Specially written for CLASSIC TRIAL MAGAZINE Issue 34:
TROPHIES, TIGERS, LEOPARDS AND JAGUARS – The RAY SAYER Story
For many months Richmond trials enthusiast Barry Watson nagged Trials Guru mercilessly to pen an article on an unassuming gentleman who is well known in the Yorkshire trials world. And so, eventually, we thought it only right and proper to oblige. This would not be a straightforward task as we had met the gentleman on quite a few occasions. We knew full well that this is a very modest, reserved individual who would much rather talk about his contemporaries than himself! Our first approach to write about his motorcycle riding career was met with the reply: “I wish you wouldn’t”. Perseverance is a useful attribute though, and finally we wore him down. This feature spotlights the most respected of trials riders, who has lived in the village of Bellerby, near Leyburn, North Yorkshire most of his life, even though he avoids spotlights like the plague! Son of a farmer, John Raymond ‘Ray’ Sayer was born in November 1935 and was to make a name for himself on the national trials scene in a riding career that spanned three decades, starting in the early 1950s.
Words: John Moffat – Bill Wilkinson – J.R. Sayer
Photos: Alan Vines – Malcolm Carling – Yoomee Archive
The eldest of three children, Ray Sayer effectively put the Richmond area on the trials map by his name regularly featuring in the motorcycle press, which followed his career in the sport of trials. Pick up an old copy of the ‘Motor Cycle’ yearbook and the name J.R. Sayer appears regularly. Sayer, who was a national trials winner and ISDT team rider, rode factory Triumph motorcycles for most of his riding career which spanned almost three decades. His many Triumph contemporaries of the era included John Giles, Roy Peplow, Gordon Blakeway, Gordon Farley, Ken Heanes, and Malcolm Rathmell. Giles, Heanes and Peplow were selected many times for the Great Britain International Six Days Trial World Trophy team, an event which Sayer would eventually compete in three times on Meriden-prepared factory Triumphs. Although his name will be forever linked with the Coventry marque, Ray Sayer was not always Triumph mounted, as we shall learn later.
A ‘local’ Yorkshire event:
Sayer’s first trial was the Scott, on a 197cc DOT which had been purchased from a local businessman called Sylvester ‘Syl’ Palmer from nearby Leyburn. Palmer had ridden the machine in previous Scott Trials, he had also been the event clerk of the course and received support from Francis Barnett.
“My first Scott Trial was on 14th November 1953. It was also my first ever trial, and there was a very good reason for that. At the time I worked for my father, who was a farmer and a Methodist. In those days Sundays were for attending church and definitely not for having fun on a motorcycle! As the Scott was run on a Saturday, this allowed me to enter and compete in my very first event. Needless to say, I did not do too well on the DOT. The course back then consisted of two laps plus one leg out and one back in, and I had to retire after the first lap. The following year was very wet and what had been a stream became a large torrent at ‘Dicky Edge’. This wasn’t a problem for the more experienced or factory supported riders but I tried to jump it, and ended up in the middle with a drowned machine!”
“The 1955 Scott was a much better year for me, having bought a 1951 500cc Triumph Trophy by trading the DOT in to Duplex in Darlington; this became my all-time favourite motorcycle. I was fortunate to secure some valuable help with spare parts from Allan Jefferies and this time I had a really good ride. The Trophy was eventually converted to swinging-arm rear suspension using a McCandless conversion, which increased the ground clearance to nine inches and steepened the steering. It became a beautifully handling machine after that. My best performance in the Scott was third place in 1964 but I did win the 200cc cup and Best Yorkshireman awards on quite a few occasions. In the years that I rode the Scott, when it was held in the November, it was invariably cold and wet; conditions which really suited me. There was always the possibility of some snow though, and the trial was eventually brought forward to the October. I also had support from Pete ‘Eddy’ Edmondson on the Puch engined Dalesman which was a 125cc six-speeder and was a quick machine on the rough. I rode the Dalesman in the 1970 Scott Trial.”
Sayer achieved his first Scott Trial finisher’s certificate in 1955 and amassed a total of 13 coveted ‘Scott Spoons’ from 1956 onwards which effectively placed him in the higher echelons of this famous event’s records.
Wedding Bells and Trials – 1960:
Ray married Carole in 1960, when they advanced their betrothal plans due to her father being a high-ranking officer in the Royal Air Force with an imminent posting to Hong Kong. They tied the knot a couple of years earlier than originally intended. Carole always refers to her husband as ‘Raymond’ and they will soon celebrate their Diamond wedding anniversary. She attended most of the events Ray took part in and has a good knowledge of the sport and the riders of the era. The Sayers had two children, daughter Alexandra and son Gavin. Alexandra has three children, making the Sayers grandparents. 1960 was a good year for Ray: Carole accompanied him to most events, he was Best Up To 250cc class winner in the Alan Trophy Trial and was a member of the Club Team Award for Ripon & District with Tom Ellis and Stan Holmes. A fortnight later he was second in the lightweight class and part of the Triumph manufacturers’ team award winners with Artie Ratcliffe and John Giles in the Belgian Lamborelle Trial.
