THE FORGOTTEN MIDGETS Mar 27, 2009 19:51:36 GMT 1
Post by administrator on Mar 27, 2009 19:51:36 GMT 1
SEVENTEEN years after the Skirrows and Eltos staged their historic Gold Cup meeting at Wembley in July 1938, it was the turn of the then emergent 500cc JAP-engine cars to show their paces on the motorcycle speedway track.
While creating a good impression, the 500cc midgets failed to get regular bookings from the Stadium management. At the time, pioneer driver Albert Brown who was among the competitors, said, “It was the highlight of my career to appear at such a famous stadium.”
The 500cc midgets, mainly rear-engined, started to appear at the old Hyde Road Belle Vue track in Manchester during 1955. They could rightly be described as ‘the forgotten midgets’ because their emergence and decline coincided with a sustained period of ‘revival activity’ by the Skirrows and their more conventional racers.
The prototype 500cc midget was bult and designed by Bob Parker. He was no relation to Mike Parker, who was involved in both driving and promoting the cars.
The cars were built by Ordsall Motors, who provided both completely built cars and kits. A complete ready-to-race car cost £275, while kit cars were available at £150. With a chassis frame with body formers and rear axles costing a further £50. The spcification for a Parker midget, built at a workshop in Chester Road, Stretford, Lancs, was as follows:
Chassis frame: aircraft type tube steel, solid cold drawn for strength.
Suspension: independent front suspension, damped by powerful race-proved hydraulic struts.
Clutch: multi-plate friction type.
Drive: by chain through a counter shaft.
Wheels: Front - eight inches; rear 13 inches. Both pressed steel disc type.
Tyres: front 4.00x8. Rear: 5.90x13.
Body: light alliy or fibre glass.
Colours: two tone, special effects and designs to customer’s requirements executed at nominal cost.
Upholstery: seat and back rest of deep foam latex rubber, covered with material.
Clutch and accelerator pedals foot-operated.
Wheelbase: 46 inches.
Weight: 350 pounds ready to race.
Engine: JAP 500cc ONV racing engine.
Compression ratio: 14:1.
Fuel: alcohol, castor base.
Brown, from Bury, Lancashire, said, “One very important fact many people were not aware of was that the cars had no brakes. These were not fitted on the grounds that they were unsafe.
“While Bob Parker drew up the specifications and built the first midgets, others were copied and built by drivers including Frank Wallwark, Doc Garth and myself. These were not very successful.
“If it had not been for a locl bookmaker and former Cooper 500cc big circuit driver Jim Abbott taking an interest, our form of midget car racing would have died at its birth in the mid-1950s.”
Brown added, “Jim Abbott took Parker’s specifications, made modifications, principally using the correct steering geometry and produced the Parker 500 which became the best midget of its kind.”
Brown added: “Derek Bennett also built similar midgets but they were not as successful as the Parkers. Derek, of course, was later to find fame building the famous Formula One Chevron cars until he was killed in a gliding accident in 1978.”
Brown recalled racing at many speedway tracks in support events to the motorcycles. “Besides Belle Vue, in the early days we also appeared at Sheffield, Bradford, Norwich, Swindon, Wimbledon, Yarmouth and a highlight meeting at Wembley Stadium.
“I also took part in a midget car match race against the motorcycle star Ron Mountford who drove an Australian midget. This was at the Perry Barr track in Birmingham in May 1957.”
Brown said, “This came about following a controversy in a speedway magazine where Belle Vue boss Johnnie Hoskins claimed the Parker 500 was a better car than an Australian midget.
“In a best-of-three contest I beat Mountford 2-0. The prize money was £25 to the winner which was big money in 1957. After I beat Mountford for the second time, the Birmingham promoter said I should have let Moutford win once to give the excitement for a decider.
“At the same meeting, I also attempted to break the motorcycle track record but failed, This was held by Alan Hunt who was killed while racing in South Africa some months later.”
Brown also remembers a long-forgotten track. He said, “In 1956, the midgets also raced on an old cycle track in Bury - not on a circuit surrounding the local club’s football pitch as many believe. The track had steeped banked bends and racing was very hairy.”
