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.
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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’.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Oban trials enthusiast, George Gage is a joiner by profession and started riding trials bikes with a TY250 Yamaha. The bike disappeared many years ago, but he wished he had kept it as many enthusiasts of the sport do!
It comes as no surprise then that when Scottish trials dealer Garry Coward of Highland Leisure Sport had sourced a similar machine, George had to have it.
George was unlucky to develop Testicular cancer which then spread to his lungs, which resulted in 3 months of chemotherapy treatment. George Gage is a cancer survivor.
Goerge takes up the story:
Garry Coward sourced the bike for me, he knew where the machine was as he had serviced it for a customer for some years. The owner had the bike from new and bought it from an old motorcycle dealer in the Highlands. The owner moved overseas, so the bike came on the market. I bought it with the intention of using it unrestored, but this soon changed when I started working on it. Before i knew it, the Yamaha was stripped and the frame was getting prepared for painting.
George began work and did the following tasks:
– resprayed the frame and had the metalwork tidied up
– lowered the foot rests
– rebuilt the forks with magical suspension upgrade fitted
– electronic ignition fitted
– new reeds
– new dellorto carb and rejetted to suit
– modified the airbox
– full stainless exhaust
– engine rebuild
– new plastics
– seat base professional rebuilt and original foam kept
– seat recovered
– new rear nitrogen shocks
– top yoke cut and angle changed slightly
George told Trials Guru:
“I had many bikes growing up but this was the one bike I regretted selling, I gave up riding trials bikes and got distracted by fast cars and other teenager distractions.
“I want to become a better rider and I believe the Yamaha can help me and will give great fun along the way.”
“I have no intention ever selling it and hope my daughter will continue to use it.”
George, we here at Trials Guru wish you many happy hours on the TY250. Thanks for sharing your story with us.
Trials Guru is of course all about the sport of trials, but its’ creator, John Moffat is interested in all forms of motorcycle sport, that includes Motocross.
John was invited to get a ‘bit involved’ in the recent Drumlanrig Grand National Motocross on the weekend of 13-15th July, 2018.
Held in the grounds of the majestic Drumlanrig Castle in Dumfries and Galloway, the stately home of the Duke of Buccleuch, the event was very well supported and is becoming the premier motocross event in Scotland.
It was promoted and organised by the re-formed and locally based Galloway Motorcycle Club, which was a club that had started out in the 1930s and folded around 2011. The good news is that it is back up and running again, affiliated to the Scottish ACU and headed up by Fraser Dykes (Chairman) and Willie Brown (Secretary) and has a strong nucleus of committee members, all willing to get their hands dirty.
Moffat’s remit was to conduct a full hour-long interview on the Friday evening with the 1982 World 500cc Motocross Champion, Brad Lackey who kept the audience spell-bound with his recounts of his life in professional motocross as a factory rider for CZ, Kawasaki, Honda and Suzuki.
Moffat also hosted the ‘Galloway Gathering’ on the Saturday night which saw many former Scottish Motocross riders and champions being interviewed to keep the crowd both intertained and informed. This was all done in a massive marquee on site.
Here are some photos taken during the three day event, courtesy of former Trials & Motocross News reporter, Graham Milne which gives a flavour of what Trials Guru had been getting up to at Drumlanrig!
As a post script to the BSA that Alf rode story, we have great pleasure in disclosing that the machine will have its original registration number returned.
Registered in Dundee in 1959 as JTS139, the number was sold separately from the bike and after negotiations between the owner of the machine and the owner of the registration a deal was done and the BSA had its identity returned. A true happy ending!
Extract from Jeff Smith – Trials Expert, Motocross Maestro (Copyright Motorsport Publications)
The Birmingham Small Arms Company developed a unit construction single cylinder model to be universally known as the C15, which went into production in September 1958.
Having acquired Triumph in 1951 , the C15 was derived from the smaller capacity 199cc Triumph Tiger Cub, BSA was quick to capitalise on the UK trials market by having a C15’T’ model for sale to competition riders for the 1959 season and also a C15’S’ model for scrambling.
The 249cc C15T was supplied with a chromed and painted blue steel fuel tank, full width wheel hubs and lighting kit. Later, many riders fitted Triumph Cub wheels and brakes to reduce weight and a ‘Lyta’ aluminium alloy fuel tank made by Hitchisson of Vauxhall Bridge, London.
The 1959 ‘Golden Jubilee’ Scottish Six Days Trial had a number of the new C15T models entered in the highland classic, but it was not all to be plain sailing as all the factory entered machines were to expire during the week. All save for one, the privately entered C15T of Fort William man Ron Thomson, whose machine was supplied by Duncan’s Motorcycles of Brechin, Angus, near Dundee. It was registered JTS139 and it survived the rigours of the SSDT whereas the factory bikes of Jeff Smith et al did not!
