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.
The only American to win a world trials championship, with his pivot turns and bunny-hops California’s flamboyant Bernie Schreiber was a god-like figure to a whole generation of young riders, changing the face of the sport…
Words by Sean Lawless
Photos by: Iain Lawrie, Kinlochleven; John Honeyman; Chris Sharp Photography; Stephen Postlethwaite; Blackburn Holden III; Alain Sauquet; Eric Kitchen; Fin Yeaman; Len Weed; Claudio Pictures (Jean-Claude Comeat); Jean Caillou.
Main photo: Eric Kitchen copyright
This article first appeared in Dirt Bike Rider Magazine, March 2018.
I was a spoilt brat when I was a kid. When your old man’s the Editor of Trials and Motocross News you get all the best machinery and all the best kit – bikes that are still in a developmental stage, the latest line in Ellgrens – but the one thing I wanted more than anything else was a pair of Bernie Schreiber-signature Alpinestars.
I was nine years old when Bernie won the FIM World Trials Championship and to me – and most of my trials buddies – he was the man. Tall, handsome and with style for miles, he had the same aura of California coolness that the likes of Bob Hannah and Broc Glover exuded. Sure, I had lots of role models from much closer to home to choose from but mighty Martin Lampkin – who lived less than sixty miles away – or Finnish iceman Yrjo Vesterinen didn’t capture my imagination in the same way as the alluring American did back in 1979.
Sadly, I never did get those boots – I’d never have been able to fill them anyway – but by way of consolation I did get to spend a couple of very enjoyable hours on a Skype call with him back in January after he responded to my friend request on Facebook.
Now living in Zurich with his wife – a tax lawyer with a consulting powerhouse company – and their young son, Bernie may have moved away from his home state the best part of forty years but he still possesses that laidback, easy-going SoCal cool.
“I grew up in Los Angeles and I had a paper route after school for quite a few years,” he says. “I was riding a Stingray bicycle and we had a lot of hills and I always enjoyed trying to do wheelies down them. I only had a brake on the back so I’d just balance. My father noticed that I liked bicycles a lot – besides for just delivering papers. There were some hills behind the house and I’d build a little ramp to make a jump. I just liked being on two wheels.”
When I think of SoCal in the ’70s I automatically think of motocross although, to be honest, if I think of SoCal in the ’80s, ’90s and beyond the last thing I would think of is trials. So how did Bernie – the greatest trials rider America has ever produced and a genuine icon of the sport – get involved in the first place?
“My first motorcycle was actually a Kawasaki 90 and we used to go riding in a place out in the desert called Little Rock. A friend of my father’s told us about it so we went there and one day this friend came out and his son was riding around in a circle standing up and I didn’t know what that was! We asked what he was doing and were told that he was practising for a trial at Saddleback Park.
“So I went down to Saddleback and there were quite a few kids – one of them was Jeff Ward whose father was out there riding trials as well in the adult class. I rode the Kawasaki – I had footpegs on the back so I tried to stand up on those to see if I could lean forward riding up the hills and I kinda liked it.”
It’s no surprise to discover that Bernie was a natural and he quickly progressed. Moving up to a 125cc Bultaco, he was soon competing against adult competitors despite being barely into his teens.
“I got a little deal on a bike – the first Sherpa T250 – and I started doing much better. I was in the Amateur class, then the Expert class and at that time they had the Master class – that was the first time we went to the El Trial de Espana where I got to see Sammy Miller for the first time. That was a big deal – I think it was back in 1972 or ’73.”
El Trial de Espana, an annual event started by US Montesa importer Fred Belair, doubled up as a fund-raiser to send young riders across to Europe and to this day remains a major event on the SoCal trials calendar.
“About a year later there was a trials school with Mick Andrews in California. Sammy and Mick were the two riders who impressed me most – especially Mick. They were the role models for me at the time. Then they had the world round in the US at Saddleback Park in 1974 – it was really muddy and I got to ride with an X on my bib because I was under eighteen.
“There was Alan Lampkin and Martin Lampkin – not too many riders came from Europe, I think there was maybe ten of them – and I actually did quite well and finished it better than any other American rider.”
At the time only a rider’s best seven results from the thirteen-round series counted which explains the poor turn-out of European riders. Bizarrely, it was also actually a round of the FIM European Trials Championship which had crossed the Atlantic for the first time in preparation for the inaugural full world championship the following year.
Because of his age Bernie doesn’t feature in the results from Saddleback but his finish would have put him at least in the top eight – not bad, even given the limited European presence, for a fifteen-year-old.
“El Trial de Espana sent a delegation to Europe to watch the world rounds and when they came back there were a couple of people who also set up trials events and they made them a lot harder for the Master class. They tried to make sections similar to what they saw in Europe.
