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31st July 2015

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Castle Combe Grand National, 2015

Richard Jones visits Castle Combe and encounters two tasty treats: a chocolate-box English village and a faithful recreation of the sights and sounds of classic motorcycle racing...

Castle Combe is the village that producers of TV period pieces use whenever they need a ‘typical’ English village from any time between the 16th century and the 1930s. Stone cottages, narrow streets, a babbling brook and a market cross make it ideal for films such as Doctor Doolittle and War Horse.

However, our interest is not the quaint English village but the former RAF airfield just outside it which first saw racing in July 1951. Many of the big names have competed here from John Surtees and Bob Foster in the early days to Steve Plater and Ryuichi Kiyonari at the Superbike Grand National in 2004. The circuit is still very popular today and is apparently the only one in the UK where spectators can walk around the whole circumference. It has seen considerable investment too – the lavatories leave certain other circuits in the shade and a bank of solar panels has been erected in the centre of the track to generate (excuse intended pun) extra income.

I was last there in 1991 to watch a former colleague race in a Formula Vee competition – he won – but my memories of the circuit are hazy even with the benefit of the few photos I took that day. As such it was a very pleasant surprise to receive tickets for the North Gloucester Road Racing Club’s (www.ngroadracing.org) Castle Combe Grand National at the end of June, and to be able to renew my acquaintance with the venue. The weather was excellent and so was the racing – even Mrs Jones, not the greatest fan of motorcycle road racing, enjoyed the day; I think the ice creams helped.

Castle Combe Grand National, 2015

Although a lot of the racing involved modern machinery – which I have to say was extremely exciting – there were a couple of events that were devoted to classic bikes but let’s have a look in the paddock first.

Castle Combe Grand National, 2015

I have to say I was intrigued by the ‘Munch’ name appearing before ‘Matchless’ on this machine, there seeming to be no apparent reason for it being there as the engine comes from a motorcycle rather than a car. A quick search revealed some photos of what appears to be the same machine without the fairing and an absence of red paintwork, but nothing else. Does anyone out there know any more about this motorcycle? [With uncanny timing, this very bike appears in the August issue of Classic Bike Guide. We wouldn’t normally mention A N Other magazine, but there’s editorial overlap at the moment so we’ll make an exception. And it is an extremely interesting machine: a Norton-Matchless special…]

Castle Combe Grand National, 2015

Fortunately the owner of this machine had provided some details of its provenance. Apparently a Cambridgeshire farmer, Frank Ball, built the bike between 1971 and 1972 using a 410cc factory engine, later increased to 498cc, which had been developed by two-stroke tuner Brian Woolley in conjunction with Greeves. Mr Ball went on to do a considerable amount of work to further develop the bike including fitting Ducati front forks and rear wheel together with a Spondon front brake, all sourced from his nearby neighbour in Wisbech St Mary, Mick Walker Motorcycles (coincidentally within a very short distance of this year’s RC ride-out, F2 Motorcycles). Regrettably the big single struggled to finish races, let alone be fast, and so Frank too gave up the struggle and replaced the engine with a Greeves Oulton 346cc power unit, going on to have some success, particularly at his local circuit – Snetterton.

Castle Combe Grand National, 2015

Mrs J and I were on the point of leaving when I spotted this unusual and, arguably, unique racing motorcycle. This is the Tandy 4 – essentially a Norton featherbed rolling chassis housing two Ariel Arrow engines side-by-side. It sounds so simple when you put it like that but I’m sure it wasn’t. The bike is named after the two brothers, Geoff and Dave, who conceived its creation in 1966, ably assisted by spanner-man Mike ‘Squeaker’ Eldridge who made it all happen.

