Memories of Phoenix


It was such a wonderful surprise to see the article about Ernie Barrett’s Phoenix JAP racers in the July issue. I knew Ernie from about 1952 until he died in the early 1970s.

From 1954 to 1958 I was his racing mechanic. We went to many of the English circuits, the Isle of Man, and several circuits in the Netherlands – where he was very popular.

Some of the time I was very involved with building the machines, but I don’t know how many he built; I believe it to be eight to 12. Nor do I know how many were sold – I do know, for sure, of two, both 250s. One was sold to Mike Hailwood – I believe it was his first actual racing bike.

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He remained very friendly with Ernie, and would often find time for a chat, even when Mike was right at the top.

The other bike I know was sold went to an engineer called Colin Smith. One time we went to the Netherlands we left a bike there, I don’t know the circumstances, but it had completely different customs papers from the bikes Ernie was racing. A couple of vignettes from the Netherlands.

Going to practise, I think at Tubergen, the narrow road to the pits entrance was completely at a standstill. A couple of riders ahead unloaded bikes and started riding them, then some officials came along and said if we didn’t ride the bikes in, we’d miss morning practise.

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We unloaded two of the bikes, and leaving the JAP mechanic to drive the van, we rode along the (narrow) edge of a beet field. One unlucky rider stalled, and just couldn’t start it on the mud. We got to the pits, wiped off the tyres, changed Ernie’s plug, and out he went and practised.

Another time, while Ernie was practising, an older lady came and asked if I was English, and where I lived. We had quite a chat about London – which she knew very well. She was also quite knowledgeable about some of the Dutch riders and about the races.

Above and Below: Ernie Barrett on his Moto Guzzi in 1953. He employed the heel-and-toe type gearchange on his later own-made racers, as shown, inset.

When she left, a Dutchman from the next pit came over and told me she was their (former) queen, Wilhelmina.

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One thing Ernie picked up from the Guzzi he raced was the heel and toe gear lever. Not only did all the Phoenix racers have them, but so did the Phoenix scooters, and also the pair of Nortons we took to the Isle of Man in 1957.

Another thing Ernie liked on the Guzzi was the friction damping on the rear suspension, and he fitted them to several of his bikes.

I never saw the ‘sloper’ mentioned and I don’t remember the 500 crankcases being modified V-twins.

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The JAP factory gave us different engines at various times, sometimes just before we had to leave for a meeting. And then we had to decide on the engine sprocket. That was usually during the first practise session.

The good thing about the relationship with JAP was that we never had to work on the engines, although at one time they wanted us to try some different valve springs, but they were hairpins. We used to talk about fitting a V-twin for an unlimited class race, but we never did.

Ernie was also very strong. One time, going through a town on the way to Snetterton, there was an accident a short way in front of us. We went to investigate, and there was a man partly under a small car, perhaps an Austin 10 – the police said a tow truck would be there in a while.

Ernie looked at the car and then told me to grab the man’s coat and slide him out. Ernie then lifted the car, another man and I slid the victim out on his raincoat, the ambulance arrived, and then Ernie quickly got into his car (and trailer) and fell in behind the ambulance until we could get back on our side of the road!

I came to the US in the late 1960s on business, and visited a lot of times before moving here in the early 1970s. Now 86, I still ride, a GZ250 Suzuki.

David A Redgrave, Brookline, Massachusetts.

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