I’M STICKING WITH BIG-TWIN JAPs
While on my annual migration from Australia to the English summer of 2018, I was recalling my first such trip way back in 1978. I had decided to settle in Australia and was returning to sell our little house in Stony Stratford which was just within earshot (with the right wind) of Silverstone circuit.
Apart from my day job, I had started to write and sometimes photograph freelance for Australia’s Revs Motorcycle News and the Australian, and New Zealand contingent at the Silverstone British GP that year was one of my targets. I interviewed and photographed Greg Hansford, Jack Findlay, Mike Hailwood, and Dennis Ireland. It was, I think, the year of Mike Hailwood’s return to the Isle of Man and he, for a while then an antipodean, was also in the frame.
It’s mainly distant memories now. However, I have no trouble remembering the day that Alexander, Lord Hesketh, (properly Alexander Fernor-Hesketh, Baron Hesketh) who lived even closer to Silverstone, turned up at my front door to try and shut me up about the new motorcycle he was planning to make.
I had heard on the grapevine that Ron Valentine, technical head of the Weslake concern, was developing a V-twin version of their very successful speedway 500cc single. Such an idea interested me and to find out more I rang Ron, and after speaking some vintage JAP, soon had an invitation to visit his works in Rye on the south coast.
Ron was most hospitable; we spoke a lot more JAP; he took me to lunch and then I had a tour of the works. They did everything there – cast crankcases and cylinders even – and my freely-taken photos show piles of these in various stages of machining (below).
In the foundry, attention that day was focused on the first casting of the left side crankcase of the new V twin which Ron told me was to power a motorcycle that Lord Hesketh was planning.
The other crankcase half had already been cast and heat-treated and was being milled in the machine shop (below), so that scene was added to the pictures I had taken in the foundry.
This wasn’t the race engine I had expected to see. It was much more interesting than that. As far as my nascent freelance journalism was concerned, I had a motorcycle ‘scoop’. Hesketh had become world famous with James Hunt driving the F1 cars built in his stable block – maybe he could revive the almost dead British motorcycle industry? This was pretty exciting stuff in those days, I can tell you, with British manufacturing on its knees and Margaret Thatcher yet to give the country some tough economic medicine.
Back in Stony Stratford, I rang the nearby Nicholas Hawksmoor designed Hesketh stately home of Easton Neston near Towcester and soon found myself asking his lordship for details of his motorcycle manufacturing plans. I told him about the photographs I had and after a few seconds of seemingly stunned silence he said
‘Where are you?’
‘Just down the road in Stony Stratford’, I replied.
‘Can I come round – I can be there in 20 minutes’, he said.
So Hesketh turned up in his Rolls-Royce, drank tea in the kitchen and laid out the deal he had in mind. If I held off publishing my photographs he would give me exclusive access to all the Hesketh material well before the official announcement was made. Revs would have the full story before any other motorcycle magazine worldwide.
I ran all this past Revs editor Mike Esdaile. Hesketh’s offer seemed genuine enough. It seemed a pity to put a damper on his plans by prematurely releasing the story for the sake of being first with it. His lordship had been very friendly and persuasive and so we agreed to his proposal. Eventually I found out that Hesketh was no gentleman as far as his word was concerned. Neither Revs nor I heard a word from him again and my photos of the prototype Hesketh engine haven’t seen the light of day until now.
The Weslake engine which I had seen in its early stages was ready to ride in 1980 and offered all sorts of novel – for British breeds – technology such as four valves per cylinder and chain driven twin overhead camshafts. Hesketh’s success with his Formula 1 team gave everyone hopes that his motorcycle project would succeed at a time when there was little public confidence in Britain’s manufacturing competence.
Designer and cartoonist John Mockett has written about the project’s development, ‘I was working for Yamaha Europe, making prototypes and concept models … Yamaha encouraged me to get involved … and paid for some of my time there because they thought there should be another British motorcycle. The first prototype I saw didn’t need a side-stand because the exhaust pipes held it up, so you just lent it on the pipe! That was the stage they’d got to – they didn’t have anyone in a senior role who knew anything about motorcycles.’
MotoGP journalist Michael Scott was at the champagne and caviar launch in 1981 (below, Alexander Hesketh with Mike Hailwood aboard) and he wrote, ‘We all had a test ride, and the bike was lovely, a bit big and heavy, but it had this terrible gear change….the Hesketh people would ask us what the bike was like and we’d say it’s really nice but, er, the gearbox is a bit clunky …. I do remember my coverline …: To The Spanner Born.’
Hesketh Mototcycles plc was formed and a factory was set up in nearby Daventry to assemble outsourced components. It was, says Alan Cathcart, conceived as a ‘two-wheel Aston Martin – a classy, expensive, gentleman’s express’. But the bike soon demonstrated a multitude of faults. It was heavy, unreliable and the rear cylinder overheated. With unfavourable press reports and the motorcycle market then falling, only 139 bikes were produced before the company went into receivership in 1982.
Cagiva and the Triumph cooperative looked at buying the rights and then Lord Hesketh formed a new company in 1983 to manufacture a full-faired version called the Vampire. However, the old faults were still there and this venture only made 40 bikes before closing in 1984.
Mick Broom, one of Hesketh’s team on his estate, then took on development and support and resolved the V1000s overheating problem with improved oil flow. He made a few bikes a year until the marque was sold in 2010 to a new company headed by Paul Sleeman, which announced it was going to make just 24 bikes in total with a 1917cc S&S engine made in Wisconsin – the very same one they put in the recreated Morgan threewheelers.
The price when it was launched in 2014 was a whopping £35,000. Motorcycle News said it had ‘style, character, quality and exclusivity’ and they all sold. Last year the Hesketh Sonnet was put on the market with a more affordable (for some) price of about GBP25,000. For that you got an even bigger 2163cc, triple camshaft S&S engine producing 145bhp at 6000rpm. ‘It delivers a completely unique blend of Anglo-American performance that nobody else offers on two wheels right now’, writes Cathcart. And now for 2018 there is the supercharged Valiant SC with 200bhp for GBP50,000.
It’s all amazing, really. Forty years ago the British motorcycle business was going out backwards. Now there are new Triumphs, Nortons, Ariels (definitely not a Pixie revival) and even a questionable recreation of the Brough Superior made in France. It seems to me that if you want a classic experience you should get a classic bike but good luck to them.
I’m sticking with my big-twin JAPs.
Photos August 1978 by Terry Wright show machining of the prototype engine’s first crankcase half and the casting of the other side along with piles of 500cc speedway engines.