THE OLDER I GET THE FASTER I WENT - 1960 Manx GP


My mother used to say that “getting old is a bugger,” and as she lived to be over a hundred she had plenty
time to contemplate that statement. I am now appreciating what she meant. Nothing works like it used to do,
you can’t run upstairs, and the memory starts to go, at least the short term .You can’t remember what you
had for dinner last night, and if you go into the shed for something you can’t remember what it was you
wanted when you get there. People say that you can recall things that happened many years ago much
easier but I am not quite at that stage yet. The other night I was laying in bed waiting for sleep (another sign
of ageing?) when for some reason I found myself thinking about the last time I competed in the Isle of Man,
the 1960 Manx Grand Prix. I don’t remember many details of the other races I competed in, only some
highlights, but this one stands out and thought it might be worth recording.

The Manx is held on first two weeks in September and the weather can be cold and wet or warm and
balmy, in fact I often think that it is similar to September in Australia, and that year we had a good mix of
both, The practice week was mainly wet with a couple of good sessions early on. The last morning practice,
which was the Monday of race week, was particularly memorable. I was riding a 500 Manx Norton that I had
bought new in 1959 and it was my pride and joy.

Bad conditions on the mountain delayed the start, the first riders getting away about six fifteen. Visibility
was still down to about a hundred yards over the top, with the mist clearing on the drop down to Creg-ny-ba,
the roads were damp and greasy. All went well until I got to the Creg which I thought I took quite gingerly, but
as I applied the power both wheels slipped from under me and deposited me on my back. I distinctly
remember sliding down the road alongside my bike, watching the sparks flying off from everywhere and
thinking, “me bike, me bike, oh, me bike”, it looked like a firework display. Luckily it didn’t catch fire. We slid
to a stop against the bank and found that we had been chased down the road by a flag marshal who was
followed in turn by a big red faced police Sergent. After making sure 1 was OK, they picked me up and
wheeled the bike back up the road and through a gate into a field, leaned it against a bank, took me back to
the Creg and sat me down behind the straw bales from where 1 watched the rest of the session. In my
opinion, as a spectator this is one of the best vantage places on the whole course. Another rider who was
staying at the same “digs” as us did a similar thing earlier in the week. His rear wheel slipped, he managed
to correct it, but found that the road wasn’t going the same way he was. Fortunately the same farm gate was
open and he shot through. He did a complete circuit of the field, trying to dodge the cowpats, out through the
same gate and back onto the circuit giving a merry wave to the marshals.

The session ended and the “roads open” car came through. The police and marshals went home for their
breakfasts leaving me wondering how I was getting back to the pits. As it was a miserable morning there
weren’t many spectators around, but fortunately one had a van and he kindly offered me a lift. The rest of the
day was spent picking up replacement parts from the Norton depot and fitting them. Fortunately the damage
was all superficial, seat, megaphone and gear lever, etc.

The weather then started to pick up and the Junior race on the Tuesday was run in good dry conditions,
and for the Senior on Thursday it was perfect.

The preparations started on Wednesday evening when we had to present the machines to the scrutineers
for the preliminary examination at a garage down near the harbour after which they were then locked up for
the night. We were able to pick them up again at 9.30 the following morning, race day. We left the depot just
after 10 for a parade down the whole length of Douglas promenade. That was quite an experience. The
sound of over a hundred racing machines with open megaphones cruising down the prom’ had to be heard
to be believed. Mind you there weren’t many people to see them because all the fans were already out on
the course. But the staff of all the hotels came out to cheer on their favourite riders.

Down the prom’, and up May hill to join the course at Governors Bridge, on to Glencutchery Road and the
start area, where we continued to warm up the engines. At 10.30 the engines gradually shut down as we
gave them a final check over and fitted new racing plugs. As I was starting at number 120, I was next to last
to start and keeping the oil warm was quite a problem. Riders were wrapping blankets and coats around the
oil tanks to try and retain some heat. 10.40, and everyone was lined up in order and waiting for the off,
hearts pounding and the adrenaline pumping. 10 45, and the first rider was away, the riders gradually
moving forward to wait their turn. I took the opportunity to walk forward to watch a mate who started at
number 85 get away. Unfortunately his bike refused to fire and he had to push back to the pits to change the
plug. This time everything went OK and he got away but lost quite a few minutes in the process.

Finally it was nearly my turn. A final check to make sure the fuel and chain oiler was turned on, engage first
gear and pull back onto compression and push up to the line. Here you are hoping that everything goes OK,
and you don’t make a fool of yourself by tripping over your feet or something equally stupid. You are by
yourself now and all eyes are on you and criticising you, it’s not like a short circuit meeting where you can
get lost in the crowd.

The flag drops and you are away. One step, two, three, drop the clutch to get the engine spinning, four,
five, six and drop side saddle onto the seat. The engine started immediately and is turning over at around six
thousand rpm with the clutch being fed in hard. By the end of the pits at seven thousand rpm, which on Manx
gearing equates to around seventy mph, you swing your leg over and drop onto the seat at the same time
stamping into second gear and head down towards the top of Bray Hill. Into top gear at the cross- roads and
line up left for the drop down the hill. Over to the right, then back to the left and aim to just miss the kerb on
the far right hand corner of the cross roads in the bottom, all the time holding the throttle wide open. This
point is one of the fastest parts of the course and at peak revs, 7200, you are doing just short of 140 mph.
Hold the bike to the centre of the road over what is now known as Ago’s leap, and on to the right hander at
Quarter Bridge, the first corner of the course, braking early and taking it easy as with nearly five gallons of
fuel on board and bike is quite heavy.