Castle Combe Grand National, 2015

I quote here directly from Geoff’s information sheet: ‘The 2 Arrow engines have a central crankshaft with a two-stage primary drive. A central triplex chain drives an intermediate shaft which drives a conventional simplex chain and Norton clutch. Originally it ran a six- speed Schfleitner gear cluster’. The bike was completed in 1968 and was raced at circuits in the area including Moreton Valence and Staverton as well as Castle Combe. Then, after problems with the crank coupling, the bike was laid up in the 1970s and the gearbox sold. Fortunately Geoff Tandy decided to rescue the ‘rusting remains’ last year and get the bike running again. Apparently the Dunlop tyres were used when the machine was last raced which may be why it wasn’t making an appearance on track. A lovely piece of engineering history.

Castle Combe Grand National, 2015

The Lansdowne Classic Series comprises four championships, each competing for the coveted Lansdowne Cup, and is open to pre-1963 Group 1 and 2 machines to original specification. Each series has a separate sponsor. The aims of the series are ‘to create and maintain a level playing field for those wishing to race genuine (and faithful replicas) of pre-1963 Group 1 and 2 machines without encountering the modern, short-stroke, lightweight faired missiles that predominate in classic racing. This is with the intention of recreating as far as possible the sight, sounds and spirit of racing in the 1950s and early 1960s for both rider and spectator alike, while at the same time maintaining a viable event for the host club/circuit.’

Castle Combe was hosting the fourth event of this season and I have to say that the sight, sounds and spirit of 1950s racing must have been a lot of fun if this is a faithful recreation. This particular machine is, of course, a 500cc Manx Norton which is campaigned by Alex Sinclair; I’ve included it for a number of reasons – there was no one standing in front of the bike when I photographed it (rare event), Alex is Welsh despite his surname and, finally, his father very kindly placed his son’s patriotic crash helmet on the seat for the photo. Alex had 2nd, 3rd and 6th positions over the three races held at this weekend out of fields between 22 and 27 riders .

Castle Combe Grand National, 2015

Unsurprisingly the Lansdowne series is dominated by Manx Nortons and Matchless G50s, some of which are the ‘faithful replicas’ mentioned above, with several bearing the names of Molnar and Walmsley. Speaking of which this is Richard Molnar on a Molnar Manx 349cc machine showing what the engines he and his father, Andy, produce in Preston can do. Richard’s results were consistent – two 10th places and an 11th.

Castle Combe Grand National, 2015

Not all in the Series are Nortons and Matchless – here we have Tony Perkin, who also competes in the BHR series, haring around the track on his 500cc 1938 Rudge Special and ending the weekend with finishes at 16th, 17th and 18th.

Castle Combe Grand National, 2015

There was also a classic bike parade and one of the machines that caught my eye was John Young’s 1936 Triumph JAP Special. It stood out partly because he seemed to be ‘parading’ at quite a lick, but also because of the apparently limited amount of cooling provided by the engine fins. It would seem that John comes from Shepton Mallet and the reason he seemed so fast – and therefore difficult to photograph – was that he was to have taken the bike to Bonneville last year. As we know this was cancelled when ran stopped play but, undeterred, John took his bike to Brighton Speed Trials where he achieved a 4th place in the Vintage & Classic Consistency Class with a final speed of 75mph and a time of 2m.02s

Castle Combe Grand National, 2015

Conscious of overstaying my welcome here’s a few more from the parade. First Roger James on his 1961 Ariel Arrow Super Sports machine which did parade rather than ‘parade’…

Castle Combe Grand National, 2015
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Paul Beard and his 1972 BSA Rocket 3 750cc looking very colourful…

Castle Combe Grand National, 2015

Robert Dalloway riding his magnificent 1980 Benelli 750cc…

Castle Combe Grand National, 2015

And finally Roger Cover riding his 500cc 1971 Seeley Matchless G50 Mk4.

I can thoroughly recommend a visit to Castle Combe, both the circuit and the village, and more details of the former can be found at www.castlecombecircuit.co.uk. There are also more photos here, some vaguely in focus. And yes, I know – I have spelt Combe wrong in all the file names; my apologies to anyone who may be distressed by this faux pas!


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