“I won the trip to go there once and then I won it a second time when I was under eighteen – I went one time to Barcelona and saw the world round and visited the Bultaco factory. Then I went back again for the Scottish in, I think, 1976 which was when I rode Charles Coutard’s bike. I took it as a spectator because he’d broken his wrist so I changed into his clothes and rode the Ben Nevis sections.”
At the time, Southern California was the epicentre of US trials and the Schreiber household played host to a four-time Spanish champion who was keen to mix business with pleasure.
“I was riding the national championship and Bultaco came to visit me. Manuel Soler came and stayed with us for a while and we rode together. I think he came for the experience to visit Los Angeles but also to see how I was and to report back to Bultaco. I was kinda scouted out.”
Then came the game-changer that would alter the course of Bernie’s life…
“I was sponsored by a local dealer – Steve’s Bultaco – who were just providing a bike and then the importer at that time, John Grace, flew out from West Virginia to visit me and my father and asked if I’d like to compete in the world championship. They wanted to give me the chance to go out to Europe and ride with the rest of the Bultaco team in 1977 to see how it went and I finished in the top ten almost every event.
“If my results had have been bad I’d have probably never seen them again. To be honest I didn’t think I was going to stay. It was quite tough for me – we didn’t have all the fancy stuff that these riders have today – and travelling was a different thing back then.”
He initially moved to Belgium and then Spain but the factory figured its American hotshot would feel more at home speaking a language he understood so Bernie relocated to England where he spent two years living with Pete Hudson – the Competition Manager for UK Bultaco importer Comerfords – and his family at West Byfleet in Surrey.
“I was working in the shop a little bit, helping to set up bikes and doing things like that in between the season otherwise it would have been quite difficult so they really supported me but it wasn’t so easy times for the brand because Bultaco had already started to have difficulties by 1978.
“Still, it was really an adventure. A lot of fun but always wet, always raining – I used to joke that I had a lot of friends in the UK and told them to call me when the sun came out but I never heard from them again!”
Vesterinen took his second title in 1977 but Bernie’s eventual seventh-placed finish with podiums in first Spain and then Germany showed huge potential. Vesty then clinched his hat-trick of titles in 1978 but Bernie matched him win-for-win and finished just twelve points behind in third place. The scene was set for his historic 1979 campaign…
Bernie celebrated his twentieth birthday three weeks before the opening round in Northern Ireland where his championship got off to a bad start when a big crash and subsequent bent forks handed him a DNF and no points. A seventh second time out in Rhayader at the British round – twenty marks behind winner Malcolm Rathmell – wasn’t a lot more promising, nor was sixth at round three in Belgium.
A week later in Holland, Bernie claimed a fourth before winning in Spain. It was the start of a run of six consecutive podiums – including further wins in the USA and Sweden – while his rivals struggled with consistency. With two rounds to go it was a two-horse race with Bernie leading the defending champion by nine points but, at the penultimate round in Finland, Vesty slashed the deficit to just three points as he came home third while Bernie slumped to seventh.
The title was decided at Ricany, around fifteen miles south east of Prague in the Czech Republic. With the pressure on, Bernie rode out of his skin to drop just thirteen marks – the lowest score of the season and also the biggest winning margin – with Ulf Karlson nineteen marks further back in second.
“I was excited to win. I was excited for Comerfords who had supported me, I was excited for my parents and of course for the Hudson family who had also supported me when I was living there. That win was important for me – not as an American or a non-European, I was just happy to feel like I was the best rider.
“The reason I say that is because I was competing against Martin Lampkin who had been world champion in 1975 who was on Bultaco, then I had Vesterinen who was a three-time world champion on Bultaco, Manuel [Soler] was on Bultaco – we were on the same bike so in the end it was kinda the best rider won.
“There were no question marks and I was happy about that, even if it was just one time.”
With his first world title in the bag, what Bernie did next seems crazy – he jumped ship and signed to ride for Italjet. Although the Italian manufacturer had been around for over twenty years and had enjoyed success in small-capacity road racing, its trials project was still in the fledgling stages but pressing financial concerns – along with the wave of confidence he was riding – persuaded Bernie to make the move.
“Signing for Italjet is always a question mark that comes up in my career. Why did I go there? There are reasons for that. Leopoldo Tartarini at the time was the importer for Bultaco in Italy – he saw the situation coming and he thought he could take over.
“At the time I left Bultaco I didn’t get paid for three months – I never got my championship bonus because they were insolvent and I was a rider, an external consultant – so I had no financial means. He made an offer and I took that risk. I didn’t have so many financial offers and he made a lot of promises – what they were going to do, bring the team and bring the mechanics. They were going to try and bring Bultaco back in another way so I took that risk and went to Italjet.
“You think ‘okay, you’re the best in the world’ so the bike doesn’t really matter, the equipment doesn’t matter. I moved to Bologna, I started to learn Italian – it was an experience. The problem was that I was a rider, I wasn’t an R&D person. I could test ride things but I was interested in riding, I was interested in winning – I wasn’t interested in going out and giving feedback on how to develop the best bike in the world. They thought they could just develop whatever they wanted. They thought ‘Bernie can win on anything’.”
