TRIALS LEGEND – Rob Shepherd
From Farm to Fame…
In 1964 Sammy Miller won the British Trials Championship on his legendary 500cc Ariel, GOV 132. When he moved over to the two-stroke, Spanish made Bultaco the following year, many people thought we had seen the last of the four-stroke trials machines winning the British Championship. The series was dominated by the Spanish until 1977, with Bultaco and Montesa sharing the laurels. Yorkshire farmer Rob Shepherd had ridden the two-stroke Montesa Cota for most of his career, but in 1976 he was approached by Miller to test the Honda that he had developed. He won the British Championship in 1977 and as they say, the rest is history!
Words: John Hulme – Stuart Taylor
Full Credit and original work/text copyright: Trial Magazine UK
Born into a Yorkshire farming family Rob Shepherd was used to finding his way around farm vehicles in the busy environment. When he was fourteen the Wetherby Motor Cycle Club approached his father Alan to ask for permission to use his vast area of farmland at Pateley Bridge, North Yorkshire to run trials on; this was in the late 1960s and trials are still run on the farm to the present day. His first ever trial was on a Greeves Scottish purchased by his father. He made some valiant attempts at the sections and finished the trial black and blue with bruises; at the evening meal on the farm after the event he was so sore he could not sit down at the table to eat – but he had got the trials bug. Seeing his young son have so much enjoyment riding the Greeves on the farm led Alan to buy a brand new Villiers-engined Cotton trials machine. Rob was so excited he spent hour after hour practising on the new trials machine on sections he had marked out on the farm. He soon became a Yorkshire Centre expert at the tender age of sixteen, after taking two novice awards in his first couple of Yorkshire Centre events. He started to enjoy trials so much he progressed to a Montesa and started to ride in National trials to gain experience, and an 11th place in the 1970 British Experts was a superb result. This attracted the attention of Norman Crooks Motorcycles. He supplied the young Shepherd with a new 250cc Bultaco in late November. He would spend the early part of the 1971 season gaining much more experience on the UK trials scene. During this learning period he always had stiff opposition in the form of fellow established “Yorkies” like the Lampkin brothers, Malcolm Rathmell, Mick and Bill Wilkinson amongst others, and this helped to speed up his maturity on the machines and also give him valuable experience in how to deal with the opposition.
At this time he still had to pay for his own machines. John Brise was the Montesa importer before Jim Sandiford came along and it was he who realised Shepherd’s potential and supplied him with a supported machine to join the Montesa team for the Scottish Six Days Trial in May 1971, where he came home in 10th place. At seventeen he won the national Peak and Kickham Trials and came second behind Bill Wilkinson in the famous Allan Jefferies Trial, the one to win in Yorkshire. He also took the runner-up spot to the Irish man Sammy Miller, the man to beat at the time who would later take him under his wing, at the Clayton Trial.
Every Yorkshireman wants to win the gruelling Scott time and observation Trial and Shepherd was no different. He really shot into the headlines when at the tender age of eighteen he won a treasured Scott spoon. He followed this success by winning the Peak Trial yet again, taking the scalps of many of his friends and rivals – Shepherd was on the attack. 1972 would be the year when he was accepted as a true contender for trials honours. He would finish the year with a fifth place at the SSDT and a tenth in the European Championship, but the icing on the cake would be at the super tough Scott Trial. Best on time and observation he took the win in style – a proper Scott win.
A Factory Contract:
This win really brought him into the spotlight, and his reward was a full works contract to ride directly for the Montesa factory in Spain; this would allow him more time to concentrate on practising. With the Montesa Cota in full production Shepherd was now well established in the team. In 1973 he would win the prestigious Pinhard Trophy for the most promising under-21 rider and be a regular top-ten finisher in the majority of events he would enter. Montesa gave him one of the new prototype 310cc machines to help with the development, and at the end of the 1974 season he would move into sixth place in the European Championship. When Malcolm Rathmell arrived at Montesa the machine would be released for sale after further development to become the model Cota 348. In the mid 1970s Rob went through a very poor run of results and Montesa made it clear in 1976 that his works contract would not be renewed for the next season. The Suzuki trial’s project was in full swing and it was they who made enquires to see if Shepherd would be interested in riding the new machine. Word soon started to circulate on the trials scene that he was on the lookout for a move of machine and this spurred him on and his results improved, and at the season close he won the British Experts.
