Suzuki v The Great Train Race
Beating the 1895 (and, incidentally, the 1977) train time from London to Aberdeen on a GS750 Suzuki in a "Demonstration of Legal High Speed Endurance Running Within Ten Per Cent of Allowable Speedometer Error"
It all began as a prank. I have always been interested in the efforts of mankind to go faster, and about three years ago I came across a small paperback about steam train records.
The fun ended violently the following year when an entire train was wrecked
It made fascinating reading. Mallard's 126 mph will stand for ever, her world record representing the zenith of British steam achievement. Lesser known but perhaps even more sensational in their day were the 1895 train races, not least because the contestants had terrified passengers in tow. The records that they established were of greater significance to the travelling public. The car had scarcely arrived, and there were no aeroplanes. Those heroic little trains were the only earth shrinkers, the Concordes of their day.
The race was the outcome of aggro between Euston and Kings Cross which had previously erupted into a race in 1888 to see who could reach Edinburgh first. In 1895 the target was Aberdeen, and the reason was the Forth bridge built five years previously, which for the first time gave Kings Cross the shorter route to the east coast of Scotland. Both trains left simultaneously at 8. 00 pm night after night, and whichever was first to ring the signalman's bell at Kinnaber Junction near Montrose (where the rival routes converged) gained the final stretch of track to Aberdeen certain of victory.
After much leapfrogging of timetables by the rival companies, schedules were thrown aside completely, the trains were shortened to almost nothing, and speed restrictions ignored by as high a margin as the engine crews dared. It is said that communication cords were pulled, without effect, and rail gangs turned out each morning to repair the track. The fun ended violently the following year when an entire train was wrecked over a curve at Preston at over three times the regulation speed. It had to happen but not before the record had gone to Euston at an incredible 63.3 mph. The feat is all the more remarkable since the tiny engines had a range no greater than a modern Superbike (less than 200 miles) and three changes of locomotive were therefore made every journey as a routine. According to eyewitnesses the "pit work" was a revelation, and the train would be on its way again in less than three minutes, often leaving its passengers stranded in the station bar.
Brave far off days, but British Rail's fast schedule to Aberdeen today, now from Kings Cross, is still more than 20 minutes slower.
Since the book suggested that the 8 hour 32 minute train time of 1895 remained the land speed record between the two cities, a look at the maps could not be resisted. Sure enough the trail that was blazed up the "West Coast Route" by the 1895 Euston train could be duplicated almost exactly, by road, never deviating from the railway by more than 12 miles, and crossing it no less than 31 times along its 540-mile journey. The road distance would be six miles shorter. Furthermore there was MI and M6 all the way to Scotland followed by unbroken A74 dual carriageway, and further stretches of motorway to beyond Stirling leaving less than 120 miles of ordinary road to Aberdeen. There must be a chance, I thought.
It would have to be done by night in midsummer, when the motorways would be thinly trafficked. Darkness would not hinder progress, and the early light of a Scottish dawn would see me through sleeping Perth and on into dozing Aberdeen before breakfast. Long-range fuel tanks would be needed to avoid repeated stops. I imagined myself doing it on something like a BMW R100RS as being the most suitable road bike, because of its fairing and five gallon tank.
It was just a thought. I never seriously intended doing it.
Maurice Knight insisted that if ever it happened it must be on a Suzuki
Mention of the idea to friends now and then invariably produced a flood of enthusiasm. My first wish was to make a television documentary about "The Great Train Race" and it occurred to me that a live bike run from London to Aberdeen would provide a dramatic action finale, if only to show how difficult it still is to surpass the 1895 train even with modern road weapons. Nice idea said the BBC, but that would be advertising for the bike. Instead they would give me a lead into Nationwide for the bike run when the film came out.
On mention of Nationwide the project suddenly took wing when Maurice Knight insisted that if ever it happened it must be on a Suzuki, and volunteered a "works" bike, specially prepared and backed by some inviting noises. I had never seen myself having a works ride on anything, let alone up the M1. It was all most exciting.
There were, however, two problems. One was the persistent 50 and 60 mph speed limits which were always being reviewed, but seemingly never lifted, making an average 63 mph a mathematical impossibility. The other problem was the speed at which wheels do not turn inside the BBC. It would be 1978 at best before the film would be made, funds permitting.
To come into Aberdeen chased by a flashing blue lamp would be adverse publicity for motorcycling of the worst possible kind.
The Government announced at last that the 50 and 60 mph limits would be raised by 10 mph. This meant that once out of London 80% of the distance could be covered legally at 70 mph and the remainder mostly at 60 mph, but with some small towns plus Perth and the approach to Aberdeen itself. Even more fortunately the new limits would become effective as from June I. This gave some time for preparation and happened to be conveniently close to mid-summer.
My new idea was this. Why not separate the bike run from the proposed train film and stage it as a news item "live" on June 1? The "peg" would be the raising of the speed limits which the BBC would be sure to announce anyway. The 1895 train race would provide a backcloth of unusual interest with the present day BR Aberdonian time more easily beaten, hopefully illustrating the practical advantages of motorcycling alongside Inter-City. I could leave Euston on the evening of May 31, since the M1 and M6 limits would not be affected, and with luck the bike would be across the Scottish border and on to the A74 dual carriageway within a couple of hours of the 60 limit having been raised, with the "story" ready for breakfast June I.
