Backing group to the stars of the time.
Nothing to do with the sixties rock band above of the same name, this is about the ‘Golden Age’ of racing motorcycles which ended with the end of that era.
Just before I married I dragged the future wife to Brands Hatch on an early October day in 1967 for the Race of the South, a race meeting that was to be the swan song for so many of the motorcycles racing there that day as a universal agreement had been agreed with all the major manufacturers and the governing body to cut costs and simplify racing motorcycles from that year on.
For many of those manufacturers there was a break until ‘69 when the new rules limiting number of cylinders, gears etc. came into force, although you could under certain circumstances have more cylinders - restrictions or penalties in the premier class made that almost impossible.
The reason the FIM gave for those restrictions was a gulf between motorcycles raced and those used on the road. That was disingenuous, it was really because the Japanese had totally obliterated their European competition and the changes were an attempt to redress the balance.
Racing motorcycles had always been prototypes in the world championships, such amazing machines such as the earlier Moto Guzzi V8 gave lie to what the FIM said as the reason for change.
In 1966 Honda won every single world championship class and a total of 138 wins in all classes since starting in 1960.
It had been an incredible period, all the manufacturers had been in a non stop race to develop ever more powerful and exotic machines in an attempt to stay on top of the world championships.
Most were Japanese and most, unlike today, entered works machines in all or several of the championship classes, 50cc, 125cc, 250cc 350cc and the premier class 500cc. The R&D departmens required to develop those machines year in year out were enormous, Honda at one time employed I believe 10,000 people in their R&D department, many in the race division.
I mention Honda because they stuck to four stroke engines even when the two strokes were the obvious route to go down, and later dominated all classes of motorcycle racing, but their philosophy was that at that point they didn’t make any two stroke motorcycles and that meant there was no connection with their road bikes with two stroke engineering; they did later relent when they had no choice.
But it resulted in some of the most sophisticated engines being produced in their efforts to keep the two strokes at bay.
The two strokes themselves were some of the most complicated engines ever produced, for what is a simpler layout. Much was copied from the pioneering work of MZ in East Germany and indeed their top rider and development engineer Ernst Degner defected to Japan in the middle of a race in Finland; such was his input that the Japanese soon dominated with their versions of that two stroke design ‘stolen‘ from the Soviet block.
The 50cc class was in its early days somewhat derided, despite many riders starting off in the class. The late Bill Ivy, future 250cc world champion, started on one he took in a sidecar to race meetings. When it became a world championship class things began to change rapidly. The first to really stretch what was considered a kiddy class for motorcycles was the German firm Kriedler who made a range of very successful mopeds. Their race bikes were something else, as with all two strokes revs were important as a ratio to power and as the power went up the rev band diminished requiring ever more gears to keep the engines in that optimum rev range.
The final iteration of the early Kriedlers had a four speed gearbox with a hand-controlled three speed overdrive=twelve gears; but they were handicapped by being based on road bike engines, whereas the Japanese were not - the Hondas, still four strokes were twin cylinders and the Suzuki was a three cylinder revving to 20,000rpm with a 14 speed gearbox; the Honda with nine speed gearbox revved to 22,500rpm.
The Suzuki sadly never raced as the regulation changes meant the factory could not see the point in just one season with it.
This photograph of the Suzuki gearbox innards show how complicated they became. The little Honda even had bicycle brakes fitted to save weight; they tried the same on a 125cc race bike but the rims got so hot the tyres started to melt.
The 125s and 250s were where things started to get interesting. In the case of the two strokes from Yamaha and Suzuki they were to a degree mirror images of each other apart from the engine size and the framework to care for the extra power of the 250s.
It is difficult to find many videos of these bikes and most are for petrol heads, but here we have the 125cc and 250cc V4 Yamahas that were ridden to world titles by Phil Read and Bill Ivy and you get a flavour of that screaming sound for a moment at least. Phil Read is actually on the 250. these bikes if I remember rightly have nine speed gearboxes and I remember them well at Brands that October day.
During this early period of the 1960s there was an intruder in the GP ranks. Dr Joe Ehrlich came from his native Austria and was employed at Queens University Belfast. He developed under the name EMC a racing two stroke based loosely with his own modifications on the East German MZ, and this rare photo of it without fairing shows how these two strokes were brothers under the skin so to speak and this was an early version of what the Japanese took a lot further. The whole science of expansion chamber exhausts and disc valve carburettor can be spotted here.