Tartarini is a famous figure in Italian motorcycling. The son of a road racer, he also raced professionally and – despite once turning down a factory ride with MV Agusta because his mother wanted him to manage the family motorcycle dealership – achieved considerable success. When he became disillusioned with selling bikes for other manufacturers, the family started Italjet in 1959.
“He was a nice man but it just didn’t work out. His expectations were ‘I can make whatever I want and you do whatever I tell you to do’. He was very supportive but at the end of the day it didn’t work. In the beginning we called it a Greentaco – a Bultaco painted green – and during that first year there was a prototype stage of making some modifications and at one point that bike really was one of the best bikes in the world but it was a one-off model.
“I said ‘let’s just keep that, look at Honda they have one prototype’ but then they tried to make a production bike which was totally different and that’s when we started to have some problems.”
Bernie had to wait until the fourth round of the 1980 championship before he took his first win of the season and was back on top of the podium at round six. He then suffered no-scores in Switzerland and Germany due to mechanical problems before sweeping the final four rounds but ended the year second, ten points behind Karlson.
For 1981 Bernie was mounted on the production bike and struggled to sixth with both inferior machinery and a lack of motivation.
“It was a really tough bike to ride – it was very stiff, it was heavy, it had Pirelli tyres instead of Michelin and it was just not a good year for me. I was not motivated anymore. I think I had a few podiums but my only dream was to have again a proven, winning bike.”
After winning the 1981 title, Burgat left SWM for Fantic. Bernie picked up his ride and stayed there for three successful years, finishing runner-up in 1982 and ’83 and third in ’84.
“It was a good bike and I really enjoyed my time at SWM. We had Martin Lampkin on SWM in ’82 and at the time they were developing the Jumbo especially for Martin because he was aggressive and he was strong and the 320 just didn’t have the power for him. I think if I would’ve worked more on that 320 rotary Rotax engine instead of moving to the Jumbo…
“Instead I had to change to a completely new product and that was difficult. Eddy Lejeune was coming strong and he had a lot of support from Honda and his family and it was tough for me – I was isolated in Italy and I never had that kind of support. He had his younger brother, his older brother, his father – he had money, Honda had money, he had a training programme.
“I don’t want to give a lot of excuses but the sport had started to change. It became more of a team sport than an individual sport and that was a complete change.”
Bernie won two rounds in 1984 – in Great Britain and Germany – to take his victory total up to twenty but his win in Osnabruck was the last time he’d top a world championship podium.
“At the end of ’84 SWM sold everything to Garelli – the team, the people – and at the time everyone was going to monoshock and we were still making twin-shock trials bikes. I rode two events, they told me I wasn’t focussed, I told them the bike was shit and we got into a dispute about that.
“I told them ‘no problem, we can just rip up the contract and stop right now or I can continue and try and finish in the top fifteen and you can keep paying me for shitty results which I think is not good for you’. I also told them I wasn’t going to rip up the contract and then sit at home and couldn’t guarantee that within a couple of months I wouldn’t be riding some other brand and then we would see if it was the rider or the bike.
“They said ‘no, we don’t want that, we’ll just pay you and you do nothing for the rest of the year – go on vacation until the contract terminates’. I said ‘that’s fine with me, have a nice day’ and that was the end of the story.”
In 1986 Bernie joined Gilles Burgat on Yamaha, ending the season seventh with a best finish of fifth in Sweden, before a switch to Fantic for 1987 netted him his fourth and final US title. He also scored points in the two world championship appearances he made but Bernie’s priorities lay elsewhere…
“I really enjoyed riding the Yamaha. It was a good bike – a lot of fun – and I got some pretty good results. I won some events – not world championship rounds – and really enjoyed riding. I also really liked the Fantic but that was kinda the end. I was teaching trials and doing some other things.”
It’s perhaps fitting that Bernie, a rider who did so much to stamp his own flamboyant style on world trials, called time on his career just as Jordi Tarres – who won the first of his seven world titles in 1987 – was spearheading a new era in the sport.
While many top professionals continue to ride at a lower level after retirement, Bernie really did quit the sport – although he staged a one-off comeback ride on a Bultaco at the 2008 Robregordo and in 2011 in a two-day classic trial in France, competing against old foes including Vesty, Coutard, Bernard Cordonnier and Soler.
“I hadn’t ridden a trials bike for years and they threw me an SWM Jumbo – I think they’d even cut the flywheel down so as soon as you turned the throttle the thing hit you in the head! It was a little bit difficult at first but it was fun and after one or two laps I started to get the feeling back.”
Living with Bernie…
Thank you to www.retrotrials.com for allowing us to publish this excerpt from a piece written for the website by Pete Hudson, Bernie’s former Competition Manager at Comerfords.
