Another One Bites the Dust
Charles Hornby, my maternal grandfather, came into this world on February 4th, 1905. Before he left it, he earned his living as a pig breeder, Wall of Death rider, boxing promoter and builders’ merchant. But most successfully of all, he was a professional Speedway rider during the sport’s golden age of the 1920s and ’30s.
Signed publicity shot at Charlie Hornby’s home team of Belle Vue, Manchester, North West of England. Speedway bikes have no brakes, and here seen with basic girder type front suspension, and a knee handle, for control during rear wheel sliding in and out of corners. (Click to enlarge)
He raced for Manchester’s Belle Vue team in the UK, and for himself overseas. But London was the epicentre of Speedway and major battles would take him to tracks such as White City, Hackney, Stamford Bridge—and, most famously, Wimbledon’s Plough Lane.
in 2005, 77 years after it was built, Wimbledon’s Plough Lane stadium hosted
London’s last ever Speedway race. A sport that entertained millions, inspired
the London-based classic Dirk Bogarde film, Once A Jolly Swagman, and staged
international tests to rival cricket’s The Ashes (called The Ashes also) has
departed the capital for good. Attendances had dwindled to 1000 die-hard fans,
sometimes less. In 1938, the World Championship final at Wembley drew 93,000.
Late last year, after limping on using others’ tracks, the Wimbledon team
The end of the boom years. Test series poster, England v Australasia, 1979, one of Wimbledon’s last major events.
So, what happened to Speedway in the capital? It had been many years since I’d last been to an event. I wanted to watch, re-learn something, but most of all to find out how low and unloved a sport once so important had become. On the warm, misty October evening of its swansong in London, my friend and I worked our way through the all-smoking bar and I had the chilly sensation of the unwelcome guest at the wake of someone I’d met only once. Why turn up now? Bit late, surely? We were, indeed, only coming to Speedway in London—just as speedway was leaving London. Music struck up, and eased the strained atmosphere: “Bring me Sunshine…” crooned TV light entertainment veterans, Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise.
It’s easy to see how Speedway captivated the public imagination before and after the War. At its best, it is an unrivalled cocktail of thrills, spills and speed—and one that was available every week in one of Britain’s major cities, for a modest outlay. The top-flight Speedway rider was a potentially lucrative mix of racer and circus act, whose pay far outstripped other sportsman of the time. As Frank Varey, one time captain of Belle Vue, put it: “We were the ones going round in flash cars, not the footballers.”
Jacket badge, celebrating “50 Years of Speedway” at Wimbledon Stadium, illustrated by old school broadsliding style, and bike.
Charlie Hornby’s car was, indeed, rather flash: a six-cylinder Hundson Terraplace would transport him and his co-rider to meetings, bikes strapped to the running boards. A good week’s racing work could net around £60, an amazing amount for the time.
On the night of my visit in 2005, the fall from grace of Speedway was all too palpable. Plough Lane felt like a film set, into a quarter of which a crowd of extras had been herded for the shots, the rest left empty. The programme outlined over 20 races to come—each sponsored by a loyal local business. Wimbledon Sewing Machines were helping Heat 17.
The racing started, in earnest. Four riders lined up, their front wheels probing the start gate, or more accurately, ribbon. Then, an explosion of speed, noise and energy as the single geared, un-braked lightweight bikes shot off, “broadsliding” the rear wheel in the turns to scrub off speed, shoulder to shoulder on the straights at up to 90 mph. It’s a stunning, gladiatorial spectacle, a marriage of machine and rider, both geared (yes, literally, and mentally) for one simple task: to complete a few short laps, in the shortest time.
A Speedway bike is a singular vehicle. Capable of reaching 60 mph in under three seconds, petrol tanks are tiny, holding just enough methanol for four laps. Bars are classic “cow-horns,” more uptilted at the bar ends than a US flat-track look, or Continental motocross patterns. It is a look which, I realise now, inspired myself and my school friends to fit them to the most unsuitable of pushbikes at the time, much to my father’s evident despair.
mask, soft cover for the crash hat and leathers in a team’s colours, completes
the speedway rider’s look, offering a blizzard of silk- a palate as reminiscent
of a horseracing jockey as any traditional motorcycle racer. Between races a
Speedway bike stands, languidly, leaning on its right hand footrest, the left
side kept clear for ground-clearance.
Its relationship with conventional motorcycling, either racing or for pleasure, has always been one of a far, rather distant, even dissolute cousin. Racers tend to ride Speedway, and nothing else, even at the lower levels. Since its departure from the major urban areas, of which London is the final one, the east of England has become its retrenched heartland; and riders regularly swap teams for higher wages in its major supporting nations such as Denmark, Finland and Poland, but rarely with other motorcycle sports. The bikes, the riders, the rules and its once-proud regionalism are unique in British competitive motorcycle racing.
