BMW's 24/7 ISLE OF MAN MARATHON - NOT SO EASY RIDING!

Updated: Aug 20



In 1973, 16 riders from the road racing, trials, police and press worlds were invited to spend a week in the Isle of Man riding two BMWs in an attempt to win the coveted Maudes Trophy. John Nutting was one of them.


At four in the morning, the news was grim. A rider had crashed badly coming down from The Mountain. And BMW’s attempt to win the Maudes Trophy for a demonstration of reliability in the Isle of Man looked doomed


Keen to revive the reputation of its luxurious machines after a complete redesign, BMW’s British importer ran a pair of R75/5 boxer twins around the TT course for a week under the scrutiny of observers from the Auto-Cycle Union (ACU), the governing body of motorcycle sport. In 1973 it was a double anniversary: half a century both since the first BMW boxer twins had been produced in Germany and the first time that the coveted Maudes Trophy had been awarded in 1923. And so two teams of riders — including journalists, industry people and famous names from British motorcycle sport — took up the challenge of riding the bikes at an average speed of 50mph for seven days over the awesome Mountain circuit, regardless of conditions, on open roads.

Because that average speed included fuel and servicing stops and adhering to 30mph speed limits (the Manx police’s permission for the attempt had been given, but not to break the law), it meant that the riders had to keep up a tough pace. Fastest was TT ace Tony Jefferies, BMW dealer, father of then lap record holder Dave Jefferies and part of a Yorkshire motorcycling dynasty, who recalls that he could maintain a 90mph cruising speed over the Mountain. “I was told I was going too fast,” he remembers. “So, each lap I stopped at Governor’s Bridge for a fag.”

The riders were a mixed bag. Team manager Ken Heanes was as tough as they come, having won ten gold and three silver medals in the International Six Days Trial. Deputy team manager was Inspector Alec Smith, a bike copper with vast competition experience. It was their responsibility to keep the riders motivated at all hours of day and night for their three-hour four-lap stints. There was Dai Davies, whose wife worked at the ACU; Charlie Deane, editor of Motorcycle Mechanics magazine; Mike Nicks, road racing reporter on Motor Cycle News; Peter Kelly, who’d worked at the weekly Motor Cycling from the 1960s; Allan ‘Kipper’ Killip, the chief TT travelling marshal; John McDermott, editor of Motorcycle Illustrated; big Dave Minskip, another top motorcycle cop; freelancer writer and BMW club luminary Bruce Preston; racing commentator Allan Robinson; Dave Kewley, Dave Woods, and me, then a trainee reporter at the weekly paper Motor Cycle. It was a line up sure to provide maximum publicity for BMW — if it succeeded in being awarded the Maudes Trophy.


But in the early hours of Monday 7 May, after four days and 118 laps of trouble-free running, one of the riders arrived at the Grandstand with the grim news that Dai Davies had lost control at Brandish and hit the bank. Injured, he was taken to hospital. The attempt now looked hopeless. But Peter Kelly, who had been due to take over the bike from Davies, went up to the crash scene to see what had happened.


He remembered “The BMW had been dragged into a field and the front end was a crumpled mess. Alone in the breaking dawn awaiting the arrival of the trailer I thought all was lost. But the bike looked alright from the engine backwards. It dawned on me that this was the Maudes Trophy which was all about engine reliability. Just for something to do, I leant over the sorry Bee-Em, found neutral and pressed the starter button. The engine started and settled into an even tickover. The attempt could go on.”


BMW service manager Alberto Criscuolo took the bike back under the eyes of the ACU observers John McNulty and Doug Pycraft and by cannibalising a spare bike took three hours to get the BMW back in action. Meanwhile the other machine, ‘A’, had continued circulating.


The 1973 Maudes Trophy attempt in the Isle of Man was the brainchild of Douglas Austin, BMW’s Motorcycle Divisional Manager at the time. “Part of my task was to create a new image for the BMW motorcycle,” he says. “I wanted it to be accepted as more than just a quality machine with a famous name; it had to be proved to be reliable, enduring, comfortable and a touring machine par excellence, with also with good performance.

Douglas had toyed with a number of marketing ideas but it was Allan Robinson who remembered that Honda had held the Maudes Trophy since 1962 when it had used a pair of 50cc machines for an observed endurance test at Goodwood.


