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The English Motorcycle Sprint Team - 1967

Not so long ago, I asked VMCC Sprint Section President Phil Manzano to put pen to paper  and write an article he’d promised describing the experiences of those who took part in the NSA’s 1967 Zandvoort Sprint.

In July of this year he kindly sent through his unique insights into a event which made the National Newsreels of the day. Sadly, less than a week after receiving the article, we learnt the very sad news the Phil had passed away unexpectedly.

"A jolly good nostalgic read and no one could have written it better than Phil Manzano". John Hobbs

A full tribute to one of Sprinting’s great achievers will be written soon, but for now we think that these words, his last musings on two wheeled recreation, represent a fitting way to say thank you and goodbye to a gentleman and a true character who will be sorely missed.

Front row left to right : Tony Bartram, Phil Manzano, John Hobbs, Norman Hyde & Ray Elgar Second row : Ray Feltell, Bernie White, Mick Butler, Dave Clee, Ian Messenger, Pete Miller & Dennis ‘Stormin’ Norman

The English Motorcycle Sprint Team - 1967

Written by Phil Manzano - July 2009

Way back in 1965, November thereof, a thump on the door mat announced the delivery of that weeks copy of Motor Cycle News, upon taking a fairly rapid scan of what had been happening in the bike world, page 19 caught my attention. Displayed was a photo of a Dutchman perched upon a batch of straw bales and holding aloft the Dutch National flag!  What it was in fact was a picture of what I believe was the first Dutch Sprint event to be held in that flat land.  My immediate reaction was to get in touch with my dearest pal, the inimitable sprint nut Len Cole, yet it was a long and frustrating day until I could make contact with Len that evening.

“Motorcycle sport had been sadly neglected in Holland”

When we did speak, in comparing notes with Len, I discovered that he also had noted the item in MCN. Between us, we agreed to contact that beloved enthusiast of all things on wheels “Jenks”, he we knew was an old pal of the man who had control of the site shown in the photo, Zandvoort road race circuit, one Mr. Jan Hugenholtz  Jenks, bless him, came up trumps and quickly got in touch with Jan and elicited a contact with the folks who were involved in the sprint shown in the photo.  They, it turned out, were a group of Dutch enthusiasts who operated a club organisation named De Wegrace Groep 1965, which had been set up by a group of enthusiasts to raise both interest and financial assistance to Dutch road racers and to develop road racing under the Dutch National flag.  Motorcycle sport had been sadly neglected in Holland following the 1939-45 conflict and this small group of enthusiasts came together headed up by Ellen Spahn, one of the most gracious ladies and someone who became a beloved friend.

Ellen was married to the Dutch National production bike champion Herbert Spahn, who had to be seen to be believed when he wrestled a thumping great BMW Twin around the Dutch tracks.  Also involved was their Chairman, Jan Muller, who ran a car sales operation in Amsterdam and was the proud possessor of the Ex Graham Walker 250 Rudge!  And of that Rudge, perhaps, later a little more history?

“George Brown provided his own transport and this was representative of the sheer enthusiasm engendered right through the whole enterprise”

Of the Wegrace Groep65, this organisation had, just like our club in the UK, had its difficulties in recent years. Keen to see what could be achieved we arranged to meet up with our new Dutch friends and a trip was arranged to the Netherlands.  While there, friendships were made that have stood all the tests of time and difficulties and the first objectives were established. The first and main one of these being to organise the first ever truly International Sprint Festival, and from our perspective, to provide the best team that we could, creating a springboard to further international co-operation.

I was fortunate in that I was employed by an International company that were happy to support any leisure activity involving their employees within reasonable limits agreed. Len also was very involved with his company who supported anyone who could further their International interests. This provided us with a transport facility en masse (more of that later).

