Coventry Section Part IV- Into the Sixties
As we move in to the new decade there were new faces on the Section Committee following the 1960 AGM in March. Don Alexander and Doug Moran, two relatively new members were elected to the committee Existing Committee members were the organiser Allan Nash and Tony Cawley. Allan had saved the section from the aftermath of the original organiser suddenly decamping to run a hotel in Bristol in January 1956. Tony now moved up a place to become Treasurer. During the year Don was elevated to the position of Secretary. From the records it is difficult to work out quite who was on the committee at any given time. Allan, Tony and Don seem to be fixtures but others who were active in running the Section during the early sixties were Dave Morrall, Bernard Booth and Martin Davenport, a trio of whom we will hear more. Another name coming to prominence in the early sixties was Barrie Howell, who was Section Organiser for a while before going in for a bit of globetrotting
There is no doubt Allan Nash put a tremendous effort into building the section in the early days and also had no little input into the development of the club itself. In 1960 he was elected Social Secretary. During his time in this post he organised the first Vincent Owners Club sprint at Church Lawford in 1964. This was facilitated by the fact that he was now official timekeeper for the National Sprint Association. (This organisation had grown out of the VMCC’s sprint section and had become officially recognised by the ACU in 1959.) His term of office came to a rather abrupt end at the Section AGM in January 1964 and Tony Cawley became the new Organiser. Writing in 2012 VOC Life Member Tony had this to say:
“It was at a poorly attended AGM and some members wanted somebody to stand against Allan in an election. I was chosen as the “patsy”. I was confident Allan would win, but unfortunately I was wrong. At the time I knew I would be coming to Australia so I knew I would not be stuck with the job for long. I chaired the Annual Dinner and the Section presented Allan with a plate with a Shadow painted on it.”
Allan takes up the story in a postscript to Tony’s Section Review. “after the speeches and the draw for the plate on which Ray Leeson had hand painted a Rapide - this was such a beautiful job that I asked him when I first saw it to do one for me. I even offered him union rate for the time it took him but he refused – Alan Richmond (the Club Chairman) was asked by Tony to read out the inscription on another plate……it turned out to be a presentation to me for my 8½ years as organiser….when called upon to make a speech I had great difficulty in doing so…..it will occupy pride of place… now I know why Ray would not paint one for me”
When Tony resigned to go to Australia at the end of 1964 the biggest difference between the club he joined and the section he left was in the way Vincents were being used. No longer were they our sole means of transport. The section was much the same as it had always been with the same sort of people riding the same sort of bikes, still running the Navigation Trial each year, still having a Godiva Banquet. The lowest ebb of the Navigation Trial was perhaps in 1959 when there were only five competitors and only two of those were on Vincents. The winner, Tony Macpherson, whose name is on the trophy, was driving a Ford 5cwt van, second was Harry Brownsword in his Standard 8 van, and third was a Messerschmitt. As a result the rules were changed; in future it was for bikes only. Of course this includes three wheelers but changing the rules after the event saves the club from ignominy of a bubble car being declared the winner.
As befitted the Sidecar Organiser Don Alexander turned up at the ’64 AGM on his Rapide and Garrard sports chair. He’d taken over from Sandy Mullard back in ’61 and in fact, true to the cause, he bought a new Canterbury Javelin later that year to accommodate Ian, Jane and Fiona. With the old outfit back in 1960 he’d won a tankard for being our highest placed competitor in the Stan Powell Trial. At that time it was not uncommon for nearly half the entrants to be sidecar mounted. This is what was changing. The advent of the Mini in 1959 has been blamed for killing off the sidecar. The truth is that it was introduced in response to the threat posed by bubble cars and microcars which were already creating a bridge between cars and motorcycles and taking a chunk out of both the sidecar market and the car market. The Mini was introduced to fill that niche. In any case cars were becoming more available and no longer was it always a case of “marriage forces sale” as the only way funding a way of transporting the family.
