GREAT SCOTS – IAN BELL – Scotland’s Mud Maestro

Cumberland GN 1961 - Ian Bell - Dave Bickers
Dave Bickers (Greeves) leads Ian Bell (BSA Gold Star) at the Cumberland Grand National on April 3rd 1961. Photo: Eric J. Bryce, Gordon, Berwickshire.


J.Ian Bell was six times Scottish Scrambles Champion, he took up enduro riding in his sixties and enjoyed every minute of it! Trials Guru brings you the story of a truly remarkable character and highly respected motorcyclist who was picking up awards 50 years after his first win.

Charlie Mackenzie of Scottish Enduros website carried this story some years ago and said: “Ian Bell passed away while competing at the Melville MC Selkirk 2 day Enduro in 2005 . A fly past by the Red Arrows just before a minutes silence on the Sunday proved a fitting tribute to his skill and the affection and high regard in which he was held by his fellows”

So here is my original article which I wrote after riding with Ian in some Scottish Enduros in the early 2000’s and sat an afternoon with him, interviewing him for a magazine I used to write for. It was a privilege to have known him and an honour to be one of his friends

His grandsons, Liston and Lewis Bell may be known to some of the current riders.

Ageism is a growing problem in British industry and commerce, as employers seek younger people to run departments and even whole companies. Well, thankfully it doesn’t apply in motor cycle sport. Ian Bell, one of the sprightliest septenagarians you will ever meet, is living proof that you’re never too old to enjoy a Sunday’s racing!

James Ian Bell was born in the Baberton area of Edinburgh on 27th February 1927 and was brought up in the suburb of Corstorphine. He served his time as an Marine Engineer with Brown Brothers whose works were in Pilrig Street close to Leith docks.

Trials first….

Ian developed an early passion for motorbikes and whilst his Father never competed, he owned a road machine for a while thus encouraging Bell junior. Ian’s first bike was a 1932 250cc BSA Blue Star in 1945 which, having collected it from the vendor, pushed it home a distance of about 5 miles! The Beesa was followed by a 500cc Model 18 Norton, then a New Imperial. Trials were Ian’s first competition foray, kindled by spectating at an event staged in the Pentland Hills, south of Edinburgh.

He obtained a 1938 Levis and joined the Midlothian Motor Cycle Club. Machines were adaptable then, it was quite normal for switching between the sedate art of trialling to the cut and thrust of scrambling.

In 1948 a brand new 347cc AJS competition model was ordered from Rossleigh’s W.J. “Bill” Smith (who later became a Director of Associated Motor Cycles in Plumstead). Bill assured Ian the AJS would arrive in “good time” for his Scottish Six Days debut. In fact, Bell took delivery of the black and gold Ajay just two days before the start of the world’s hardest trial!

The AJS gave excellent service and was used for all manner of events as was the practice in those days, be it scrambles, grass track, hill climbs or trials. Many years later, whilst scrambling a jampot model AJS, the frame fractured below the headstock, Bill Smith refuted Ian’s claim, with the comment that: “…AJS frames don’t break”.

Business interests…

Having trained on marine engines, motorbikes were a doddle, so Ian went to work for local dealers, Edgar Brothers as a mechanic. After a while, Bell set up a dealership, selling Royal Enfield’s as sub agents of the mighty J. R. Alexander main dealership. His partner was the late Alec “Ackie” Small, a keen motorcyclist who was a clever handed enthusiast who worked in the Civil Service.

“Ackie was quite a good scrambler in his own right, his greatest talent was building special bikes such as Tribsa’s and he spent a lot of time converting rigid framed bikes to springers for our customers. His daughter is Viv Lumsden, now a well known newsreader/presenter with Scottish Television. Not just a business colleague, Ackie was a very dear friend” says Ian.

Enfield connection…

Bell & Small, as the firm was called, were based in premises at 2 Broughton Place, Edinburgh and the business grew by selling both road machines and of course competition bikes due to Ian’s sporting success. The Royal Enfield connection became more and more important with Ian racing 350 and 500cc Bullets in scrambles trim. He took Scottish championship honours first in 1953, winning both 350cc and unlimited titles in the same year on Reddich machinery. He went on to win 350 honours again in 1954 and 1957, taking the 500 title 1955 and 1957.

What’s not commonly known is that when Ian eventually terminated his business, it gave his then mechanic a unique business opportunity. That mechanic was none other than Ernie Page, one of Scotland’s best off road riders.

Foreign fields of fire…

Bell was one of a very few from Scotland who ventured overseas to race with annual visits to France where motocross was probably more popular than soccer. Ian recounts when racing in France, he literally destroyed his 350 Enfield during an evening practice session. On full cry the throttle jammed wide open prior to a big jump, he casually baled out and the bike flew out of sight behind some gorse bushes, catching alight on impact. The local fire service was summoned to extinguish the blaze, giving a grateful Ian plus what remained of the Enfield a lift back to the pub in the town of La Baule. Duty done, the fire team plus Fire Chief and Chief of Police proceeded to drink the night away!