Our approaches to the ACU for support was readily received and they could not have done more in that area, acting on our behalf in rallying the support of the parent body (i.e. The RAC!). Ah, what it was in those days, before all such bodies became so stultified in their new corporate empires.  In those days the ACU was based in London’s Belgrave Square. In a simple office headquarters the Secretary, one Mr Harry Cornwell, one of natures gentlemen, a quiet, efficient and extremely capable man sat. Over the years, this one mans help proved to be, on more than one occasion, absolutely invaluable and certainly rather different to the monolithic structure of command that exists in today’s climate of sport.

“Not only did it make top news coverage on Dutch TV but it was also filmed by Pathe Gazette news and shown in film theatres back home”

Matters moved forwards rapidly and we informed the NSA membership at large of what we were about to do and that we looked forward to an assembly of a truly representative team consisting of those from across the board of our membership. This we hoped would range from some top runners, backed up by a cross section of “Bantams” through to un-blown Triumphs etc, etc.  From memory, I cannot recall just how many volunteered but it certainly was enough to completely fill the truck that Len Cole had borrowed from his firm Nannuci’s, complete with driver no less!  So keen were members to support the venture that some entered the fray by independently organising their own means of transport.  I vaguely recall that the ever independent, George (Geo’) Brown, the ilk of whom, could have occupied at least half of the Nannuci truck himself provided his  own transport and this was representative of the sheer enthusiasm engendered right through the whole enterprise.

Back in those days customs and exercise were paranoid that taking any kind of transport into the depths of the “Continong” (Continent. Ed.) was fraught with terrible chances of “Fiddling” the then governments due rewards. So all vehicles, road legal or not, had to have their own type of passport which was named as a “Carnet”. This document had to be issued and accompanied by a valuation bond covering its value!  This document had to be signed out upon departure and then signed in by the customs authority of any border crossed in transit. Naturally it was then signed out upon departure and again upon leaving. Finally, of course, it was signed back in on arrival back in the UK.  If you failed in any required signing then you forfeited the money that you had put up as a bond with the RAC.  Got that little lot?

“On one run my front wheel finished up smack between the “Bobbies” knees!”

So the day came when we all went and, clever us, trying to keep it all a trifle simple we asked each and everyone to ensure that their own particular documentation would be carried out by each individual concerned. This wonderful plan was great until some of our bods didn’t ensure that their doc’s were signed in or out, or indeed back. The problem then arose that due to the high values that some had put upon their bikes, they suddenly could not raise the cash to pay out the cover on their travel bonds.!!

Thankfully, to the rescue came the club in the form of Len Cole the secretary and Jimmy Wyld our Chairman who had agreed to put up the bond money for some of those members who were “Skint” (As most of us were anyway!).  The net result was that it was well over a couple of years (and then only after protracted negotiations, via the Blessed Harry Cornwell at the ACU, the RAC and her Majesties customs and excise with incidentally the owners involved having to swear Oaths before commissionaires) before Len and Jimmy got their monies freed up!  A firm lesson was firmly learnt!

“Tongue in cheek I suggested that a part of any sprinters plan was to keep all ‘up weight’ of any sensible sprint machine to an absolute minimum!”

However back to the event in question, as it went off as planed and was hugely successful.  Not only did it make top news coverage on Dutch TV but it  was also filmed and reported upon by Pathe Gazette news reel reportage and shown the following week in our major film theatres back home.  The film, believe it or not, though very brief is still available from the holder of the Pathe Gazette news film archive though quite expensive to obtain in full resolution, it does however show our Alfie (Alf Hagon) putting down one of his quarter mile smokies as well as yours truly blowing the bottom out of my little 500 “Torquemada” Triumph while hanging on to first gear for far too long while trying to hold off Peter Harmans ‘too quick for me’ Velo!

When my Bike blew, it happened smack in front of a jam packed grandstand, whereupon some marshals appeared quickly to assist. In an inspired moment I asked them to help me stand the bike on its rear wheel, and I then turned her around so that the grand stand could have a peek at the disembowelled crankcase!  The stand went potty and as I moved back round to the paddock the bike disappeared under a heaving mass of spectators who kept asking me “How  can you laugh when you have wrecked such a wonderful engine”  Bless them, the Dutch never forgot that day and neither did I.