So the most of the major British manufacturers—Norton, BSA and Triumph—saw little to be gained from developing bikes, or even engines, for Speedway during the boom years. The sport was run through its own Track Licensing Committee and the Speedway Control Board, rather than the Auto Cycle Union, responsible for other motorcycle sports.
But the small, always innovative Vincent concern
never ran with the pack, and sensed a much needed further revenue stream might
open up for the manufacture of an engine in 1946. As Phil Irving records in his
autobiography, the sport saw a “remarkable recovery after the war, partly
because the methonal fuel used in the high
compression engines was not rationed” (361) Contact was made with the major
East London team, West Ham--the name, still, of a football club in the area.
The Vincent factory’s briefly successful blend of pre- and post-War engine parts, harnessed in conventional Speedway running gear. Vincent head honchos Vincent and Irving were offended by one Speedway team claiming the design as their own. (Click to enlarge.)
Chief designer Phil Irving had come across the sport in his native Australia, and with his trademark inventiveness—on the back of West Ham’s run of engine failures using the standard JAP units—he and Vincent engineer Matt Wright developed a high compression single unit, using the cylinder head from the new 1000cc V-twin Rapide, in conjunction with the bottom half from the pre-war Comet, some of which, “happened to be in stock” (361).
The new “Vampire” engine could develop 40 bhp using a 14 to 1 compression, and the balance factor was cleverly adjustable by holes tapped into the flywheels, into which brass weights could be inserted and added or removed to achieve the correct balance during testing. Some crankcases were ordered in magnesium, for lighter weight.
But the sport’s naked commercialism was to become something of a poisoned chalice, here, too—responsible for its boom years, for keeping the races short, the crowds large and the inter-team rivalry stoked, but leaving little room for any other tradition to underpin it, such as junior or amateur events, or the involvement of major motorcycling names.
Thus, after positive testing, and wins against JAP-engined opponents, when Vincent’s Phillip Vincent and Phil Irving went to watch the Speedway engine they had designed and built for West Ham, their gentlemanly sensibilities were rather offended with the announcement of the engine being “designed by West Ham’s head mechanic” (369), and sweeping all before it. The pair left the event “disgusted,” and soon fell out with West Ham over who should distribute the impressive new engines worldwide, with the highly educated, colonial schooled Englishman and the Australian perhaps muttering that such behaviour “just wasn’t cricket.”
No, it was Speedway, and prisoners weren’t taken in the high-octane competition for kudos, pride and customers through the gates. Success did come the engine’s way, however, in numerous short circuit wins for factory rider George Brown, on what became known as the “Speedway Special.” This model, although little known, can be seen in many ways as the prelude of the well-known post war Vincent single model, the Comet. The post war Comet’s short-lived, budget priced, detuned contemporary, the Meteor’s engine numbers became F5AB/2 because it was preceded by the rare Speedway motor F5AB/1, according to author J P Bickerstaff (70). It was a genuine factory cocktail of pre and post War parts: the conventional tubed frame, and bottom end, a carry-over of Series A practice, the top end post War design. George Brown recalls it, in Roy Harper’s The Vincent HRD Story, as “a fabulous thing , very light, weighing only 54lb complete with magneto and caburetter and churned out close on 40 b.h.p.” (131).
More swiftly than I imagined, the first race of London’s final Speedway meeting was over. Four laps. Next race. Riders are given two minutes to take their places. No show—then no race. The sport has always spared its fans long, drawn out races; promoters knew only too well that boredom was the enemy of an evening out for the largely working class audience. Indeed, in 1932, Speedway was praised for “getting on with things in a prompt, simpler and businesslike manner,” by specialist journalist, A. J. Webbe, in Speedway Express, a sport, he opined, based on “one of the most fascinating and democratic inventions of the age--the motorcycle” (qtd. in Williams). Heat One was won in fine style by Barry Evans. A few minutes later, and Heat Two’s riders catapulted afresh, into bend one—but Lee Strudwick, on the inside, ran into trouble. And then into the barrier. Three broken ribs were later diagnosed.
Yet for all its thrill and noise, Speedway remains today a polite, family-oriented sport. Drug and betting scandals have been remarkably rare. In the stands, long-term supporter John Warner, born in nearby Tooting, asked me, with pride: “Have you heard any swearing here tonight?” I hadn’t, all evening. “There—you see. Speedway is great for a family, unlike football,” he said. “I won’t take my grandchildren to a match now, because of the language.”
Riders’ entry card for the Brooklyn Sports Stadium, Coney Island, event, June 3, 1933. It shows the author’s grandfather’s handwritten marks likely noting prize money, placings and earnings for the night. Speedway was, and still is, a blend of business and sport. (Click to enlarge.)
There was anger in his voice, at what he saw as the yobbishness of football having won a battle for working-class hearts, minds, talent and wallets, started seventy years ago. John recalled the first night’s racing at Wimbledon after the Second World War, against local rivals New Cross: “30,000 spectators in the stadium, and 10,000 outside turned away,” he said. “And we had bomb damage on the stands. But what a night.”
