Binky's Folly

From Cyril's memoirs dated 11 December 2007

‘Gentlemen, it is our destiny, our duty, to present the world not merely with the bike of tomorrow, but with the Bike of the Future.’ Fine, all very Raymond Baxter, but when I tell you that those words echoed around the boardroom not of Suzuki when perhaps planning the new Hayabusa, of Yamaha or even Hinckley Triumph, but of late Sixties Meriden Triumph then you’ll understand the irony. And for once, my freakish friend Peter Cartwright (of dog shaving, turd harvesting and duck pond rampage infamy) wasn’t involved, though thanks only to a court order.

It’s hard to believe that project Jet Bike was ever allowed to take off. Had things gone differently, who knows? We could all now be hurtling around on 350mph hovering missiles with all the control of a discount supermarket trolley stacked with white cider and pushed by a crack-whore teen mother.

The fun began in autumn 1968. Triumph was on the brink of financial disaster, plodding away with outdated designs and haunted, on the eve of its debut, by the overhead camshaft Honda CB750. Many of us at the firm thought that work ought to be progressing on a DOHC four, but people higher up had rather more ambitious ideas.

Harry ’Binky’ Tuttle was a recently appointed development engineer and, being middle-aged and with his biological clock ticking loudly, was desperate to make a name for himself. Ex-RAF, he claimed to be a close friend of jet engine genius, Frank Whittle, and bamboozled the Board into assigning him a small team and large budget.

Suspicions should have been raised within the first month. An aircraft hangar just outside Coventry had been leased and was surrounded by secrecy. However, word got out of dangerous experimentation, terrible near-misses and a reckless attitude to test rider safety. Then suddenly the plans were shelved and nothing more was said about it, but about 20 years later at the NEC Show I bumped into one of the chaps who’d been drafted in to work on the project, Keith Potts, and after a few pints of slop from the NEC bar, he spoke freely about those dark days.

The thing was a shambles from the start, he told me. Tuttle’s child-like impatience clouding any judgement he might once have had. The Jet Bike was an awful lash-up. What you might imagine to be something perhaps slightly larger than a modern-day jet ski was, in fact, a huge turbine fitted with rudimentary controls. The rider straddled it, like sitting over a large barrel and, influenced by the relatively new Hawker Harrier ‘Jump Jet’, swivelling vanes at the side allowed a vertical take-off. All very well in theory.

Within the first two weeks of testing a ‘working’ prototype there were several regrettable incidents: one rider was hospitalised after ascending ‘like a bleedin’ rocket’ and hitting the hangar roof; a visiting Triumph manager was rushed to casualty when a fierce blowback melted his Terylene trousers to his legs; a technician required first aid after a pork pie was sucked from Tuttle's hand and through the turbine, thwacking the man in the face and knocking out two teeth; and Biggles the aerodrome cat was ‘hoovered up like a rag’ and deposited as a multicoloured mural on the hangar wall.

However, the project continued, draining Meriden’s already paltry funds, until the day the Board came to see the Jet Bike in action. Remember, this was meant to be the prototype of a big-selling street bike and although the idea of hovering had by then been quashed, the thing instead using wheels, it was still far from viable. The directors watched in horror as a man dressed in a fireproof suit used a small stepladder to mount the beast, perching precariously on a thick asbestos saddle. Retractable outriggers kept the machine upright, as the rider’s feet were now a foot or more above the floor. The jet was fired up, its turbine hit a high wailing whistle and the directors stared slack-jawed as the monster moved slowly forward. Unfortunately, only one of the outriggers retracted correctly, the other snagging at the ground as the bike rapidly picked up speed. The thing went into an writhing death-weave but continued up the two-mile straight, by now hitting well over 150mph and still accelerating.

The fireball that rose on the horizon seemed a poignant illustration of Meriden Triumph’s fortunes, and before anyone had the chance to sack him, Harry Tuttle had scarpered, never to be heard of again.

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