As this year’s Isle of Man TT fortnight recedes into the distance, I think it would be really interesting to take a closer look at this singular and unique motorcycle race.
The Isle of Man TT, or Isle of Man Tourist Trophy
The Isle of Man Tourist Trophy, or “TT” for short, is one of the world’s oldest races, and to some people, the world’s most controversial motorsports event. How could it not be: each lap of the course is 37.75 miles, on single-track roads lined with trees, lamp-posts, garden walls, bus-stops and other such solid objects. At race speeds, bike and rider are shaken, juddered and vibrated as they ride over bumps that you would otherwise not notice at normal everyday road speeds. Indeed, it’s not uncommon for bikes to finish the race with bits missing, rattling loose or broken. More importantly, since its creation, the TT has claimed the lives of over 200 competitors, whether during the practice sessions or during race week itself.
“Woman can, if she will.” So said Augusta Van Buren in 1916, and she would, so she did. In those days, women could not vote and rarely even drove. Only a few people of any sex had ridden motorcycles across the country in 1916. Pants were against the law in some jurisdictions. Yes, you read that right – it was illegal for women to wear pants. Road maps for the half of the continent west of the Mississippi were hard to come by, mostly because they simply did not exist. So hatching a plan to ride vintage motorcycles across the United States was a bold move indeed! The Van Buren Sisters wanted to show the world what women were capable of and they did.
Robert Edison Fulton Junior was born the fortunate son of the president of Mack Trucks. He could have easily coasted through a comfortable life of privilege, never straying far from the country club. Educated at Exter, Choate, Harvard and Lauzanne, he could easily avoid sleeping rough. But one fateful night at a dinner party he was shooting off his mouth. “Oh, I’m going to ride around the world on a motorcycle. You don’t see much architecture through a steamship porthole.”
As luck would have it, a friend of his father’s who had just bought the Douglas Motorcycle Company overheard him. He gave the young Robert a motorcycle. Fulton learned to ride it two days, and, an impetuous 23 year old, set off toto ride around the world on a motorcycle in 1932. He fell a little short, but he made it 25,000 miles and rode through 22 countries. And then later he invented the flight simulator, the airplane/car and the skyhook. Yes, the skyhook.
Call it motorcycle polo or call it motoball – either way it is madness and it might be contagious. Imagine, if you will, living motorcycle polo history.
Motorcycle Polo Sunday
They are lined up five across, shadowy and menacing in the dust, gunning their engines. It looks far, but it goes by fast. And that ball is sitting there in the middle waiting, just 50 yards away, You can be there scooping up the ball with your leg in three seconds, and those shadows won’t move until you do. The plan is: accelerate to the centre, shift weight and brake to get the tail to slide out, pass just to the left of the ball and scoop it up with your right leg and hold it as you come out of the slide, then flick it sideways to your right forward and abruptly began a new slide to bolt for the opposite side of the field, losing your defender. That is the plan. And when do things go according to plan on Motorcycle Polo Sunday?
That…thing… across the field looks too big to be human. The motorcycle underneath him looks like a toy in comparison.You are feeling a little apprehensive. Your mates call you “beeg maahn.” You are the natural choice for center, and you’re not used to being the little guy.
Have you ever thought to yourself: “I wonder how fast I could go if I put a 4,400 cc engine on a motorcycle with 1907 style ‘brakes’, tires, and suspension ?” That is about four times as big as a BMW R1200GS. It would be hard to find such a huge engine in 1907. But motorcycle and aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss did not have to look far. He had already built the “Model B-8” engine to power dirigibles. Ironically, the engines were never used for the slow speed purpose for which they were designed. Instead, the 150 pound dirigible engine sent Curtiss flying into the history books at a record setting 136 mph land speed. His record, set on the one of a kind “Curtiss V-8 Motorcycle” would hold for 23 years.
From bicycle messenger to racer to shop owner to builder to tinker to motorcycle manufacturer to aviation pioneer. From humble beginnings making motorcycle parts out of soup cans to leading the development of air warfare, Glenn Curtiss lead an inspiring life.
