What’s the greatest number of miles you’ve covered in an hour? With 125mph laps of the TT course now established, out-of-the-box bikes capable of clocking close to 180mph and MotoGP racers hitting well over 200mph, we tend to take astronomical figures for granted. Personally I’ve put 84 miles into the hour – in the dark – on the Beaujolais Run, on a BMW R100RS. I found cruising at 90 to 100mph took maximum concentration, and couldn’t keep up the pace as easily as the bike could. For a non-racer, it wasn’t easy, believe me.
So how about averaging 80mph on a rigid-framed, girder-forked 500cc single, with hand gear-change, over 1920s public roads that marked the passing of a motorcycle with a billowing cloud of dust? Can’t see the way ahead properly? It’s the same for everyone else in the race, so get your head down and get on with it. You’ve had one lens of your goggles broken by a flying stone? Tough, there’s no time to stop and swap goggles in a tight race like this.
Not much Tarmac about? What’s Tarmac? And when the bike leaves Mother Earth over the flat-out bumps on the main straight, you keep it nailed and look for the chance to get past your rival a few bike lengths ahead. Oh, forgot to mention that you were wounded by shelling in WWI and that your left leg doesn’t work too well, so you have to have the controls adapted to give you a right-foot brake.
Averaging that speed under those frightening circumstances is what Graham Walker did 77 years ago to win the 500cc Ulster Grand Prix, top man in a titanic battle with the fastest men and machines of the day. He was riding the latest development of the Rudge Whitworth Coventry factory’s rapid four-valve single and was the first man to win an international road race at an average speed over 80mph. That restored the title Fastest Road Race to Northern Ireland and showed the world that a pushrod single was still a power to be reckoned with.
Walker Snr – we should call him that because he’s ace commentator Murray’s father – was something of an industry giant in the 1920s and 30s. He left the Sunbeam factory, where he’d been a works racer and sales manager after a spell as a salesman and rider for Norton, and moved to the Rudge-Whitworth factory, where again he combined his wide talents as racer and head of sales. To illustrate the flavour of the man, when he was at Norton he rode in the 1920 TT but the company didn’t like the idea of risking a vital employee in such a race and forbade him to ride there again. So Walker entered himself as a reserve, just in case one of the regular team was hurt in practice and couldn’t compete.
He drafted himself in to ride in 1922, but the managing director heard of his plans and sent a Telegram (the quickest way to get your word across the Irish Sea in those pre-cell phone days) asking what Graham was up to. He had more important things to attend to before he could find the time to compose a reply and finished fifth in the 500cc race, Norton’s best rider. The indignant message from the boss was followed by a congratulatory one, and Graham had the two messages framed and hung them in a very small room in his house.
He was also the consummate professional, who was well ahead in the 1928 Senior TT until the engine seized and he retired at Ramsey on the last lap. He could have been very bitter about that, as he was three minutes clear at the start of the last lap but got a pit signal saying he was only three seconds in front. The whip came out and he worked the bike hard, a bike he’d asked to be fitted with an auxiliary foot-operated oil pump to keep it happy under stress, but had been turned down by the chief designer. The same man had refused his request for a signal station on the far side of the course, to accurately advise his race position. So, wrong information to help him pace the race and no supplementary oil supply to help a hard-working engine, which then let him down. It’s what they call character-building in management training sessions.
Graham came back to win the Dutch TT and finish second in the German Grand Prix, but losing racing’s Blue Riband on the final lap must have rankled, especially as victory went to the diminutive Charlie Dodson riding a Wolverhampton-built Sunbeam, Walker’s old firm. There was a definite need to re-establish the Rudge credibility with the British buying public, and the Ulster GP in August would be his last chance that year.
He took the Belfast ferry very early, and got in a little local practice the weekend before the big race by winning the Leinster 100-mile handicap race. But the Ulster was the vital one, run on the 20-mile Clady circuit with its engine-killing seven-mile straight, and the pick of the UK’s rich crop of stars were there. Charlie Dodson was on the Sunbeam, his seven-and-a-bit stones a definite weight advantage since Walker was twice that. Stanley Woods was leading the Norton team and had set a new lap record at 78.6mph when winning the 1927 race. And Norton’s old tuning guru and multiple record-breaker, Dan O’Donovan, was the man behind the rapid new 500cc Raleigh, to be ridden by the underrated Tommy Bullus.