That first trip started off a series of memories and I recall one that was unique in that it could only be described as a true “One Off” which was organised by the Wegrace Groep 65. This event was to celebrate the twenty fifth anniversary of the liberation of Rotterdam! And for this one the Dutch offered to cover a chunk of our expenses in cash if you please.  When Len and I looked at the offer of financial support we realised that if we divided the money between the team into individual cash sums that would be derisory, so we looked other ways of using the cash donation.  It so happened that I had been talking with the folks who ran an airport close to my home in the South East i.e. Lydd which was having quite a hard time of things as their outfit ran the Carvair ‘flying’ ferries (which were suffering from the ferry operations over in Dover).

“I can reveal now that we were fortunate that our calculations and weightings were not within the remit of the Civil air authorities!”

In discussions with Lydds site manager (a Mr Mike de Woolfson) on the possibilities of putting on a sprint event at Lydd, I mentioned the forthcoming event in Rotterdam.  Mike seized upon this and made us an offer that he thought could be of mutual interest i.e. something that would bring welcome promotional opportunities for the air ferries operation and for us, a transport deal for the team. We jumped at it, for in one fell swoop (although our financial limits for transport were exceedingly tight) the £600 quid input from our Dutch friends could, believe it or not, gain us the hire, there and back of a Carvair plane, the crew incidentally who would arrange a night stop over to assist further!

As planning continued, one problem that raised its head was weight?  Tongue in cheek I suggested that a part of any sprinters plan was to keep all ‘up weight’ of any sensible sprint machine to an absolute minimum! The answer  that came about was relatively easy, this being to take a random sample of three representative machines to Southend Airport (the proposed departure point). Through some crafty sorting out of three representative devices the average weight of the bikes was calculated, divided into the top load factor of the kite, then we added a limited allowance for tools and fuel and a summation of the average weight of riders, officials and their “Lightweight” wives and girlfriends. We then accrued this toward the number of machines attending and Bingo, the team and support numbers were fully calculated. Some compromises had to be agreed and thus the team’s weight limits were achieved. In retrospect it’s true to reveal now that we were exceptionally fortunate that all these calculations and weightings were not within the remit of the Civil air authorities, for I am sure they would have imposed a far tighter ‘margin of allowances’ than we ever did. 

However we had what we needed for the “Go” signal and all wheels were set in motion.  Much to Mikes and our own pleasure, it certainly hit the news and we were exceedingly lucky to have pulled this nice fat rabbit out of the hat.

“We trundled down the runway heading for the Channel. We then trundled and trundled and I began to have doubts regarding calculations”

All went well, with the rest of the planning and the departure times and the venue of Southend decided, however human nature being what it is, believe it or not two of our team still managed to decide that Lydd was the point of departure, a point which was confirmed when Southend received a panic call from our two missing passengers!  Unfortunately, there was no choice for those at Southend and we could not delay. Air departures then, as now, just don’t work like that so we had to leave. To their credit and indeed our missing passengers luck, a company called Silver City Airways came to the rescue and assured us that come-what-may they would get our two riders sorted. Unbelievably, they succeeded! Quite how I never worked out, but they fed them into the system, somehow getting them on a later freight flight.  Top marks to Silver Cities.  It is a shame that that line closed down at a later date.

“The venue believe it or not, was one lane of a dual carriageway running from the adjacent E9 motorway”

The outward flight prep was fun and with bikes and bits lashed up and stored forward we trundled down the runway heading for the Channel. We then trundled and trundled and I began to have doubts regarding our calculations, (maths never being a favourite subject of mine).  After a few deep breaths slowly the Carvair became unstuck and laboured her way into the bright blue yonder.  Tension was truly relieved when a click announced, if memory serves  correctly, as follows ”Good evening to our passengers the British National Sprint Team, welcome aboard.  You may be interested to know that your Flight Captain this evening is Britain’s first female commercial flight Captain, “At that point Jack Terry broke into the airwaves uttering the immortal words “Cripes almighty, that’s all we want, a bloody woman driver!”.  The whole of the cabin areas burst into shrieks of laughter which reduced the tension completely and it set the atmosphere alight for the whole of that wonderful weekend adventure.