On his trip home to Scotland, Ian called in at Enfields and politely enquired if he could borrow a bike to contest the Scottish championship round at Castle Douglas the following weekend. Charlie Rodgers arranged for Geoff Broadbent’s factory bike to be despatched north.

“Broadbent wasn’t too chuffed at his bike being lent out and contacted me, informing that I could ride it but don’t dare lay a spanner on it!” recalls Ian.

A friend in the factory…

“I formed a close friendship with Charlie Rodgers at the factory, he was a really nice chap and I went down at least once a year to obtain racing spares from the comp-shop. Many of the parts were taken off factory prepared scrambles and trials bikes. I remember spotting a pair of Electron motors sitting in a corner during a visit, which had reputedly been raced by the Rickmans, I always wondered what happened to those” smiles Ian.

“Once, in a batch of second hand parts we collected, there were a pair of rear dampers which would not compress. I assumed that they had seized, but once stripped down we found a piece of tubing inserted to prevent movement. The only logical explanation was that these were used to make a trials springer into a rigid.

When I first rode Enfields, they were very competitive, I enjoyed riding them very much, the problem was that they didn’t get any better throughout the years” .

Ian finally decided if he couldn’t beat them join them, switching to a brace of BSA Gold Stars, standard issue winning machines of the period.

The Mud Maestro…

Ian was well known for being a top performer when the conditions were very muddy, he had the knack of finding traction whilst others wallowed. This explains the reason why so many of Ian’s photos show him in mid air high above a heavily rutted backdrop. He also was famed for wearing pure white riding shirts and his friends could never understand how he kept so clean during a muddy meeting. The answer was quite simple and two fold, he was invariably out in front and took two shirts with him!

Ian reckons his finest hour, apart from his championship victories, was winning the 350 class on his self tuned Enfield at the Lancs Grand National on Holcombe Moor near Bury in 1953.

“I purposefully held back at the start as it was always a wet event and many riders got bogged down early on, I picked my way past the less fortunate caught in the energy sapping moorland” recounts Ian.

Hard man to beat….

The newspaper reports on the Monday morning following a scramble invariably read that the “Midlothian Ace” as he was referred to, had cleaned up again and again. The Bell legend grew and was sustained over a period of nearly ten years. He was the man they all set out to beat in Scotland in those golden years of four stoke scrambling. If you get the chance, just chat with any old worthy who was there at the time, rest assured you will find that the name Ian Bell will crop up somewhere in the conversation.

Ian has great respect for his racing rivals. “There was a strong entry, with perhaps a dozen or so who could win, given a fair start. Memories of my duels with George Hodge, Alan Weir, Bill Innes and the like are good to look back on. My most respected adversary is John Davies, he was so tidy on a bike, I could beat him in a race but I confess that I could never match his style” remarks Ian.

Family Man…

The Bells married in 1954, Margie and Ian have two sons, Mike and Gary and two grandsons, Lewis and Liston, Mike’s two sons. Mike Bell is Assistant Clerk of Course of the Scottish Six Days and races a pre-60 Tribsa, he followed Dad’s tyre tracks by taking up trials in 1977. Ian decided that it would be fun to ride as well and took up trials again. In 1987 at the age of 60, Ian turned his attention to enduros which were becoming popular in Scotland.

Margie doesn’t sit at home with the knitting and ironing, she has been happy to be involved and still makes the tea for Ian at the end of a long Welsh, Stang or Cardrona.

“Margie has been a tower of strength to the family and I ” remarks softly spoken Ian.

On any Sunday…

” I think that you get good value enduro riding because you spend more time in the saddle than riding scrambles or trials, you can be on the bike for anything up to seven hours, time flies when you’re enjoying yourself” enthuses Ian.

His performance in the trail bike class of the 1998 Welsh Two Day says it all, at 71 years of age his win is no mean achievement. Ian is in the winnings half a century after his first victory on a competition motorcycle. But perhaps the most fitting award Ian has won was at the 1998 Stang Enduro, the James Hill Trophy – for the rider having most fun at the event!

One thing that you discover during a discussion with Ian is that he is a shy individual who tends to hide his achievements, never guilty of bragging but super keen on talking motorbikes. He obviously enjoyed his years winning, but he is also a “died in the wool” motorcyclist, happy being able to compete now just as he did all those years ago. Bikes are very much in the blood of Ian Bell! His close comrades reckon he’s as enthusiastic about them as ever before.

While most seventy year olds are content watching others having fun, he likes nothing better than getting that mud flying skyward on a Sunday afternoon. Regularly disgracing enduro riders one quarter of his age, who have had enough after lap two, there’s Ian with a broad grin at the finish, maybe tired, but a happy man.

“I can’t understand why if the bike is still going well, riders drop out of an event, it’s a waste of good money and time” smiles the canny Scot whose been known to collect his pension money and promptly write a cheque for an entry fee.

Ian Bell has earned the respect of spectators and riders over a mighty long period of time which is very fitting indeed.

And just like that well known advertising slogan for a popular Scotch whisky, “he’s still going strong”.

Copyright: John Moffat 2001

Copyright: Trials Guru/ Moffat Racing, John Moffat 2014

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