford put his 5hp Vindec up for sale for £25 and was next found on the pages of The Motorcycle in September having built himself a steam canoe. Readers were told he originally powered it using a 1½hp motorcycle engine, but the vibration made the seams leak.

Back at Brooklands, the October race of 28 entrants was won by Gordon Gibson on a 3 ½hp Triumph with Vindec managing only sixth. Vindec Motorcycles continued to perform well in hill climbs but had less success at Brooklands. Charlie Collier, not happy with the formula used to set the handicap, finished well down the field and the motorcycling press previously supportive of handicapping were also understandably complaining that larger bikes were not being treated fairly.

Charlie Collier was back at the track on 8 October to attempt the hour record. Riding a Matchless 7hp powered by a V-twin JAP engine that had recently come ninth in the Isle of Man TT, Collier pushed off to reach a speed of 63.24mph on lap one and a highest speed of 72.89mph on lap four. He eventually set the first motorcycle hour record at Brooklands of 70 miles and 105yds in the hour. The result was later adjusted to 67 miles and 1655yds as Collier had been instructed to ride outside the 50ft track guideline when the ACU rules stated motorcycles should ride at the 10ft guideline. This adjustment was still enough to beat the previous record set in France by Italian rider Giuppone on a 12hp Peugeot. However, Charlie continued to protest that he had been treated unfairly.

The last motorcycle meeting of the year was in November. The Cambridge University Motorcycle Club was at the track for a private meeting consisting of five races and an impromptu Car vs Motor-bicycle race. It was noted that the handicapping was well calculated as no more than two seconds separated the first two riders in each event. The last race was the Car vs Motor-bicycle race involving the Club Secretary driving a 31.1hp Daimler against a 5hp Vindec. It is not known if this race was handicapped, but the car won by five seconds.

On 22nd December, Major LindseyLloyd replaced Ernest de Rodakowski as Clerk of the Course and motorcyclists looked forward to a full programme of two-wheeled events for 1909.

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