Words: John Hulme & Gordon Farley
It is true to say that some trials riders will be remembered for being not just good, but for beating the seemingly unbeatable. One of these riders is Gordon Farley. For eleven years, trials riding in Britain was literally dominated by one person, the great Sammy Miller. Other good riders came, tried and went away unsuccessful but Farley was determined that his name was not going to be added to that long list when he set his sights on Miller’s supremacy. “It was without doubt the most satisfying moment of my career when I knew I had won the British title and had beaten Miller”, Farley commented recently. Miller had won the trials championship eleven times on the trot; it had a psychological effect on the other riders – they got to the stage where they thought he could not be beaten so they did not try. Farley said to himself “I am going to do it!” and that was what he concentrated on. Every trial he rode in was to beat Miller but it was hard to get close to him. Eventually when he did it was unbelievable, but then he retired and the trials scene was never quite the same.
Farley, like Miller, was attracted to road racing before he found himself in trials. However, he turned to trials because it was “a lot cheaper”. Although he would not call his family a motorcycling one, his father did own a machine and his brother did compete in a few trials, although he never reached the level of Gordon. At thirteen he purchased his first machine, a 197cc Francis Barnett – in trials trim, of course. This was replaced two years later by a Triumph Tiger Cub, a machine that will be remembered as the one Farley got not only his first taste of competition on but also his first taste of success, back in 1961. It was the first trial he had competed in and he came third; the event was the Sunbeam Novice Trial. Shortly after this he entered his second trial, the Wickham Harvest, and taking second place elevated him out of the novice class into the expert class. Farley remembers these early events clearly but when asked which was his most memorable and why, he said “I think that would be the one I rode in France. It was at a place called Nemour, which is about sixty miles south of Paris, and it was the first time I had competed abroad in an international trial. The event, I think, is still run today and I remember the French treated me very well; mainly because in France you were not allowed to ride a motorbike until you were seventeen, you could only ride a moped, and here was a sixteen-year-old riding in a trial along with much older men”. “Do you remember your result?” “Yes, I won!” One may wonder how Farley could afford to go to France when he had previously said he had chosen trials because it is a cheaper form of sport. In short he was being supported by a dealer in Folkestone called Jock Hitchcock. Gordon has always been friendly with Murray Brush, a trials rider well known in the south-east of Britain, and it was through him that Farley was introduced to Hitchcock.
He sponsored Gordon from the age of sixteen until he was nineteen, and it would be fair to say that it was Jock pushing all the time that got him his first works contract.
A Works Ride
That was a nice surprise as he got a letter from Henry Vale, who was then the Triumph Competition Manager, on Christmas Eve offering a works machine, and it made a very nice present. He tried out the new machine in January and signed a contract. Farley was to enjoy four works contracts during his career: Triumph, Greeves, Montesa and finally Suzuki. During those first years as a works rider the world of trials was absorbed in an era of radical change, as the domination by the large capacity four-stroke machines such as the AJS, Ariel, BSA Gold Star, Matchless, Royal Enfield and Triumph Trophy (all actually slightly modified road models) was superseded by the Spanish and Italian two-strokes specifically designed and built for trials. Organisers had to rethink most of their sections, usually opting to make the turns tighter and sudden climbs steeper. Gordon Farley never rode one of the big old four-strokes, so he effectively grew up and learned his craft with the new style of riding.
He soon found the Triumph Cub had its limitations, it was after all simply a modified road model that had been developed from the Triumph Terrier, and its greatest handicap was – and remains – the lack of an effective set of trials-suitable gear ratios. Farley worked hard to improve his Cub, mainly by losing unsprung weight. He used alloy petrol tanks, alloy oil tanks, alloy air filter boxes and alloy front brake plates. Many of the items were copied and sold by Comerfords; indeed at one stage they added to his list of sponsors and he rode a ‘Comerfords Cub’.
With the Greeves it was a machine specifically designed for trials but with the bugbear of relying on the Villiers ignition system – for younger readers imagine putting a plug and socket in the ignition wire to the sparkplug and mounting the socket on the front edge of the crankcase cover, just where the front wheel plasters everything with wet mud. Yes, that is the measure of incompetence that prevailed! In 1967 the Montesa importer John Brise approached Gordon Farley to become their number one works rider but he had just signed a twelve-month contract with Greeves to compete for them during the 1968 season, so they would have to wait until the end of the year for him to join. It was a fantastic year for him on the Greeves as he took the runner-up spot in the Scottish Six Days Trial behind Sammy Miller, as well as third place overall in the European championship. In the December of 1967 Montesa had also approached another Greeves works rider, Don Smith, to join them.
He tested the new machine and was offered a contract as the company waited for Farley to join them in a new works team. 1969 would see Farley eventually join and he would win the opening trial of the new season, the Vic Brittain, mounted on the new Montesa Coat 247. He took second place in the 1969 European Championship (now World) and followed this by winning the British Trials Championship in 1970 which went all the way to the wire at the final round, the Knut Trial, where he beat Miller; he again took home the title for Montesa in 1971.
Carrying superb credentials and with the Japanese trials invasion about to take off Suzuki opened talks with Farley in 1971 with a view to him helping with the development of a new machine. They thought they had struck gold when they managed to get British Champion Gordon Farley to sign on the dotted line to develop their new trials machine in late 1972. More importantly he came with a good reputation, having previously ridden both Triumph and Greeves works machines. He was also well known for his machine development skills and this would prove vital to Suzuki as they were so new to the trials scene. After many secret trips to Japan and the Suzuki headquarters Farley’s new machine was finally taking shape. Various meetings had taken place in the closed season as they wanted a competitive machine from the outset.
The prototype machine was very much based on the TS series trail bike range which was a single cylinder two-stroke that they decided would be ideal for the trials project. With Farley under contract to Montesa until June 1973 he could not officially ride in competition for another manufacturer until the July. This gave both himself and the factory plenty of time to develop the new machine. When the two new machines arrived he was full of enthusiasm for the work the Japanese had carried out. The venue Farley chose to debut the new machine was a local centre event, the Horsham Club’s Ray Baldwin Trophy Trial. The debut was not a success and Farley finished second, four marks behind local centre rider John Kendal on a Bultaco. Farley was leading the trial at one stage but he had an unfortunate crash over the handlebars, which resulted in five marks lost and the win was gone. The machine was then ridden in the British and European Trials Championships but with very little success. Farley became disillusioned with this and the lack of support from the factory. With no major success and Farley wanting to concentrate on his booming trials shop it was rumoured at the end of the year he was going to retire from the sport, which he duly did. In 1972 he had opened up a shop in Ash near Aldershot, Hampshire, selling motorcycles with Honda, Suzuki, and Yamaha franchises. He understandably also specialised in trials machines with Bultacos, Montesas and Ossas much in evidence, in addition to the Japanese mounts.
After his official retirement he opened another shop and just wanted to ride in trials on a very low-key basis, and the UK Bultaco importers, Comerfords loaned him a new 350cc Sherpa to ride whenever he wanted. His last real outing was in 1978 at the SSDT where he finished in a creditable 45th place. He admitted recently it nearly killed him! Gordon is now approaching 67 but is still involved with the shops, which take up most of his time, and can still be seen observing at local events. Farley ended an era in trials when he knocked Sammy Miller of the top spot in the British Championship, a subject still much talked about to the present day.
Article: Gordon Farley, Copyright: John Hulme/Classic Trial Magazine UK
- John Hulme/Trials Media
- Peter Bremner, Inverness
- Eric Kitchen (all rights reserved)
- Mike Rapley (all rights reserved)
- Montesa Motorcycles
- Trials Guru/John Moffat