Good friend Nick Jefferies suggested he try the four-stroke Honda he had been helping to develop with Sammy Miller. Miller took one of the machines which had been ridden by Brian Higgins (Miller did not renew Higgins’ contract with him for 1977), to the Pateley Bridge farm for Shepherd to try. After winning the experts Montesa had a change of heart and offered him an improved contract, but after the ride on the Honda his mind was set and he signed to ride the Honda in the Miller team. He instantly came to grips with the unfamiliar four-stroke’s characteristics right from the start; he was amazed at the Honda’s tractability, cleaning sections he could never manage on the two-stroke Montesa.
He took his first Honda win at an Eboracum Club trial early in January 1977, and to prove to the optimistic pundits that he had mastered the four-stroke technique he won the season-opening national Vic Brittain Trial, the first four-stroke national trials win for 12 years; Miller was over the moon. The machine Rob was ridding was the Ex Brian Higgins long-stroke, the one he had tested, he loved it! He followed this win by taking the opening British Championship round win at the Colmore Cup; Honda were leading the British Championship!
Honda Japan was following Shepherd’s results with a keen interest and sent him a brand new short-stroke version of the machine. The new red and white machine was debuted at the St David’s British Championship round in Wales, finishing in joint third place. In the World Championship events his form was nothing special and he secretly had a desire to return to the older long-stroke. He did this for the Belgium world round and his results instantly improved as he came home fourth.
Shepherd’s SSDT efforts in May would deliver fifth place. His confidence was now on a high as he demonstrated the unique four-stroke machine’s potential to its full, winning the British Trials Championship and also achieving the first ever win for a four-stroke trials machine in a World Championship event in Finland, as he finished the world series in fifth place after a superb set of results as the season concluded – what a year! Talking about the 1977 World Championship campaign years later he commented, “Martin Lampkin once told me never to leave a winning bike and he was correct, as my results went off the boil when I started riding the short-stroke. If I would have stuck to the long-stroke and done the American and Canadian rounds it might have changed the whole season”.
After celebrating the British Championship success Miller dropped one of the biggest trials bomb shells ever – Honda were pulling out of trials, his three year development plan was over! Miller had known about this decision before the end of the British Championship but he handled it in his usual dignified professional manner and kept the news away from Shepherd.
At the time Miller was very upset by the pull out and Shepherd could not believe it after delivering Honda the British Championship. The factories were soon after the much sought-after signature of Shepherd on a works contract to ride their machines. He flew out to Italy to test the new SWM and Montesa offered him the number one team berth as Malcolm Rathmell signed for Suzuki.
Shepherd would not sign any contracts though as he had an ace card up his sleeve he was not ready to play. Jim Sandiford wrote to him with an improved offer but he wrote back to once again turn the offer down, saying he had been made a better offer elsewhere; Sandiford was bemused. In early 1978 Rob had no contract and all the works Honda engines had been collected from the Sammy Miller Empire. Shepherd then dropped his own unexpected bombshell; he would still be riding for Honda in trials!
Eight weeks after Honda had made the decision to pull out of trials they were back. The boss of Honda UK, Gerald Davison, would use some of his race budget to support Shepherd with two bikes and three engines, as well as covering other expenses to ride in the British Championship, World Series and other selected events such as the SSDT and Scott Trial on a one year deal. He would also supply a mechanic; Mike Ember Davies from the racing department would keep the Shepherd machines in good running order. His old machine he had been riding during 1977 was now a little long in the tooth and needed replacing.