De Havilland had a hand in the building of the EMC.
At the start it lacked a top flight rider for the GPs though it still fared well against the full works outfits, but in ‘62 Mike Hailwood rode to fifth place in the 125cc championship.
The two stroke development continued apace and by ‘67 this Suzuki was typical of the progress made, but it was the last throw of the dice before the FIM banned the prototypes in favour of twin cylinders and six gear maximum machines.
Sadly there is not a single video I could find with the bike being raced.
As an aside, there is much made about who is the GOAT, the greatest of all time in many sports especially motor sports. It is impossible to ever say x was best but Hailwood would be my choice, simply because he would ride anything anywhere: two stroke, four stroke, 125 – 500cc, all at the same meeting and sometimes all different makes on circuits that today would all be banned on grounds of safety. I had a picture of him some time back riding in the wet on ‘cobbles during the Czech GP, not something we will ever see again for obvious reasons but that does not diminish a rider who took on everything; as with all these things it was a different age.
Back to the bikes. Honda and their quest to stay on top of the emerging two strokes produced some of the most iconic racing motorcycles of all time, those multi cylinder machines transformed GP racing at the time and the sound of them is still music to those aficionados of the sport that can remember those days.
There early entries into racing were twin cylinder affairs, but it is the fours and more where it got interesting and noisy, the push for ever more power resulted in more cylinders and higher revs and the five cylinder 125cc was the final say of the four stroke in that class, ridden by Luigi Taveri a lightweight specialist, it was a wonder of Japanese design, details of it are here…..
It won the ‘66 world title and passed into history as the last of the four stroke title winners in that class.
There are no videos of this machine actually racing that I could find, in fact this era has little to dig up regarding all of these amazing machines, but just for the sound there is this at Goodwood in 2002, a rare airing of a very expensive motorcycle.
And this even earlier 1961 TT film shows the then Honda twins dominating, but includes briefly the MZ and EMC - even the early twins had a sound of their own.
And then briefly at the end the start of the multi cylinder era with the 250cc Honda fours in 1962.
The machine that nearly everyone calls the finest racing motorcycle of all time was the six cylinder 250cc Honda. It first appeared in ‘65 at the end of the season to combat the Yamaha four cylinder disc valve two strokes ridden by Phil Read and Bill Ivy; the following year (1966) it won every race in the 250cc class with Mike Hailwood on board.
There was also a 300cc version that Hailwood rode in the 350cc class, winning all but one championship race in the 350cc class in ‘67. This machine was also Hailwood’s favourite bike, and he rode it to victory on that October day at Brands Hatch beating everything including Agostini on the lovely three cylinder 500cc MV Augusta.
There are virtually no racing videos that convey the sound of the six cylinder Honda but this short clip gives you a fair idea about what was described as the loudest racing motorcycle ever, but what a sound and what a magnificent machine it was!
The Japanese did not totally have the field to themselves regarding iconic sounds. The late fifties had the amazing Moto Guzzi V8. Guzzi, then in their prime, had machines ranging from single cylinder to the V8 racing at the same time, the theory being that it was horses for courses and the single suited some more than the V8 which was still in experimental days.
The commentary in this short clip gives the history of the V8 and how it was so far ahead of its time.
The MVs and Gileras of the same period as the Guzzi are well documented for their four cylinder engines and how they dominated that period of motorcycle racing. In truth, fabulous machines though they were they had little competition in the big 500c class for many years. In many ways the achievement of the later three cylinder 500ccc of MV was greater as it was pitched up against the might of the Japanese factories.
The link below gives the history of the three cylinder bike and contains a small sound bite.
The last photo shows the rear of the Honda six with Hailwood onboard, this was the view every other rider had of that bike in ‘66.
And this is what it really sounded like.
EAR PLUGS IN……………………………………………….
Plus a few other sound only clips... this is the 250cc four two stroke of Phil Read:
Suzuki 125cc four cylinder two stroke:
Suzuki 50cc 1967:
From Italy, the Benelli 250cc four. Benelli are the oldest motorcycle manufacturers in the world, they finally won the 250cc world title with Kel Carruthers on board, known as Mr Speed in his native Australia, in 1969:
Finally, from slightly earlier, our own John Surtees on the MV four in 1958:
Sadly there's no mp3 for the perfume of petrol, sights and sounds will have to do for now!
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