In 1959, promoter Charles Ochiltree decided to try the midgets in mixed programme meetings. His main event for the midgets took place on March 28, 1959, when the Easter Tournament featuring 15 drivers was held. It was won by Art Crane from Burnley. Other starters were Bruce Blood (Manchester), Doc Garth (Manchester), Mike Parker (Blackpool), Trevor Dutton (Manchester), Bill Hulme (Manchester), Eddie Bloomfield (London), Joe Reece (Manchester), Kevin Shaw (Oldham), Eric Davies (Oldham), Ken Smith (Manchester), Ron Lea (Manchester), Bill Mather (Stockport) and Wilbur Chandler (London).
Brown also had memories of a previous meeting at Coventry. “Late in 1958 we took part in a triangular meeting at Coventry. This also featured speedway bikes and sidecars in their own races and was similar to how they run meetings oin Australia and New Zealand.
“The meeting ended on a tragic note when a very good friend of mine Frank Richardson was killed.”
Richardson was a 41-year-old garage owner from Manchester who sustained fatal injuries when he collided with another car and hit the safety fence. His car overturned and landed on top of him when he was thrown out. It was later found that Richardson’s safety belt had broken during the accident.
The Coventry promoter, Charles Ochiltree, said, “I am sure that if the safety belt had not broken and Richardson not been thrown from his car he would only have sustained minor injuries.”
Richardson’s Belle Vue promoter Johnnie Hoskins said, “It was the first serious accident in the formula in four seasons.”
During World War Two between 1939-45, Richardson had been a sergeant glider pilot with the Airborne Division. He was a married man.
Brown said, “For most of the drivers, the era of 500cc midget racing was very exciting and most of the drivers graduated from motorcycle sports like speedway, grass tracks and road racing. While we were all good friends, no quarter was asked or given on track.
“The most successful period for our form of midget racing was when we raced every Saturday during the season at Belle Vue. I remember our first away meeting was at Sheffield, where the promoter was the former England and Belle Vue leg-trailing rider Frank ‘Red Devil’ Varey. He was then promoting stock cars as well as speedway at Owlerton Stadium. We were a support formula at one of the stock car meetings.
Among the pioneer drivers were Bruce Blood, Fred Butterworth, Dicky Mountfield, Ron Lea, Doc Garth, Albert Brown, Jack Bottomley, Wilf Johnson and Johnny O’Neil. Speedway riders Ted Howelll, Stan Beardsall, Graham Beattie and Tink Maynard also competed regularly.
Former world speedway champion Peter Craven also drove the midgets at practice but refused to be tempted into racing the cars. Craven was killed in an early 1960s speedway crash at the Meadowbank Stadium in Edinburgh.
While in 1956 the 500cc midgets were attracting their own specialist drivers, other speedway riders were also considering taking part. New Zealand speedway riders Trevor Redmond and Ray Thackwell actually got as far as building a car, while two English riders Vic Ridgeon and Jim Chalkley considered but never proceeded with building a 500cc midget.
It is generally accepted that the demise of 500cc midget car racing followed their withdrawal from meetings at Belle Vue in the early 1960s. This came after the departure of enthusiastic promoter Johnnie Hoskins to take over speedway at New Cross in London.
He was replaced at the Manchester track by former England and Belle Vue rider Ken Sharples who freely admitted, “I am no lover of the midgets.” After an acrimonious period with the drivers, Sharples dropped them from Belle Vue programmes. He claimed that he had received increasing bad complaints from spectators about the poor standard of racing, with poor starting procedures and too many drivers making modifications to their cars on track.
One of the last outings for the 500cc midgets was at the Leicester speedway track in Blackbird Road on Friday, April 20, 1962. It featured a team match between Leicester and Wolverhampton which the former won.
The teams were: Leicester - Bob Garside, Graham Beattie, Roy Cox and Harry Van Law. Wolverhampton included the experienced former Skirrow midget driver Dave Hughes along with Art Crane, Cyril Crane and Al Holloway. The man behind the venture was Ron Wilson, a former speedway rider who had also raced Skirrows during the 1950s.
For many years, the car owned by Crane hung from the ceiling in the bar at the old Boston speedway track in New Hammond Beck Road.
