Words: John Moffat & Dennis Jones
This article first appeared in Classic Trial Magazine.
The name Dennis Jones may not be significant to the modern day trials rider, but if you grew up in the 1960s, then that was a totally different matter.
A national trials winner of the Manx Two Day and Greensmith trials, Dennis Jones was not born into a motorcycling family, but he was a self-motivated individual who was both confident and knew his abilities as a competitor.
‘Jonah’ as he was to become universally known in the trials world, was born in 1945 in Smethwick, Staffordshire as it was then. There is the three shires Oak Road, one half mile away where Staffordshire, Worcestershire and Warwickshire all met, but in more modern times it all was absorbed into the massive Birmingham conurbation.
The Smethwick connection spawned a friendship with Sprite creator, Frank Hipkin who was a keen scrambler and multiple 250cc AMCA champion in the Midlands and formed the dealership of Hipkin and Evans in Cross Street, Smethwick prior to venturing into production of the Sprite brand motocross machines. The Sprite would be offered in kit form to avoid the dreaded ‘Purchase Tax’ which was the fore-runner of the later ‘Value Added Tax’ in the UK. There were no immediate plans to build trials machines, but that would change in late 1964.
Jones: “I started riding on a 250cc DMW, then a Greeves in some AMCA trials events which were strong in the Midlands. Then I thought I would move to ride in the ACU Midlands centre and I bought a Cotton from Frank Hipkin and from that machine I made the Sprite. The Cotton’s 246cc 37A Villiers motor was used as the power-plant, the frame was fabricated by Frank and the forks and front wheel came from Roy Bevis. It was the very first Sprite trials bike in fact. It was registered as a Cotton, with registration number 830RHA and I rode it in the 1965 Scottish Six Days. I finished in sixteenth position, but would have been higher up but I lost some time penalties, how exactly I don’t know to this day. Perhaps it was because I spent too much time chatting up a girl at one of the sections to ask her on a date that night.”
Riding number 190, Jonah took home a Special First Class award from the 1965 SSDT finishing up on 75 marks, whereas the winner, Sammy Miller (244cc Bultaco) lost 29 to win the event. Dennis Jones’ machine was entered as a ‘254cc Cotton’, because it was registered as such, but it was in effect the first Sprite to enter the Scottish. Rob Edwards, riding in the official works AJS team took the 350cc cup on 63 marks, with Gordon Blakeway (AJS) second on 74 and Jonah third place in that capacity class.
Jones: “I prepared my bike for the 1965 Scottish in the outside yard by the light of the outside loo. The Birmingham Motor Cycle Club paid the entry fee for me as I was skint. Mind you I did go equipped with a pair of pumps and a t-shirt for the nights out in Fort William.”
Jones: “At the 65 Scottish on my now pretty knackered Sprite, Sammy recommended I speak with Ralph Venables the journalist who interviewed me. He was an unofficial scout for the factory competition shops and he arranged with Henry Vale of Triumphs for me to try Scott Ellis’s Tiger Cub. It was registered VWD6, but I still can’t remember the number of my Spanish registered car! When I had the Cub I won local Midland trials, then at the Red Rose the chain kept coming off, so I only kept it six months and I gave it back. I reverted to my normal life with a Sprite. I used to carry a set of mole grips and a small chopper; I wanted a hammer but couldn’t afford one! I remember having a try on John Giles’ works 650cc Triumph and was told to slow down, because I was taking away Ken Heanes bonus points.
I remember once Roy Peplow and John Harris chucking my bed out of a hotel window. I did ride a Greeves at the 1968 ISDT at San Pellegrino in Italy, which was another failure. Everyone booked their drinks to my hotel room number, so I promptly did a midnight runner with Peter Gaunt.”
“For the 1968 Scott I stayed overnight with Mick Wilkinson at Kettlewell and told him I was going to run up and inspect the sections. During the event, I was about halfway round when Mick caught me, he said: ‘Jonah how many you lost?’ I said ‘still clean’ and promptly fell off and then I just went to pieces after that.” Jones still came home a creditable sixth place none-the-less.
He lists his favourite all time trials bikes as “… my 1965 Sprite or the 1967 third placed factory supplied Greeves or even my Gaunt Suzuki 128 on which I rode the 1969 SSDT.”
There is no doubt that Dennis Jones was suited to the rocks of the Scottish Six Days, given his third place in the 1967 event, it put him in the top bracket of UK trials riders of that era. Having stayed off the beer all week, Jonah pulled back the marks to secure that third place by the Thursday and was ahead of the other factory Greeves riders, holding the position to the very end of the trial.
The eventual winner was Sammy Miller (252cc Bultaco) on 18 marks, runner up Dave Rowland (175cc BSA) on 34 marks with Dennis (246cc Greeves) on 40 marks in third spot on the podium.
He also took home the coveted 250cc capacity class award. However later that same year, Jones was asked to return the Greeves to Thundersley after an altercation at the Manx Two Day and he went back to riding for Sprite once again.
In the 1968 SSDT, riding number 58, Dennis retired on the Friday on the Sprite and, with Yorkshireman Ray Sayer from Leyburn suffering the same fate, Jones took Sayers’ stricken Suzuki back to the Suzuki (Great Britain) Ltd headquarters in the Midlands. It was this very sporting gesture which brought Dennis in contact with Suzuki (GB) boss Alan Kimber who rated Jones’s ability highly and inevitably a 128cc Gaunt/Suzuki was despatched to Smethwick and Dennis began working for Suzuki in Birmingham.