“I remember this young lad of 17 came over to Comerfords from America. He didn’t have anywhere to go and didn’t have anywhere to stay. He had come over with Marland Whaley and Len Weed to do the world rounds. He was a bit upside down and didn’t know where he was going so I took him home.
“My two boys just idolised him. He was like an older brother to them. Of course, Bernie would go off to the factory and then come back and we would go off in the van here there and everywhere. I would take Colin Boniface and Peter Cartwright as well to some of the rounds.
“I really just tried to keep Bernie’s head on. Although he was a quiet boy off the bike, on the bike Bernie was flamboyant and would play to the crowd. He could do all of the tricks and he liked to show people that he could do them. Bernie was the first one to do the pivot turns – riding on the balls of his feet instead of the insteps – and bunny-hopping.
“When I saw him doing this I remember thinking ‘trials is on the change, this is really different’. He got a lot of basic coaching from a bloke called Norm Sailer at a ski lodge in Donner Pass in North California. He got a lot of influence from this guy.”
“Bernie lived with us for two years and, of course, became part of the family. Bernie just wanted to progress and progress – he’s a world champion, that’s what world champions do.”
US of nay!
America’s trials tribulations…
In 1979 Bernie was the youngest ever motorcycling world champion in the FIM’s history but while he got lots of coverage in the European specialist press, back home – then as now – trials didn’t command the headlines.
“Those were good days for the Americans. We had Kenny Roberts, we had Brad Lackey, we had the speedway rider Bruce Penhall – there were a lot of great riders and champions coming out of the United States in those days so the American press had plenty to talk about besides a trials rider.”
This disinterest certainly contributes to why Bernie remains the only world trials champion to be produced by such a great motorcycling nation but he feels there are other factors involved.
“I’m disappointed there’s no other US riders but I’m not surprised. I just don’t think they have the system or any desire. Trials in the US is very small. You have the NATC [North American Trials Council] and then you have the AMA [American Motorcyclist Association] and the AMA never really supported trials ever in the history of the sport in the United States. They never did anything for me.
“The NATC (AMA) were trying to grow the sport but based on their philosophy that Americans are different and we have to do the sport in our own way and it’s about having fun and we don’t want to make sections too difficult and maybe that was best for the sport.”
But it’s not just the US that’s taken a back seat in trials – the record books tell a tale of almost complete European domination with only Japan’s Takahisa Fujinami able to break the stranglehold on one other occasion.
“Until 2004 in the history of the sport I was the only non-European world champion. Nobody really talks about it from that perspective – I don’t think anyone has probably thought about it.”
Don’t forget the SSDT!
While the 1979 world title was undoubtedly the highlight of his career, Bernie’s list of accolades is long and illustrious and includes four AMA titles (in 1978, ’82, ’83 and ’87) plus a string of indoor wins and victories in other high-profile events.
“Winning the Scottish Six Days [in 1982 and the only non-European to do so] was very important – people used to tell me that if you hadn’t won the Scottish then you hadn’t won anything, especially in the UK. Then you had to win a British world round [he won twice, in 1982 and ’84] because that had meaning. There was quite a bit of stuff like Kickstart and I won lots of indoor rounds but they didn’t have it as a championship back then.”
Bernie was inducted into the AMA Hall of Fame in 2000 and in 2004 was one of the first five inductees in the NATC Hall of Fame.
Life after trials
What Bernie did next…
“I’ve been an ex-pat for forty years. My wife’s from Lithuania – we’re both ex-pats – and we decided Zurich was a good place for our family. My two daughters are in Europe so I’m not going back to the US and, besides, I like Switzerland.” [Bernie has dual US/Swiss nationality]
Since retiring from trials his professional life has remained every bit as colourful as his sporting career and he’s moved from one role to the next, always looking for something that is challenging, stimulating and entertaining.
“I worked for a lot of manufacturers – I did some project development stuff whether it was for Alpinestars or Yamaha or Michelin. I did a lot of different things. I wrote a book with Len Weed so I kinda became almost an author.
“Then I had to do a transition into business so I started those trial schools and then I got involved with Malcolm Smith.”
Alpinestars was importing Malcolm Smith products into Italy and through that connection Bernie started working for the Italian company before starting his own company in France – Schreiber Group Europe – which he ran for six years making, among other projects, his own mountain bikes, Kamikaze.
“I was doing all kinds of stuff. Helping US companies – Answer products, Manitou forks, all these products – set up distribution. So from 1992 to 1997 I was basically running my own company and doing all kinds of services with bicycle companies and some motorcycle stuff and then I got involved with Tissot and they asked me to come and work full-time internally. My company was small, I didn’t have a lot of experience so I thought going to work for a big multi-brand, multi-national group was a great opportunity.”
Bernie moved to Switzerland and spent the next ten years working for Tissot watches which, along with around twenty other watch brands including Omega, is owned by the Swatch Group.