It was in the tradition of Maudes Trophy attempts that whatever the nature of the challenge they had to be scrupulously observed by the ACU. In the early days of motorcycling before the first World War manufacturers weren’t satisfied that racing showed how reliable their machines were. So they engaged an ACU official to observe endurance tests, logging every item of work and replacement parts required. The results weren’t necessarily good, but they were there for all to see.


In 1923, George Pettytt, who ran Maudes Motor Mart in Great Portland Street, London, offered a challenge trophy for the ACU to award annually for the most meritorious observed test. It was a challenge keenly sought and the ACU had to select from a number of manufacturers’ applications. Norton was the first to win it with a high-speed performance demonstration at Brooklands with a 500cc solo that averaged 64mph for 12 hours. The following year Norton won again with a 633cc Big Four sidecar outfit that clocked 4,060 miles between Land’s End and John O’Groats and back over 18 days. Norton won the Maudes Trophy four years in a row. But as the years passed, the numbers of attempts declined and by 1939 only three were tried. After the second World War, they were spasmodic. One of the more notable was the successful BSA attempt of 1952 when three 500cc Star Twins were ridden to the International Six Days Trial in Austria — where three gold medals were won — and then back via Scandinavia.


By the 1970s, however, bikes were accepted as being pretty reliable anyway, so why did BMW decide to try? “Honda dominated the scene and for us to sell a production machine priced at more than £1,000 — the first on the UK market in that bracket — BMW needed something special,” says Austin, who later retired with wife Joyce to Dorset. “I determined to release Honda’s grip on the trophy.”


After discounting the idea of riding two bikes “To Hell and back” -- from the town of Hell in Norway south to the Sahara and return -- as too complex, the Isle of Man 24/7 marathon was decided upon. “Timed for the run-up to the TT, it meant that the eyes and ears of the two-wheeled world were focused on The Island,” said Austin. He pays tribute to BMW UK’s managing director Tony Hille, who gave him the green light for the attempt, the Manx authorities, also the BMW factory, the ACU (and their German OMK counterparts), Shell (for providing all the fuel and lubricants) and his in-house team, starting with service manager Alberto Criscuolo. Then there were other sponsors, including Damart and Kett who provided clothing, helped with tyres and a caravan, which required a special dispensation to be taken onto the Island, where they are banned.”


The two R75/5 machines, the latest top-of-the-range models with longer rear swing arms, were selected from the BMW production line by Hans Richter of OMK, the German federation, and after running-in, the cylinder heads and barrels were sealed with locking wire to ensure that they could not be changed without the observers knowing.


“Team selection was carefully planned,” says Austin. Although he had a budget of £8,000 this did not stretch to professional riders. “We wanted not just to win the trophy, but to establish BMW in the minds of trade, press, public and corporate users: having sold the first-ever foreign machines to a British police force (Thames Valley), we wanted to sell more.

“So, riders were chosen from the motorcycle press, who would write about it; the police, who would talk about it in their in-house magazine The Job; and the trade, who would talk about it to their customers and non-dealers. People all who knew biking.”


Fitted with crash bars and auxiliary spotlights, the two bikes were flagged off at noon on Wednesday 3 May by six-time World Champion and six-time Isle of Man TT winner Geoff Duke and the Mayor of Douglas. After 100 laps each bike was given a 4,000-mile service. But as the riders testify, the conditions were far from straightforward. The signed certificate presented to each after the event didn’t need elaboration: It said “The weather throughout the test was almost continuously wet and cold with fog on the Mountain at night. At times, visibility was zero over the Mountain all the way for several miles from the Guthrie's Memorial to Creg-Ny-Baa. At one time, there was a river of water running across the road at Signpost Corner.”


Says Bruce Preston, who went on to run motorcycle touring holidays: “My abiding memory is of the rain. I suppose it must have stopped occasionally but it didn’t seem like it. Once as I crossed the mountain in thick cloud at 3am all of a sudden there was a flash of light and the other BMW hurtled past me. It was Tony Jefferies. Back at the pits I asked him how he could see where he was going in those conditions. ‘Eh lad,’ said Jefferies, ‘I can see as much in that fog at 70mph as I can see in broad daylight at 150!”


