This article first appeared in Classic Trial Magazine (CJ Publishing Ltd) and is re-produced with their permission.
Words: John May, Yrjo Vesterinen, Derek Cranfield, Dave Campling and John Moffat
Photos: May Family Archive; Eric Kitchen, Barry Robinson, John Hulme, Heath Brindley & Norman Hawkins.
Reg John May was born on 18th May 1925 in Chiddingfold Farm-Hand Cottage in Surrey, moving in 1929 to Honey-suckle Cottage, Hambledon which was next to the local pub called the ‘Merrie Harriers’.
An only son, Reg was educated at the local school, his father was known as ‘Punch’ and his mother was Edith.
Young Reg was particularly good with his hands and excelled at wood-work at school. He initially took up employment in the local brick-works and coal-yard. He was conscripted into national service in the army, serving in Germany and then in Palestine as part of the peace-keeping force.
On his de-mob, Reg took up employment at G&S Valves at Milford, Godalming, Surrey. It was at this time he met an Irish girl called Mary, who was one of two sisters who worked at a stately home in the village. Reg and Mary married in 1949 and moved into ‘Hatch Cottage’ where he remained for the rest of his life.
In the 1950s, Reg took up employment at Vickers Armstrong at Weighbridge in Kent where he rode to and from work on his trials bike. May’s first competition machine was a DKW in 1952. A year later he was winning events riding under the Weyburn club, before switching allegiance to the Witley and Waterlooville clubs.
Reg and Mary had two children, John and Pam. John May went on to be one of Britain’s finest ISDT and enduro riders in the 1970s.
He started with Comerfords at Thames Ditton in 1959 as a motorcycle mechanic. Reg had many good friends in the sport and in particular Bill Elliot, Mick Dismore, Bob Gollner and Comerfords work colleague, Derek Cranfield to take in the national trials.
In 1967, Comerfords promoted Reg to foreman/manager of their new competitions department. It was where the company developed the Comerford Cub and Bantam machines. They also built the Comerford Triumph Trophy 250.
However, Reg May will be forever remembered for his capability of tuning and improving Bultacos, which Comerfords imported to the UK. It was said many times that May could set up a Bultaco better than the factory; such was his reputation and skill.
Reg rode in the International Six Days on two occasions, 1962 and 1965 on a Greeves which expired during the event. He had struck up a friendship with movie star, Steve McQueen.
McQueen’s 500cc Triumph was prepared at Comerfords where the actor visited a number of times to check on progress for the 1964 ISDT at Erfurt in East Germany. Reg had ridden with McQueen in the 1961 Welsh Two Day trial.
John May: “Steve McQueen was riding one minute ahead of my Dad and called him his smoking buddy”.
In 1965 when the new Bultaco Sherpa was eagerly awaited, Sammy Miller loaned Reg his spare Sherpa on which he won the Beggars Roost Trial, a trade supported national event. He then went on to ride the first of the Bultaco Sherpa T models to come to the UK, a machine that is still in the family.
Reg also prepared close friend and motorcycle dealer Bob Gollner’s BSA Gold Star on which he won many scrambles in the early 1960s.
John May: “Dad had many friends in the sport, probably too many to list, he enjoyed a game of snooker when away from bikes which he played with Derek Cranfield. He also liked gardening and grew his own vegetables. He really did have green fingers, he was good at it. He also liked a little whisky which he took from time to time”.
Derek Cranfield: “Reg and I became real good friends when we both worked at Comerfords; we travelled together all over the country to all the national events. We always used my car and trailer as Reg did sometimes like a wee dram now and then. We both liked traditional jazz music and every week would see us at some gig, we even promoted the odd do at the village hall at Hambledon where Reg lived. He was brilliant at making bits for bikes, if he found that a part needed modifying, he would make it or mod it, he was the first to put Bultaco fork inserts in to AJS and Matchless forks and if he found a modification that worked he would share it. I have so many memories of things that we got up to. Like when traveling with the car and trailer, a wheel went past us down the road from the trailer but somehow Reg would rig something up to get us home, or coming home from jazz on an icy night Reg and Mary, his wife were in their car behind me. His lights suddenly went out, then went on, then out, then on again. Reg was spinning round and round down the middle of the road on black ice. In my rear view mirror, it was like a light house, we did so many things together. We were both in charge of the British Bultaco team in the ISDT at the Isle Of Man when the down tubes on the front frames cracked, the team being Sammy Miller, Mart and Sid Lampkin. We found a garage where they would be passing the next day and had a man ready with welding gear waiting, pulled Sid in first, he laid the bike on its side, the bloke started to heat the parts up when whoosh, there were flames as petrol had leaked from the carb, in two seconds Sid had gone, Sammy and Mart did not want to try that, so the frames were wired together, they did not retire. We had great back up on that occasion by a lot of Bultaco dealers”.
