I suppose it’s possible MotoGP fans will remember current superstars like Valentino Rossi decades into the future – but I bet they won’t recall the names of champions in the less publicised branches of motorcycling. It was different for those of us who grew up in what we regard as the ‘classic days’. Even if we’d not yet managed to acquire a motorcycle, most of us devoured absolutely everything the Green Un and Blue Un could tell us about each and every form of two and three-wheeled sport.
Our breadth of interest was probably a direct result of the lack of specialisation in skills and machines. We almost certainly never left the Tarmac (intentionally, anyway), but we knew that Jeff Smith was just as likely to be seen, and to win, on a trialler as on a scrambler, and both looked very much like the bikes in the showrooms. And, while we might have regarded sidecars as mundane transport for old codgers who’d got themselves saddled with families, we could clearly see the way they’d been developed into the three wheeled racers by the experts.
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Whatever, the consequence is that 50 or 60 years later, we can still reel off many of the stars’ monikers. And when it comes to the charioteers, I bet that high on the list will be the name of ‘Pip’ Harris, a man who was at the forefront of his chosen sport for well over a decade. And that’s all the more remarkable when you consider he never received any significant works support, despite gaining much valuable publicity for the makers of the Norton, Vincent, Matchless and BMW machines he used.
A measure of his success is that in the period when he seriously raced, Pip was one of only four Englishmen (the others being Eric Oliver, Cyril Smith and Chris Vincent) who won an International GP race. And Norton’s innumerable fans should give him a special accolade as the last person to gain a Sidecar World Championship place – third in 1956 – using a machine made in Bracebridge Street.
It’s unlikely any of this would have happened without financial and moral support from his family, and Pip is quick to acknowledge his father’s influence. Henry Harris – known as Curly – enlisted as a foot soldier in the Shropshire Yeomanry during WWI, but fairly rapidly volunteered for transfer to the new dispatch riders’ ranks. He was lucky enough to avoid being sent to the battlefields, and emerged from the war with such an interest in motorcycles that he promptly got a job with AJS.
Clearly a naturally talented rider, he was soon given a ride on the works racers, and subsequently competed in 12 TTs (one Lightweight, six Juniors and five Seniors) between 1921 and 1927. Interestingly, although Pip thinks his father was still employed by AJS, he campaigned New Imperials in 1924 and thereafter rode HRDs (plus a single outing on a Triumph).
The connection with HRD is a particularly interesting one, as Curly had undoubtedly come into contact with its founder – Howard R Davies – when they were both riding the works AJS machines. Davies famously won the Senior Race on a 350cc AJS in 1921, and Curly Harris was narrowly beaten by Stanley Woods in the 1923 Junior, an event he’d been leading by eight minutes, and would have won easily if he hadn’t stopped to mend a broken rear stand clip. The two kept in contact after Davies left AJS to form his own company, and since Pip’s father had done quite well from his racing – Hutchinson Tyres gave him an enormous £400 bonus for his TT efforts – he invested some of the money he’d made in HRD motorcycles. That at least guaranteed him HRD works machinery for a couple of years – his best place being fifth in the 1925 Junior – but naturally he lost his stake when the company foundered in 1927/28.
Coincidentally, Peter Valentine Harris was born in August 1927, and, weighing up the situation, Henry decided it was time to drop the curtain on his racing activities in favour of running a garage in Wombourne, a village to the west of Birmingham. Peter, or Pip as he was called right from the start, was eventually to take on the garage when his father retired, and he still lives nearby just outside Bridgenorth in Shropshire.
In those days garages dealt with all forms of wheeled transport, and indeed it was pedal cycles that first interested young Pip. Together with other village lads, he formed an off-road track where he raced round on a bicycle, his determination to ride quickly already showing, despite being born with a weakened right leg.
No wonder, then, that he graduated to a powered two-wheeler as soon as he could. This was just after WWII, and he recalls that he was still green enough to buy a Sunbeam that he thought dated from the 1930s, only to discover that it had actually been made in 1929. Still taking an active interest in vehicles, the irony that his mistake would double the value of the machine in today’s market isn’t lost on Pip. At the time, it merely seemed he’d bought an old banger, and when the local milkman upgraded his Harley-Davidson outfit, Pip immediately bought his old sidecar. “That was just so that I could keep the Sunbeam going in a straight line,” he grins, “and it had the benefit that I could get six of my friends in the tradesman’s box-body!”
That was the only road-going motorcycle that Pip ever had, as his father’s genes had obviously passed on to him and his older brother, John, who was already racing a Velocette. John soon commandeered the outfit to transport his Velo, and Pip was immediately introduced to the addictive atmosphere of speed, smoke and paddock camaraderie.
John’s influence then played a decisive part in his younger brother’s future life when he said to their father: “I reckon that if Pip goes racing on a solo, he’s likely to fall off and do more damage to his dicky leg, so perhaps he ought to have a go with a sidecar outfit.”
“Fair enough,” said Curly Harris, “you find something suitable, and I’ll buy it for him.”
“Dad was a bit taken aback,” grins Pip, “when the very next day John announced that he’d found a suitable outfit at Smokey Dawson’s emporium in Dudley, but he kept his word, and bought it for me.”