A Rough Start
Accelerating down the straightaway, you know you’ve got less than a half mile to get to top speed. You know you will have to let go of the handlebar and reach to the tank to shift. But you won’t have to let go of the brakes. Because you don’t have any brakes. You know that guy a foot to your left on the bored out 1920 Indian Scout will still be there, giving your Excelsior a run for the money. And he’ll still be there with you sliding through the turn, handlebars turned to counter-steer in a taught and graceful tango, inches apart. Plus there is the guy on the right….
So you get to about 70 mph as fast as you can, back off and start your slide early scrubbing a little speed. You are hoping for a hole shot coming out of the corner. Last in, first out. The roar of a thousand fans is miraculously audible over the roar of the un-muffled engines as you begin your slide and the dust starts to fly. Welcome to flat track motorcycle racing history.
Specific vintage motorcycle insurance requirements vary from country to country, but wherever you live and ride, you probably have to carry liability insurance. Even if your vintage motorcycle is not street legal you may need insurance just to ride it at closed area events.
Your vintage motorcycle may be more valuable to you than money alone can express, but a well chosen insurance policy will be some consolation if your faithful steed gets damaged. Conversely looking sadly at a photo of your pre crash bike and paltry sum from the insurance agent could make a strong man shed a tear of regret, so first off, let’s discuss “Agreed Value,” the lynch pin of vintage motorcycle insurance policies.
Agreed Value – The Key to Vintage Motorcycle Insurance
Vintage motorcycle values are difficult to assess. One man’s <trash> – we shudder to think – is another man’s treasure. Potential resale prices depend on factors specific to the individual motorcycle and finding the ideal buyer. Consequently assessments can vary greatly. Values for rare bikes are also quite subjective.
Even today, in our supposedly enlightened and progressive times, motorcycling is still very much a male preserve. Women still tend to be used simply as scantily clad “eye candy” at motorcycle shows, MotoGP grids and in the pages of some motorcycling publications. Nonetheless, even in the early years of motorcycling, a few intrepid young women embraced this impractical, dangerous, dirty and smelly mode of transport. Bessie Stringfield stands out among them for her fearless will to live life to the fullest.
Bessie Stringfield – Early Years
Betsy Leonora Ellis – her full name – was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1911; her father was black and her mother was a white Dutch woman.
Discussing “the greatest motorsports competitor of all time” is like opening a can of rather aggressive, loud-mouthed worms. Whether on two wheels or four, many names come to mind: Hailwood; Agostini; Fangio; Sheene; Senna; Prost. The list isn’t endless, but it sure is long-winded.
In my view – shared by a great many motorsports enthusiasts – John Surtees MBE, OBE, CBE, stands head and shoulders above them all, if only because he triumphed in motorcycle and Formula 1 Grands Prix. Of course, the fact that he was born in my home county of Surrey (in Tatsfield to be precise) might also have something to do with it.
Imagine, if you will, living in 1913. Airlines were an unimaginable part of a distant future. International travel by train and steam ship was an unusual luxury, and most people saw little of the world. By this time, a number of people had sailed around the globe. But history has only recorded a handful of people who surmounted the challenge of travelling through many nations to circle the world on land by 1913. The new freedom of personal motorized transportation was arising, breaking barriers and giving birth to the first motorcycle trip around the world.
Internal combustion engines were newly arrived. The first motorcycle appeared less than 20 years before, putting along at 30 mph. Now, a few short years later, the fastest motorcycles could already reach speeds of up to 100 mph. Fuel efficient and light, vintage motorcycles could travel long distances on a single tank of gas. While they did not have the advantage of modern suspension, the simple, early bikes could withstand the rigors of 1913 style low maintenance roads.
In this context, with a little youthful dissatisfaction and boredom thrown in, 21 year old motorcyclist Carl Stearns Clancy hatched a plan. (more…)