It was the biggest sporting event of the Ulster year and, when the maroon exploded to start the race, Dodson was off like the proverbial scalded cat from the front row, while Walker had to fight his way through heavy traffic from a starting position several rows back. No qualifying for grid positions in those days – it was numbers out of a hat and you hoped you got lucky.
Dodson led at the end of the first lap, with Bullus on the Raleigh second and Walker making his way through the field to third, one goggle lens broken by a stone thrown up by the back wheel of Jimmy Simpson’s Norton as Walker was on his way past. On the next lap Walker was in the lead, only to have it taken back by Dodson. These two swapped the lead with Bullus firmly in third place until a broken oil line ended his race.
Dodson was some 70 yards ahead as he started the last lap, but he had a big slide on Clady Corner, at the end of that seven-mile straight, so was he troubled? When they hit that long, long straight for the last time, Walker was closing and at the other end they were neck and neck. I can’t find any report that says what happened to Dodson, but the record shows that Walker finished first, with Dodson a heart-breaking 11sec behind. Walker’s Rudge finished with a race average of 80.08mph – the fastest international road race ever at that time and the first at over 80.
In 1929 Rudge Whitworth launched their new sports model, and with Graham Walker as sales manager, what could they have called it but Ulster? Factories go racing to publicise their technical ability and the speed and stamina of their machines, and capitalising on that outstanding success was the obvious move. It was the time of the company’s sporting peak, with Walker winning the Ulster GP again in 1929, and in 1930 they won both the 350 and 500cc TT races.
They had a great deal to thank Graham Walker for and, when he quit the company to take over the editor’s chair at the weekly Motor Cycling, they presented him with the 1928 Ulster GP winner as a token of their appreciation. Much better than a gold watch.
Many years later he lent the bike to the late John Griffith, staff writer at Motor Cycling and keen vintage racer. Then he retired from journalism in 1954, at the age of 57, to become motorcycle curator at the recently formed Montagu Motor Museum at beautiful Beaulieu, deep in Hampshire’s New Forest country. Naturally, the Rudge went with him and has been a star attraction ever since.
The bike has been rebuilt in its time at Beaulieu, when Frank Moss brought it back to as new for Walker’s old team mate HG Tyrrell Smith (who worked at Triumph’s Meriden factory for many years) to ride in a commemorative lap at the 1967 TT. Correspondence in the bike’s file shows that curator Michael Ware wrote to Frank, thanking him for the job he’d done and asking what they owed him. “It was an honour to be allowed to work on the GW Rudge,” he replied, refusing payment. Which tells you quite a lot about Frank Moss as a gentlemen and the respect a Rudge enthusiast felt for Graham Walker.
The bike remains a star exhibit at Beaulieu today, where it’s kept in running order for occasional rides by very privileged people. And, in the Year of Our Rudge 2005, I was one of the Very Privileged. I left my best riding boots out for the butler to give them a special polish for the occasion.
Beaulieu folk are remarkably generous in the way they let known fools ride their bikes, so long as they have responsible staff present and the riding is restricted to the confines of the museum area. If you’ve ever been to the super weekend that is Motorcycle World, this means riding around the Tarmac arena and the course they use for demonstration parades. Demonstration parades for most of us, that is, but always something of a needle match between Sammy Miller and Dave Degens – you just listen for them coming and keep out of the way.
Stan and Mike from the workshop had the bike ready to roll. It’s a lean old veteran of many battles, turning the scales at 280lb and well-equipped in the stopping department, particularly by 1928 standards, with wide 8in brakes front and rear. By wide, I mean 1.5in wide – the brakes are linked and operated by the right-foot pedal, with the front available separately through the conventional handlebar lever. Many years ago I was a very young member of the Vintage MCC and attended a meeting where Graham Walker was the speaker, and he said the linked brakes were set up with a 60/40 per cent front bias. The tyres are big and narrow, 21 x 3.0in, and I haven’t the faintest idea what the aspect ratio is.
Racing touches are the Andre friction steering damper, normally a hand adjuster, but this one has a neat remote lever, close to the twist grip and operating through cables. Just nudging the lever when you push the bike around has a noticeable effect. The front girder forks have a single enclosed central spring, with a scissors-action Hartford damper as a supplement; evidence of careful thinking about coping with surfaces closer to a farm track than a race circuit as we know it in the 21st century.