That same year the British Suzuki concessionaires had entered Deepdale’s Blackie Holden, Sayer and Peter Gaunt as a manufacturers’ team on the 128cc machines, with Gaunt taking home the 150cc capacity class award. The Cannock Suzuki Centre entered Jim Taylor, John Taylor and J. Statham on 125cc versions. These were modified road machines undertaken by the Taylors, all riding under the Stafford Auto Club banner, but strangely not entered as a club team.
The 1969 season saw Jonah undertake the European Championship, the fore-runner to the current World Series. His six foot two frame dwarfing the little Gaunt/Suzuki, he claimed the win at the Alpen Trial at Oberberg in Switzerland, beating the 1967 Euro-champion, Don Smith by eleven marks. Suzuki (GB) capitalised on this victory by featuring Dennis in all their adverts in the motorcycle press. Montesa mounted Smith was declared the 1969 European Champion on 51 points, with Jonah finishing runner-up on 48 points and Sammy Miller (Bultaco) on 27 points.
For the 1969 SSDT, Jones would ride the 128cc Suzuki, but the rot was beginning to set in when Suzuki GB was bought over by Trojan/Lambretta, the business would move south to Croyden in South London. Hard riding Jones failed to finish the trial having been excluded for replacing a rear damper, one of the marked components which were not permitted to be changed during the event. Jonah was out of work and without a machine when Suzuki GB moved their location.
Jones: “I enjoyed the little Suzuki, they were nick-named the ‘clockwork mice’ by the press. Laugh?, when I last rode the Scottish on the little Suzuki I got back to the Birmingham Suzuki stores, the franchise owners British East West Africa Company had just sold Suzuki (GB) to Peter Agg who owned Trojan cars and Lambretta scooters. He said ‘You can sling your hook. I want a proper rider, H M Lampkin’.
In truth nobody bettered my record on the Suzuki mini. Mind you I got my own back, I told them all the trials tyres and stuff belonged to me. It was nice working there at Suzuki with around ten ‘twenty-something’ girls who worked in the office!
They were doing some promotional rally jackets and the male model didn’t turn up, so Alan Kimber said ‘you will have to do’. So they took a heap of photos of me in Suzuki clothing. All the office girls used to wind me up mercilessly. They said that Alan’s fifty-something secretary kept pictures of me in her desk drawer.”
After the split with Suzuki, the press reported a possible contract for Jonah with the Andover based AJS concern, but the factory was not keen on taking on a full-time contracted trials rider, instead they concentrated their efforts on the works motocross team headed up by Welshman Andy Roberton, supported by Scotsman Jimmy Aird and Sweden’s Bengt-Arne Bonn.
Jones returned to riding Frank Hipkin’s Sprite in Midlands events including the 405cc Husqvarna based model, which was regarded as a bit over the top for a two-stroke trials machine at the time and wasn’t a popular choice with the trials buying public.
Jones: “I stopped riding around 1972, to build up my transport business. I initially started delivering to schools all over Scotland for a school furniture manufacturing company in Oldbury near Birmingham. I am now an ex-patriate living in sunny Spain.”
Jones: “I left the UK in 2005 and ran my business transporting from the UK to Spain and Morocco, selling some of my twenty trucks in Birmingham in 2003.
I only ever had ERF trucks and all did about seven hundred thousand miles and every one was knackered when I sold them.
I must be the only trials rider you’ll ever know who has no trophies whatsoever, just a few mouldy photos and some press cuttings pasted into a photo album. Mick Wilk (Wilkinson) will confirm I was an odd-ball. He used to call me the ‘Human Drain’ for my beer consumption on the night before big events and usually all through the Scottish week.”
Jones wasn’t really so much an ‘odd-ball’, but he was an accomplished ‘leg-puller’ and was always up for a bit of fun. He was a rider who enjoyed his trials riding, he was a bottom gear man for most sections and was used to underpowered machines of which he got the very best out of.
Jones: “I started up with Olga Kevelos, the well-known Midlands trials rider, the ‘MAD’ fund which meant the Motorcyclist Agricultural Distress fund for farmers whose land we used in the Midlands Centre for trials when there was the Foot and Mouth outbreak.
I was described as the ‘Enfant Terrible’ of the trials world. When I worked at the Ariel Motors competition shop in Selly Oak with Sammy (Miller) he used to send me to get milk, sugar and tea, but wouldn’t pay half for the sugar because he didn’t use it. So next time I didn’t bring any milk. Sammy said ‘where’s the milk Jonah?’ I said: ‘if you don’t pay for sugar, we will go without milk’, that was the end of the problem! By that stage I was drinking tea, no sugar!”
Greeves no more:
Dennis had a particular phrase that he used when he beat many of his peers, who happened to be the best riders in the land.
Jones: “I used to say that I podged them!”
“I think that phrase came about at the 1966 Manx Two Day trial when the whole trial couldn’t get up the Z bend hill, because they all were at the begins card and couldn’t get traction, so I rode round the lot of them and overtook every-body and shot into the section. That was the year I won the event. Next year I would have won again on the Greeves, but they docked me ten marks for doing the same as the previous year. The result was Sammy (Miller) won, I was second and the clerk of the course, Geoff Duke called me a disgrace because I told him to stick the second place up where the sun didn’t shine! Greeves took their bike back and that was the end of that!”
Still living in Spain at Puerto de Cabopino, Malaga where the BBC filmed the TV series ‘Eldorado’, Jonah has in more recent times discovered facebook social media and has managed to hook up with a number of old friends in the sport and is surprised that trials enthusiasts remember him as a very skilled trials competitor of his era.
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