Feelers with both BBC and ITN were encouraging but only tentatively. Nationwide had no extra camera crews at short notice, but BBC Wales would definitely film a preview. Both London Newsrooms were interested. but, being newsmen, could not commit themselves to anything in advance. That meant taking pot luck. June I was one week before the Silver Jubilee, but supposing another North Sea Oil rig blew out on the night? The Suzuki would run to Aberdeen with nobody watching. It was a risk.
The other half of the gamble in doing a live run was bad weather mechanical failure or even a puncture somewhere in North London, any of which could publicly expose Suzuki as unable to beat an 1895 train. Even if all went well there was no certain way of knowing whether an average speed of 63 mph would be possible without breaking speed limits - a trial run to time would be illegal while the 50 and 60 limits were still there. It had been agreed with Suzuki from the outset that the event must be staged most strictly within the spirit of the law. To come into Aberdeen chased by a flashing blue lamp would be adverse publicity for motorcycling of the worst possible kind.
End of April
This was the very first GS750 to come over from Japan
He who hesitates is lost and eventually Maurice Knight and I agreed to go ahead.
The GS750 was the obvious choice being the flagship of the range, but unfortunately for Suzuki the definite decision came towards the end of April, leaving little time to develop the bike. In the event they decided to adapt RGF 876 P rather than run-in a new machine and risk gremlins. This was the very first GS750 to come over from Japan. It started life blue and was road tested by the majority of the motorcycle papers to around 12,000 well thrashed miles. It had been reliable and a distinctly good performer, having recorded 123 mph through the traps and 60 mph from scratch in three seconds (if you believe the line of MCM's graph). A recent cylinder head check confirmed it was none the worse for the treatment, and the pistons and bores were later found to be bang on the "middle spec".
The demands of the run would be modest performance-wise for a 750, but a fairing would be necessary to protect the rider. If that unbreakable O ring chain permitted, higher gearing might improve the fuel consumption and so extend the range - it was originally envisaged that a hot Range Rover from Heron would act as a tender vehicle to provide instant roadside refuelling throughout the night. It would also carry a service crew. However, this would mean that the Range Rover would require extra tanks to avoid stopping for petrol itself, which at 14 mpg would be no easy task.
Ray Battersby is the Service Controller at Suzuki and handles much of the development engineering. He was immediately enthusiastic for the project. He quickly abandoned the Range Rover idea, since this would encumber the bike and have to travel at illegal speeds to catch up after the trafficky bits. Instead he set about building extra gallonage into the GS750 without radically altering the appearance of the standard road bike. He thought he could provide 11 gallons, but since one stop on the route would be necessary for the rider, nine would be enough.
It was agreed that I would handle the promotion of the event for the TV people because it avoided the suggestion of commercial interest, while Suzuki's PR Agency would do the papers and magazines.
Since record breaking on public roads has been outlawed by the ACU since 1910, and racing or pacemaking automatically invalidated insurance, I was most careful to describe the event as a "Demonstration of Legal High Speed Endurance Running within ten per cent of Allowable Speedometer Error" to which the record of 8 hours 32 minutes of the 1895 train was incidental except for comparison purposes. For added interest my starting time from Euston was fixed at 10.15 pm to coincide with the departure of the BR Aberdeen sleeper from Kings Cross, but since the latter affords its patrons a generous night's shuteye, it is not scheduled into Aberdeen until 10½ hours later, enough to allow the Suzuki a couple of engine changes! Hardly a live race therefore, although re-enacting the 1895 West and East Coast routes simultaneously. It later proved a red herring which misled more than one commentator.
Public imagination had been kindled in a much bigger way than I ever expected
The publicity machine began to roll in the daily papers. Much to my dismay the press releases proclaimed "Heron-Suzuki set to beat the Great Train Race Record!" Three days later the "Record Breaking Attempt" was described without any mention of it being a legal run. It was sensational reading of the sort to alert police forces up and down the country. The telephones at my hospital were ringing with reporters all day long and the nurses did not always know the newspaper men from the patients.
While all the excitement was mounting, Suzuki were having problems. The bike could not be ready for its preview film date, which had to be deferred. The trouble was the tailor made fuel tanks, which were to be fabricated to order by an outside contractor. Eventually Suzuki made them in the workshop and, after much burning of the midnight oil, the bike was promised exactly one week before the big ride.
By then it was obvious that the public imagination had been kindled in a much bigger way than I ever expected. The radio and television people were now on my tail and I was having secret inner fears. After all, 63 mph over the distance seemed a tall order - in fact I had never been to Aberdeen before and my calculations were largely based on the maps. To look at it another way, If I reached the M1 in 20 minutes and actually averaged 70 all the way to Carlisle, with almost all my motorway spent I would only be five minutes in front of that 1895 train, and that had already changed engines once at Crewe! Moreover, with all the advanced publicity there was a chance that the Honda Owners Club would turn out on the night to steal the thunder or, worse, that the Police would intervene as they did some years ago in the final leg of the Wine Race at Heathrow. Twenty minutes questioning at the foot of the M1 and it would all be over.
