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Modern Speedway bikes look very much alike now, but this wasn’t the case with the early dirt bikes.  Basically any powerful road going bike was stripped down, tuned up, tinkered with, for racing on the dirt tracks.  It was common then to see the great British bike marks, in dirt track form.  Famous names like John Alfred Prestwich (JAP), BSA, James, Royal Enfield, Rudge, Vincent, Velocette, Sunbeam and Douglas from factories the length and breadth of Great Britain once graced the tracks. Now speedway is dominated by Jawas from the Czech Republic and the Italian GM's.  Other bikes have come and gone but the Jawa still remains as ideally suited to going sideways at speed!  But on these pages let us look at some of the other bikes that thrilled the massive crowds of yesteryear: -
 

 

Pre Speedway, Early English Track Racing

 
 
Evidence of speedway in England, well before the cinder sport began in Australia? Well no! The bikes were fitted with JAP engines and certainly look like early speedway bikes.  I believe they raced on grass.  These old bikes show their bicycle frame roots, the front forks for example are borrowed from bicycle technology.
 

 
James 500cc V Twin
 
Courtesy of Paul Wild
Thanks for the above image Paul. A photo of an actual Dirt Track V Twin James is shown below
 
 

 

Crocker

 
 

I believe this is a Crocker from the USA. The picture must date from the early 1930s as I think the factory started production of speedway bikes then. No other details known

 

 
 
 

This 1926 AJS could be the worlds oldest surviving Dirt Track Bike.  The bike was used in Australia in 1926 by Tony Batros, it has to be older than any British based bikes as our tracks didn't get under way until 1928.  It is a 350cc AJS Special Racing GR7 Big Port.  350cc bikes were quite common on dirt tracks then, another 350cc was the Harley Peashooter.

Andreas Raab says: the AJS-Speedway  Motorcycle on Your Homepage is an AJS Model G8, it is an 1926 500 ohv TT-Model.
John says: Not sure if I can agree with Andreas, I think it is a 350 not a 500, what do you think?
John says: Thanks for sorting that out Paul.  Can you send any more pictures of your great bike?
 
Another Early AJS
AJS grass/dirt bike in 1927
 
Courtesy of Phil Newton
 
Phil Newton says: Here is a photo of my Dad Arthur James Edward Newton on his AJS grass/dirt bike in 1927 The picture was taken in the street of (27 Bligh St Wavertree, Liverpool)
Dad used the AJ for work (Liverpool Gas Co ) he was a Plumber /Gas fitter.  He fell off after winning Golden Helmet in about 1926 and got married 1927 Nearly turned pro I believe.  Doc set his collar bone on the track and had a lumb there but lived to 82 d 1983
John says:  The years (1926/27) Phil is talking about seem to predate what we call UK speedway, i.e.1928.  I have asked him for more details of his dad (Arthur Newton) not a name I know, perhaps Arthur rode his AJ in races somewhere before speedway started here in the UK and he later went on to race at Stanley Stadium Liverpool when the speedway track was born for "open meetings" in 1928, or maybe Phil has the wrong years in mind?
 

 

Harley Peashooter

 
 
 

Frank Arthur (above right) astride his Harley Peashooter. The Peashooter was a mid 1920s winner until the  Douglas & Rudge came along.

 
Douglas v Harley late 1920s 
 
 
 

A Peashooter inside battles it out with a Douglas

 

 
A Number of old bike pics from Tony Webb 
 
 The Calthorpe
 
 
 
 The Chater-lea (Coppernob)
 
 
 
 The New Imperial
 
 
 
 The Norton
 
 
 
 The Velocette
 
 
 
 The Wallis DT 1929
 
 
 
 The OEC with a JAP engine
 
 
 
The Zenith 
 
 
 

 
The Scott, the only two stroke machine used on the speedways 
 
 
 
The McEvoy Blackburne 
 
 
 

 
Douglas 
 
 
 
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This bike was assembled from a "box of bits" by Harry Huntly his son Ian emailed this: -

 
Ian Huntly says: In the late 50's, Dad bought a big box full of motorcycle parts which proved to be a  Douglas Speedway bike !! Some parts were damaged or missing so I remember Dad fabricating new bits in his garage. He gave the bike a very special gear box and some special-metal pushrods. He sat down and built this race bike which ended up being entered at Druridge Bay Sand Track, ridden on the sand by a rider Dad picked for the "job".  It was a heavy bike with straight through exhaust but it bump started immediately. It sounded glorious.  Dad sold it to the local grass track sidecar champion who added a sidecar and did well with it for a couple of years.  I wish I knew where it is now !! Can you help please ??
John says: If you know what happened to the Huntly Douglas please send me an email JOHN 
 

 
 
 
 
 

Above: a BSA 500cc Dirt Track Bike 

 
John says: A very affordable machine at the time. The poor mans speedway machine!  For those who don't already know. BSA was a great British company that began making weapons. BSA is a shortened version of Birmingham Small Arms. In the 20th century the company turned it's attention to motorcycle manufacture. BSA along with Royal Enfield (another old British company) were armaments makers turned motorcycle makers. The Beezer didn't last long as a dirt-track bike (1929/30), which is a pity as JAP could have done with some national rivalry and who knows maybe BSA would still be going now if they had invested properly in making speedway machines? 
 New Zealand Restorer Frank Brookland has one of these machines to restore and would appreciate contact from anyone who has any photos etc of the Beesa John

Pat Jeal has been in touch with the following info and a couple of photographs: - I've attached a couple of pictures you may like. 