“During that time it grew from a 100 million turnover into a billion dollar company and the sponsorship didn’t exist so everything that was built there that you see today basically I was involved in – everything from ice hockey to cycling.
“When I first got there they were involved with the UCI [Union Cycliste Internationale] – they’d signed a timekeeping agreement but that was the only contract they had at the time. We went from there and took MotoGP, got involved in supercross, motocross, ice hockey, fencing, NASCAR, we had athletes like Michael Owen. I personally signed Nicky Hayden two weeks before he won the world championship.
“After ten years I had a career break – that was enough for me. I met my future wife and decided to move on. Then my son was born and that changed everything. I took a break for almost a year-and-a-half – then I had a call from the CEO of the whole Swatch Group who sent me to the US for three years on this golf project.
“It was a fabulous opportunity – I got to work in a huge industry with Omega – and I had a great time and met a lot of great, very interesting people.
“When I came back to Europe the president of Omega left the company, the management completely changed, I was commuting an hour-and-a-half each way to work each day and decided that it was time for me to move on so I left Omega at the end of 2016.”
“In 2017 I was involved in some projects with e-mobility bikes and 2018 working with Ryan Pyle an outdoor TV adventure. In 2019, I celebrated the fortieth anniversary since my world title and was my comeback year riding Classic events and executing Trials schools.”
“2020 will be a surprise with new and interesting developments on the horizon. Promoting the sport for all is my focus.”
Meet the author – Sean Lawless:
49 year old Sean Lawless rode his first trial in March 1978 at Back Cowm Quarry on a TY80 Yamaha. His father Bill Lawless started Trials & Motocross News (TMX) in May 1977 which is how Sean became involved in trials. Sean rode pretty much every weekend until the age of 17 when he “discovered public houses and the ladies that frequented them!” He has been a journalist specialising in off-road sport for 30 years and was editor of Dirt Bike Rider for 12 years. He now works as a freelance journalist and edits the Motocross Diary for TMX.
My wife and I have been to Scotland in May three times as spectators to watch the Scottish trials. I enjoy mostly the Pre65 as I find those bikes most interesting.
Two years ago we met Gordon Jackson at a B&B. He has ridden the Pre65 16 times and finished well. We spoke with him for several minutes and he offered me his Bantam to ride in the Scottish the next year.
Two years have gone by and I haven’t made the entry. My dream for many years has been to ride the trial and clean the Pipeline section. After two years of not getting an entry and at the age of 68 Gordon and I thought it best if I rode his Scarborough And District Motor Club trial.
We came over and learned what a gentleman he is. I asked him why he gave me such an offer, his answer was “I must have been drinking”. We came, I rode the trial and placed well, met great people and enjoyed the Yorkshire coast.
Previous to our trip I asked if you would send some “Trials Guru” stickers to Gordon’s house. They were there when we arrived at his home and back in the US I have displayed them on my Bantam, B25, Ossa MAR and 1947 Ariel. Maybe these are the only “Guru” stickers in the US? I’m planning on staying healthy and applying for the Pre65 again next year, hoping my dream will come true.
Photos: Mike Rapley; John Hulme/Trial Magazine UK; Moorhouse/Studio Six Creative.
To answer the age old question, where is he now, we went to the Telford Off Road Show at the Telford International Centre on 16/17 February and bumped into Colin Boniface who worked for Bultaco importers, Comerfords at Thames Ditton in Surrey.
Boniface turned 60 years of age in December 2018 and felt it was time to take in a few classic shows, having come of age!
Trials Guru’s John Moffat was photographed when Colin and he met up on the Saturday afternoon and reminisced about when Colin rode Comerfords prepared Bultaco Sherpas first as a youth rider in Surrey Schoolboy Trials Club and then the Witley club back in the 1970s.
The name Reg May came up in the conversation several times.
Jock Wilson (1934-2019) – A lifetime in the motorcycle trade and sport.
This article first appeared in Issue 14 of Classic Trial Magazine (CJ Publishing), it is reproduced here with the publishers’ permission.
Words: John Moffat
Additional information: Don Morley; Dave Campling; Roy Kerr; Gordon Blakeway; Derrick Edmondson; Yrjo Vesterinen & the late H. Martin Lampkin.
Photos: Don Morley; Iain Lawrie; John Neaves; John Knight; Roy A. Kerr; Charlie Watson; Mike Rapley; Len Thorpe – (Photos, except those by Iain Lawrie, John Neaves, Roy Kerr, John Knight and Charlie Watson were supplied by P.C. Wilson specifically for this article)
The world of off-road motorcycle sport has been made all the richer with a variety of personalities and characters over the years, many of whom were closely connected to or part of, the motorcycle trade.
One such character was at the very heart of the off-road scene for many years, being a competitor; trade baron; team manager and much more. He was one of the sports’ most respected and knowledgeable individuals.
