Historian's Notes.

July 2014

Dennis gets a lesson about missing a great 1960s motorcycling event, but he was there in spirit

"Of course, I was in The Island for the 1966 Senior TT, when Hailwood beat Agostini. That was before your time.”

I came across this speaker during one of my stops on the Vintage Motor Cycle Club’s recent Relay Rally. The VMCC’s founder, Titch Allen came up with the idea. Riders sign on at their local checkpoint, collect a card and then head off to as many different places in the UK as they fancy. Each stopping point is staffed by branch members, who stamp your card and dish out tea and sandwiches.

At Copthorne I enjoyed a sausage sandwich served up by the VMCC’s Surrey and Sussex Section, which was how I ended up talking to a chap who had arrived on a pre-WWII DKW. He was keen to tell me all about his German two-stroke: split single, biggest motorcycle manufacturer in the world at the time, and quite a lot more. My Velocette didn’t get a mention.

I had to think when DKW man remarked that 1966 was before my time. He wasn’t right, but I had to cast my thoughts back quite a while. A seaman’s strike delayed the Isle of Man TT races until September that year. Mike Hailwood had re-joined Honda for the 1966 season, which meant that he and his old MV team mate Giacomo Agostini became racing rivals. Their Senior TT battle began with an exchange of record speeds on the first and second laps, but Hailwood was the eventual winner by over 2½ minutes on the poor handling four cylinder Honda. The following year, Hailwood triumphed again when the chain on Agostini’s machine broke while the MV rider was in the lead. This was some of the greatest motorcycle racing we have seen in the UK. No wonder DKW man remembered the occasion as if it was yesterday.

Now, what was I doing in September 1966? Of course; I was sat in the tender of a little narrow gauge steam locomotive called Prince on the Ffestiniog Railway in north Wales. The driver of this historic engine was Bill Hoole, who before retirement had finished his working life driving the great expresses on the East Coast Main Line from London’s Kings Cross station. At the controls of Sir Nigel Gresley’s three cylinder A4 pacifics, Bill gained the title ‘Engineman Extraordinary’. He is best remembered for a return trip to Doncaster in May 1959, organised by the Stephenson Locomotive Society. As the age of steam was coming to an end, Bill was given a last chance to ‘let rip’ on this route’s racing section south of Grantham. Top speed that day was 112mph – some say it was 117 – not far short of Mallard’s all time record for a steam locomotive of 126mph, achieved in 1938.

Bill Hoole: Engineman Extraordinary.
Photograph: Bishop Eric Treacy, courtesy National Railway Museum

This trip was Bill’s swan song. Soon after he retired to Wales and the Ffestiniog Railway, where he was a celebrity. Each school summer holidays I became a Ffestiniog volunteer and my day with Bill Hoole is a treasured memory. Of course I asked him if his locomotive – it was named Sir Nigel Gresley after its designer – could have broken the record that day in 1959. Bill had no doubts. He recalled shouting to the railway bosses crowded behind him on the footplate that they would have to tell him to slow down, otherwise he would keep the train accelerating. After some hesitation Bill felt a hand on his shoulder, telling him that was enough.

Like my fellow motorcyclist at Copthorne, we both had clear memories 48 years ago of great speed achievements. Perhaps as Prince simmered at the railway’s Porthmadog terminus, I should have trained my hearing towards the Irish Sea, to catch the bellow of Hailwood’s racer. In 2014 it probably takes someone in their eighties to tell a 60 year old they were too young to witness a great event of history. Never mind, I was there in the Island in spirit.

Dennis Frost