The introduction of the Ten Year Test in 1961 was another factor. In his last Section Survey Sandy Mullard was railing at the stupidity of the test in particular the brake test with a Tapley meter on the sidecar floor. Although its overt intention was to force the dangerous old bangers off the road the timing of its introduction had more to do with the Chancellor of the Exchequer than the Minister of Transport. This was the Stop-Go era of economic policy when the economy was being run by controlling the supply of cars. Need to create a surge in demand? Reduce the purchase tax on cars. Not enough? Reduce the minimum hire purchase deposit. Need a real boost? Get the old bangers off the road. Its timing was impeccable. Somehow the net effect seemed to increase the availability of affordable cars.
Not having to worry about how you got to work on Monday morning if anything broke gave an added impetus to competition riding. Perhaps it was the Nero syndrome that gave the Coventry Section its interest in sprinting. George Brown had given up road racing primarily as a result of his horrendous spill in the 1952 Senior TT when he crashed into the wreckage of Les Graham’s MV on his Norton at the bottom of Bray Hill at 140mph. on the opening lap. The story of how he bought the burnt out wreck of a Shadow for £5 and how he and his brother Cliff used it as basis for a Vincent powered sprinter are well known. As both were employed by Vincents at the time it is easy to guess why they christened it after someone who fiddled whilst Rome burnt. George’s interest in sprinting and record breaking developed rapidly between 1955 and 58 and together with Jack Cole, Len Terry and a few other leading sprinters he was instrumental in the formation of the National Sprint Association in 1959.
With Allan Nash so heavily involved in the NSA and Church Lawford on our doorstep it was not surprising so many of us were dabbling in it, some more seriously than others with Neville Higgins leading the way. He won the VOC’s Picciotto Trophy in his first season, 1961, for the best performance by a club member in sporting events. He had finished no lower than third in any sprint. Traditionally sprints had been held on the promenades at seaside towns, Brighton and Ramsgate being two of the best known venues but the birth of the NSA coincided with the use of airfield venues such as Church Lawford which was ideal for the purpose. It had been built for heavy bombers and had a 1,400 yard runway. It never saw any bombers becoming instead a training field and saw nothing heavier than Airspeed, Oxfords and Avro Tutors. Sprints were first held there in 1962 and the VOC organised its first sprint there in 1964 when Neville Higgins put up the ftd of 11.17sec on Jindivick, his supercharged sprinter. I had my first outing on the HRD and John Benson was timekeeper.
Sprinting was still the name of the game, drag racing had yet to cross the Atlantic. For the record sprinting is you against the clock, best of three runs normally and the fastest time wins. Drag racing is a knockout competition; two at a time, first over the line goes through to the next round. It was Sidney Allard who was the main driving force in bringing it over. By the early sixties his American V8 powered Allards were a thing of the past and his attempt to produce a more British sports car, the Palm Beach with a Ford Zephyr engine was not a success. He’d had turned to selling speed equipment such as the Ardun head for Ford V8’s from his Ford dealership. To promote this business he built an American style dragster which he entered in sprint meetings. This led to him getting together with Dean Moon in the States and inviting him to bring Mooneyes over to be driven by Dante Duce in a demonstration race against the Allard at the Blackbushe sprint in October 63. Micky Thompson the leading American driver of the day was not to be outdone and got himself invited to the party. Allan Nash had arranged permission for the three of them to do some trial runs at Church Lawford the day before the event. Those of us who heard about it at the club the night before went along to see what it was all about. It was quite an experience to hear and feel the noise from a blown V8 for the first time and see it rocket into the distance. The following year the British drag racing Association was formed with Sidney Allard as President and George Brown as one of the Vice presidents.