Word had filtered through that a new machine was being built in Japan. The new machine, a 359cc in fire engine red looked the business but turned up only a few days before the SSDT. He had little time to practise on the machine but came home in a solid fifth place. The year would go pretty much to plan but there were some problems with the new development machine which kept him down the results, though runner-up in the British Championship and fifth in the world was just reward for his efforts. His heroics in the Scott are what legends are made of. He was pushing hard when he crashed the Honda towards the latter end of the event, putting a hole as big as your fist in the fuel tank. He manfully struggled on, ignoring the fuel covering his riding kit and running out of fuel in sight of the finish to push the Honda home in a gallant third place.
In the closed season at the end of the year he was promised a new machine and contract for 1979, he would also keep the services of a mechanic. He flew to Japan for a 12 day visit to test the new machine. He rewarded all the hard work and commitment from Honda when he won the opening world round in Ireland, but the machine was now becoming unreliable. A week later at the UK world round he slumped to 12th place after ignition problems. The new machine he had tested duly arrived in time for the SSDT. It was a very confident Shepherd who headed to the highlands for the trial. He set off superbly, finishing the first day in second place before moving into the lead on the Tuesday. He would drop to second again on the Thursday before moving back to first on the Friday – would he win? The answer was no as he dropped to fourth place at the finish; his riding number had put him at the front of the entry for the final day putting him at a distinct disadvantage.
The rest of year went well as he dropped just one place in the world standings to sixth and came home fourth in the Scott. In the British Championship he also dropped down to third place due to the machine problems with the old bike earlier in the year. 1980 would be a frustrating year as he took the Honda to third at the SSDT, a superb result. As the year progressed he became tired of all the travelling and preparation needed to succeed at the highest level. He could still raise his game though, taking a British Championship win and third at the Scott. He sensed that with the young hot shot Belgian rider Eddy Lejeune on the scene his Honda days would soon be over.
His last ride on the Honda was at the British Experts Trial, which he retired from when he damaged his knee. Honda told him his contract would not be renewed and he officially retired from World Championship competition. When the news broke Shepherd once again became hot property on the race to get him to sign to ride for another manufacturer. John Shirt Snr had taken his Majesty Yamaha machines to the heights of a world round win with trials legend Mick Andrews, so he knew the machine could perform at the highest level.
With Yamaha taking much interest in the project and with the Majesty partnership wanting to sell more machines Shirt Snr spoke to Shepherd to see if he wanted to test a machine in secret for two reasons; one he would be able to get a top rider’s opinion on the machine’s performance, and it would also give him the chance, if Shepherd liked the machines, to talk about a contract to ride in the 1981 British Trials Championship. The test took place at the famous Hawks Nest venue close to Shirt’s Buxton base. He took three different machines for Shepherd to try, all in different states of tune, and Rob brought his brother Norman along, a top rider in his own right, to get his opinion. The test went well and the two brothers took a machine away with them to try while Shirt modified another machine to include all the suggestions Shepherd had made. After further tests the two brothers signed with Shirt to ride the machines in the British Championship and selected trials, including the SSDT and Scott Trial. Shepherd knew he would find it difficult to adapt but worked closely to find a setting he liked. In his first major outing at the Colmore Trial he finished second after a late five mark penalty when he put his foot on the throttle cable, dropping him to second.
In the first two world rounds in Ireland and the UK he finished 20th and 27th, finally accepting the World Championship glory days were over. He retired from the SSDT when a family problem meant he had to return home. The rest of the year would witness some promising results including a fourth at the Scott but at the end of the year he retired from the sport. He would initially ride in local trials on a Bultaco just for fun but would eventually stop riding altogether. In all he had won over 40 national trials in a career lasting thirteen years. He would keep an interest in the sport as trials were still held on the family farm, but the days of hearing Rob Shepherd on the four-stroke Honda would remain a lasting memory.
© – ‘Trials Legend – Rob Shepherd’ – Article: Trial Magazine UK / CJ Publishing – 2016
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Additional text and comment: Trials Guru/Moffat Racing, John Moffat – 2016 (All Rights reserved)
© – Images:
- Trial Magazine UK
- Iain Lawrie, Kinlochleven
- Colin Bullock/CJB Photographic
- Rhosalyn Price, Abergaveny
- Graeme Campbell, Moffat, Scotland