Son of the local postman, Peter Cameron ‘Jock’ Wilson was born on 13th January 1934 at Oakbank, Bridge of Balgie, Glen Lyon in rural Perthshire. His resourceful father made use of motorcycles as his mode of transport to deliver the mail in the glen.
An early initiation to off-road motorcycle sport with the Scottish Six Days Trial which practically ran past his doorstep, the observed section called ‘Meall Glas’ was but three-quarters of a mile from his parent’s house. Coupled with the fact that the primary school-children were granted a half-day from classes to watch the SSDT, how could the young Wilson resist the call to the sport?
Glen Lyon is a beautiful part of the country, it is one of Scotland’s longest glens with the River Lyon meandering eastwards throughout its length to join the much larger River Tay.
Wilson was educated locally at Innerwick Primary School, Glen Lyon followed by Breadalbane Academy in Aberfeldy. Like most schoolboys he was always interested in all things mechanical.
His first motorcycle was an elderly BSA which he obtained as a non-runner. It was this machine on which he cut his teeth and opened up to him the world of motorcycle mechanics. Much of this was by trial, error and experimentation and very much ‘self-taught’. He even fashioned his own set of piston rings, for funding was scarce and ingenuity was very much to the fore-front!
Down south …
Known to all his friends and acquaintances as Jock, which was bestowed upon him during his period in National Service in the British Army, this was usual for a Scotsman living and working in Southern England at the time. Wilson soon became a well-known face at trials and scrambles events throughout the country.
Wilson on leaving school commenced employment locally as a lumberjack, followed by the then compulsory national service at Aldershot Garrison in Hampshire, the recognised ‘Home of the British Army’.
It was during his time at the famous military establishment, serving in the Royal Army Service Corps or RASC for short, under the guidance of commanding officer, Captain Eddie Dow, that Jock met many of the factory trials and scrambles stars of the era through his national service. Jock met and rode with Roy Peplow; Ron Langston; John Giles and many more. Wilson not only learned new skills but also forged life-long friendships in the sport during his military service and participation in army trials.
His good friend in the army, George Morrison from Aberdeen was nervous about going on a date, asking Jock to go in his place and that is how he met his eventual wife Patricia, a local girl from Surbiton. Romance blossomed; they married and moved to London to live permanently.
Civvy Street …
On leaving military service, Jock took up employment at Arthur Cook Motors in Kingston-Upon-Thames, followed by a move to the then well-known large scale motorcycle dealership, Comerfords Ltd based in Portsmouth Road, Thames Ditton, Surrey joining them in 1957.
Jock started out at Comerfords as a motorcycle mechanic in their workshops, quickly progressing to workshop manager. When he became bored with that job, he moved into sales under their highly experienced Sales Director, Bert Thorn who became a close friend and riding partner in many southern-centre trials.
Sporting dealers …
Comerfords took great pride in promoting themselves as the rider/dealer style of organisation. Employees were openly encouraged to participate in all forms of motorcycle sport on their weekends. Thorn was an accomplished trials rider as were Wilson’s work-mates, Reg May, Roger Davy, Derek Cranfield, Peter Hudson and Don Howlett, all of which were in the employment of the company.
One of Wilson’s specialties was modifying AJS trials machines; he replicated many of the factory modifications by making them lighter and more tractable. At one stage, Jock had an ultra-short barrel fitted on his personal 16C, which had one cylinder fin less than the factory barrels issued to the team riders. Gordon Jackson, Gordon Blakeway and Gordon McLaughlan who rode for AJS as a factory team in those days were all friends of Jock. During the 1963 event at the top of Grey Mare’s Ridge, Jackson asked why Jock’s wife was not at the trial.
Wilson recounted: “I replied that Pat was expecting our second child, to which Gordon Jackson replied, well if it’s a boy you should call him Gordon”. And so the Wilson’s second born son was aptly named. The Wilson’s had two sons, the first born being Andrew.
Gordon Blakeway on Jock Wilson: “Jock was and still is a great guy. I remember riding the Scottish in Jock’s company and as we rode through a Perthshire glen, Jock was just in front as he knew the local roads like the back of his hand, with me sitting right on his tail. Suddenly I noticed a postman sitting on the wall with his post-bag and he waved at Jock and I as we swept past. When we got to the sections, I said, aren’t the locals friendly, did you see the postie waving at us? Jock replied: Yeah, that was me Dad.”
Don Morley on Jock Wilson: “I have known Jock for more years than I care to remember. He was a very good rider in his day, which people seem to have forgotten and I have photographed Jock many times in my career as a professional photographer both at the annual Scottish Six Days and various national trials in which he competed.”
When Sammy Miller defected from Ariel to Bultaco in late 1964, his two HT5 machines were put up for sale in Comerfords who were by that time funding the Miller/Ariel trials effort.
