Battling with the Elements
Speedway Express, April 1977 (Thanks to Steve Wilkes)
It was hard to conceive a London-to-Exeter trial without several hours heavy rain, but this year (1924) the weather fiends excelled all their past efforts towards making the classic Boxing night event organised by the MCC, a trial of intense severity alike for man and for machine.
The general consensus of opinion was that it was the most difficult winter run ever held. Heavy rain started around midnight, and with one brief interlude of some forty minutes, continued unabatedly until the last competitor returned to the finish the following evening. Add a wind which even a meteorologist would term a gale, and you have some explanation of why 25 per cent of the record entry failed to complete the full 24 hours' ride. But the most ironic part of the whole event lay in the fact that the following day and night were gloriously fine!
Perhaps some of the riders or drivers who said "Never again!" so loudly year after year would at last put their threats into execution. On the face of it the whole idea seemed sheer madness. But perhaps, on the other hand, the secret of the event's fascination was the very madness of battling with the elements and getting soaked to the skin for a paltry medal award. But these were true sportsmen of the highest order the like of which belong to motorcycling's great and glorious past.
The true severity of the course was amply evidenced in the fact that 27 of the 122 solo riders failed to finish, 36 out of 96 combinations, and 3 out of the 12 three-wheeler cars.
The toughest of conditions failed to dampen the enthusiasm of Gus Kuhn and his friend L Heller, both riding 349cc Velocettes, and looking battered and bedraggled as they clocked in at the finish. Later when the awards list came out it was found that Gus and his "Velo" pal had won a Silver Medal each.
The full force of the gale was felt on Peak Hill, near Sidmouth, while in the town itself giant waves lashed by the wind broke over the promenade and soon flooded the low-lying parts. The promenade was impassable and a competitor who had retired during the night and garaged his machine in the town discovered that he could not get out of the floods next morning.
The officials were early on Peak Hill - in its worst-ever condition - some of them having spent the small hours in towing a blown-down tree from the road between Honiton and Sidmouth.
There was a stop and restart test on White Sheet Hill, tackled in heavy rain, and it was reported from here that Gus Kuhn was not only confident but very fast. In this particular trial he was not wearing his traditional trilby but an ordinary cap. When this reached saturation point, the well-known Velocette exponent was lucky enough to find a brand-new velour hat by the roadside! At Salisbury on the return one rider substituted a pyjama coat from his kit-bag for a sodden shirt! But everyone combated the atrocious weather conditions in this 24-hour "Christmas Trial" in the usual typically brave way that made the competitors so notable in events of this nature. And this particular one was over a 337-mile course with a record of 380 competitors taking part!
Besides Gus Kuhn there was a host of competitors that would, in the space of a few years, become intimately associated with Speedway Racing, or Dirt Track Racing as it was then called. And some were successful award winners too. Here they are:- Wal Phillips (770 BSA sidecar) Silver Medal; Vic Anstice (346 Douglas) Gold Medal; Eric Spencer (346 Douglas) Gold Medal; Len Parker (499 Douglas sidecar) Gold Medal; Frank Longman (989 Harley Davidson sidecar) Gold Medal; E O Spence (980 Harley Davidson sidecar) Gold Medal; A Noterman (996 Montgomery) retired; Bill Bragg (490 Norton) Silver Medal; Cecil Smith (490 Norton) retired; Fred Mockford (798 Raleigh sidecar) Gold Medal.
The latter two were to become joint promoters of firstly the Crystal Palace Speedway and later New Cross while E O Spence became the Belle Vue chief. Frank Longman promoted at Greenford Speedway while Vic Anstice became a timekeeper. All the others in the aforementioned list were to become renowned riders.
In 1925, it was Gus Kuhn's fourth appearance as a competitor in the illustrious Isle of Man TT races his mount surprisingly being the same old "Velo" that had gained innumerable success in other branches of the motorcycle sport. As an entrant in the Junior race his luck was out, as he retired on lap 6, but he had never been in the running. However in the early stages of the race an aerial photographer has caught him jumping the picturesque Ballig Bridge, and the picture was produced in the following week's "Motor Cycle". Wal Handley (348 Rex-Acme) won the race at just over 65 mph, and it is interesting to note that Len Parker, the 20-year-old Bath Clubman, won the Sidecar race at the record speed of 55.22 mph; he was driving a 596cc Douglas.
For the first time Gus Kuhn raced in two events, for he competed in the Senior TT on a 496 Douglas, won by Howard Davies (490 HRD) at 66.13 mph. But once again, Gus's luck was completely out for he retired on lap 5.
