A Lifetime in Motorsport
John Aley with his two King Charles spaniels, Wolfgang and Herman, posing on the prototype Chimp Go Bike. Although it never hit production the sidecar was good for publicity.
Although most of my
life has been occupied by some motor racing activity there have been
periods devoted to other past times as well.
In the early sixties
I was still employed by the Prudential as a motor claims assessor and
motor sporting for pleasure in my spare time. Inside the decade however I
had blossomed in so many different activities that my mind boggles and I
wonder how I kept it all going. Soon I left the Pru and set up my own
assessing practice and opened my tuning and race preparation
business. From this stemmed managing others’ racing, motor sport
journalism, a race driving school at Mallory Park, managing Snetterton
circuit, starting the East Anglian Centre of the BRSCC and organising all
the car meetings at Snetterton, helping to start and subsequently
running The European Touring Car Championship and later importing Fiat
Abath tuning equipmen. Just to make the days busier I introduced the John
Aley range of rollover bars which became an entirely separate concern and
which together with the manufacture of self adhesive racing numbers
supplied the daily bread long after I had ceased racing myself and was
turning in other directions.
Chimp Go Bike as its name implies was a child of the Sixties.
Mike Wood and I were
both in our thirties and both coming to the end of our active racing
careers. In the true Sixties’ spirit we had both acquired light
aircraft and both had come up with the problems of local transport at the
destination when we flew anywhere. So when we had a long trip across
France in a far from reliable Renault 16 we had plenty of discussion time
and this subject took pride of place. Perhaps we could fill the gap, Mike
had a small agricultural engineering business in Dorset and already acted
as my subcontractor producing the range of John Aley Rollover Bars which
I had recently introduced with success to the market so we were well
equipped to fill the gap.
There was a real need we decided for a light weight means of transport, cheap for people who were still recovering from post war austerity and bought everything on price so there was no room for fancy design. It must very simple but reliable as we intended selling to folk who would regard it in same way as their lawnmower rather than a motorcycle to be loved and cherished.
memories of the wartime folding Corgi designed to be dropped with
paratroops but one of which my heavyweight father in law had used
for local transport around Silvertone going about his PA duties, we
thought at first of something which would fold but rapidly abandoned that
in favour of collapsibility so the various sections would be lighter
to lift and easier to stow in odd compartments.
Honda who at that time produced a beautiful little wonder called The
Monkey Bike we chose simplicity and reliability in the form of a 98cc
Clinton industrial power unit designed for chugging away all day on a
building site driving a cement mixer.
course it must comply with RTA requirements as it would be used on public
roads and these required two separate brakes. This taxed us until I came
up with the idea of a drum brake on the rear wheel operated by a
conventional handlebar lever while a foot pedal brought a block on to the
outside of the rear tyre. In pactice this meant we could lock the
rear wheel in two different ways but anyway the RTA said nothing about
braking both wheels.
We discussed this
while cruising on open French roads and whenever we stopped for
refreshment the French paper table cloths provided me with a sketch pad
which I filled with ideas that Mike in a more practical way could turn
into metal. On arrival at Dover Mike climbed into his Porsche and headed
for Dorset complete with the aforementioned table cloths while I hit the
Cambridge road. Imagine my surprise when he rang me a few days later
saying the prototype Chimp Go Bike (name with echoes of Honda) was not
only built but worked and with typical Sixties’ optimism, was ready for
us to sell by the thousand making our fortune.
Although we didn’t
do that, sales were steady and we produced several hundred some of which
still exist today. Many friendly journalists gave us valuable publicity
and in fact one evening I was reading a magazine write up over supper in a
French hotel and showed it to Le Patron who promptly went mad introducing
me to all his staff and guests as the notable English motor cycle
manufacturer who was gracing their humble establishment – I cannot
recall whether this flattery was echoed in my bill next morning but there
was lots of handshaking and free drinks during the evening.
Soon after its launch
we had a stand at the Cranfield Aero Show lending half a dozen Chimps to
the organisers and the members of a Naval aerobatic team which
gained us good publicity and lots of maintenance work for our newly
arrived from New Zealand mechanic who had never seen anything like it in
his native country.
Chimp’s 3 or 4 year existence we stuck to the original conception of a
simple cord started stationary engine driving through a centrifugal clutch
of our own design to the rear wheel which carried both brakes as mentioned
above. Not seeking the ultimate in steering we accepted very small
wheels for light weight and portability while to avoid the extra burden of
Purchase Tax we followed the Lotus example selling as a kit. At £67.10.00,
with all the ensuing problems!
It was fun.