The whole plot crashed on its side and lay there leaking from every orifice
Collection day. I shall never forget it. The fine dry weather was continuing. Everything looked good.
I went down by train, caught a cab from Euston, hoping for a tip from the driver as to the quickest exit to the M1 for a motorcyclist late on a Tuesday night. Tom Waterer, the Suzuki Sales Manager was to be the organiser in chief while Maurice Knight was in Japan. He met me at Wimbledon Station and after lunch we were passed in the Beddington Lane by a red, white and yellow flash. It was my bike being tested! Fabulous - I couldn't believe it ... Hardly the sober road-going image I had expected. In Suzuki racing colours all it needed was a number seven.
The finishing touches were still being applied and Suzuki were not entirely happy with the fuel system for lack of development time. Certainly the modifications under the skin were extensive. For instance the dual seat wasn't - the rear half was completely hollowed out with a thin fibreglass shell to preserve the contour. The rear mudguard and some frame members had been removed and a metal fuel tank fitted from behind the rider's seat right back into the tail fairing. What looked like a top box opened to reveal another fuel tank with its own filler which drained vertically downwards into the underseat tank through the tail fairing by two large transparent hoses. A small breather tube from the lower tank was fed upwards through the lid of the top box. A "T" junction beneath the main tank diaphragm tap joined the auxiliary fuel tanks to the main supply so that once the engine was running all three tanks were in continuity.
This was causing two problems. Firstly the top box tank, when filled, raised the fuel level above the filler on the main tank, which therefore required the addition of a breather tube, which was routed up into the fairing. The main tank therefore had to be filled first, and thereafter kept sealed until the top box had emptied. The second problem was fuel surge under braking, despite all three tanks being bunged solid with racing sponge. A high speed jet of petrol would shoot from the front breather as the fuel came forward, which was why the Forward Trust sticker had dissolved off the nearside of the fairing. Hopefully the problem had been solved by threading a bicycle tyre valve into the tip of the breather. This closed against the surge but opened to relieve the vacuum as the level of fuel went down. I was advised to poke it occasionally to make sure it was clear.
Apart from this the machine was basically standard, untouched mechanically but with a second front disc ( a standard fitment on current models anyway) and a Dunstall half race fairing with lowered handlebars. I had never ridden non-standard bars and was offered the originals with a touring fairing if this set up did not suit - an important point for over eight hours of continuous riding. But it looked so good I wanted to keep it.
Time had prevented experimenting with non-standard sprockets. It also prevented the entire outfit being sprayed yellow, which may have been just as well ... it happened to be Honda's colour at that time.
Then came the photographs. Handshakes, keys handed over and would I mind doing a gentle fly past for the cameras? The weight with all the juice on board was formidable for my small stature, saved only by the relatively low seat height of the GS750. Nevertheless, I was keen to make it look easy. I was only turning round slowly in the Suzuki forecourt when suddenly the machine made a lurch to the right and, feeling its great weight going, I jumped clear. It made a sickening noise. The whole plot crashed on its side and lay there leaking from every orifice. I was mortified. Photographers and mechanics rushed to its rescue. I felt as though my face had egg all over it, but fortunately there was a reason. The bracket fitted to restrict the steering lock had bent. This allowed the right ball-ended lever to enter the fairing on full lock. The moment I began to straighten up, on came the double front disc on very nearly full lock and off I went. Most fortunately there was no significant damage to the machine
My reputation as a 'works rider' had taken the worst knock. Everybody at Suzuki was taking the whole affair very seriously. There was at least one prophet of doom, several rather you than me's, and there was Peter Agg's insistence that I should wear flameproof clothing. I had not previously considered the trip as dangerous or particularly demanding of the rider, although my previous best was only 500 miles in a day and in two separate stints. I had never motored right through the night.
I had decided to call it off
Anyway with steering limiter adjusted and instructions on how to extinguish a fire, I launched into the latter end of London rush hour to find Euston. I then proceeded to make four practice exits to the M1 to find which route was quickest. York Road, as recommended by the cabbie, proved too long, and my thanks to John Britton, Ad manager of Motorcycling Illustrated, for his guidance and long distance 'phone calls. The best time was 17 minutes. Eventually, after what had seemed a long day, I started the journey home to North Wales.
This particular trip up the M1 was of special interest to see whether I could actually average my cruising speed. Once past that two lane bit between Watford and Hemel Hempstead, it proved easily possible, relieving the boredom by calculating milometer error against the marker posts and finding an exact 70 against the wrist watch I was wearing outside my gauntlet.
It was an encouraging start. The riding position seemed comfortable, there were no problems with the low bars and the going was not too bumpy considering the rear suspension had been limited to only 1½in of travel to stop the tyre coming up through the rear tank. I was not too far behind the 1895 ghost train by Rugby. I was to turn off at Chester and recce the greater part of the journey northwards from the same exit over the weekend.
Any experienced motorcyclist must know the feeling ... the whole fortunes of a day can alter in one missed heartbeat. It happened just as I was approaching Birmingham. The engine faltered, surely. A mile later and the power disappeared in a big way. Everything went quiet and the machine coasted to a halt on the hard shoulder. Al the calculations stopped too - the watch ticked on for nothing.