But previously in National Open Trials his successes were good. Riding his customary mount the "249" Velocette, he gained a Silver Medal in the Colmore Cup Trial which was followed a week later with a brilliant win in the 175-272cc class of the Victory Trial to be awarded the Premier Trophy .. plus a Gold Medal. This big sporting event run by the Birmingham Club was highly successful the route being almost identical with that of the previous year.
"Overweight" Gus Kuhn - a glutton for motorcycle competitions - was now competing in more events than ever, for the week after the Victory we find him at the Southern Scott Scramble, an Open event, organised by the irrepressible Camberley Club at Camberley Heath, and still on the Lightweight Velo - a small machine for a heavyweight rider!
However, George Dance on a 493cc Sunbeam scored an immensely popular and thoroughly deserved win, taking 1 hour 13 minutes to complete the arduous two-lap circuit. His time was not surprisingly nearly five minutes better than the next man's, but as second place was taken by Gus Kuhn on a machine only half as powerful, Gus's performance was just as superb. Last year's winner, A B Sparks (596 Scott) was third, and the first Northerner in what was nominally a contest between the North and the South was Alec Jackson 9493 Sunbeam) who was fourth on general classification. Alec, of course, was initially the manager of Leicester Super Speedway in the early thirties, to be followed by a considerable period in the same role at Wembley.
Less than half the starters qualified for the Trophies awarded to those who were able to get within 30 minutes of the winner's time. Judged however you like - by the entry list, by the winners' times, by the huge crowd of spectators, by the amount of footrests, and silencers, and tyre pumps littered all over the course - this year's event was an even bigger success that the previous year's. And since the 1924 Scramble was rightly acclaimed one of the best and brightest sporting fixtures ever held, that was very high praise indeed.
The official view was that, shortened by the omission of three miles of straight-forward bumping, the route was easier, and this was confirmed by the better times recorded by the Trophy winners; but the average sore and aching survivor of the contest would unhesitatingly dispute that opinion. For one thing, there were acres of mud - the bogs seemed as wide as they were long and could not be fairly expressed in linear measure - where last year there was only a nightmarish sort of "Brooklands straight." Indeed, even "acres of mud" was hardly the right term, for it took no account of depth.
On the notorious Wild and Woolly, a "three star" Hill, Gus Kuhn made far and away the best performance of the under 350cc brigade, actually faster than most riders of 500cc machines, and rock steady too. Remember Gus's model was only 249cc! Red Road (the next hill) was considered by many riders to be the most difficult of the event. If the fact that the winner, George Dance, failed on this section in the afternoon is anything to base an opinion upon, then this Hill has the honour by a safe margin. An immense crowd was there to see the excitement, including a whole regiment of blue-jerseyed schoolboys, each eager to exploit the newly-acquired knowledge of motorcycles and riders.
Unlike Wild and Woolly, Red Road became the steepest at the very top, and it was in the last few yards that most of the fun took place. On performance Gus was top. He was probably no faster nor steadier than half-a-dozen other riders, but, taken as the combined performance of man and machine, it was a magnificent effort. Possibly a stop-watch would have shown him to be a few fifths-of-a-second slower that certain 500-600cc machines, but a stop-watch took no account of the engine capacities!
A B Sparks (596 Scott) ranked high on account of his sheer speed and obvious stability. He and Gus, riding within 30 seconds of each other, both shed driving chains after leaping over the crest of the Hill. Despite severe handicap, as I have said, Gus gained second place - a magnificent achievement on such a tiny machine.
Eric Langton, who was destined to become one of the greatest of all Speedway riders, rode a 499cc Triumph and came in well down the list - in 22nd place. Lionel Wills, Speedway-rider-to-be too, on a 499cc Rudge came in 38th, and last of all out of 62 starters came A M Ruff on a 346 P&P in 51st position. He had taken no less than 2 hours 53 minutes to complete two laps. 95 minutes longer than the formidable Gus Kuhn!
Heavy rain the night before was responsible for many anxious faces at the start, but the weather gods smiled their approval and except for the water-logged area, the heath had dried out nicely, and the rain held off. After Opofsky Hill, like explorers setting off for a strange land, the competitors said goodbye to civilisation for many miles .. until Wild and Woolly appeared.
And in this renowned Southern Scott Scramble, Gus Kuhn turned out to be the most successful competitors for he won the Northern Trophy (fastest Southerner excepting the winner) and the Scott Casket for the best 2-stroke performance. But what about the girl riders? Miss Marjorie Cottle (348 Raleigh) won the Venus Trophy for the best lady performance.