The Travers Trial held in the April saw Ray again as part of the Triumph manufacturers’ team award winners, with Artie Ratcliffe and Roy Peplow, and club team for Bradford & District MCC with Stan Holmes and Ratcliffe. In the May Sayer collected a Special First Class and the Jimmy Beck Trophy at the SSDT, but the icing on the cake came in the July that year when Ray won the Allan Jefferies Trial outright, beating the legendary Sammy Miller (Ariel) by 13 marks. He rounded off the year by coming fifth in the British Experts on the 199cc Triumph Cub. Sayer was the 1964 winner of the national Victory Trial and he attended the Victory Trial reunion dinner organised by Tony Davis at the Manor Hotel, Meriden in 2007 as the Guest of Honour.
Sayer Talks Triumph:
“I rode as a works-supported rider for Triumphs for 11 years, and my final few seasons was as a privateer on a 250cc Ossa Mick Andrews Replica purchased from Norman Crooks at Northallerton for £270.00 in 1972, which I rode in that year’s Scott Trial and again in 1973. I had gone back to riding on my 500cc Triumph in 1969, registered GNR923, which I built myself and is now owned by Bill Hutchinson.
The registration number is now on his motor car and the Triumph has been restored to a high standard. I had first used this registration number on a 1961 Triumph Trophy and I transferred the registration number to my self-built Triumph. All my factory supplied Triumphs are still in circulation, which is nice to know. I enjoyed and appreciated the support that I received from Triumph, especially Henry Vale for having confidence in me.”
The Scottish Six Days has always been an important event for British trials riders and Ray Sayer was also keen to ride in Scotland.
“In 1957 I rode in my first Scottish; it was all new to me and we covered almost 1,000 miles during the week! It would be my most enjoyable as I had a really good time and a clean sheet on the Tuesday, losing no marks at all.”
This sparkling performance caught the attention of Triumph’s Henry Vale, the Competition Manager.
“Mr Vale offered me a factory machine after the SSDT, the Tiger Cub, which I rode for nine years. It was registered UNX51 and I believe it is still owned by the Crosswaite family. This was a competitive machine and one on which I rode in all the national events. But I have to say the Trophy would remain my favourite Triumph, I had a soft spot for that machine.”
Ray’s factory Triumph Cub UNX51 registered in May 1956 had been on loan from Henry Vale during the 1957 SSDT to 17-year-old Mike Hailwood, who went on to become a highly successful GP road racer and multiple TT winner, entering the Scottish as his first big competitive event. Factory Triumphs were regularly stripped down, checked, refurbished and rebuilt by the competition department at Meriden, under the watchful eye of Henry Vale, so this necessitated transport between Darlington and Coventry by train in the Guard’s van.
“I would get a phone call from either Dick Fiddler or Henry Vale at Triumph to say my machine was ready. Carole and I would go over to Darlington railway station to collect it in time for the next trial. I also rode the Highland Two-Day Trial at Inverness in Scotland a few times, and when I was on my own Triumph the secretary of the Highland club, Bob Mackenzie, was so impressed with my machine that he kept pestering me to sell it to him!”
History records that Ray was third in the 1963 ‘Scottish’ on the 199cc Tiger Cub, beaten only by Mick Andrews (AJS) and the eventual winner, Arthur Lampkin (BSA). This was to be Ray’s best performance in the annual Highland event. For the 1968 Scottish the British Suzuki concessionaires had entered Ray with his close friend Blackie Holden along with Peter Gaunt as a manufacturer’s team on the 128cc machines with Gaunt taking home the 150cc capacity class award. However, Ray’s little Suzuki did not stand up to the rigours of the SSDT that year and he was forced to retire from the event. The machine went back to Suzuki GB headquarters in the Midlands transported by Dennis Jones, who later worked for the company. The following year Ray was back on another two-stroke at the Scottish; this time it was the Villiers powered 37A-T model AJS for 1969. The AJS was courtesy of Norman Edgar of Edgar Brothers in Edinburgh who had close ties with the AJS factory, being Scottish agents for the marque.
“Mr Edgar contacted me after learning that I had entered on my 500cc Triumph and suggested that I might have an easier time riding the lighter two-stroke AJS. They seemed keen to push the AJS trials machine. However, the AJS did not have sufficient steering lock and to be honest I really was more a four-stroke man so unfortunately it didn’t suit me too well at all.”