The problem was obviously fuel starvation which had not been relieved by switching to reserve. Anyway the petrol couldn't be that low. Fortunately it roared into life briefly on the choke and I coaxed it about a mile to the next exit when it began to fade again, and finally expired completely as I entered a garage forecourt. I was extremely fortunate - I would never have pushed it off the motorway. and because of the fairing there was no steering lock.
Nothing would restart it. Vainly I poked the breather valves. Gingerly I loosened the main tank fuel cap and immediately got a flow of petrol all over the paintwork. It must be brimful. There was petrol in the tap too. My journey was finished.
The garage, open 24 hours, promised to keep an eye on the bike. It was Castle Bromwich. I packed my Heron jacket and found the bus stop. Over the 'phone from New Street Station, my wife Rachel still wanted me home. It meant five dejected hours on two night trains. I had decided to call it off - to revert to the Nationwide run when the train documentary came out. The prospect of failing in a week's time was unthinkable. Long suffering Rachel was there to meet me off the train at Llandudno Junction. It was ten past four in the morning.
Wednesday, May 25
Enter Bob Grose in a blaze of glory, filled with adrenalin and enthusiasm after an exhilarating ride through Snowdonia.
Woke early with acute disappointment, and phoned Tom Waterer. He was not for postponing anything. A Suzuki mechanic was to be dispatched from Croydon, would ride the GS out to me and do whatever necessary in North Wales. Could we give him B & B?
By good fortune a secretarial error resulted in the total failure of the morning clinic - none of the appointments had been posted. A chance to make up on a bit of sleep before the afternoon film session in the hospital car park. HTV had to be content with the GT380. At least that went.
Meanwhile, Rachel had heard by telephone that they had got the GS running again. It was on its way. Ray Battersby was in constant touch wanting to find out what went wrong.
So enter Bob Grose in a blaze of glory, filled with adrenalin and enthusiasm after an exhilarating ride through Snowdonia. The cause of the fuel starvation the night before was a blocked breather from the main tank, since when Bob pulled the bicycle valve from the end of the tube there was a hiss of air being sucked in. Castle Bromwich had been where the supplementary tanks had run dry. Agreed. But when I had loosened the main filler cap there had been positive pressure inside the main tank. A possible explanation was that repeated forward surging of fuel into the full front tank had built up internal pressure which had sat on the diaphragm in the tap and prevented it from opening (overnight the fuel had cooled and the pressure became a vacuum.) Had I known, I could have continued my journey by refilling the rear tanks.
The bike was a sensation to the neighbours. Our motor caravan lost its garage to a works Suzuki complete with mechanic. Bob is officially Service Parts Promotion Coordinator and, less officially, Technical Advisor to the Suzuki Owners Club. Now he was bending his grey cells to redesigning the fuel feeds. It was a 1.00 am turn in.
Thursday, May 26
When a white Commando is on the tail of a racing bike there is likely a chance that justice is about to be served
The bike had to be ready for the BBC Wales Television preview at 3.00 pm. It sounds silly but I went up Snowdon on the train. The day had long been set aside for our annual departmental outing, and I couldn't let them down even if my thoughts were elsewhere.
On returning, the BBC film crew had arrived. The bike was still all over the garage floor, but Bob said it was only 10 minutes away. Nobody believed him.
Meanwhile the cameraman was filming the 1895 trains from the paperback in our dining room. We next filmed the transition from an "eminent hospital consultant" to a "motorcycling nut who is quickly to change his pinstripe for garish racing gear". The bike was ready and off down the A55 being filmed through the sunroof of the BBC car. The final action shots were taken from the machine itself when Bob Grose became stunt photographer. Because the pillion seat was only a fake, this meant standing up on the rear pegs at 60 mph leaning backwards against the top box and shooting film out over the fairing. Sure enough Bob's sequences featured as a background to four BBC main bulletins the following week.
Later that evening the Police arrived (by appointment). Colin knew that after the first call from the local "Sarge" in the next village, his time would be his own for a bit and kindly agreed to help me check my speedometer readings. The 60 and 70 were at that time both illegal and I was aware of the unusual spectacle. When a white Commando is on the tail of a racing bike there is likely a chance that justice is about to be served, but with the big faired Suzuki right up the pipes of the Norton - was the policeman trying to escape?
It was of course essential to know exactly what speed the machine was doing. My Police friends had assured me that I would be dead safe at anything up to 80 mph on motorways, although 77 mph represented the stated 10 per cent of allowable speedometer error that I had set myself. Under no circumstances would I risk going higher.
Bob's modification of the fuel system consisted of a large tap inserted beneath the main tank, isolating it from the rest of the system. Provided this tap was closed, both main and top box tanks could be filled simultaneously, surge into the main tank was eliminated, and that breather tube into the fairing was unnecessary so long as the tap was not opened until the top box had emptied.
Friday, May 27
Bob Grose left on the first train. I spent a nervous day wondering who I was supposed to be.
Saturday, May 28
Les warned me that he had mistaken his instructions from London
A bad night's sleep an anticipation. Today was my only chance of exploring the road to Aberdeen, and make my contacts for the run. I was keen above all to prove myself and the bike.