Wimbledon’s supporters feel badly treated by the track’s owners, the Greyhound Racing Association (GRA). Team chairman, Ian Perkins, was still hopeful that a new venue for the sport could be found that night. John Warner’s wife, Pauline, collected signatures. All, like me, had heard rumours that the ultimate owners of the Track, Capital Risk Capital Partners (they bought the GRA in 2004 for £50 million) were planning to sell the land to Tesco’s, a major supermarket chain.
This has yet to come to pass. But Perkins was certain that the end of Speedway, “will herald the end of Wimbledon as a sporting stadium. A new contract would have taken us to October next year,” he points out. “All their other commitments take them only to June. That’s why we’re leaving.”
Had John and Pauline heard of my grandfather? “Oh yes,” said John. “Belle Vue, pre war. … A good rider, but no star.” I reflected that, although perhaps no star, my grandfather had taken an admirably commercial attitude to the whole thing. He did what the economics of the time—a time of massive economic uncertainty—dictated and raced for the money.
Liverpool’s Charlie Hornby exists the turn, broad-sliding. Deserted stands suggest a practice run before the evening’s event. Bike is likely a Rudge, shipped out for competition by the rider. (Click to enlarge.)
This led him to race at New York’s Madison Square Gardens and Yankee Stadium, in South Africa (where he replaced his first name with “Speed” or simply Chris—“Charlie” then, denoting a black servant) and to win medals in Paris. In New York, he came up against the Mafia. A big name racing contemporary of his, John “Jack” Ormston, attempted to set up a league in the early 1930s. His obituary in the Daily Telegraph of June 2007 records a similar experience of withstanding “the harassments of Tammany Hall and the Mafia (everyone wanted a share of the action).” Charlie came within a whisker of being shot in New York, not by the Mob, but by the NYPD. Stopped by rifle-ready cops, in the open car he was using, only the quick thinking of his New York born passenger saved the day, instructing the Englishman not to put his hands up anywhere near the flip down windscreen visor—that was where the Mob would keep their weapons, and the cops knew it.
A “cablegram” to Charlie Hornby, January 1931, from dealer Reggie Pink, of the Bronx, offering to buy one of his bikes left in New York--or “jobs” as they were called back then. The letter outlines how “cinders racing” was in decline by this point, and the aim was to “build up a light job to sling my 750cc engine into for certain use of the speed hills.” It is likely this would be a Douglas powered unit. Reggie Pink, still in business, have a period hill climb bike restoration on their web site. (Click to enlarge.)
It was an elite group of riders who bestrode an international circus, shipping bikes around, or pre-ordering them locally, doing deals with local promoters, and sharing in the local PR hype the promoters would drum up.
On his “retirement” at the birth of my mother, Speedway continued to prove useful, during the Depression years. Charlie wasn’t above slipping out on a Friday night, prizing his trusty Douglas from a mate’s shed and competing in local, un-licensed races under an assumed name. Home that night, armed with money enough to keep any self-respecting housewife happy for weeks ahead, my grandmother never knew.
Line up at Warrington Speedway, 1930, with Charlie Hornby on far right on a Rudge, with his brother/mechanic behind him. Crisp white overalls, shirts and ties for the mechanics; heavy gauge leathers and team colours for the riders. (Click to enlarge.)
To its critics Speedway is a noisy, decadent use of the earth’s depleting resources; and one that has the cheek to want to stay on in the big city long after its natural supporters have been priced out. The melancholy fact is that its urban tracks, its noise, its smell and ever-present danger mean that the politics, as well as the economics, no longer add up.
Tempted though I was by the bar open ’til one, “in recognition of the occasion,” I walked out into the night, headed towards my parked—unlocked, unmolested—R69S, with a bittersweet sensation. The Don’s star rider, Mark “Buzz” Burrows, had swept all before him to win the WJ Cearns Trophy, London’s last race. I’d witnessed the end of my grandfather’s sport, and profession, in the capital, proud that he’d played a small part in its golden age—but conscious that he, too, had taken the money and moved on.
This paper would not have been possible without the recollections and patient input from Charlie Hornby’s daughter, Audrey Lancaster, his son, the former TT rider Colin Hornby and his daughter Jacqui Falconer.
Bickerstaff, J. P. Original Vincent Motorcycle, The Restorer’s Guide to post war singles and twins, Bideford, Devon: Bay View Books, 1997
Harper, Roy. The Vincent HRD Story. Spalding, Lincolnshire: Vincent Publishing Company, 1975.
Irving, P.E. Phil Irving: An Autobiography. New South Wales: Turton & Armstrong Ltd, 1992.
Obituary of Jack Ormstead. The Daily Telegraph, June 26, 2007.
Williams, Jack. A Wild Orgy of Speed: Responses to Speedway in Britain before the Second World War. Liverpool: John Moores University, 1999.
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