Ordinary Guys Sometimes Do Get Lucky -
When good fortune and an old investment brought our Memorable Motorcycle man an unexpected sum of money, the lifelong motorcycle enthusiast treated himself with a classic-styled British Grand Prix bike based on the Matchless G.50.
A Fairy Tale For Grown-Ups
The older you get, the less you remember. When I was a young man, being fired - invariably for bike-related sins and wickedness - was such a regular experience that I have difficulty even recalling which boss, or company, showed me the door. But some things you do recall very clearly. For example, the smartly dressed salesman hawking life insurance in the paddock - after of one of my best-ever competitive rides.
The truth is that I was never a class act as a bike racer. When I rode in big, international meetings my riding ability was exposed for what it really was - a good amateur who, through effort and intelligence, could produce results better than he rightfully deserved.
Occasionally, just now and again, I could show that I was actually quite good at riding a motorcycle - and one day in June, over 30 years ago, was just such a day.
I was riding in the Burrington Grovel - at the time the biggest Hare and Hounds event in Europe. There were nearly 400 entries and it was a beautiful English summer's day: warm but not hot, damp and dust free but not wet.
At the time, I was sponsored by Eddie Crooks, Head Honcho of Crooks Suzuki, and my best-ever supporter. Eddie was kind and gentle with me, never demanding or harassing - always backing off and protecting me from any pressure. In truth, I was always too determined to do well for my own good. What I needed was de-motivating! The smart thing was just to leave me alone in peace and quiet, which is what Eddie did.
I was also riding my favorite off-road bike: the Suzuki PE 250B. A standard Suzuki was not as fast as the KTMs, Maicos and Husqvarnas but Eddie's mechanic, John Wren, sharpened up the motor and we spent a lot of time simply making the bike fit me. I didn't just ride the PE but became part of it.
The big two-valve single of the Walmsley G.50 produces a claimed 50 hp at the back wheel, over 10 percent better than the original works bikes and more than plenty to get Melling's heart pounding.
As I came to the line I was also, for once, fully race fit and carrying no injuries. I was also completely calm and just desperate for my minute to come up on the big starting clock. When it did, I rode effortlessly and simply blasted the opposition without even breaking into a sweat.
Well, almost. On the last lap, a novice rider tried desperately to avoid me as I lapped him. I hit him hard and he got his foot caught between the swinging arm and rear wheel of the Suzuki. This incident cost me three or four minutes and I finished third overall - best 250 but 90 seconds off winning the event. That's racing and there's no changing history.
Afterwards, I sat on the trailer, truly happy. I was as fit as any young man of my age, had a pretty girl with me for company, a brilliant bike - and I had ridden well. In short, the sun was shining on every part of my life.
It was just then that the nice young man arrived. Could he sell me a life insurance policy for just $18 a month? What joke! I was going to live forever and then some. I couldn't ever die, not in a million years. Where do I sign? Here, here, here, here, here, here and here. Congratulations. You've just insured your life.
Over the years, the $18 became less and less of an item in each month's bills. Then there was an unpleasant divorce and it became even more lost in the financial morass which was my post-separation life. Later came a wonderful new wife and then a nice shiny, freshly-made baby and a house move and a whole new life - whilst all the time the bank dutifully and silently paid the insurance premium.
Last Autumn, a letter arrived out of the blue - and caused some mild consternation since I had genuinely forgotten about the policy. To our surprise, the letter informed me that:
a) I had dutifully paid the premiums for 30 years. This was a surprise because I am congenitally disorganized.
b) I wasn't dead. Not such a big revelation - although no doubt a source of some wonderment to the many hospital intensive care units I have occupied during 40 years of racing.
Melling wanted a bike like the British Grand Prix racers he admired when he was a lad, so he found a builder who had the ability to mate vintage styling with modern performance.
c) As a result of not being dead there was going to be a pleasantly large sum of money winging its way to me tax free in six months' time. Total shock.
Not having any rich relatives in any part of our families - or even moderately well-off ones for that matter - the thought of getting money for free came as quite a culture shock. Having worked hard for every cent I have ever had, suddenly having money for nothing was a difficult concept to accept.
There were lots of things we could do with the windfall - and some things we ought to do. The testing of ideas began.
The young man from the kitchen company was ever so nice. With the dexterity of a Las Vegas croupier he flicked open the catalogue to the worktop section. "With our special Winter offer I can do this in black for only $9,828."
I like cooking, and so enjoy our kitchen, but $10K for a few lumps of polished stone. I'd expect to own a whole quarry for that amount of money! Our kitchen works perfectly well. All the doors open, the drawers close and the oven cooks. A new version of something which was absolutely fine didn't seem much of a reward for 30 years of successfully staying alive.
Ships are a bit of a turn-off - except ferries to go somewhere - so a world cruise looked like a huge waste of money. Gambling doesn't do it for either of us. I'm still scarred from my last visit to Las Vegas where I lost $1, twice, in a slot machine trying to win a Chevy Pick-Up truck.
When Melling contemplated acquiring a vintage British Grand Prix bike, the world championship history and iconic looks should have made the Manx Norton his first choice, but the svelte lines of the Matchless G.50 were more to his tastes.
I'm not really bothered about cars either - providing they do their job of towing our trailer carrying the race bike. Our TV is another case of something which works, so we leave it alone.