Ingersoll had given me a large luminous pocket watch which I wired inside the fairing and with a full main tank the GS750 left Llanfairfechan at 7.00 am for Scotland. Feeling very tired I took it easy to Warrington before filling up for the motorway. Replenishing the main tank revealed a shocking fuel consumption somewhere around the thirties, while the combined rear tanks only took three gallons. However it later dawned on me that with the new tap open, the fuel level in the main tank would equilibrate with the empty underseat tanks as soon as the running engine opened the diaphragm tap which explained the disappearing gallons. In fact the total capacity was 9.1 gallons, comprising four in the standard tank, about two under the rear seat, and three in the top box.
In ideal conditions I set the Suzuki at a true 77 mph corresponding to an indicated 5,000 rpm (probably an understated rev counter) which it maintained along unbroken motorway from Warrington to Carlisle, thence across the border to Gretna Green. Here at the Little Chef, Suzuki had arranged for my one and only re-fuelling stop. It was to be provided by Trevor Lloyd of Lloyd Brothers, Carlisle and Stonehaven. Chris and Dave were waiting in the car park to introduce themselves on his behalf. I liked their Scottish accents. I must have come a long way.
They were extremely co-operative in arranging brief eats for the night and promised to bring all manner of first aid for the bike even, I understand, welding equipment in case I dropped it coming in on a patch of diesel. The taps routine had to be explained for risk of pumping it in at the back and out of the front. Refilling the bike now revealed a staggering fuel consumption of 55 mpg actual. You don't believe it? Neither did we. It shows what can be done with an aerodynamic fairing and a constant throttle opening with no acceleration or braking.
And so northwards with the holiday traffic along the A74 dual carriageway. It had three long contra-flow sections due to roadworks, but there were useful motorway stretches along the M74, M80 and M9. I was quite delighted with the bike. The low bars gave a perfect riding position at speed with no necessity for rear sets. Perth was a problem mid Saturday afternoon, but once clear of it the road to Aberdeen was much better than expected, being mostly straight. There were several small towns with 30 limits, but they were quite short and should not drag my average speed down too badly. I knew for the first time that my journey in three days' time would indeed be possible legally.
Having found the finishing post (Aberdeen Station) via the harbour road which avoided the traffic lights, it took longer to locate Shirlaw's Garage where I met Leslie Shirlaw, wife Barbara and son Bob, who races a Guzzi. Les warned me that he had mistaken his instructions from London and ordered 12 bottles of champagne and two glasses for the proposed celebration breakfast, instead of the other way round. Some incentive! It was typical of the generosity of this Aberdonian that he should then offer to meet me at Perth on the big run to pilot me in, scaring the rabbits and pheasants which may be a hazard in the early dawn. It was a great offer. I gladly accepted.
It was 6.30 pm before I left, hoping if possible to get back to Wales. My own fuel tanks were getting low so it was first stop Auchterader for fish and chips with some sugary tea. On then to near Hamilton where I refuelled the bike. Admittedly I hadn't been hurrying, but over 60 mpg is surely a record for a four cylinder 750?
The ride home through the night was tedious because of the cold, and there were several fog patches which would be very worrying next week. I finally got home at 3.00 am having done 800 miles.
Sunday May 29
It lit up on three, sounding like an old Ford Prefect
I told Rachel that the bike could stay in the garage until the big day, when I intended taking it down to Euston by train for the Off. It had run perfectly.
However, a man from the BBC came round in the evening wanting a piece for Good Morning Wales. Could he record some bike noises? No problem. Imagine my horror when it lit up on three, sounding like an old Ford Prefect.
Number three cylinder refused to join in except intermittently and a run up the road failed to clear it. Panic 'phone calls to Ray Battersby. Rachel and I tried everything he said and excluded the electrics and diaphragm tap (actuated from No 3). It had to be muck in the carb, despite the Alpha Romeo petrol filter between the rear tanks and the "T" union.
There was only one place for the bike said Ray. Croydon.
Monday, May 30
A 6.00 am start, of necessity. A lot of choke was needed to get the bike up our steep drive when suddenly the spluttering cleared and it fired on all four again. I rode it to Llandudno Junction and tied it carefully into the guard's van. It went down as a BR Red Star Parcel, and was met off the train at Euston by Suzuki for whom of course it behaved perfectly. Nevertheless they cleaned and reset all the carbs and flushed out the tanks just to be certain.
Tuesday, May 31
Go and interview a mad motorcyclist
The Big Day. Spent much of the morning in bed since it was the last I would see of it for over 36 hours.
We had an early lunch around the telly and sure enough there was Angela Rippon herself explaining the stiff opposition that the Kings Cross sleeper to Aberdeen was going to face that night. They had even drawn maps of the rival routes of 1895. Bill Giles the weatherman said that the chap on the motorbike should have a dry run, but there was a chance of ground frost.
The journey down was easier for not having the bike in the guard's van, since 750s do not travel by BR without a good deal of physical persuasion. Tom Waterer always stands out in a crowd, but particularly so in the middle of Euston Station by virtue of his orange oversuit. He had ridden RGF 876 P up from Croydon and left it padlocked a short way off in a side street.