Both his machines, registered GOV132 and 786GON were up for grabs. Wilson liked the idea of riding one of these machines himself. But it was the second string, 786GON that Jock purchased from his employers.
Jock recounted: “786GON had most of the lightweight alloy parts installed when it was brought in for sale, plus it was advertised at a much cheaper price than GOV132, it was a no brainer really, so I bought it”.
Jock rode the Ariel in the SSDT twice, in 1966 and again in 1967 winning the 500cc cup that year.
Jock Wilson often rode the Comerfords improved products, such as carefully prepared Greeves (UPA22F in the ISDT) and BSA machinery which had been breathed on in the competitions department, headed up by ace tuner, Reg May.
In the 1960’s, Comerfords had a very close relationship with the Greeves factory at Thundersley, supporting many local trials and scrambles riders on the Essex-built machines. One such rider was Scotsman, Vic Allan who had moved to Surrey from his Garlogie, Aberdeenshire home in early 1967 to race the Challenger models and then the later Griffon motocross machines.
Vic Allan was the reigning Scottish champion in 1966 and was keen to enter the cut and thrust of British motocross. He was a hard riding and boisterous character back then and took great delight in a bit of show-boating by pulling wheelies down the start and finish straights. It was Wilson who had a quiet word with Vic and “calmed him down a little”.
The advice was taken totally in the spirit intended and Allan started getting much needed results for both Greeves and his employers, Comerfords.
In 1971, Vic joined the mighty BSA concern primarily to contest the Grand Prix series, during which time he crashed heavily at the Italian round on the factory 441cc Victor.
Allan badly smashed his hip and was sidelined for several months. It was during his convalescence that BSA closed the Small Heath competitions department.
Being a professional rider and now effectively unemployed, Allan reverted to race once again for Comerfords, but this time on the Spanish Bultaco, eventually becoming the British 250cc and 500 cc Motocross champion in 1974, riding the Pursang models in both classes, the last rider to do so.
Vic became very close friends with Jock Wilson who was effectively his mentor in the early days and during his British championship efforts, they live only two streets distant to this day. They have great respect for one another.
Jock recalls: “The only time I ever had a cross word with Vic Allan was at Farleigh Castle when the Greeves broke down. Vic literally threw the bike on the ground in disgust and was about to storm off. It happened right in front of me, so I went up to him and said, if you are going to treat a bike like that, you can bugger off back to Aberdeen right now!”
In 1968 when Comerfords had become UK concessionaires having taken over the UK importer-ship from Rickman Brothers of the Bultaco brand, Jock Wilson became heavily involved in that side of the business, supplying the dealer network and operating a first-class spares service.
Now with Bultaco UK, Wilson was responsible for negotiating and setting up the contracts with the Comerfords supported riders in both motocross and trials.
Having competed in the Scottish Six Days several times, Jock was a very useful ‘support man’ for ‘Team Bultaco’ at the annual Highland event.
The bright red Comerfords’ Ford Transit piloted by Wilson could be seen at several points daily throughout the event, always bang on time to catch the Comerford and Bultaco runners as they came off the rough with spare parts and sustenance for the Lampkin brothers; Malcolm Rathmell; Yrjo Vesterinen; Lane Leavitt; Manuel Soler and anyone else entered by Comerfords or the Bultaco factory.
Jock Wilson’s personal SSDT and ISDT experience was invaluable when giving support to the factory men. He was trusted and kept many of them both on time and focused on the job in hand, in many cases to win the event!
The International scene …
Jock went on to manage the British International Six Days Junior Trophy and Trophy teams. His knowledge gained by riding in the ISDT many times himself on AJS, Triumph and Greeves machinery gave him a valuable insight into this part of off-road sport and was a very highly thought of manager by not only the riders but the ACU.
The initial suggestion of Jock’s involvement in team management came in late 1977 from fellow Scot, T. Arnott Moffat, the honorary secretary of the Scottish ACU and father of Trials Guru’s John Moffat. The persuasive Moffat phoned Jock up, with the deliberate intention of making the idea become a reality.
Jock Wilson recalls the conversation: “It was one of Arnott’s legendary long telephone calls, but he did a good job of convincing me to take up the challenge, I had a lot of respect for him and trusted his judgement”.
Arnott Moffat swiftly convinced Jock that he had all the necessary skills and experience needed for such a weighty task.
Wilson cut his managerial teeth by taking charge of the Scottish ACU ISDT squad in Sweden at the High Chaparral, Varnamo in 1978. He quickly earned the respect of the riders and team supporters, but the ACU were in the wings watching closely and had taken note. A short time later the ACU enlisted Wilson’s services to manage their GB ISDT Junior Trophy and World Trophy teams, taking on the task from Ian Driver.
The SWM connection …
With Bultaco finances already showing signs of stress, Jock left Comerfords employment in 1979 starting out in business to import the Italian SWM trials and enduro machines, this was achieved by forming a partnership with the accomplished trials and ISDT competitor, Mick ‘Bonkey’ Bowers from Studley, Warwickshire.
