The golden days of the motorbike

GRAEME DUCKETT
Last updated 11:19 27/10/2012

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Sixty years ago motorcycles belting along Taranaki's Oakura Beach was accepted practice.

It was all part of a flourishing sport as enthusiasts tested themselves and their machines against the clock, different terrain and each other.

The German engineer Gottlieb Daimler probably didn't know what he had spawned when he invented the world's first motorised bike in 1885, but in time Taranaki men fell in love with this new mode of transport.

There was considerable interest in them here through the 1930s, but the outbreak of World War II put an end to the motorcycle movement when all machines in working order were commandeered by the army. It paid good money to get them and a pretty penny was made by those smart enough to clinch a deal with the government agents.

But that left stocks thin in New Zealand at war's end, as hundreds of bikes were disposed of when they were no longer of use to the war effort.

One of the first businesses to try to fill that void was Rowe and Healey whose motorcycle shop was sited in Elliot St, about where fast-food chain McDonalds is today. The business was also shareholders of Tasman Motors in Devon St, which had a large basement and garage.

That's where its first post-war consignment of 40 bikes was stored. But not for long. They were all pre-war models and were soon snapped up for [PndStlg]30-[PndStlg]50 a piece.

They comprised Velos, BSA Empire Stars, Silver Stars and Gold Stars, Ariel 350s and 500s, ES2 Nortons and one Royal Enfield 350 side valve.

Much paint stripping went on in the ensuing weeks; repaints became the common thing with polished chrome, polished aluminum casings and castings.

After about three months, a second batch of about 30 bikes arrived and disappeared to individual workshops at a quick rate for a makeover.

A second New Plymouth shop, Lightband and Wann, also acquired about the same number, mainly BSA models, including some side-valve models. Such an influx of bikes fuelled interest for a motorcycle club and after a series of meetings around the town, the North Taranaki Motorcycle Club was reformed in 1945 after being in recess during the war.

Present at that first meeting were Vic South, Jack Evens, Ken Wilson, Pat Fahey, Shock Holmes, Pete Holmes, John Callendar, Doug James, Eric James, Reg Bullot, Lester Baker, Don Hine, Rex George, Ray Prestney, and Roy Lowe.

The club gained New Zealand Auto Cycle Union affiliation and soon began staging grass- track racing at Beach Rd and Berridge's Omata farm, hill climb events at Saxton Rd, beach races at Ngamotu, trials events near Burgess Park, speed trials at Waitara Rd and club runs.

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By 1947 membership had grown with newcomers riding Matchless, BSA and Triumph models.

Founding member Don Hine bought Bob George's BSA Silver Star, then ordered a Triumph Tiger 100. He sold the BSA and borrowed Johnny Callendar's four-valve, 500 Enfield Bullit. Hine's new Triumph Tiger 100 arrived in 1948, with Norton and BSA twins arriving too, even Panthers.

In 1948, the Patea TT was the first serious attempt to locate a fully sealed circuit and it was likened to the famous Isle of Man event. The Patea contest proved popular with riders and spectators and nine were staged between 1948-1955.

Competitors trekked north from the South Island and in 1955 between 2000-3000 people gathered to watch as riders were sent off at 10 second intervals, slower graded ones first and then the accredited speedsters.

By then, North Taranaki had established clubrooms at Fitzroy behind Barnes Motors. In an earlier life, the building was used for stabling horses, but alterations saw it fit for clubrooms and members made about 100 pit numbers, built trestles and tables and a local electrician made an electronic timer for race day.

In 1950, the first Taranaki Grand Prix was organised at Tikorangi and was successful. Dean Hollier won the senior GP title on his Triumph, Syd Jensen was junior GP champion on his 7R AJS, the senior clubman title was won by DH Holmes on his Norton Dominator and the junior clubman title went to R Milne on his MAC Velocette.

Tikorangi joined the Waiheke, Cust, Hamilton 100, Wanganui and Patea events on the New Zealand road racing calendar.

It continued there until 1956 when it was decided to shift to a shorter and tighter circuit at the Bell Block aerodrome.

The first GP there was won by Rod Coleman on his NSU Sportmax and the race committee comprised president, H Rowe; patron, G Amor; J Callendar, W B McKenzie, Bob George, J George, D Hine, B Fields, N Lightband, G Light, R Burnnand and D McCready.

Closed, smaller circuits provided shorter and more frequent races throughout the day, which led to tight finishes and fewer retirements during races. But in the main, most circuits around the country comprised 100-mile races (160 kilometres) for senior and junior GPs, and approximately 30-mile runs for senior and junior clubman events.

Nearly every circuit had a portion of gravel on it that was hard on machinery and rider. In the main, a good rider aboard a reliable, over-the- counter bike could nab a major placing.

Dominating the New Zealand scene in the early 1950s were names like Coleman, Swarbrick, Hallam, Mudford, Haggit, Mudford, Perry and Jensen.

Another small circuit was formed on the corner of Devon and Mahoetahi roads. Both TQs and motorcycles raced here for a short time in the early 1950s.

The NTMCC continued to prosper and was looked upon as one of the country's major clubs. Don Hine was ACU representative for many years during this period.

Speedway at Waiwakaiho started about then and several members took to the track in midgets or on dirt trackers. The club continued to be active until the 1960s and hosted many North Island title events.

The entry into the club, in the early 1960s, of John Furze, Ash King, Gary Petersen, Colin Pearce and others, brought new thrills and riding skills.

The advent of Japanese motorcycles signalled a complete change in tracks, techniques and styles, which saw a lot of the older riders bow out.

The Waiwakaiho Speedway drew big crowds through the 1960s with stockcar, TQs and solo speedway bikes the big attractions. The Stratford Speedway offered the same for those in South Taranaki.

Perhaps the biggest crowd puller of all was the Paritutu road race circuit in the 1960s, which featured saloon car, motorcycle and sidecar racing.

But whatever the year or whatever the circuit, technique, fitness and sheer bravery were all necessary to achieve fame. Nothing has changed in racing today.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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