Our next task was to find Rex White, Suzuki Race Team Manager. That was not hard either. He was sitting head and shoulders above a traffic jam in the Suzuki Motorhome. What a vehicle! Made by General Motors, it is almost a motorcoach and flies the racing colours in the biggest way. It sports a 7-litre V8 Oldsmobile engine driving the front pair of its six wheels and does between 8 and 12 mpg, even less than an RG500. The air suspension is self-levelling and its luxury interior is centrally heated, air-conditioned, has a flush toilet, shower and better cooking facilities than our kitchen. Perhaps every American family has one but Suzuki reckon it would cost around £35,000 over here to replace.
Having parked it outside the Station, the bike was chained to the bumper. Hopefully Rex wouldn't drive away. Next to arrive was Ray Battersby and his wife Cynthia who had a special affection for RG F 876 P having ridden it pillion to Mallory in the wet. We all stacked into Ray's Cortina and off to find a Paddington Bistro which Tom remembered from his courting days. They must have been some time ago-it took a while to find.
It was a riotous steak, except that I had to go completely dry. It seemed ridiculous to think, in such convivial surroundings, that I was about to ride off into the night to Aberdeen. Ray, a true engineer, was having trouble with his watchstrap and kept asking for a screwdriver.
Back to the Motorhome as time ticked nearer. The Euston youths were pressing for Barry Sheene, T-shirts and stickers. It was obvious that the girls found the small unknown rider a poor substitute.
It was now beginning to get dark. Gentlemen of the Press were arriving and there was an interview to do for Radio 4, whose commentator suggested that this was "a pretty lunatic thing to do". The Radio London man stepped off an immaculate BMW R100S, his brief, so he confided afterwards, "to go and interview a mad motorcyclist". We played hosts in the Motorhome until it was time to get ready.
Rita Boyd is my Fairy Godmother of clothing goodies and never more welcome than now when she added sudden glamour to the scene driving up in her Spitfire. First I climbed inside a Les Leston fireproof undersuit (like full-length woolly combos) then shirt and jeans over which an unlined Brollibond one-piece suit which has good insulation properties without much bulk. Finally Rita's new Lapbreaker suit, bright orange and lined. I felt like a living commercial for Michelin.
The bike was wheeled through the goods entrance on to No. 1 platform and warmed up. The train in 1895 had left from No. 9, being the least curved, and on the night of August 22 had been reduced to a mere three coaches in a desperate bid to snatch back the record made from Kings Cross the previous night. It was headed by a 2-4-0 Webb Compound "Adriatic" and left in a violent thunderstorm to the cheers of a large crowd.
I could no longer hope to nudge ahead of my schedule
My crowd was mostly street kids. I climbed aboard my unexploded bomb. There were some last words for the tape recorders before Rex White started the countdown through a chorus of well wishes and ribaldries. I was off. The BR electric locos joined in with their hooters as I turned cautiously into Eversholt Street and pointed the big Suzuki North. Some youngsters ran after me but quickly gave up the unequal chase. The cheers (and jeers) gone, I found myself driving through London. It was hard to believe it was anything special - I could find no adrenalin.
The wind was gusting waste paper about the streets. Traffic was light and the bike made good progress over Hampstead Heath and through a narrow backwater I remembered from student days. In Hendon Way I discovered that my main beam had come out of adjustment during a last-minute demonstration of how to get at a blown bulb. It probably would not matter overmuch until I got to Gretna.
I reached the new M1 roundabout in 15 minutes, five minutes faster than my schedule allowed. After some roadworks I was up to 70 and mentally preparing to settle for a long boring night. But it was not to be.
I hadn't been 10 minutes on the motorway before an overhead gantry showed a row of 60s. No way could that be a good omen. Perhaps it had been switched on in error? Then there was a 30 restriction and finally three lines of cars queuing for the Watford exit. Ahead, all lanes were signalled "No entry". The M1 was closed. What could I do? Wake up and throw off the eiderdown?
This nightmare was real. Worse, Angela Rippon had twice told the world I was on my way - I couldn't let her down. To call it off until tomorrow would be to lose everything - a squib too damp to light first time.
Numbly I followed the diversion arrows. Traffic was stationary round the aerial roundabout and down on the A41. I had to try everything. Quite forgetting my load of petrol I accelerated and braked down the outside whenever nothing was coming the other way, prizing a third lane wherever there was space. I remember shooting up a service road and across a grass verge. Anything to escape. Frequently I was halted at a central bollard unable to squeeze through and not daring to pass to the right of it on this particular occasion. The IAM badges would have blushed.
We once lived in this area and I knew I would shortly pass under the motorway at the next intersection. The notice here said "M1 North closed". It was desperate. Where was Aberdeen without M1?
I then remembered that the M10 was not far away and accessible by dual carriageway, this being the lesser of the two southern legs of M1. Sure enough the arrows had the same idea and I had made some speed through thinner traffic, found M10 and thence rejoined M1 past Hemel Hempstead. The episode had taken about 20 minutes but all my time and mileage calculations were upset. I could not tell how many miles I was along my intended route. One thing was certain-I could no longer hope to nudge ahead of my schedule. Now my 10 per cent of allowable "speedometer error" would be necessary simply to get back on terms.
So the bike settled into its groove of monotony. Exactly 5,000 rpm and I was being passed by plenty, mostly Rovers, Jaguars and Granadas. There were some Police mostly going the other way, and anyway I wasn't giving any occasion.