On to the left, then right over the railway line at Braddon Bridge, and by now you are starting to settle down.
On to Union Mills, through the village and past the second milestone marker to start a long uphill straight,
and in the distance you catch sight of the rider who started before you. This is good because it gives you a
target, something to chase. The Isle of Man can be a very lonely place at times and you can go for miles and
not see another rider, and if it is a place with no spectators and few marshals, your mind can start to wander.
In fact you begin to think that everybody knows something you don’t and they have all packed up and gone
home, until you see a rider in the distance or someone comes blasting past to waken you up. Anyway, by
now you are getting into the swing of things and starting to enjoy yourself. The bike is handling well and is
sounding good.

On to Ramsey and over the mountain for the first time, to Governors Bridge and through the start to start
the second lap. This one turned out to be my fastest at an average speed of 90 mph. I lie; it was 89.26, but
90 sounds better. The third was much the same and 1 was really enjoying myself now. There is something
quite satisfying riding flat out down the village street all legal and above board, more so at 6am during early
morning practice. The sheer sense of speed going between the buildings and kerbs is exhilarating to say the
least. I pulled into the pits at the end of this lap to refuel, change goggles and general check over.
Away down Bray Hill again to start the fourth lap. All went well until going down Sulby straight I sensed a
drop in power and the exhaust note had changed. Swinging right at the end of the straight I risked a quick
look down and saw the megaphone flapping about. I pressed on the few miles into Ramsey and at the
square, instead of turning right went straight on up the slip road, where I stopped and leaned the bike against
a wall, and found that the megaphone had split just to the rear of the mounting bolt and was hanging on with
less than a quarter of the circumference. I grabbed the end of it and worked it up and down until it broke off
and was surprised how easily it did so.

I restarted the bike and rejoined the course. If the engine sounded odd before, it now sounded bloody
terrible and the power had dropped dramatically. Top gear was a waste of time going up the mountain mile
and even on the drop down the other side I only managed to use it a couple of times.

Things got worse when on the approach to Governors Bridge I saw a big black board with my number on it
and a marshal waving a black flag at me and pointing over to the far side of the corner. I rode over as I was
told and another marshal shouted in my ear to carry on but to stop at the pits. This I did and found my
mechanic there with a length of wire and a pair of pliers in his hand. Where he got the wire from I never did
find out because it was not a normal part of the tool kit. It turned out that what was left of the megaphone had
split again, this time in front of the mounting bolt and the exhaust pipe was being held on only by the cylinder
head flange nut and was waving about merrily.

The pipe was quickly wired on to the frame for support under the watchful eye of an official, who examined
it and gave me the OK to proceed. Off again down Bray to start the fifth lap. Things were getting interesting
now. Because of having to use lower gears I was going just that bit slower which meant that the braking
points were different, as were pealing off points. One place particularly noticeable was Hillberry, which is a
fast right hander. Just before it on the left side is a stone wall, the start of which is the braking point. You
ease off the throttle, drop it into third gear and drive hard through the corner. Now not being able to use top
gear I was able to hold it hard all the way through in third. Possibly I was maybe going faster than I would
normally.

Past the start and finish again, this time thankfully no one stopped me and on to the sixth and final lap, all
the time urging the bike on and willing for more speed. I was getting really frustrated by this time. All was
going reasonably well until heading down to Ballaugh Bridge every thing went deathly quiet and the engine
stopped dead. There is a garage on the left at this point just before the bridge and I coasted on to the
forecourt and stopped. A quick look into the fuel tank confirmed what I feared. I was out of fuel. My race was
over. A generous local took pity on me and gave me three shillings to buy a gallon of petrol that enabled me
to cruise back to the pits where I tried to not draw attention to myself.

Dozens of men over the years, including some of the very best, have run out of fuel on the last lap,
normally within the last two or three miles, but to run out with over half a lap to go is something of an
embarrassment. Thinking about it afterwards we found it hard to believe that the loss of the megaphone
could cause such an increase in fuel consumption, but it was the only thing we could come up with. The
Norton could manage four laps on a full tank and a few riders risk it but most fill up after three. The bikes
were filled up prior to scrutineering the night before, and even after the parade and fifteen minutes warming
up, there was still fuel in the tank at refuelling. It is possible that we didn’t put enough in but both the
mechanic and myself checked the level before closing the cap.

For the record, Phil Read won the race at a record speed of just over 96 mph. who said after the race that
the only problem he had had was a split megaphone! These speeds might seem laughable now compared to
modern day, but back then we were not allowed streamlining of any type and our 500cc bikes might just
develop 52 horse power. Today they have 1000cc and at least three times as much horse power, not to
mention better tyres and brakes. Also the road surface is better and has been widened in several places. A
few corners have been straightened out as well. My mate, who had the trouble at the start, finished a
creditable 32nd.

Analysing and comparing the lap times I was lying in about 13th place at the end of the first lap, and 18th
after 5 laps, just within replica time. This is where “the what if and if only” syndrome comes in. What if it
hadn’t rained that morning? What if I hadn’t fallen off and had to replace the megaphone with what I think
might have been an inferior one. Actually the new seat wasn’t very comfortable either, having very little
padding, and not having much personal padding in that area, I was quite saddle sore at the end. It was quite
adequate for short circuits but not for the bumpy mountain circuit. Also, if only I had checked the fuel when I
was pulled in for repairs things might have been different. On the other hand it could said that I was one of
the lucky ones as the rider who started behind me, the last man away, collided with another rider at Kirk
Michael, on the second lap and was killed instantly.

Another reason I decided to record this is that as I look out over the snow field that is our monthly meeting,
I can’t help but feel there are many similar stories just waiting to be told. Hopefully this might encourage
some to be dragged out of the cupboard.

B. Betts #705





 

 

 

 




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