 
 
 
 

Pat Jeal says:  I suspect the BSA photo on your site is of this following restored bike, which was ridden by Cyril Lord and later owned by Noel Somerfield. The photo is of it in grass trim at  the 1968 High Beech reunion but I know it later had a brakeless 21" front wheel refitted. 

 
 
 
1929 BSA Road Version (For Comparison)
 
 
 Courtesy of Les Elmer
 

1930 BSA S29- S19

 
 
 Courtesy of Les Elmer
 
1929 BSA Roadster 
 
 
Courtesy of Les Elmer
 
 
Courtesy of Les Elmer
 

The 1929 BSA roadster appears to be the machine BSA used as the basis for their speedway machine

 
 
The Dirtrack BSA appears to have a similar engine to the JAP.  If BSA had seriously opted to build speedway bikes their company would have continued longer than they lasted with their road going machines.
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 Let's hear from you if you own the engine.  Velocette produced many powerful single cylinder engines for their road going machines, pity they didn't concentrate on speedway bikes more
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 John says: What jumps out from these Sunbeam pictures is the size of the wheels 28".  Later regulations limited wheel sizes to 22" and then to the modern day size 18 inch
 
 
 
 
 
 
This Sunbeam I am told was a 1948 model.  I doubt that and would date it as a 1930s machine.  The bike however is immaculate whatever its year of manufacture.
 

 
 
 
 
 

Above: The Rudge 500.This example looks very potent even by modern bike standards.  (Four valve technology is not modern ) I bet this machine raced flat out would frighten the life out of a lot of modern bikers!

 

JAP in a Rudge frame

 
 

 
 
 
American Riders 1920s early 1930's
 
 

American Riders 1930's at the Richmond Raceway, (Picture courtesy of Carrick Watson) US riders had been racing around their dirt tracks for a number of years before we got underway in 1928. These riders are obviously mounted on an Indian (left) and a Harley Davidson.  The Indian became a popular mount for Wall of Death riders.  They don't appear to be wearing much body protection.  I assume therefore that they are simply posing for pictures but who knows maybe they raced in their long johns in 1930's, Richmond USA!

 

 
So, in the late 1920's and early 1930's the pioneers quickly discovered which bikes to use to be a winner. The Harley Peashooter had the edge at first.
The long wheel base Douglas was the first choice of the "leg trailing winners" with the shorter wheel base Rudge giving the foot forward riders the edge.  Then came the JAP in 1931 and the older bikes gradually gave way until all riders were mounted on the mighty JAP.
 

 
 
Glasgow V Newcastle was rained off so some of us headed for the Glasgow transport museum
 

The Website owner, John Skinner, at the Glasgow Transport Museum. The Bike is a 1929 Douglas D.T. The picture on the wall shows an Glasgow rider leading a Newcastle Diamond.  The Glasgow museum is well worth a trip, whether you pay the speedway a visit or not.

The Douglas had 3 gears but no clutch! For three years, the Dirt Track Douglas was the supreme dirt track machine selling around 1,200 bikes in 1929 alone.  A bike like this one ridden by Gordon Byers, won the first ever race at Newcastle's Brough Park.
David Turner says: That bike was owned and ridden by George Pinkerton. A farmer near Glasgow. He restored the bike about 25 years ago. I lived on the farm next to him, and now live in Detroit. He had a brother called Jimmy Pinkerton who was of more note in the Scottish scene and also a very successful sand racer. George is also notable for being a Spitfire pilot with City of Glasgow. He and two others shot down the first German plane over Briton (near Edinburgh). I believe the bike is still owned by his son Ian who still farms the same land. George died about 10 years ago
 

 
Alex Kynoch shows how it was done in 1929
 

A 500cc Douglas Dirt Bike. 

 
Alex Kynoch shows how it was done in 1929. No, he is not falling off! These long wheel-base bikes had a very low centre of gravity because the "heavy" engines were horizontally opposed flat twins mounted along the bottom of the frame.  The Leg Trailers were usually mounted on these bikes.
 

 
 

A Speedway Rudge

 
The shorter wheel base and higher centre of gravity of the Rudge did not suit some of the Douglas leg trailers although many adapted to the foot forward style of riding when they switched from the Douglas to the Rudge
 
 
John Alfred Prestwich
 
 

John Alfred Prestwich. A very clever man who invented a number of things including his JAP engines used in speedway

 

Dawn of the JAP - 1931

 
 
This early machine probably dates from around 1931? The JAP engine in a variety of frames reigned the speedway world for decades.  You could say modern speedway was born in 1931?
 
Courtesy of Phil Newton
 
Harry on an early JAP
 
 
This picture shows an early Jap. Harry by the way became a Newcastle promoter when his riding days were over.
 
Martin Comerford JAP
 
 

 
 

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