The headlamp was a nuisance. Even the main beam gave a poor range, so in traffic free areas I sat in the middle lane, guided by the broken lines on each side. It was cold, and there was a buffeting NE wind against the fairing which was about 45 degrees contrary. How badly would fuel consumption be affected? By Rugby I was still hopelessly behind that train of 82 years ago.
Midnight, June 1
With nearly 100 miles to reach the Scottish border, the Suzuki faltered
Successfully passing Castle Bromwich on M6. Bike running perfectly. Any fool with a musical ear could hold 5,000 rpm after this long without looking at the instruments. My mind held the note like a tuning fork. Wouldn't be so easy with a BMW though.
Tucked behind the pink glowing instruments, the Ingersoll clock was not visible except when using the right indicator. I did not wish to be staring at the time - it never moves when I watch it. However, I did not seem to be quite averaging my cruising speed which was strange. Had I miscalculated somehow?
I was now on a long stretch of motorway which I had not "recce'd" due to the fuel problems the week before. The RAC had earlier warned of extensive roadworks with contra-flow working. There was a long contra-flow section somewhere around Stafford, but a hi-speed Avenger that I was following knew the chicanes at each end so thoroughly that I hardly had to let up.
By Crewe I was about 10 minutes behind the 1895 record train. Adriatic had averaged 64 mph from Euston and was relieved at Crewe by Hardwicke, a 2-4-0 President Class Locomotive, whose efforts that night had earned her a place in the York Railway Museum. She will steam for the documentary.
With nearly 100 miles to reach the Scottish border, the Suzuki faltered. The adverse wind was taking its toll on the fuel consumption, but how nice, on a modern Superbike, to be able to open the tap and heed the warning that you have less than another 200 miles in which to find petrol. To see Carlisle at last on the signboards was encouragement.
To a 750 Shap demands hardly a whisker of extra throttle, but the firebox and funnel of Hardwicke glowed pink with the effort as she maintained her 67 mph average over this steeply graded section, touching a hell for leather 90 mph coming down the other side. The Suzuki was denied this, but continued without obstruction past Carlisle about on terms with the ghost train and shortly on to Gretna where the Little Chef was still alight. It was about ten to three.
Chris, Dave and another, leapt into gladful action. The bike was refuelled with almost seven gallons while I restored my lost ergs with a quick yog and Kendal Mint Cake (instant energy stuff they use on mountain expeditions). The proprietor was wearing his kilt for the occasion and it was photographs all round. I doubted my ability to master my fireproof undies in the time and decided to try to reach Aberdeen on a single bladder, surely something for the Guinness Book of Records. Meanwhile news of my arrival was being frantically sought by Barbara Shirlaw over the telephone as Les was preparing to come out from Aberdeen.
Before remounting I was relieved to discover from my wristwatch that the bike clock had gained five minutes since leaving Euston. Evidently the Ingersoll was even faster than the Suzuki, no doubt excited by the vibrations.
Rumours that I left Gretna with a pillion passenger are quite unfounded. There was no time for elopement. The pit crew had been enthusiastically correcting my headlamp beam, which now aimed at the mirror of the Escort in front. Fortunately it came right first wrench.
The lights had to be good along the A74. Although dual carriageway it is gently curved and undulating. There was a large number of heavies and I got held up now and then, particularly on one 2-mile contraflow section. I began to feel that, were I sensible, I should be tucked up in bed. It felt like a very late night, and I hoped nothing exceptional was going to be asked of me. Then slowly, very slowly, the sky in the east began to lighten. I could pick out the road ahead. there were little patches of mist on the ground brushed aside by the fairing. I was seeing a Scottish dawn.
Once the light came, my tiredness seemed to vanish. New spirit rose with the sun. Despite no sleep it became an early morning rather than a late night. Progress quickened along the deserted M74. There was a deceptively tricky roundabout on the M80 which I remembered, then motorway. As I passed Sterling I knew that if nothing went wrong I would do it. The train had fared less well over this section in a bold bid to skip Sterling to save time. This meant no chance to take on water and the Caledonian 4-4-0, having tackled Beattock and averaged a mile a minute, steamed away all of its 3,500 gallons as Perth came near. With its tender tanks empty it crawled home in perilous danger of a burst boiler if the level fell below the crown of the firebox.
It took a little while to adjust to handling the big Suzuki on ordinary "give and take" roads - the first since the Watford diversion. That seemed a long time ago. Soon Perth was laid out before me. As I entered the main street I could see, several traffic lights away, two clad figures climb aboard BMWs. It was Les Shirlaw and a fellow enthusiast. A great moment.
There was no chat, just a thumbs up and we pressed straight on having previously agreed not to pause until almost Aberdeen if ahead of schedule. (I had decided not to arrive earlier than 6.30am so as not to break the record by an indecent margin or invite criticisms of ton-up speeding.)
The BMW R100 demonstrator had been shown a genuine 66 mph by a friendly policeman shortly beforehand, this being 10 per cent above the official restriction along most of the A94. Les went in front and his friend brought up the rear at some distance. We kept convoy with a lady driving an Opal Ascona for much of the way and she wasn't hurrying. it was a brilliant clear morning and it seemed strange that hardly anyone was about. Despite the leisurely cruise I was now well ahead of the 1895 Caledonian train, even though it had managed to sustain 75 mph in level running along the last leg of its journey from the town of Perth.