The four-valve pushrod single-cylinder power unit has a heavily webbed crankcase, on the front of which sits an ML magneto; obscure today, but a bit of real quality in the vintage era. Breathing is through an Amal carburetter with twin remote float chambers and the fuel today is petrol, after a compression plate was fitted under the barrel when the engine was rebuilt, to bring the ratio down a little. In its racing heyday it would have been drinking some distillation much stronger than you’ll ever get from a pump on Mr Tesco’s forecourt.
The Amal carefully tickled, the tank-mounted gear lever went forward into first and the engine pulled back on compression before the light clutch was lifted and Stan and Frank Levy provided motive power. You have to catch the hiccupping motor with a blip of the throttle when it’s cold, but it fires up easily and pulls strongly from low down the rev range, the exhaust more healthy than noisy and the valve gear providing background mechanical descant.
A couple of familiarising loops around the arena before heading on to the small circuit confirm the easy handling that comes with a low build and the flexibility of the smooth engine is remarkable, with no race bike temperament. Then it’s time to do a few laps, with a wary eye open for estate traffic trundling through; you have to bear in mind that the average book-keeper in a Nissan Micra doesn’t expect to be met by a stranger putting a 1920s Grand Prix winner through its paces.
It’s not a super smooth surface, which feeds back through all physical points of contact with the motorcycle, and where the roadway joins the arena the change of surface produced a bump that tests the Rudge’s navigational qualities; it passes with flying colours, just as it does over the minor potholes on another stretch of the circuit. There’s one big hole there, the sort you notice from 30 yards back and think ‘Must avoid that one, it looks pretty nasty’. So you carefully make a mental note and plan to ride around it.
The Rudge is really good to handle, laying into sharp corners with minimal physical effort and telling the rider about the road surface without disturbing the feeling of oneness with a bike that clearly enjoys a little exercise. The frustration of such a limited space to ride it means using only first and second gears and, since my hand-change technique has never been very good, I pull away in first, haul the lever back into second and leave it there. It’s a testimony to the 85mm bore x 88mm stroke single’s flexibility that it responds to even the slightest movement of the throttle quickly and strongly. You can see why this engine, with useable power from little more than tickover revs, became such a favourite among sprinters. It just begs to be used, keeps asking the rider to get up and go.
So you bask in the enjoyment of such a fine engine in an old-fashioned rigid chassis that feels so much better than its modest looks suggest. Lean, turn and squirt. Up the road it goes, better than most so-called sporting singles that I’ve had through my hands. Round and round the circuit, savouring the experience and remembering to avoid that particularly nasty looking pothole. Until…
It’s Murphy’s Law that rears its ugly head and reminds me that you should never stop concentrating on possible problem areas. So, on my umpteenth lap, I’m accelerating out of the arena along the neighbouring road and that damned pothole – the Big One – is there under the front wheel.
There’s a thump and the forks shake mildly side to side, then straighten up, the bike hardly moved by its passage over the hole, and it’s on its way as before. Some problem up there in control? Not for the bike, this simple old rigid frame that you could dismiss as a collection of tubes lugged and bolted together in the manner of the time when it was born, but actually the product of skilled design and production that knew how to make a motorcycle remarkably stable. There might be a problem in control, if my riding could be described in such a flattering way, but down in the engine room and steering department there’s neither problem nor panic.
To ride this fine old motorcycle is to tread briefly in the footsteps of a legend I first knew as the voice of the BBC’s TT race reports and editor of the weekly magazine that absorbed most of my meagre pocket money. Only when I developed what some probably saw as an unhealthy interest in motorcycle history at schoolboy age, and began to collect Geoff Davison’s excellent books, did I begin to appreciate what a truly great rider Graham Walker had been. To ride the actual bike that contributed to his reputation, and was directly responsible for Rudge giving their premier model the title ‘Ulster’, is a considerable honour.
I handed it back without any pangs of jealousy, because a machine of such historic significance deserves to be in a place where it’s well looked after and the public can look at it and wonder how anyone could average 80mph for more than 200 miles, over roads some classic riders today wouldn’t dare to attempt.
I just hope Graham Walker didn’t look down from Heaven and laugh too much at my riding efforts in Lord Montagu’s backyard.