The TriBSA bonk plot

From Cyril's memoirs dated 14 December 2006

Get me Ago’s sperm!’ And with that shout from the boardroom so began one of the strangest and most regrettable chapters in the history of the British motorcycle industry.

This year I’ve spent many a happy hour glued to the screen watching lithe youngsters perform while a foaming stubby sits snugly in my hand. MotoGP has been thrilling, but how much more thrilling it would be for us Brits if we had a bunch of riders out there capable of getting on the podium. No disrespect to James Elison, [now James Toseland – Ed] who at least gives us a presence.

In the late Sixties we Brits were beginning to struggle both on the track and in the showrooms. When Mike Hailwood retired at the end of the 1967 season, it left only Phil Read with a real chance of winning a prestige title (which he did admirably, with a 125, two 250 and two 500 crowns between 1968-’74). But it was clear to all that the glory days were coming to an end and something had to be done. There was much talk of racing academies and the like, but nothing has even been divulged of the plot to systematically breed fresh racing stock. It was a dark period in Britain’s proud motorcycling history.

By 1968 the boardroom at BSA-Triumph was being infiltrated by accountants and marketing men with little background in motorcycling. The future looked grim for this once immensely successful industry and they were desperate for a solution. In November of that year, three directors – Tom Wildman, Terry Sheldon and William Atkins – gathered for an informal meeting at the Talbot Inn, Leamington Spa. The discussion that took place over pies and pints today beggars belief. It was agreed that what dealers needed was not only a high-tech product to combat the increasingly popular and sophisticated Japanese motorcycles, but also a highly-talented British racer to put the firm’s name on the podium (imagine how Ducati feel right now, with Capirossi [now Casey Stoner – Ed] doing the business for them). However, BSA-Triumph's methods were questionable to say the least.

It’s said that Atkins first proposed obtaining Phil Read’s sperm with a view to creating a test tube racer, as it were, even offering up his own wife, Glynis, as the carrier. However, although in vitro fertilization was in development, the first success wouldn’t come for another ten years and it was decided that given Triumph’s inability to get a reliable oil feed to rocker spindles, the chances of manipulating Read’s lively semen into the right nook or cranny were minimal.

It was then Sheldon who suggested that surely the thing to do would be to select a young, healthy woman, fully paid for the task, to seduce a racer and fall pregnant, the progeny to then be raised in an environment that would nurture his inbred racing talent. And why not, he suggested, aim for the top? Giacomo Agostini had already won four world titles and showed no signs of slowing.

So, the buxom daughter of a former British racer of some repute (doubling their chances of producing a racer-baby, so they argued) was enrolled for the job and packed off to Italy with the aim of draining Ago dry. The firm lost contact with her after two weeks and after a couple of months had given up hope of ever seeing her again, assuming she’d simply done a runner with the down payment of 400 guineas. But five months later she returned, clearly pregnant. Champagne corks popped in the boardroom.

However, doubt was soon cast over the child’s parentage. Rumour had it that the midwife sprang back in shock when the glistening infant slipped out and emitted an unearthly, guttural howl. He had more of a pelt than skin and by the age of five his Cro-Magnon features and inability to master simple words were giving serious cause for concern. Unfortunately, he was never able to cope with riding even a tricycle, a nasty tumble mercifully knocking out one of the buck teeth from his hideously overcrowded gums and leaving his ginger mop with a slight bald patch. A child of Ago's? Never. He was, however, extremely dexterous and when presented, aged 7, with an 80cc Italjet scrambler he rapidly converted it into a rudimentary two-speed ploughing device.

Aged 11 he escaped into the wild and, now in his thirties, is believed to be living a feral existence in the dense forests of Cannock Chase in Staffordshire. Rumours that he’s being stalked by Foggy Petronas trappers, keen to offer him a development engineer position, are completely unsubstantiated.


Testing times

From Cyril's memoires dated 7 November 2006

The Kawasaki ZZR1400, Suzuki Hayabusa, even the ageing and relatively sane Honda Blackbird, we’d all have given a testicle to medical science to have just one day on any one of those bikes back in the spring of 1960. Why? The first stage of the M1 motorway had been opened in December 1959, a 50-odd mile stretch from Watford, Hertfordshire to Crick in Northamptonshire (now junctions five to 18). Mostly three lanes, almost empty of traffic and absolutely no speed limit whatsoever (they didn’t spoil the fun until 1965).

At that time I was Overseas Sales Manager at BSA and for a short while, with the new M1 just a 30-mile hack away from the HQ in Brum, unofficial high-speed testing was frequent and exhaustive. It might have heralded a golden era of test riding at Small Heath, but I’m afraid the whole subject of testing on the M1 came to be seen as something of a curse.

Test riding bikes on the M1 was officially frowned upon by BSA, but despite this, testers would often hammer up and down at full tilt enjoying the relative space and the chance to hold the bike on the stop for sustained periods. Sometimes they’d be spotted by management lackeys and reported, other times news of an unfortunate incident would unavoidably reach HQ. There was the time that Harry Charlton rammed an old Golden Flash test mule beneath a lorry carrying effluent to a sewage works, rupturing the tanker and causing a lethally slippery and nauseatingly pungent slick to spread across the whole carriageway. From then on the bike was known as the Golden Flush and Harry as The Crapped Crusader.

Another incident involved veteran test rider Sid Turnbull, who’d stopped by at a friend’s abattoir near St Albans to collect five gallons of pigs’ offal to feed to his five Red Setters. The offal, in a thick, flexible, black rubber tub, was precariously strapped to the back of an A7 Shooting Star. Just outside Potters Crouch, with about 80mph on the vibrating clock, the bag slipped round, jammed the back wheel solid and the bike went down. Sid ended up in a field, where he lay unconscious for about 20 minutes, meanwhile, the Potters Crouch police, unused as they were to dealing with high-speed traffic accidents, decided that the splat of bloody guts they found on their arrival was the inevitable result of having a speed limit-free motorway. This, they muttered among themselves, was the carnage of which they had warned.

So management got tough and when the next rider was caught on the M1, a youngster by the name of Johnny ‘Fireball’ Jameson (that’s another story), he was summoned by none other than the Chief Executive, the eccentric genius Edward Turner.

Turner was a daunting man. Though nearing retirement he still cut a powerful figure but had always been known for a certain maverick approach. It was around this time that he was putting a lot of effort into designing a scooter to rival the successful Italian models and I suspect the pressure was leading to increasingly erratic behaviour. (Incidentally, left alone in his office one morning, I couldn’t help noticing some scribblings on his desk jotter, possible names for the new scooter. Marilyn, Lana, Betty. No, no. Edna, Ethel. THINK MAN!! Maud, Mary. BOLLOCKS! BOLLOCKS! BOLLOCKS! They eventually settled on ‘Tina’, so to speak.)

Well, young Johnny went into the great man’s office and the door was closed. We’ll never know exactly how the conversation went, but the next thing anyone knew, Johnny emerged with Turner on his back, riding him piggy-back. Johnny was straining to maintain balance and momentum as Turner, a portly man stripped to his vest and pants and sweating profusely, whipped his mount with a clutch cable, shouting, ‘This is how to bloody test ride, you sodding young upstart! I’ll ride you to hell and back, you jive monkey!’

When Johnny finally collapsed just outside the toolmakers’ workshop after an agonising ten-minute gallop, Turner simply strolled back to his office as if nothing had happened and the incident was never spoken of within earshot of management. From that day BSA testers were very cautious about using the M1 for work, lest they too should be subjected to what became known as ‘the Teddy-back ride’.