6.00 am, June 1
I was introduced as the new Land Speed Record Holder between London and Aberdeen
The final few miles to Aberdeen were mostly dual carriageway until we peeled off for the Harbour Road and over the little suspension bridge. My 534-mile journey (not counting the Watford detour) was nearly over. A final time check and the big Bee Em raced off into the station to alert the television crew. The Suzuki followed at its own pace.
In 1895 the victorious driver and fireman were carried shoulder high by a large crowd and presented with blue ribbons. And that was at 4.32 in the morning. At 6.30 am on 1 June 1977 there was, let's be frank, no one. Except the early taxi drivers who happened to be there anyway and the men from the BBC.
The car park was deeply cambered in rough pave, not the easiest of surfaces for slow speed manoeuvres in front of the cameras after an all night ride. Then at a pre-arranged signal I rode the GS750 onto the station platform where Barbara Shirlaw was in charge of a large table of champagne. It was a liquid breakfast.
The bike attracted lots of interest from the people who had seen it on the News the night before. Fortunately the BR staff struck a positive attitude and were most enthusiastic. In just over a quarter of an hour someone tipped the camera crew that a London train was arriving.
No sooner had Driver Jim dismounted from his cab when he found himself challenged on BBC TV News as to how he felt having just lost the record. The poor chap didn't know what had hit him. He was three minutes early and that record belonged to the 1895 train anyway. Unknown to the commentators, the Kings Cross train that started simultaneously with the Suzuki was still two hours away. Nevertheless Driver Jim was full of praise. The "young lad" had done well to drive all the way from Euston. He had only brought the train from Dundee, his diesel had kept him warm, and he couldn't fall off it.
The champagne had proved a mistake. Merrymaking was taking over. I hadn't realised there was more to do. After interviews for both sound and TV, we had to film a mock arrival in the car park, whose pave rose and fell worse than ever. Then I had to follow the bright red BBC Volkswagen through the morning rush to film the entry into Aberdeen. It wasn't the same road but nobody cared. I had to ride past at only 50 mph even though it was derestricted dual carriageway. I saw Bill Hamilton frantically reciting his script as I swept by. Sorry. Would I mind doing it once more at 40 mph? It was degrading and even then the bike was faster than the words. Eventually I had to come in at a mere 30 and narrowly missed being passed by a Hovis van in front of the cameras. At least it looked legal.
Next it was back to the BBC Scottish studios for a taped telephone interview with Radio London and a real live one for Hello Scotland, when I was introduced as the new Land Speed Record Holder between London and Aberdeen, little as I would want my insurance company to hear of it.
Finally it was the turn of the press photographers who lay in the gutter on the outside of a corner asking to see "as much of the underside" of the machine as possible. What with 24 hours without sleep, 12 since the last square meal, and minutes since the champagne, they came near to seeing all of it.
So at length back to the Shirlaws where Babs had prepared a well-earned breakfast. It was a pity I had to butter the Aberdeen speciality upside down. Grampian TV were on the 'phone. They had been trying everywhere. Could they come round for ITN? I could not speak to them. A Rice Krispie had gone down the wrong way but anyway the train to Wales was leaving soon. I had to be home.
Les drained down the Suzuki for display in his showroom and took me to the station on his Bee Em complete with a beautiful Bell of Scotch Whisky which still adorns our dining room sideboard. His final touch was a motorcycle paper to help relieve the journey.
So what had begun as a prank ended up getting more coverage on radio and television than any roadgoing motorcycle for several years despite the efforts of two motorists in a TR7 who, having read the publicity, claimed to have invented the idea themselves and motored from Euston, they said, in eight hours. The BBC told them to get stuffed in their very best Scottish. The event was seen on national News, HTV, BBC Wales and Scottish and was broadcast on BBC News, Radio London, Today and Regional Programmes. Angela Rippon, Kenneth Kendal and Peter Woods had all come too.
It was of course well known among Aberdonians that London was possible in under eight hours for years - illegally. For the Suzuki it was all rather underwhelming: it could have made the trip in under seven easily, but not in public. The overall average was 64.7 mph (not counting the extra mileage of the Watford detour) and the fuel consumption worked out at 47 mpg despite the headwind. The 1895 train race record was bettered by 17 minutes and today's fastest inter-City timing by 41 minutes. The night sleeper "lost" by 2¼ hours.
For me it was a return to obscurity in little Llanfairfechan, and a quiet life with Rachel and five children, but RGF 876 P has continued on its merry way. Now forever known as the Parkhouse Machine it soon made the newspapers again when delivering Scottish grouse to the Savoy Hotel from Battersea Heliport ridden by Bob Grose. It then launched a range of 40 new Quarz watches for Ingersoll at the Carlton Tower, was exhibited by Suzuki at Earls Court and had the ultimate privilege of being ridden at Brands Hatch by Mike Hailwood himself.
R.P. Motorcycle Sport Dec 1977
(The documentary of the great train race eventually appeared as "Race to the North" on BBC2 in 1979)
Five Stars 'cos it's all about me!