Perhaps in retrospect we should have been more serious and realised that a
new era was coming in when the public would pay extra for something less
crudely engineered and we should have made more effort to sell into the
boat and caravan worlds where the need for local transport also existed
but on a greater scale and where despite not trying very hard we made
Even the end was
amusing. We were losing our initial enthusiasm when someone came
along and bought the lot but obviously thinking he had good ideas for the
bike’s future as he wasted no time in telling us how he would not only
change the complete design and marketing but the name as well. Without any
qualms he paid the asking price, the cheque didn’t bounce but in 6
months he was back asking for our help in selling the project on his
BOATING: Then of course boating in one form or another has never been far from the surface. Elsewhere I mention that for a few seasons in the late fifties when motor racing was getting too expensive and not very successful I indulged in hydroplane racing, never really getting far up the ladder but enjoying something different. That led to dinghy sailing which in turn led us to buy an erstwhile holiday cottage in Salcombe where I had already spent some time sailing a variety of dinghies. I now owned a Wayfarer bought new from Cornish Crabbers in Rock opposite Padstow in north Cornwall and this seemed a good base for sailing with a cottage that could earn its keep when not being used. That idea proved a disaster as although I was only letting to known friends or friends of friends, the first couple managed to pull a door off its hinges and with the second something even more drastic happened. I cannot remember what! The disaster was not complete though as at about that time I was being asked to sell the rollover bar business, of which more anon, and we were able to move lock, stock and two dogs to Salcombe where we spent the whole summer doing what you do when you are young and living in South Devon near the sea in a sailing centre. During that season and during a subsequent few years living in Salcombe we acquired a taste for bigger motor cruisers that were more suited to cruising, fishing and the general riotorious behaviour that was the norm in the seventies. Years later when living back in Suffolk I designed a small motor cruiser based on a workboat hull made in Teignmouth which served me well for six years based at Woolverston on the Orwell. During this period I made several small craft and discovered the disappointment suffered by many DIYers who struggle every night of the winter in their garage in far from pleasant conditions, only to find in the spring that from all their labours they had only a small dinghy to show. But producing something larger was limited by space so I set about producing a small cabin craft around twenty foot that could be produced in several sections to be wheeled outside in the spring when the sun shone and bolted together. I actually built a prototype but this was a sad stage in my life as my wife, Ann, was dying of cancer and although when she was finally no longer with us I moved to Cornwall taking the prototype with me my heart was no longer in it and I abandoned the whole project.
Looking back though and still seeing nothing similar on the market I believe that with more determination and the right marketing I could have another winner. Ah well!
flying was much the same. Although I have had a life long interest
in aeroplanes it was not until the late sixties that I actually took out a
licence and soon found that I was too late in the game and had too little
money to do anything about it. The great pioneering days of casual wind in
the hair flying were no more and I found that most others of my age had
been flying all their lives, perhaps in the services and had thousands of
hours more experience than I had. This was often an embarrassment for
being an enthusiast all my life and this coupled with wartime experience
as an ATC cadet, I probably knew much more about aviation in general than
many of my fellows, Too, even with my old fashioned Piper Tripacer there
was little I could do to lessen costs as I had done in racing so after
some years did not both to renew my licence. I did have some money making
aviation projects. As well as selling flying equipment at Cambridge, I had
a contract with an army parachuting club at nearby Waterbeach, a wartime
airfield and now an army camp, to fly them to about 2000’ where they
left me. I must say it was all a bit strange to be chatting one moment
with an aircraft full of people and then alone the next beside an open
hole in the side. Although I had gone through the motions at their ground
school. I never felt any compulsion to join them.
my late wife bred and showed donkeys, so on the basis that if you can’t
beat them, join them, I added my efforts to hers by transporting them and
her to shows, mucking out stables every week and generally helping, I
still have a wooden shield in my office which I won at a Norfolk county
show, Ann was unwell so rather then miss this major event I took
three animals and the girl who helped us at the time and came home with
the Show Championship as well as a win in the class. Although Ann was
pleased she showed her thanks through gritted teeth!
With Ann as secretary I became chairman of the East Anglian Donkey Show.
Enjoyable but quite a contrast from organising motor sport. Proving what a
cosmopolitan business donkeys are, I eventually handed over this job to
the chap whose day job was organising the prime minister’s bodyguard.
CARAVANS: When I first married in 1952 houses were in short supply following the war and many youg married couples lived with their families. Having seen the troubles this brought I went out on a limb and bought a caravan and embarked upon what was regarded as most as a bohemian existance. Aren’t you cold? Are you comfortable? I was asked frequently but I stuck it for 5 years until my work took me to London and I can honestly say I was at all times warm and comfortable. In fact as the site developed it became a most civilised form of life and if the occasion arose I would do the same again. During this time we had a most amusing experience when over August Bank Hoiday weekend in 1954 a party of our racing friends took the caravan towed behind an old 1932 Ford V8 coupe which had more power than brakes from Cambridge to cornwal where we all competed at Davidstowe race meeing on Saturday and Trengwainton hillclimb on the Monday. It was great weekend long remembered if only for returning three HRGs to their native Trengwainton where a few years earlier they had all enjoyed some success althogh I must admit one of my most lasting memories is seeing my worldly wealth and home disappearing out control down a long hill near Oxford in the middle of the night.
A few years later we inheritted my father in law’s small caravan which had lived much of its life at Silverstone and other circuits where his Antone company operated the PA. Although we really had no suitable tow car we thought nothing of towing it to Spa and Nurburgring behind one of our little 850cc Minis something which today’s caravanners would consider both illegal if not impossible. It probably was but the worst damage it sustained was when we left it in Germany for the Morgan Team to use at the next meeting and they set the kitchen alight. Eventually it came back to England behind the Mini again and there after lived in our drive for use of visitors. One couple will long be remembered by their amourous exertions which moved the van several yards down the drive during the night.
More recently I have had a series of small caravans which I have used mainly in the West country in connection with my MCC activities often keeping them on Caravan Club sites at Exeter, Plymouth and St Agnes for several months at a time. For the last ten years however I have become very interested in small motor caravans which can be used for daily transport. Currently I have a old Citroen Berlingo based Romahome the interior of which has beeen modified for my speacial purpose.