27th November 2007
It's the end of this year's classic scrambles season. Paul Grace travels to Marks Tey to admire the exploits of the golden gladiators...
Summer falls into autumn and the motorcycling events calendar sadly winds down. Misty valleys and dew-filled meadows shimmer in the early morning light, an ungloved hand feels the cold of a steel petrol tap and the warmth of a reassuring leather glove.
I'm on my way to Marks Tey racecourse in Essex to attend the last of the Pre-65 Clubs' scrambles for this current season (although it now looks as if one event more may yet be tucked into the event calendar at short notice).
It's been a strange and funny old year, early scorching temperatures, followed by floods throughout a summer that never seemed to get into gear. Any hopes of an Indian summer seem to have passed us by as we drift into autumn. One form of motorcycle sport that eschews the weather and provides both great competition for riders and much interest for the spectator is of course motocross -- or classic scrambles as we classic motorcycle enthusiasts prefer to call it.
Indeed the British weather went some way to making household names of many a scrambles rider through the popular Grandstand television coverage from 1962 onwards. The winter of 1962/1963 was particularly severe and played havoc with traditional outdoor sports and the BBC had the bright idea of showing motocross, when frost and snow ruled out any soccer on a Saturday afternoon. Those heroes like Jeff Smith, Arthur Lampkin, Dave Bickers, Chris Horsfield and Vic Eastwood were beamed into viewers' homes in flickering monochrome.
This morning, as I ride into the parking area at the track, the weather is just perfect for a day of classic scrambles. The ground is firm but not dusty and the sky cloudy with an agreeable temperature for some energetic racing. The first sensory overload is felt with the smell of Castrol R wafting across the track and the sound of lightly baffled motorcycles soaring in full flight.
Walking through the paddock is rewarded with close up views of today's scramblers waiting their turn for the next race. The range of motorcycles is broad, from small lightweight early two-strokes to heavy behemoth four-stroke twin sidecar outfits. Stunning and valuable Cheney BSAs with their nickel frames are dotted around like silver jewellery amongst the brightly coloured pre-74 two-stroke racers.
Of course being in Essex one of the most popular manufacturers here is Greeves and representatives of the marque are to be seen just about everywhere. From early Hawkstones up to the final awesome 380 Griffons with conventional Ceriani forks.
There is a good representation of AJS Stormers too. Early ones in orange and later ones in yellow livery -- like citrus fruits, made to make your mouth water. These are in company with a multitude of Metisse-framed racers.Pre-65 AJS Stormers in action at Marks Tey in Essex
The races are set out into logical groups consisting of the National Greeves series, British two-stroke, Pre-60, Pre-65 up to 350 and over 350, Pre-74 and lastly Clubmans, which is for non-competitive riders. There are of course the sidecar outfits that are fascinating to watch as both rider and passenger work as a closely knitted team to manhandle these fiery beasts around the circuit at very impressive speeds.
There is a lovely atmosphere at these Pre-65 events. A genuine sense of goodwill and a passion for travelling as fast as possible over punishing terrain. It is extremely well organised with refreshments, St Johns ambulances and some spare parts being sold by a regular vendor at these events. It is from him that I buy spare inner tubes and small items to service my own race bike and to support him at these events.
This is very much a family sport with many of the competitors bringing the family down with them and a caravan or camper to stay overnight before the event.
The racetrack at Marks Tey is basically a flat field with some man-made jumps to negotiate. Today, the ground at the landings of the jumps looked good, which encouraged plenty of catching air over the jumps.
It's something of a time warp when you see these old motorcycles thundering around the track, because not that much has changed. You may see riders using modern safety protection under their shirts and perhaps a modern motocross helmet, but the spirit is the same as it was in the golden age of motocross.
In 1959 major motocross events could draw crowds of over 70,000 people, very much like Moto GP can now. All the excitement of watching these gladiators on motorcycles battling it out is no less diminished today. However, by 1970 the golden period of British motocross was sadly over as British motorcycle manufacturers went to the wall.
Paul Stephens made a very sage comment on the sport when he said; 'Motocross is only partly a contest of natural ability. Especially in those moments of crisis - when only victory is sufficient to guarantee your place in the title race - it is won and lost in the mind, the heart, the stomach and the sphincter.'
Some of that passion and integrity can be seen on any Sunday at these Pre-65 events, and makes for a fantastic day out of motor sport.
See www.pre65.com for more information on classic scrambles, including the next meetingPre-65 Cheney 'getting air' at Marks Tey in Essex. Top photos by Paul Grace.
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