Wilson and Bowers, trading as SWM UK Limited quickly established a country-wide dealership network which included the former World Trials Champion, Martin Lampkin who was by that time competing on the brand. This ultimately involved the support of good centre riders such as Andrew Watson and David Clinkard to name but two.
Two years prior to SWM’s eventual cessation of motorcycle production in 1984, the SWM UK partnership was dissolved and Jock reverted to self-employment, working from his home in Tolworth, repairing and tuning motorcycles and repairing damaged wheels for local dealers, as he was a self-taught ace wheel-builder.
Now in his eighties, Jock Wilson is now fully retired, still living with wife Pat in Tolworth and can reflect on a lifetime of achievement as a rider; first class mechanic; salesman; team manager; importer and all round good-guy, who contributed so much to to British motorcycle sport.
Appreciation of Jock Wilson from within the sport:
Yrjo Vesterinen on Jock Wilson: “It would have been in 1974 during my first ride in Scotland that I first met Jock Wilson. As I often said, first impressions count and with Jock this certainly wa sthe case, a warm friendly smile and the firmest handshake I had even encountered.
As the week progressed I felt that Jock genuinely tried to help me by giving me useful tips and encouragement during the week. This paved the way for a lifelong friendship. Whilst in Fort William, I noticed that Jock very much enjoyed the evenings in the bar, usually having an interesting conversation about the trial with a glass of his favourite whisky in his hand.
Some years later when I saw him he said that he had to adjust the fuel mixture a bit. I didn’t get it! He noticed, laughed and said I hav had to add a bit of water to the whisky as the engine was running a touch too rich!
After we got married, my wife Diane and I moved to live down south in Woking, we were in regular contact with Pat and Jock. The highlight of every year was the Wilson family New Year’s Eve party at their house on Red Lioan Road on the leafy outskirts of London. Soon after our son Mika was born, Jock and Pat presented him, for his first birthday, with a jolly nice trike with big fat wheels. That was a gesture that we very much appreciated. At first the trike was a bit too big for him.
Later when Mika had grown up a little and was already cruising around the house on his trike and also at that point he was beginning to speak a little. We said to him, “Please thank Uncle Jock for this new toy of yours.” Mika being a smart young lad took it on board and when Jock arrived he said: “… thank you very much Auntie Dock”. Jock smiled broadly. That name stuck and in our family Jock is still affectionately known as Auntie Dock!” – Yrjo Vesterinen
Derrick Edmondson on Jock Wilson: “Jock was a big man in stature and respect, especially for those who were prepared to earn ‘his’ in return. His handshake was legendary and if you managed to keep a smile on your face without ‘wincing’ from his vice-like firm grip, then the friendship you would gain friom him was endless. A great character with so much experience and one who was always there to help both with advice and mechanical knowledge. My secret admiration for him was his simple ability to paint perfect numbers ‘free-hand’ on a race plate in the days when they were hand painted with a paint brush like an old-fashioned sign writer and not the modern stick on jobs!” – Derrick Edmondson
Before his untimely death in 2016, the late Martin Lampkin commented:
“I had known Jock Wilson from my early days in trials and when I moved to Bultaco it was a privilege to be aroun sucha good and genuine man. During my Bultaco years, Jock, along with Reg May at Comerfords, were the men you spoke to when you had a problem and if you needed some good advice or help as nothing was too much trouble. With the Spanish Bultaco concern in financial trouble, I had no choice with a young family to support but to move to another brand and it was SWM that I chose. Fortunately for me it was around the same time that Jock had become involved with importing them and I knew when we shook hands that the deal would always be honoured. I rewarded him with both the Britisj Cahmpionship and the Scott Trial victories making some very happy memories which I still cherish to this day.” – H. Martin Lampkin, 2015
Jock Wilson passed away peacefully, aged 85 years on 21st August 2019.
For back copies of Classic Trial Magazine click HERE
Copyright restrictions: The images included in this article are the world-wide copyright of the image owners and are not to be displayed elsewhere without the prior written permission of the copyright owners. Please respect their intellectual property by not sharing any of the images separately from this article. Trials Guru are particularly grateful to Mr. Don Morley, Reigate, Surrey for allowing his images to be permitted within this article.
Jock Wilson’s Ariel HT5 – 786GON – additional article on Trials Guru HERE
Available now only on Trials Guru, the full story of Peter ‘Jock’ Wilson – respected competitor in trials and the ISDT; top class mechanic; salesman; team manager; importer and general all-round good guy. Written by Trials Guru’s John Moffat with the direct assistance of Jock and Pat Wilson; Dave Campling & Yrjo Vesterinen.
(Article first published in Issue 14 of Classic Trial Magazine by CJ Publishing, reproduced with their kind permission on Trials Guru. Back issues of Classic Trial Magazine available HERE)
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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