Dawson was a pre-WWII grass track star, who later became equally well-known for manufacturing DMW lightweight motorcycles, and the machine in question was nominally a Grindlay-Peerless racer. Pip recalls that it was actually a bitsa, though, with a Rudge cylinder barrel and other non-standard parts that would be expected on a competition machine already several years old.
Pip raced the Grindlay on grass, and while it wasn’t really competitive, he showed enough promise for his father to finance a move up to a much more impressive Manx Norton outfit. “It was on sale at Jack Surtees’ shop over London way,” says Pip. “Dad drove over there and paid £110 for it, and I remember seeing young John Surtees, who was still a schoolboy, hanging around looking sorry to see it go. We didn’t even have a trailer at the time, so we bolted the Norton’s forks to the rear bumper, put some ballast in the chair, and simply towed it home.”
The Norton immediately turned out to be a shrewd investment, as the very first time Pip competed on it – on grass at Redditch – he surprised everybody with an easy win. The second race brought him literally back down to earth, however, because he was saddled with a time handicap after his earlier success, and in trying too hard to overcome it he came a purler, waking up in hospital with a cracked shoulder.
Pip’s Manx was, of course, more at home on Tarmac, and he was confident of showing equal prowess on the hard stuff. He thinks that he probably had just one race on a proper circuit at Cadwell, and then (with his shoulder not fully recovered) he set off for the 1950 Belgian GP. His confidence wasn’t misplaced, and the raw novice from the Midlands finished in the top 10. “I’ve often wondered what made me so fast, right from the start,” he says without a trace of conceit. “I didn’t think I was doing anything special, but most of the other drivers just seemed to be unnecessarily slow!”
“I quite liked the nearer continental GPs,” he continues, “and I did the Belgian and Dutch TTs fairly regularly, but I didn’t venture much farther afield, apart from doing the Italian event a couple of times.”
Pip never seriously competed in the World Championship because it was too expensive without works sponsorship. It’s surprising that the shortfall wasn’t made up by appearance money after the next year, when he won in Belgium and achieved second place in Italy, but he insists that he could only do these events by treating them as a family holiday. “John and I went with our parents in their car,” he remembers, “and we took the outfit on a trailer.”
So Pip concentrated on the home events, and it was here that he regularly came up against his nemesis in the formidable shape of Eric Oliver. Mainly racing Nortons and Velocettes, Oliver had been a successful solo racer before the war, during which he served in the RAF. Returning to motorcycling in peacetime, he also competed in sidecar races, and was immediately successful with first place in the inaugural World Championship. He followed that with three more World Championships, besides winning the first post-WWII sidecar TT in 1954.
Oliver needed to be a ‘hard man’ to race sidecar outfits at that level – and he was no pushover off the track. He was always given the latest and best Norton engines, and according to Pip, he used his position to ensure that it stayed that way. “It’s generally thought that he had been invited to drive for Gilera,” says Pip, “and that he used that offer to blackmail Norton into giving less help to the rest of the domestic competition. I could beat all the other drivers,” he continues, “and I might well have beaten Oliver, except that his bike was always about 10mph better on top speed than anyone else’s.”
That sounds like sour grapes, but the facts bear out his feelings, as when Pip finally persuaded Norton to sell him a twin cam top end for his old Manx – at the full market price of nearly £50 – the engine initially turned out less power than his old single knocker, only revving to 5000rpm, about 1000 less than it had previously. He’s not saying it was sabotaged, but it clearly wasn’t set up properly, and when he and his father – who knew competition chief Joe Craig from their old racing days – took it back to Norton, they were told all the race engineers were far too busy even to look at it. Undaunted, the pair slipped into the workshop, where a mechanic who hadn’t been told the party line put the head right in half an hour.
And then there was the reluctance of Joe Craig to let Pip buy a new Featherbed Manx in 1952, even though he was clearly one of the few who could do it justice. Craig claimed that none would be available until after the TT, and didn’t relent, even when Pip temporarily switched to a Vincent in an interesting episode that completely supports his claim that his results would have been even better if he’d had faster machinery.
Having sold his old Norton – in the unfulfilled expectation of getting the new Manx – Pip went to Stevenage, where he’d learnt that the famous record-breaking ‘Gunga Din’ was lying idle at the Vincent factory. He was allowed to borrow it on condition that he ordered a new Black Lightning – the production machine that had been developed from Gunga Din – and took it round to Watsonian’s to have a chair fitted.
“As it happened Eric Oliver was there,” says Pip, “and he predictably said I was wasting my time. However, we went to Silverstone the following Saturday, and I immediately set a new lap record eight seconds faster than the old one. It was a handicap race, and despite having to start after Oliver and Cyril Smith, I flew past them on the straight and had an easy win.” To be fair, Oliver was the first to congratulate Pip afterwards, but he tempered his congratulations slightly by emphasising the difference in the size of their engines!
Another example of the outfit’s speed in Pip’s hands was at Boreham, where he briefly held the absolute lap record during a meeting at which only works rider Robin Sherry managed to go slightly faster on his solo Senior Manx Norton. Gunga Din went back to Vincent when the production Black Lightning was delivered, but Pip only raced that once – at Eppynt – before selling it on when the new Manx finally became available. “I should probably have stuck with the Lightning as it was faster than anything else I ever rode,” Pip concedes now, “but Vincent didn’t seem very interested in me, and I never received any thanks for the results I’d achieved, so I went back to Norton even though they were equally ungrateful and charged me the full market price of more than £400 for the Manx!”