When a young Barry Sheene was racing 125cc Bultacos, he and father Frank would engage Reg to solve their mechanical problems. They visited him at Comerfords many times to improve their race bikes.
Keith Thorpe was the workshop manager at Comerfords and his son Dave who was eventually to become World Motocross champion for Honda. Reg made a frame for Dave’s Suzuki when he was racing in the schoolboys.
Reg, adept at modifying frames and experimented with suspension set-ups, not only carrying out work at Comerfords, but also privately in his garden shed at home. He took on a lot of private work for friends and local riders.
John May: “When I was twelve, Dad built me a Triumph Cub. I did all the nationals and attempted the Scott and Scottish Six Days. He wouldn’t let me loose on a motocross bike until I had done two full seasons at trials. I did six seasons at motocross before specialising in enduro. Dad was behind me all the time with advice and encouragement, when it was needed. I qualified for the top thirty-five British Motocross championship two years running. In 1975 my name was put forward by Ralph Venables for selection for the British Trophy team. I eventually rode in eight ISDTs and had five golds, one silver and two retirements”.
Reg May assisted Robin Humphries with the development of the R.E.H. forks, hubs and cylinder barrels in particular. He also developed the 200cc Yamaha motor for use in the Whitehawk, built by Mick Whitlock and assisted Bob Gollner with his projects.
Reg May was mechanic and tuner to Martin Lampkin when he won the first World Trials Championship in 1975 and was there when Lampkin won the SSDT for Bultaco. Later there was a Finnish superstar that benefitted from Reg May’s input, three times world Trials Champion, Yrjo Vesterinen.
Comerfords’ directors sanctioned forty standard 340cc Sherpa model 199B machines to be modified by May to create the ‘Comerford 340 Vesterinen Replicas’.
May was well-known for keeping his cards close to his chest when it came to machine set ups. Customers were not permitted to enter the completion department at Comerfords. But one thing Reg kept secret from his employers was the machine preparation he carried out for Gordon Farley who had worked at Comerfords and had been responsible for the creation of their Comerford Cub.
Farley had moved to Montesa in 1969, but his friendship and trust built up with Reg May was to continue with May preparing the Montesa engine in secret. At that time there was intense rivalry between the Bultaco and Montesa factories and it simply was work that could not be carried out in the public eye.
John May: “Dad and Gordon would take themselves away from preying eyes to meet up to set the Montesa carburation up for the Scottish, no-one knew about it at the time. It wouldn’t have looked good if it had got out”.
Dave Campling has been around the motorcycle trade most of his life, retiring from MCN in 2002. He was an engineer until Bert Thorn invited him to work for Comerfords in 1967. He remembers Reg May: “When Reg was experimenting with engine sizes on the works Bultacos and also John’s Villiers Cheetah, he had all the ideas and knew how much he could get away with in terms of sleeving the barrels and boring out to maximums, but he couldn’t work out what the cc’s would end up as .We sat in the cafe opposite Comerfords one morning chatting about it and he gave me the measurements on the back of his fag packet. I then worked the maths and told him what he would end up with. He was over the moon and later in the week we had a couple of Low Flyers (Famous Grouse) in the Witley clubroom to celebrate”.
All the Bultaco riders who were contracted to Comerfords had utmost faith in Reg May’s ability, this included Malcolm Davis and New Zealander, Ivan Miller and Vic Allan whose bikes were all breathed on by May. This culminated in Allan’s double British Motocross Championship wins in 1974 on the Spanish built Pursang models.
With the advent of Pre’65 trials, this gave Reg May a new interest in riding trials with a beautifully prepared 16C AJS and a 500T Norton. He even built a girder forked 250cc BSA and enjoyed many Witley club events and the annual Talmag in the early days. He also rode in the Pre’65 Scottish with his AJS.
