John Holmes, more than a specials builder

This article first appeared in the April 2018 edition of Old Bike Mart, and is reproduced here with permission and as a tribute to John Holmes.

For more features and news from the classic motorcycling world, and to subscribe to Old Bike Mart, visit: www.oldbikemart.co.uk

A Holmes-spun Triumph…

Recalling being blown into the weeds by a sharp-sounding and decidedly rapid JH Special Triumph Tiger Cub, John McCrink visits the man who created it and marvels at his home-brewed craftsmanship.

About ten years ago, while taking part in one of Pete Remington’s excellent Nostalgia Road Runs in the Lake District, I was riding out of Ambleside on my Triumph 500 and quickly found myself on an extremely steep, uphill climb (1-in-4 no less) known locally and most aptly as ‘The Struggle’.

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John (seated) is flanked by David ‘Spud’ Tatham (left) and Pete ‘Rem’ Remington – Photo: John McCrink

As the revs plummeted and I was about to drop down a gear, I was suddenly overtaken by a decidedly rapid and fantastic-sounding Tiger Cub trials bike that was making easy meat of the gradient. I got only got a quick glimpse of bike and rider before they disappeared in the direction of the Kirkstone Pass, but it was enough to tell me that I’d been blown into the weeds by none other than John Holmes from Natland, near Kendal, on one of his famous JH Specials.

I first saw John competing on one of his Cubs back in 1991 when we were both riding in the Saturday night trial at the famous Nostalgia Scrambles track near Sedbergh, Cumbria. His bike certainly lived up to the title ‘Special’ as it simply bristled with innovation and inventiveness. That was the first of John’s specials that I had ever clapped eyes on, but a few more have been built since then, all of them demonstrating the Holmes hallmarks of originality, ingenuity, uniqueness and pure craftsmanship. John’s bikes have become extremely well-known and widely admired in the classic trials scene, not only because they look superb, but also because they perform so brilliantly, but we’ll come to that later.

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A trio of beauties – the amazing 500 BSA Special lines up with two Holmes Trials Cubs – Photo: John McCrink

It’s difficult to know where to start when trying to best describe John’s bikes. His trials Cubs are lightweight indeed, consisting of numerous home-fabricated components. The engines are meticulously assembled using his own-manufactured barrels, and here’s the thing: they are created from solid billet using hacksaws and files, as are the connecting rods – a real labour of love. There are no fancy, high-tech milling machines in the Holmes workshop, just honest toil, and patience is a virtue. The frames and swing-arms are altered to improve handling and, where necessary, to accommodate John’s own oil tank/airbox needs as well as the home-brewed exhaust and silencer.

All these mods are done within eligibility rules and in the spirit of classic trialling, for after all, hacksaws, files and metal working tools were all available before 1965.

Unlike many of us, John is not put off by dealing with electrics, and where necessary he has created his own systems that work really well, but I’ll not get into technical details here because in truth it’s way beyond me! Undoubtedly they’re far superior to anything Joseph Lucas would have offered back in the day.

Most ‘special’ builders, having successfully shoehorned the modified engine into the modified frame, could be forgiven for then purchasing ‘over the counter’ items such as fuel tank, footrests, kick-start, control levers, rear suspension units and so on, but not John Holmes. Instead, out come the hand tools again.

Undoubtedly his background as a panel-beater, working on high-end vehicles, honed his metalworking skills and allows him to create such quality items as his petrol tanks. He originally made a wooden former for this task, but has developed his technique to a point where a former is no longer required.

Although John’s Tiger Cubs are unique, many people will remember the incredible BSA 500 trials bike he built, mating a B31 bottom end to a B25 cylinder-head, joined together with a barrel of his own manufacture which utilised a VW liner and piston. It created quite a sensation not just because of the hybrid engine but also due to the incredible inventiveness of the rolling chassis and other component parts all too many to mention (but please see the photograph). Some readers might remember that Trials & Motocross News did a detailed feature on this machine a few years back.

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John Holmes with one of his beautifully built Triumph Tiger Cub trials bikes – Photo: John McCrink

So John’s bikes are unusual in their originality and look fantastic. They are well fettled and beautifully turned out with all that alloy and stainless steel glistening – but how do they perform in the heat of serious competition? There can be no better testament to John’s engineering skills and the reliability of his bikes than to take the honours at that most famous and demanding of classic trials, the Pre’65 Scottish Two-Day Trial at Kinlochleven.

To win such an arduous event you need not only a good bike but also a good rider, and in 2007 John had that winning combination when Yorkshireman, Tony Calvert piloted the JH Special Cub to a fantastic win, dropping only one mark on the first day and zero on the second – quite an achievement. At the time Tony said: “I was chuffed with the win for John as much as myself.”

John’s bike impressed Tony so much that he had to have a Cub of his own, and managed to find one. The bike was then prepped by John in readiness for the 2008 ‘Scottish’, and guess what? History repeated itself and Tony triumphed once again, with only one mark dropped over the two days. What a team!

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This original JH Special was John Holmes’s favourite – Photo: John McCrink

The Cambridge Dictionary defines the word ‘modest’ as meaning “unassuming in the estimation of one’s abilities or achievements” – and that perfectly sums up John Holmes, for he would never consider crowing about his bike-building skills.

Similarly, he keeps quiet about his competition successes over many years of participating in trials. He joined the Westmorland Motor Club in 1958 and was still competing 40 years later. Some people might be surprised to find that back in 1963, 64 and 66, John not only rode in that most demanding event, The Scott Trial, but also finished in the awards and won a coveted Scott Spoon on each occasion. So what happened in the 1965 Scott? That’s another story.

In 1965 the International Six Days Trial took place on the Isle of Man, and well-known North West scrambler Tony Sharp was down to ride the event on an Eddie Crooks-sponsored 175 CZ. Unluckily for Tony, just before the event he was injured and John took over the ride. It turned out to be one of the wettest and hardest ISDTs on record.

Out of 300 entrants, only 77 were British, of whom only nine finished – quite a rate of attrition, with lots of established factory riders dropping out – but John Holmes was one of the few finishers, and still has the bronze medal to prove it. Although not over-keen on two-strokes, he does concede that the wee Czech buzz-bomb did go well over the six days.

Perhaps the demands of that ISDT had taken it out of John because, come the autumn, although he rode in the Scott Trial, on that occasion he missed out on a spoon.

 

Sadly John Holmes passed away after a long battle with cancer on 3rd October 2018.

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