Saturday, October 16, 2010


The October motorcycle show at the Stafford Fair Grounds is always the biggest old bike show in England, with a huge autojumble, dozens of club displays, restored machines competing for attention, a Wall of Death, and always a big, successful Bonhams auction to round things out on Sunday.

It was an unexpected treat that I was able to make it this year, and while I've been in a selling mood this year rather than bargain hunting, it was still fun to wander through the endless rows of vendor stalls, indoors and out, to photograph, ogle and bump into old friends.

Typical attendance is around 60,000 paying customers (£10), and as the day was fine, many rode their bikes to the show, clearly more interested in a day out amongst their fellow bikers than bringing home a basket case.   It can get a bit crowded inside the three large halls which hold the commercial booths and larger club-sponsored vignettes (and yes, the clubs compete for a 'best booth' trophy), but there's so much to see that really isn't available elsewhere, it's worth fording the crowd.  Of course, if you're looking for a real bargain or an especially rare piece, you arrive the day before the show opens, and make deals while vendors are setting up.

Most of the British old-bike-world luminaries circulate to sign books or mingle (Ivan Rhodes, 'Mr. Velocette, above) typically lurking in the large Bonhams hall during the preview hours, as admission is restricted to someone holding a catalog, or paying for one on the spot (£20).  Thus, it's the only place in the many acres of grounds which isn't chock-a-block with people - a veritable oasis.

The Bonhams sale always includes a few very special machines, and quite a few of my 'Top 20' auction prices have been realized in the very spot; big Zenith Brooklands racers, Series 'A' Vincent twins, Brough SS100s, etc.  This year the highlight is a significant collection of Helmut Fath's handiwork, including his double-World-Championship winning URS sidecar outfit (above), and GP Seeley-framed racer (below, with Colin Seeley himself), housing the brilliant dohc 4-cylinder engine with fuel injection.  Seeley was present to answer any questions about the bike...which included a few 'not for publication' stories of being crashed into by other competitors to put him out of the Belgian GP, way back in the 60s.

Fath's story deserves to be told at length here, but in short, he was a brilliant and meticulous engineer who specialized in developing sidecar racers, initially housing BMW Rennsport engines.  After winning the World Championship in 1960, a horrific accident in which his BMW-supplied forks broke put paid to his racing for several years as he recovered from his injuries.  When he was ready to return to the track in 1966, BMW were none too happy with Fath for implying they were responsible for his wreck, and refused to supply him with an engine.

In a true David-and-Goliath manner, Fath decided to build his own engine (above) and chassis for his racer, settling on a design very similar to the MV Agusta and Gilera dohc 'fours', which he called the URS, after the village of Ursenbach where he conceived his plan.  His new engine had teething troubles for the first two years, but in 1968 he replaced his carburetors with fuel injection, and snatched the Sidecar World Championship from BMW on the machine of his own make. Fath again crashed out of racing in '69, and sponsored Horst Owesle / Peter Rutterford on the URS, who again won the World Championship in 1971.  The Bonhams sale also includes a huge array of spares, castings, and tooling, enough to make several more URS engines of 500cc and 750cc.

I also had a chance to speak with Mike Jackson (above, with Robert Gordon-Champ, 'Mr. Sunbeam'), formerly of Norton-Villiers-Triumph (NVT), who as 'Sales Mangler' for NVT helped develop this two-stroke enduro machine, quite a rarity now, and a real advance in such 'street scramblers', having an efficient Japanese engine in a good-handling chassis.  Sadly, laggard management meant the two years between prototype and sales floor meant the Japanese mfr's took the cue and made their own...and Mike had no sales to 'mangle'.

A highlight of many such big bike shows in England is a chance to see a 'Wall of Death', an exhibition which almost died out in the 1980s, but several have sprung up in recent years.  This one is owned by the Fox family (father Ken, sons Luke and Alex), and I last saw it in 1988!  At the time, Mrs. Fox offered me a ride on the Wall, on her handlebars no less, and to my eternal chagrin, I said 'no'.  (I've since learned my lesson; just say yes, and breathe.)  This is the only Wall of Death which has TWO women riders as stars; Kerri Cameron (middle above, and in top pic), who's been with the Fox troupe for 7 years, and Jamie Starr (on bike - yes its running on rollers), riding the wall since last May.

There's nothing quite like the sensation of 400lbs of bike and rider hurtling horizontal towards your head, especially if the rider is sitting on the handlebars, waggling the front end!  The Fox's use three ca.1926 Indian Scouts, a traditional Wall mount for the total neutrality and predictability of the chassis, light weight, and near-bulletproof engine.

George Cohen ('Mr. Norton', above, with Sammy Miller) displayed what is possibly the oldest Norton in the world - a 1902 model he picked up in Belgium; the 'Energette' sports a two-speed gearbox and Clément engine of 143cc, but the real magic is in the name on the tank, which sports very early Art Nouveau lettering, later changed to the infamous curvaceous/vampire logo we all know and love today.

George has only ridden the Energette once to date, and says it needs a bit of work to go properly, as the crank mainshafts are worn and the external flywheel wobbles and vibrates; I suspect once he's sorted it out, we'll all be treated the sight of him getting some exercise, starting the little beastie on its stand.  Maybe next year!