The club continued to hold a sprint meeting every year but in 1967 the venue changed to an ex USAAF bomber base in Northamptonshire called Upper Podington. It is better known today as the home of UK drag racing, Santa Pod. It was not all sprinting of course. Many club members joined the Motor Cycle Club merely to have a go in their Silverstone meetings and the VOC being ACU affiliated meant that we got invitations to other clubs meetings. Then on August the twenty fourth 1963 the VOC organised their first High Speed trials at Cadwell. The Sports Secretary, Jonathan Hill writing in MPH gave details of how to enter and then in large type after listing the need for volunteer marshals, programme sellers, travelling marshals and one medical officer emphasised that the success of this new venture depended on the membership. It was a success, in fact the club continued to hold race meetings at Cadwell until 1994. Unfortunately the new owners of Cadwell Park then decided in their wisdom that the clubs were not taking full advantage of the commercial opportunities offered by organising race meetings and put the rent up to such a level that clubs such as ours which relied almost entirely on the rider’s entry fees to pay the bills could no longer afford it.
Club life was much the same as it had always been and still is to great extent. Our natural instincts made us play a full part in the sporting activities both as participants and helpers. Allan’s change from Social Secretary to Sports Secretary in 1965 meant that we were not short of encouragement. The social side of matters was not neglected, the Godiva Banquet still featured highly in our programme. The venue moved around a bit as we sought to solve the difficult equation between cost, quality of food and hospitality before settling on the Craven Arms at Southam. This also became the venue for the Club’s bi annual GCM’s and when the banquet was held the night before the March one event seemed to boost the other: We always advertised the event in MPH and had a number of regular attendees from other sections. Besides good food and good company a feature was made of fun and games after the meal. These days to say that they were adult versions of children’s games might be misconstrued. They were pretty innocent even though some of them did give you the opportunity of getting close and personal with other peoples wives. The best remembered game however is the Hat Game which was purely a male preserve. It is best described as Musical Chairs out of Pass the Parcel and sired by Coarse Rugby. The object being passed was a hat, each time the music stopped a hat had been taken away so the art of the game was to remove the hat from the person in front whilst with the other hand keeping yours firmly on your head. That was the gentle bit. The fun started when the music stopped. No holds were barred as everyone tried to emerge from the mêlée with a hat. In later years the banquets became more decorous affairs with eminences from the Vincent world as guest speakers but still retaining their prominence on the VOC calendar.
Another regular feature of club life were inter section meets, local ones like the Herts and Beds at Stoke Bruerne and the Oxford Section at the Black Boy at Milton and further afield, like a Sunday run down a sidecar meet at Burnham Beeches. More adventurous was a trip up to Scotland to meet the Scottish Section for a camping weekend which then transformed itself over the years into the Kenmore Rally. Looking back, although there were terrible traffic jams especially at Bank Holidays, normal cross country journeys seemed much quicker then and there seemed to be much more activity between the sections. The Elephant Rally, which dated back to 1956, was also becoming popular with British riders so in 1965 it was no surprise to find Barry Howell setting off for Germany in mid winter. Such was the popularity of the Elephant that in 1962 the Conwy club organising a similar spartan even in North Wales, the Dragon Rally which together with VOC’s own Winter Pennine have attracted Coventry Section members ever since.
On the 7th January 1965 the Section held its 500th meeting. Nothing special, just an iced cake specially baked for the occasion and sandwiches and buns but significant in other ways. The only member present who had been at the first meeting was Tony Cawley, very shortly to leave for Australia and still to this day a member of the VOC. Amongst the newer members was Chris Reeve, later to take over from Barrie as Section Organiser and the more established trio of Bernard Booth, Martin Davenport and David Morral who would later together become Mellor Motors. A prospective member signing in as visitor was Tony Hutchinson who now appears in MPH classified ads as a Vincent restorer from North Somerset. On that note Don Alexander, who also has been known to restore a few Vincents in his time was there of course. Two stalwarts there who are sadly no longer with us were Chris Chandler and Les Ravenhill, someone who thankfully is though is J. A. Smith who is better known today as the ever cheerful Jenny Bloor. If we conclude this name check with John Benson it will be enough to indicate that that this low key meeting does provide a good link between the early Section and the one which evolved over the following years.
George Spence, May 2012