Yrjo Vesterinen remembers Reg May:
“Nineteen seventy-four was an important year for me. For the first time I was able to ride all the European Championship series. The series opener was in Northern Ireland in February, with the second round in Belgium. On route, my travelling companion Tom Sjoman and I, decided to stop in London and visit my sister, who was living there at the time.
An important and exciting visit to Comerfords, the Bultaco importers in Thames Ditton, just outside Central London, would follow. What an experience that was, I had never seen so many motorcycles in one location before.
Successful businesses are not solely about the merchandise, it is about the people that do the magic day in day out. It was a really friendly bunch of capable and knowledgeable people that we came across.
At the back, behind the car workshops there was a smaller workshop that we were told was a special place. There Tom and I were greeted by a certain white-haired gentleman with friendly warm smile on his face. This was the famous Reg May, he was the ace spanner-man at Comerfords that every self-respecting Bultaco customer craved to get their bikes fine-tuned by.
Reg knew everything that was worth knowing about Bultacos, it was all in his head. He didn’t use manuals; Reg knew more than any manual could ever hold. Be it carburation, ignition timing, in fact anything that would make a Bultaco run and perform better than the factory settings. That was his speciality.
After our initial meeting, the next time I was to meet Reg would be In Scotland that same year, 1974. He had been persuaded by Comerfords to lend me his own Sherpa for that occasion. My own machine had been left in Italy after the European Championship round there as there was not enough time to drive from Italy to Edinburgh. Bultaco had chartered a private aircraft to fly Martin, Sid and me to Scotland immediately after the trial in Italy. All the English riders had their own spare machines waiting for them, naturally all prepared by Reg. However, mine was special though, as it was Reg’s own 325 Bultaco!
The bike ran beautifully all week apart from some usual mid-week repairs. However, Reg was not happy as I was not cleaning his bike on arrival to the car park like most others did with their mounts. My excuse was that scrubbing his bike with a dry rag would scratch the paint work. Reg was still not impressed, but said no more on the matter. I did try clean the bike properly after the trial though.
It would take many years before my bikes would start to get a full ‘Reg May treatment’. In 1981 I had returned to Bultaco after a year with Montesa. My Contract with Bultaco was backed by Comerfords and I started to spend more time in England and Reg was looking after my bikes whilst I was there. In the summer of 81 I met Diane Hadfield and from then on I spent most of my spare time with her. Diane’s parent’s house was not far from Comerfords and that led to me working with Reg on an almost daily basis whilst in England. It was then that I really got to know Reg well However I disliked the smell of his workshop. That odour was a mixture of exhaust fumes, welding gases, cigarette smoke, oil and petrol. It would stick to your clothes it was not pleasant and ultimately I suspect that those fumes may have ultimately damaged Reg’s lungs as well.
What I learned was that Reg was an especially talented fabricator. That came very handy when we started designing a new frame for my Sherpa. I had some new and fresh ideas that I was convinced would help to improve the handling and in particular the rear suspension of the Sherpa. Reg tirelessly cut and re-welded the frame as well as fabricated new air-filter boxes, exhausts and winging arms. I would then go testing, quite often with my friend Colin Boniface, who also worked at Comerfords. It was handy to swap bikes in order to see what progress we had made, if any!
Both Reg and I were working on the theory that my bike would be the basis for the next new production bike and once ready and tested we would hand it over to the factory.
That was never to happen as the factory finally closed its doors for good in 1983. Like they say, the rest is history. I moved on, got married, and started a family with Diane as well as building a new business with her. Reg stayed on and continued to develop bikes from the point where we, together, had managed to achieve.
Reg of course used to look after the bikes for Martin and Sid Lampkin and Scot, Vic Allan in their quests for stardom. Only decades later did I find out about some of the magic details that he had engineered into Martin Lampkin’s 1978 works bike. I am the current custodian of that very bike and whilst rebuilding the engine I came across an ingenious main bearing arrangement in it. I suspect that they didn’t even know about this little secret at the factory. It was designed to reduce engine vibration that the 348cc long-stroke engine suffered from. Whilst Martin’s bikes ran beautifully, Vic Allan’s bikes literally flew.
Reg May was passionate, energetic; he loved motorcycles and Bultacos in particular. He had a great dry sense of humour, I have been told, although I rarely understood his jokes. It would take years of practise for a foreigner to achieve that. I still miss Reg May to this day”. – Yrjo Vesterinen
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