Renee Bennett – By her daughter Julie Powell:
My mum was a name known to all in the motorcycle trials world, she was born in East London’s Canning Town.
From humble beginnings she emerged as Britain’s best known lady rider in a career spanning a quarter of a century.
Renee’s interest in trials riding began watching father ‘Wag‘, an East London nickname for ‘Charles‘, riding motorcycles around the docks near his cycle and motorcycle shop. Renee’s parents were hard working East Londoners. They opened their first shop in the late 1920’s in Victoria Dock Road.
The popular shop hired and sold cycles, and the name Wag Bennett has been carried through to successive generations.
All during World War II, Wag and Esther Bennett remained in Canning Town, running their shop, keeping the dockworkers going with cycles and motorcycles, and staying open late til 11.00am waiting for the last shift of workmen to pass the shop.
Renee stood on a box at the counter, testing bulbs and batteries and giving the customers their change, by candlelight. She recalls she was about 4 or 5 years old.
In 1939, Wag was picked for the British ISDT Team, held that year in Nazi Germany. He shook hands with Hitler, unaware of the gathering storm then, quite suddenly, the team was ordered to leave Germany immediately WWII had begun!
The old shop was a target in the blitz being so near the docks, and eventually took a bomb, as did every other shop and house around it. Almost blown to smithereens, the bedroom ceiling was somehow held together with cycles magazines and newspapers. The whole shop was supported by a few wooden beams, keeping it standing.
Buckets were strategically placed on the bed to catch water, which poured in every time it rained. As a child, this was normal daily life for Renee and her brother, Wag jnr.
At night, they watched the ‘doodlebugs’ the V1 flying bomb, on their way to decimate the London docks and surrounding area.
Standing outside the shop every night, one of these unmanned rockets, would suddenly stop, drop, hit it’s target and blow the shop windows out.
During these blitzes, the family would hastily run to the nearest underground station or the Anderson shelter behind the shop, where they would remain until an ‘All Clear’ siren sounded.
Getting through the war was a daily struggle for survival. The harshness of life though at least prepared Renee for the tough sport of motorcycle trials that was to come.
After the war, Wag sold Ariel motorcycles; strong serviceable machines they were used thoughout the war, by soldiers and civilians alike. He worked all hours repairing and selling them to the dockers and factory workers.
Renee left school at 15, and went into the family business. It was now well known, a beacon for all the major British bikes: AJS, Matchless, Ariel, BSA, Triumph, Panther, James, Velocette, Frances Barnett, NSU ‘Quickly’ to name but a few.
Around this time, Renee began riding in earnest on a James Captain 198cc, but at only 7 stone and of slender build the skill of trials riding was not easy to master.
In her own words: “Why I never got killed I’ll never know, I was useless!“
Wag Bennett jnr. also worked in the shop, but diversified into bodybuilding. He would train every night in the hope of becoming Mr Britain. He eventually opened his own gymnasium training some of the greatest names in bodybuilding including Arnold Schwarzenneggar, who lived with him and wife Dianne for a few years. Wag was instrumental in teaching Arnie to pose to music. He won every title in Wag’s shows and soon became a household name. Arnie remained a lifelong friend of the family and invited Wag & Dianne to his Hollywood wedding to Maria Shriver.
In the mid-50s Renee met husband Howard Powell through her brother’s bodybuilding connections. Howard won many titles throughout the UK including Mr. South East Britain and Mr. Navy.
They married and in 1956 I came along. Renee juggled motherhood with helping Howard run their motorcycle shop in London’s East Ham, the first of five.
Determined to follow in the footsteps of her father, a factory supported rider for Matchless, Renee rode daily on wasteland nearby, and competed every Sunday in Kent and Surrey in timed trials along with husband Howard, also an avid trials rider.
By this time, and winning several awards in open-to-centre trials, Renee was riding a Greeves 250cc slimline, alloy frame, perfect for her. They were made by a small factory at Thundersley, Benfleet, Essex.
Renee was ready for the challenging Scottish Six Day event, following in her father’s footsteps.
Renee’s entered the Scottish Six Day Trial in 1961. The first of many.
She finished the event, earning her an award and a myriad of bruises all over her body!
The Welsh Three Day Trial featured prominently in Renee’s riding career as she says: “My favourite, fast and furious!” Renee rode a Bultaco 250cc with a Wasp frame for that event.
Her son, my brother, Charles was born in 1964.
But that wasn’t all, she was much in demand as a motorcycle stunt double, known by all in the film and TV business as The Girl On A Motorcycle. Renee also enjoyed a successful modelling career, advertising everything from make-up to Ovaltine.
In the early 1970s, Renee switched to riding a Bultaco Sherpa 250cc, which she still has today along with her Greeves, Bultaco Enduro (used in the Welsh Three-Day) and the much-loved James 198cc.
In 1973, Renee competed in the Scottish Six Day Trials on the Bultaco. The 6th so far.
At around here, she converted one of her East London shops into a motorcycle competition centre. “Renee Bennett’s East London Sportman’s Centre”, which became a beacon from as far afield as Europe and the USA. Customers visiting the shop immediately asked for ‘Renee Bennett!’
Renee and Howard became known for sponsoring many up and coming young trials riders in the 80s, kitting them out with helmet and suits, their own name signwritten on the petrol tank, and cheques sent when they had won the event.
Renee’s competitive spirit continued well into the 1980s. She ran a popular trial of her own: The Renee Bennett Sunbeam Novice Trial, which became a much awaited event each year. Every finisher received a scrolled certificate, adorned with red ribbon. It is still talked about today in vintage trials circles!
Howard, being into health and fitness since his time as a bodybuilder, set up a gymnasium above one of the shops. They trained daily, and Renee found the toning and strengthening a big help when dragging her bike out of the mud!
Howard, who sadly passed away in 2003, was a talented amateur film maker, often being invited to the premieres of the top films of the day. He counted among his friends actors and top stunt men from all the Bond films.
Renee recalls meeting the movie stars of the day like Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen, who was over from the states for the ISDT in 1964.
Now a grandmother but still with an interest in motorcycles, Renee continues to run her busy motorcycle shop in East Ham, the first one she and Howard acquired some 58 years ago.
As if that is not enough, she is very ‘hands on’ in her property renovating company assisted by son Charles.
Grandchildren have come along, my daughter Sophie, nearly 16 and a three-times published author! Oliver nearly 12, and young Charles, 22, who runs his own foreign exchange business.
Film on Renee Bennett by British Pathe on YouTube: HERE
Renee’s mother died only recently in 2012, aged 103! Father Wag died in 1989. As Renee says: “Perhaps I’ll live to be a ripe old age… see you around!”
This recent comment on a trials forum site sums up the amazing Renee Bennett : “Well.. Renee Bennett,. what can I say..! I think my old man had a fancy for her! I remember her riding the SSDT on a Bultaco in 1973. All the lads were fighting over themselves to help her when she got into difficulty. Her shop was called ‘Renee Bennett’s East London Sportsman’s Centre’. – Anyone know who wrote that?
– Julie Powell
Article Copyright: Trials Guru/Julie Powell
Photos: Julie Powell
Renee Bennett in Spanish! – Todotrial website Article:
Javier Cruz from Madrid has taken the Renee Bennett story to Spain, read about it: HERE