These particular AJS machines were not built at the Andover factory but their components were transported to Edinburgh in early 1969 in crates, and they were assembled in the workshop of Edgar Brothers under the supervision of Frank Edgar and further developed by Norman’s son, Derek Edgar. The batch of the 246cc bikes were consecutively registered OWS 11–14G, Edinburgh registration marks which are dated to May 1969, just prior to the SSDT. Derek rode OWS11G with his elder brother Norman Edgar Jnr on OWS13G. Ray was issued with OWS12G for the SSDT, riding under number 93. Having been supplied with an early model production 37A-T machine (NFS21G), Norman Edgar Jnr decided to improve the batch of Edgar-built machines for the SSDT by fitting the motocross AJS Y4 ‘Stormer’ front forks and alloy conical hub, and also the conical alloy rear hub from the motocross machine. These were lighter than the British Hub Company components that the production models had been fitted with. This was a radical departure from both the production 37A-T AJS and those supplied by Peter Inchley to the other supported riders, Malcolm and Tony Davis. Ray now thinks the fork assembly from the motocross model could have explained the restricted steering lock on his machine. It was not plain sailing for Sayer however, the gearchange pawl broke on his AJS on the Wednesday resulting in a mid-week DNF for 1969. So it was back to the old love, his own 500cc Triumph Twin for the 1970 Scottish, finishing in 58th position. His last Scottish was in 1972 on the outdated GNR923, which had been treated to a more modern set of MP telescopic front forks and an alloy conical front wheel. Unfortunately, history records that he did not finish his SSDT swansong but he switched to the Ossa later that year and continued to ride trials for a few more seasons, which included two more Scott Trials.
In a plan to make some more money, Ray sat and passed his PSV driver test and started earning more income by driving a bus in Wensleydale for a local coach hirer. When the coach operator decided to retire, Ray formed a partnership with his younger brother Ken to operate ‘Sayers Coaches’ in their hometown of Bellerby, utilising a variety of purpose-built coaches. This included popular models such as a Leyland Leopard and Bedford YMT, retaining local school runs as part of their business.
Sayer rode in three International Six Days Trials. His first was the 1964 event at Erfurt, East Germany on the factory 490cc Triumph ‘Tiger 100’ (106CWD) and of course the movie actor, Steve McQueen, also rode a Triumph at the same event. Being English spoken, McQueen socialised with the British teamsters attending that year.
“Steve McQueen was quite taken by our factory Triumphs as they were much lighter and sported alloy fuel tanks, whereas McQueen’s was a fairly standard road model conversion, much of it undertaken by Reg May at Comerfords. I think he would have finished on gold medal standard if he had not spent so much time playing to the gallery, he was a typical show-off! He would keep pulling wheelies all over the place and crashed out quite a few times. He was very much an American style of rider, but quite a pleasant individual and very enthusiastic.”
Ray gained the first of his three gold medals at the Erfurt ISDT with 609 awarded points and ninth place in the 500cc class. The following year he rode the works 350cc ‘Tiger 90’ model Triumph (105CWD) in the Isle of Man in the GB Silver Vase team, having a clean sheet and gaining another gold medal as part of the best British manufacturers’ team – Triumph (Great Britain) with Ken Heanes and Roy Peplow. This was a difficult event held in atrocious conditions, and Ray’s experience of harsh North Yorkshire going gave him a distinct advantage, securing a gold – one of the few awarded that year. A truly gritty performance. In 1966 the event took place in Sweden at Villingsberg, managed by Jack Stocker. Ray was back on a factory 350cc Triumph, this time the ‘Tiger 90’ registered HUE252D in the GB Trophy team consisting of Ken Heanes, Roy Peplow, Sammy Miller and John Giles all on Triumphs, and Arthur Lampkin on a TriBSA. The team lost no marks and were credited with second place in the World Trophy competition, with East Germany taking top honours. Ray gained his third gold medal, having attained 600.04 bonus points. All the ex-factory ISDT Triumphs Ray rode are now in the custodianship of Triumph super-enthusiast Dick Shepherd in Essex.
Bill Wilkinson on Sayer:
“Ray Sayer must be one of Britain’s most underrated trials riders. I travelled many thousands of miles with him over the years when we rode in trials and the ISDT, so I got to know him very well. He never pushed himself forward, he is not that type of bloke; but make no mistake, he was a determined competitor and earned the respect of all the top riders of his era. My nickname for him is ‘Swing’ – not a lot of people know that! Ray was a very capable rider and was capable of much more. When you look back at results of national and international trials, you do not have to look far to see the name of J.R. Sayer. He won the Victory, the Allan Jefferies nationals at a time when any 20 of the top riders of the day could have won. His rivals were all very capable riders in their day. Ray was simply brilliant, I think we hooked up around 1961 and we hit it off really well. I have a lot of time for him.”
Having owned a succession of Austin and Wolseley motor vehicles Ray had a soft spot for Jaguar cars. He claims never to have bought a brand new one but he has owned several XJ series ‘Big Cats’ over the years. Ray Sayer never lost his interest in trials and has been a regular spectator at many Richmond Motor Club events over the years, his dark blue Jaguar XJ6 being noticeable parked at Reeth for the Three Day and at Richmond for the Scott. For the uninitiated, the slim, Barbour jacketed, silver-haired gentleman quietly watching the performances of riders usually goes un-noticed. Only those who know their British trials history can spot Ray Sayer in a crowd. And only those who know their history would have the thought, “…now there is a man who can ride a trials motorcycle!”
This article on J. Ray Sayer was written for publication in Classic Trial Magazine, which appeared in Issue 34.
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