The venue believe it or not, was situated close to the northern boundary of Rotterdam and was actually (yes you read this correctly) one lane of a dual carriageway running from the adjacent E9 motorway, France to Northern Holland. In fact when you had made your run, it’s true to say that all that stood between you, the bike, and the southern lane of the E9 was a local copper in full regalia standing in the middle of the road with his hand held up and sporting a huge grin on his ample chops. I really had a fit of the giggles at this sight, for on one run my front wheel finished up smack between the “Bobbies” knees!

“A feature of the canals are the nets and large metal hooks on posts that are placed at intervals along the banks”

I do recall that the “Hungerford Flier” Bernie White berated me because he thought that the braking distance was too short? and that he wouldn’t make another run. To which I retorted, that if the Dutch were generous enough to pay his expenses, then this wasn’t an opportunity to fret about one’s time, but to instead knock it off a trifle earlier and let the crowd enjoy a flat out burnout!!  This approach was what the game was all about and  our ‘job’ was to please the huge public turn out.

The prize giving for the event was equally eventful and was held at the town end of the dual carriageway in a local meeting venue which was enclosed by a circular brick wall and was open to the skies. The generosity of our hosts will never be forgotten by me (I still have a shelf full of the special “Delft” china ware that the “Wegrace Groep” had had specially made for us - All unique and treasured along with other memories).

However, not long after it commenced we heard from a child crying outside. As if by magic the venue was devoid of people other than we Brits, who wondered what on earth was going on. We soon understood. Holland is of course full of local canals which subdivide local districts. Over the years these have come to be as much a Décor feature as anything else and also to provide the locals with some pleasurable fishing.  A feature of the canals are the nets and large metal hooks on posts that are placed at intervals along the banks to provide rescue points in case anyone might fall into one of these small local waterways.  Local tradition dictates that just one cry from a child might mean that he or she may have accidentally fallen in, so, with no hesitation when a cry be heard, all else is quickly put by and the local population rush to the rescue - how bloody marvelous.

What a show of community spirit. It closed a fantastic weekend and for those that attended, I think it true to say that we all considered ourselves lucky enough to not only enjoy the action of this once in a lifetime chance but also to witness the saving of one (now very wet) little one and the coming together of two communities who truly came together for a purpose of greater good and shared sporting endeavor.

Phil Manzano

July 2009

Postscript : From Drag Racing legend John Hobbs:

August 2012

The picture in this article was taken at Lydd airport in May 1970. My race number E7 confirms this which also confirms it was actually the trip to the Rotterdam sprint. I think that was the only time we used a plane to get across the channel.

Transport for earlier trips (including the one mentioned by Phil) was cross channel ferry. I remember my first trip to Zandvoort in 1968. The bikes were loaded into a railway wagon and hoisted on deck by a dock side crane. No roll-on roll-off ferry then! It was a very rough crossing and when we got to the other side Ray Elger's Egli Vincent had broken loose and jumped on the Hillman Imp powered sidecar outfit Impulse. If we weren't sick enough from the effects of the crossing, faces were pretty glum when that wagon was opened up to reveal the carnage.

It’s great to read Phil's piece and recall all the red tape and hoops we had to jump through to get bikes across the channel in those early days. That Carvair Aircraft had seen a lot of service and was well overloaded! It took a hell of a long time to haul itself into the air. I also remember mister plod standing at the end of the closed off bit of dual carriageway at the end of the braking area. Bernie was right, it was too short and how that copper walked away with his nuts intact I shall never know.

A jolly good nostalgic read and no one could have written it better than Phil Manzano.

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