Fortunately, Carol was of the same mind. She thought that she would like a Mazda MX5. We went along to the dealer with our Collie bitch, freshly soaked and earthily smelly from her morning swim. We took one look at the pretty little Mazda, and its immaculate white leather, another look at 48 lbs of damp, tail-wagging Collie and left. There was a marked reality gap between dreams and real life.
Flash cars, Caribbean cruises and home cinemas do not excite either of us. So what would?
We went back to the drawing board. What we wanted was something which would cause a celebration on waking up every morning. Something that we didn't actually need to get through the week but which would stir our souls, raise our spirits - and make us both glad that Carol had never had to claim on the insurance policy. What we needed was a Grand Prix motorcycle: a real, genuine, GP bike. Fortunately, Carol who is also my business partner as well as wife, agreed.
The problem was that GP bikes are not cheap - and far beyond even the "not-being-dead-yet" bonus. But if I had a giant clear-out of all the bikes I didn't use, plus a mammoth sale of 40 years of bike bits which had piled up then, with a huge stretch, it just might be possible.
The carb-fed 50 horsepower Walmsley G.50 has defining touches like its magneto ignition and a handmade clutch.
Being of a certain age, I don't lust after a MotoGP bike or even a trick WSB machine. What I wanted was the sort of motorcycle I saw being raced when I watched my first Grand Prix as a ten-year-old. More than this, I wanted a British Grand Prix bike.
The choice is limited. The obvious option is the Manx Norton. Fantastic world championship history and iconic looks. The problem for me was that Manx always looked old in my eyes. Even as a child fan, the Manx looked dated and from a different era. For me, the neat, svelte, elegant Matchless G.50 was the bike which held my heart.
Where the Manx has pre-war, exposed valves and the rather ponderous, looping "Featherbed" frame - the G.50 looks almost modern, with its fully enclosed valve gear and neat chassis. Where the Manx is angular, the G.50 is feline - like a panther at rest even when it is static. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder but truly, there are few more stunning racing motorcycles than a naked G.50.
The problem is that the last original G.50 was made in 1963 and at the time the factory insisted that the frame had a maximum working life of five years - and the engine much less. No matter how lovingly maintained and meticulously restored, an original G.50 is an old bike to ride fast - and ride quickly is what I wanted to do.
The solution lay in a farmhouse in rural Lancashire. In the depths of a converted barn works Fred Walmsley, builder of brand-new G.50s. In terms of the classic motorcycle racing tree, Fred lives on the top of the highest branch. Bike builder for the late Barry Sheene, Fred's motorcycles have won everything there is to win in classic racing and on many occasions. Quite simply, Fred's bikes are the best in the world - bar none.
Melling tucks in and does his best Barry Sheene impersonation as he puts the Walmsley G.50 to the real test, a few laps on the track.
Fred is a blunt speaking Lancashire lad and calls a piston a piston, but we took an instant liking to him. We ordered one of his less exotic G.50s - a standard motor in a standard frame, rather than the ultra lightweight specials he builds for his works riders, but tailored to fit my height and weight.
Five months later the bike was ready for delivery. No excuses, no corners cut - and no compromises on quality just because I am not a world-class rider. Quite simply, exactly what we ordered, delivered early and totally to specification. For anyone who has tried to buy a bespoke car or bike, this level of customer service is incredible.
When I first saw our new G.50 it was so utterly, breathtakingly beautiful that I was nervous about even sitting on it. But the best was yet to come. Carol and I pulled the big single back against compression, and pushed. Three cycles to let the fuel get well into the bore, a gnat's eyelash of throttle and then the wonderful, braaahhh, braaahhh, braaahhh, of a British racing Single preparing for battle. I must confess, I nearly fainted with ecstasy. The G.50 ran as well as it looked.
Although Fred's bikes are authentic in terms of following the original G.50 specifications, a Walmsley Matchless is nothing like the machines which were dribbling out of AMC's Woolwich works. Modern materials and manufacturing techniques, plus Fred's magical skills, mean a classic motorcycle which feels like a modern Japanese bike in its build quality.
Our standard bike produces "only" 50 hp at the back wheel. That's over 10 percent better than the original works bikes - although 12 hp less than the best Walmsley G.50s. It's a vastly different sort of power to a modern bike and therefore very deceptive. As the big, two-valve Single lunges out of corners riding on a tidal wave of torque and acceleration there's barely time to tap in the next gear before the 7,200 rpm rev limit has been reached. Classic the G.50 may be, but in terms of riding excitement, there's nothing to match it.
If you don't think Melling's proud of his new toy, just check out the grin he's wearing. Pictured with Frank is the man who made it all possible, Lancashire's own master bike builder, Fred Walmsley.
The handling too is both deceptive and incredibly effective. The G.50 simply glides effortlessly round corners with none of the nervousness of a modern bike and it's only back in the paddock that you realize that's another set of toe sliders completely worn out.
The whole feeling is extremely anthropomorphic. The rider sits in the bike, rather than on it, and guides the bike through corners rather than forcing it - a two-wheeled thoroughbred horse responding to its rider.
In the final analysis, the G.50 had a lot of questions to answer. Is it better value than a new kitchen? Absolutely. Is it better value than a medium posh new car or the latest home cinema? Definitely. Does it bring a glow to the motorcyclist's soul before it even starts and a sensual thrill of such depth and intensity that I feel 30 years younger? Without question. Will it be worth staying alive another 30 years just to have another G.50? I'm on the Cod Liver Oil tablets right now!
Prices for a Walmsley G.50 start at $50,000. Fred can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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