Chris Smith, daughter of Jeff Smith has allowed us to quote directly from the most excellent biography written by Ian Berry: ‘Jeff Smith – Trials Master, Motocross Maestro’: “In the meantime BSA who had decided to field a team of four riders all mounted on C15T machines, suffered unprecedented humiliation in the Scottish Six Days Trial in early May. Poor John Draper did not even make it to the first section before his bike seized and Jeff, Tom Ellis and Arthur Lampkin soon followed suit, all eliminated by failure of the distributor drive. So with three days gone, all four of the factories entries were out of the trial.” (Copyright Motorsport Publications)
Thomson was by 1959 a veteran of the SSDT having ridden on Matchless, BSA, Triumph and an H.J.H, a Welsh built two-stroke. He was originally from St. Andrews in Fife and he is featured in our Great Scots series.
Thomson didn’t enter the following year and when he did ride the SSDT again, he reverted to use the BSA Gold Star in both 350 (PSR54) and 500 (PFS916) variations.
Ron sold the little BSA to Dundee trials man, Alfred C. Ingram who was a bit of a character and he rode the C15 more than a half a dozen times. Alf also had the distinction of literally driving around the globe in an 875cc Hillman Imp car with a very novel way of overcoming mechanical failures along the way!
Alf carefully wrapped up components in grease-proof paper and labeled each one, making a note of the contents on a list which he took with him. When he suffered a mechanical failure he sent a telegram to his mother who would go to his stock of parts with the required reference number and mail the item to him wherever he was in the world. Now that is one way of having your own spares system, globally!
Ingram rode the BSA C15T in a number of SSDT events, and at every one, his machine was marked with dabs of special paint with the riding number inscribed before the paint dried fully by machine examiners at Gorgie Market on the Sunday before the event started. Alf never removed these markings and the machine collected a fresh mark every year he rode. The machine created its own history book of itself.
By 2009 the BSA had entered the ownership of Dundee car dealer Bruce Johnston who knew about the machines history. Bruce purchased the machine from a former editor of the Dundee Courier newspaper, Gordon Small who was a motorcyclist and collected older trials machines and road machines. Gordon was also editor in chief of the Classic Legends magazine, produced by D.C. Thomson. Small had bought JTS139 from his friend Alfie Ingram in the 1980s. The bike was displayed in the car park of the SSDT by Bruce Johnston for a couple of years and advertised as being for sale. However, the price was not to everyone’s taste and the machine didn’t sell initially. Johnston then did what a ‘purist’ would perhaps describe as a ‘despicable act’, he removed the original registration number and put it on retention, the DVLA then issued a replacement age-related mark from the 1959 era. The machine’s records then held the replacement registration mark and not JTS139.
The BSA which, going by the frame number was the 42nd C15T built at Small Heath, had remained intact since 1959 apart form the usual modifications such as Cub wheels and a Lyta tank had effectively lost it’s original identity and a bit of it’s history in the process.
The machine was eventually sold without the original index number JTS139 which was then used on a Nissan car.
Then a strange twist of fate emerged, the new owner had an idea to put the motor from the BSA into a Drayton frame kit, would this be the end of the C15T?
No it wasn’t, far from it in fact, Steve Owen became the new owner and rescued the BSA from it’s DNA forming a virtually new machine and the identity would be further defiled.
Steve then made contact with Trials Guru’s John Moffat via the website’s contact facility asking if any of the BSA’s history was known. Steve made reference to the abundance of SSDT markings and Moffat was immediately intreagued and remembered the bike ridden by Thomson and Ingram as he knew the bike quite well. He was of course slightly confused when he asked Owen for the registration number stating that he expected the number to be JTS139, but of course it had been!
Due to Ingram’s forsight, he did not remove any of the paint dabs from the BSA which still carries all the old SSDT markings on the frame, fuel tank, oil tan, front forks and rear dampers. Bruce Johnston had the wheels rebuilt with alloy rims, due to the decay of the originals, which would also have come under the machine examiners markings back in the day. The motor was out of the frame and Steve Owen plans to have the bike back in one piece very shortly.
Steve Owen told Trials Guru: “I was delighted to learn more about my bike, I guessed it would have a have an SSDT history going by the markings and John Moffat confirmed that by researching from his archive of SSDT programmes, matching the dabs of paint with the years they referred to. It’s a pity that Bruce Johnston decided to part the bike from its number, research indicates that the number is for sale at £3,000 a hefty amount for a number plate”.
“John Moffat knew Ron Thomson, the first owner, very well as his father rode trials in the 1950s with him, he also knows Bruce Johnston through Scottish trials, so I suppose I went to exactly the right place to research the machines history”.
Bruce Johnston told Trials Guru: “I’m not sure I can add much to the story other than that I bought the BSA from Gordon Small who was a journalist with D.C. Thomson newspapers in Dundee. Gordon was a good friend of Alfie Ingram and had bought the C15 from him years earlier. Alfie was a keen mountain man and was part of a mountain rescue organisation at one time.”