Dennie Igoe, from Blackley in Manchester, became involved in a bid to salvage 500cc midget racing in the early 1960s. He promoted a few meetings at the old Liverpool Stanley Stadium speedway track ans also on the nearby Ainsdale Sands.
Several new drivers were attracted to the sport. In 1964, there was even talk of building an 800-yard track in the Birmingham area but nothing happened. The enlistment of Dave Hughes after the end of the Skirrow era was an attempt to bring promotional expertise into the formula. Unfortunately, Hughes undoubted talents in that direction came too late.
Years later, a disillusioned Hughes told me, “Trying to popularise midget racing in Britain is a dead loss. I doubt it will ever became a mainstream formula.”
Trevor Dutton was another exponent of 500cc midget racing in the 1950s. He said of his links to the formula, “I was raised in a house just 200 yards from the old Belle Vue Stadium at Hyde Road in Manchester.
“I started racing in Albert Brown’s car, which he had originally bought from Wilf Johnson when he took delivery of a new car. I had heard about the midgets in the 1954-55 winter and had seen a couple of races. I liked what I saw and contacted Mike Parker about racing them. At the time, Albert Brown was selling his car with a view to buying a boat for hydroplane racing.
“Although Albert was handicapped with irons to support one of his legs and had trouble getting into his midget, he was a very fine driver and a racer to be respected on track.”
An epitaph to 500cc midget racing was penned by Alasdair Domhuilach in his excllent book “Speedway’ (Academy Books, 1992). He wrote of the period, “In the late fifties and early sixties speedcar racing was an attraction at some speedway meetings. The cars, however, were really TQ midgets although inferior to Australia’s current Formula 500 class.
“They were very small rear engined cars powered by 650cc motorcycle engines. They had a tubular steel chassis and sheet metal body. They were very unbreliable, fairly unintertesting and thankfully short lived.”
Apart from a contradiction with Domhuilach regarding the engine capacity of the midgets, his comments are worth of recording.
For more than 25 years a midget car which never took part in a race held pride of place in the speedway section of the Donnington Motor Museum.
In the early 1990s, the speedway section of the museum closed and the exhibits, many of them vintage speedway bikes dating back to the 1920s were sold. Among them was the ‘Atom’ car. In 1991, the ‘Atom’ car was offered to former world speedway champion Barry Briggs. He declined to buy the car but offered to exhibit it for a year. That deal never materialised and in the ensuing years the ‘Atom’ car went out of sight and mind.
Then in 1998, another former speedway rider Jack Taylor, who had been a sound journeyman rider with Aldershot, Eastbourne and Southampton in the 1950s, saw the car advertised in a trade magazine.
Taylor said, “I phoned Tim Cameron who was advertising the car and he said that he already had an offer for it. If I wanted to buy the car, I would have to be at his home in the Malvern Hills in Somerset before the other prospective buyer turned up.
“From what he told me, the other driver buyer wanted the car so that he could convert it for hill-climbs and planned to fit brakes and a new-type suspension. I was horrified at the suggestion.
“I closed my garage in Reading for the day, jumped into my van and headed for the Malvern Hills. Luckily, I arrived before the other buyer, bought the ‘Atom’ car and took it home.”
Taylor went on, “It took me 18 months to rebuild to its original image. One part of the panelling was missing and the exhaust had been modified so the car could be raced round a field.
“It was in a sorry way. However, over the months after buying the car, I had a new panel made and restored the exhaust system to its original state.”
Taylor continued, “The car’s most famous driver was the 1954 and 1959 world speedway champion Ronnie Moore, who took part in a much-publicised press trial on September 20, 1955. However, there is also evidence that another Wimbledon speedway rider, Cyril Brine, also took part in the car’s early trials at Wimbledon Stadium.”
After his trial drive, Moore never saw the “Atom’ car again until September 2000 when former West Ham and England rider Reg Fearman reunited them at Taylor’s garage. By then, Taylor had made dramatic improvements to the car inclduding sending it back to Allard Motorpsort. It underwent extensive work including changing the front suspension to Bellamy suspension and putting heavier front wheels than those it had been fitted with. “This helped to correct under-steer problems with the car,” Taylor said.
However, there was one point Taylor refused to be drawn on. He said, “I will never disclose how much I paid for the car originally or how much was spent on restoration work.”
At the time of the ‘Atom’ car’s trial at Wimbledon Stadium in 1955, I was assistant editor of the ‘Speedway Star’ and vividly recall going to Plough Lane to see it in action. I also upset the then Wimbledon speedway promoter Ronnie Greene after the trials by suggesting that if he wanted to stage midget cars on speedway tracks that Dave Hughes had a team of Skirrows available.
Greene replied. “No fear! The Skirrows are too dangerous and they like climbing up safety fences when they go out of control.”
Recalling the test drive in his own book, ‘The Ronnie Moore Story', the author said that from the start he was convinced the ‘Atom’ Car was unsuitable for speedway.
He wrote, “It didn’t have any suspension. This was particularly frustrating because I had arranged for a set of plans to be sent from New Zealand. If these had been followed, Britain might have launched a new era for speedway.”
Another former speedway rider, Alan Brett who was linked with both Wimbledon and Eastbourne, also helped Moore as a mechanic. He told me: “I remember the trial well and Ronnie Moore turning the ‘Atom’ car over at practice one Tuesday morning and braeking his collar-bone. At the time, I lived in a flat at Wimbledon which had previously been the home of Trevor Redmond, who was also keen on midgets as well as his won speedway career. The development of the ‘Atom’ car was by Charles Batson and Sydney Allard.”
Chris Humberstone, of Allard Motorsport, told me: “In 1955 a meeting was held between Sydney Allard and the management at Wimbledon Speeday to dicuss the discuss the possibility of building a small car for use on the dirt.
“The popularity of speedway was waning at the time and it was thought perhaps car racing would bring the crowds. Mr Gil Jepson was called in and working from a few pencil sketches by Sydney, he built up a chassis using light channel section steel. It had a 3ft front track and a straight-tube axle mounted with two quarter-eliptic springs and radius rods, while the rear was unsprung, using an axle-tube mounted between thrust races on each side of the frame.”
Mr Humberstone explained, “The rear track measured 2ft 9in and the tiny wheelbarrow wheels were driven from the centrally mounted engine by chain and sprockets. As with speedway bikes, there was no gearbox, but a final drive sprocket was deigned for easy removal to permit easy changes of ratio.
“The wheelbase was 4ft 6ins and the complete car with its light alumium shell and body weighed just 278ib. Painted in bright colours and named ‘The Atom' it was put on a raised dais at one evening meeting and shortly after was tested on an empty speedway track by speedway star Ronald Moore.”
Moore had other memories about testing ‘The Atom’ car. He wrote further in his book, “Ronnie Green, the Wimbledon promoter, was keen to inject some variety into British speedway and had the idea of introducing midget cars. The project was a closely guarded secret, but I was let on it because of my knowledge of midget car racing in New Zealand, I was an automatic choice as the test pilot.”
He also recalled the spill in which he was injured. “During one of the test sessions I was skating into a corner at about 45 miles and hour, the wheels dug in the car somersaulted twice, flinging me out like a rag doll.”
A small roll bar is claimed to have saved Moore from breaking his neck, but the broken collar bone was enough to keep the New Zealand internatoonalout of the Wimbledon speedway team for some five weeks.
Recalling that drive, Mr Humberstone said, “ ‘The Atom’ went quite well, though suffering from insufficient head of petrol from the tail-mounted gravity-feeding tank. A pump was fitted, driven off the axle-shaft and performance was much imoproved, but after several laps Moore overdid things on one corner and the car overturned, breaking his collar bone.
“Not surprising, his interest waned a litte after that and as further tests showed that passing would be difficult and the first man away would usually win, the idea was dropped.”
Gil Jepson, who had played a major part in the car’s design, said, “It was fitted with a JAP-speedway type engine, but the problem was with the springs which were similar to those used in Frazer Nash racing sports cars. Even on the straights it tended to cause a sideway movement. Ronnie had problems when testing the car and generally we decided that the project was not suitable and the venture was abandoned.”
(c) John Hyam 2009