As luck would have it, Trials Guru’s John Moffat was friendly with the late Gordon Small who introduced Moffat to world racing champion Bill Lomas.
Moffat: “I knew Gordon Small very well indeed as he had been editor of ‘Classic Motorcycling Legends’ magazine in the early 1980s and our paths crossed many times over the years. Gordon’s nom-de-piume was ‘Gordon Cadzow’ taken from his house name in Newport On Tay and he used this when he edited the magazine. Small also edited ‘The Biker’ column in the Dundee Courier for many years. Gordon arrived at my house in the latter part of the 1990s with former world champion Bill Lomas, who was also a very good trials rider, to look over my ex-works Matchless a machine Lomas had been given by the factory in the winter of 1955.”
Moffat added: “I was delighted to check over JTS139 when Bruce Johnston owned it around 2009, he had it on a stand in the parc ferme area of the SSDT. I was very much taken with the bike and I had a mind to buy it from Bruce, but I thought the price tag was a bit too steep at the time and I didn’t make a firm offer. We chatted about it’s history and I was quite interested in buying the BSA at the time. I knew Ron Thomson very well and I had been given the details of the bike from Ron when he was still alive, it was he who told me about the factory bikes pulling out of the 1959 SSDT leaving him as the sole finisher on a BSA C15 that year.”
Steve Owen takes up the story:
“My friend who has worked with me for nearly twenty years and is a big trials bike fan has an older brother Bill Fitzsimons now 86 years young. He first saw the bike for sale on the Yeomans of Bromsgrove stand at the Stafford show and he noticed all the Scottish markings and thought it looked very interesting. The stand was selling it on a commission so didn’t know much about the BSA.
As interesting as it was he didn’t buy it then and there, but took details home with him after a bit of thinking time he gave them a call and they still had it so a deal was done. The previous owner had already had new rims and tyres fitted but otherwise it was unrestored and running, all be it with a lot of smoke. Bill stripped the engine down and fitted new rings , exhaust valve guide and a main bearing and started to put it together but before getting very far he decided to sell it to me having talked to his brother Mike.
I’m getting around to replacing the engine in the frame to get the little BSA running again. It certainly has a lot of character, although it is a real pity it hasn’t retained it’s original registration to complete the history.”
That isn’t the end of the story, we are trying to locate photos of Alf Ingram riding the bike in the SSDT and are conducting a thorough analysis of the years he rode the BSA – so as they say, watch this space!
JTS139 – Its SSDT history:
1959 – R.S. Thomson – number 74
1963 – A.C. Ingram – number 150
1964 – A.C. Ingram – number 129
1966 – A.C. Ingram – number 126
1967 – A.C. Ingram – number 97
1968 – A.C. Ingram – number 192
1969 – A.C. Ingram – number 90
Ron Thomson – Trials Guru has already written about the late Ron Thomson, a man who was very well known in trials by not only his fellow Scots but also Peter Fletcher, Gordon Balkeway and others of that era who got to know Ron through riding in the SSDT over the years. His story can be found here: Ron Thomson.
Alf Ingram: A trials enthusiast from Dundee in Scotland who was a member of the now disbanded Dundee & Angus MCC and was a keen mountain climber in his day.
The paint dabs on machines that competed in the Scottish Six Days Trial – It was a method used for many years by the event organisers to stop competitors replacing components on their machines. They were marked by machine examiners during the Sunday ‘weigh-in’ by painting a square of paint about 15mm x 10mm on the component with a special paint which was mixed by Edinburgh paint manufacturer, Craig & Rose. It was believed that this paint ‘flouresced’ when examined under a UV light. The examiner would scribe the riding number of the machine into the centre of the paint dab with a pencil shaped wooden ‘scribe’ so that riders could not swap compenents from another machine during the event. Every year the paint shade changed slightly from a blue to green colour.
News on JTS139 – May 2018
Having heard of the article, Bruce Johnston met with Trials Guru’s John Moffat at the 2018 Scottish Six Days and explained that the number, JTS139 was indeed for sale and asked that the current owner, Steve Owen make contact with Johnston to discuss the number. This was achieved on 10th May and a deal was done and the original number would see it back on the BSA C15T. Indeed a happy ending brokered by Trials Guru and the little trials machine had its original identity restored.
The annual Bob MacGregor Memorial Road Run is all set for Tuesday 1st May which sees the start of the usual excitement in the run up to the Scottish Six days Trial.
Organised by the Westmorland Motor Club (founded 1910) and led by it’s enthusiastic member, Peter Remington from Kendal, it consists of a 130 mile excursion into Perthshire. It starts at the McLaren hall in Killin and takes in some old SSDT scenery from the 1940s and 1950s. On the return leg it passes the 1970s section Edramucky on the slopes of Ben Lawers which was an opening day ‘terror’ section back in the days when the SSDT started and finished in Edinburgh.
With a mixture of old and modern motorcycles, it is surely a day to go watch and take in the scenery.
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