As a TT rider, Jefferies found the idea of riding road bikes over the Mountain Course undemanding. “It was a bit of a doddle because I knew where I was going. So, I teamed up with Dave Minskip: he was a good rider. We liked riding at night rather than the day especially over the Mountain because there was no traffic. We even turned our headlights off because the beam would only pick out a part of the road. Without the lights you could see more of the road, especially when the moon was out. Then I could really whoop along and I got a bollocking for going too fast.”


Some of the hairiest moments were in the early morning, when milk floats were out and the rabbits woke up. Says John Nutting: “As I was peeling off for the corner at the Black Hut a rabbit jumped out under the front wheel. It nearly had me off and was still lying dead in the road on my next lap, so I picked it up and held it over the headlamp. The pit crew was horrified when I came in and wondered why I was covered in blood until I held up the still limp rabbit as my trophy! I clocked up 39 laps in total, almost 1,500 miles. It was an amazing experience during which I made friends that have stood the test of time.”


No sooner had the normality having two BMWs circulating again than disaster struck again. Later on the Monday after machine A had crashed, Motor Cycle News race reporter Mike Nicks had to return to the Mainland.


Mick Hemmings, an advertisement salesman at MCN, took over his duties, but his first stint was short lived. On his first lap he hit a lorry barely a mile from the start. “I was going down towards Quarter Bridge when a council dustbin lorry came out from the road on the left,” he says. “I really thought that was it. I hit the lorry and went over the bonnet. But although the bike was badly damaged, I was okay. The police were alright about it too. After that I went for the night sessions, which were much more fun. There were still scares though. A pigeon flew out of a tree right at me at the Sulby crossroads. I still remember it every time I pass there. Then there was the time I forgot about the tram at the Bungalow. It crossed just as I arrived. That was a fright.”

Mick, now retired, left MCN in 1975 to start up his own motorcycle business in Northampton. He’s an acknowledged expert on Nortons and a leading classic racer. “I really had to do a lot of talking to get on the Maudes team,” he recalls. “I was only there for a half the week, but the experience really paid off. When I first rode in the Manx GP in 1991, I won the Newcomers race.”


Machine A, like the other, was rebuilt with a new front end and fuel tank, losing almost five hours running time. Because the Maudes Trophy attempt was a demonstration of engine reliability the accidents weren’t regarded as significant, even when further repairs were necessary. This stretched to the replacement of a pushrod and an exhaust valve on machine A because it had likely been over-revved after the impact of the accident. But just 13 laps from the finish in the early hours of the final day, the clutch on the same bike started slipping and doubts began to circulate that the observers wouldn’t allow it to continue. John McDermott limped the machine to the Glen Helen telephone point to pass on the grim news.


Again, Alberto Criscuolo swung into action. Tony Jefferies drove him out to open up a pub to find some whisky that could be poured on the clutch plate along with some fire extinguisher liquid so that some grip could be found. It worked enough to get the bike back to the Grandstand where the plate was replaced without breaking the seals. The observers thankfully thought, again, that the fault might have been a result of the earlier accident at Brandish.

Ken Heanes and Alec Smith took over the machines for the final lap. Machine A had completed almost 217 laps for a total of 8,178 miles at an average speed of 48.7mph. Machine B had clocked almost 224 laps and 8,480 miles at a speed of 50.5mph.

A pair of very tired looking BMWs after the week long Isle of Man marathon


Then the celebrations started - and Tony Jefferies was at the centre of the fun, as ever. “We were getting paralytic on the champagne,” he says. “I’d remembered that there had been some road workers on the course going down to Ballacraine and they’d been helpful by timing the ‘stop and go’ boards as we approached so that we wouldn’t have to stop the bikes. With Allan Robinson and John McDermott, I loaded up a car with bottles and shot off round the course to find them. When we got to the ‘stop and go’ sign I just went straight on into the road works. But when the workers saw who it was, they saw the joke -and they certainly enjoyed the champagne!.”


Doug Austin still relishes the memories. “Looking back, it was one of the most memorable weeks of my varied career,” he says. “It was also a tough assignment to arrange and see through. My efforts were well rewarded — and completely overshadowed — by what the team put in: manager, captain, riders, mechanics, observers and the very tolerant hotel manager and staff. It was a wonderful, anxious, fraught, tiring period of great comradeship among like-minded people and as always, the final tributes must be to the machines themselves.”

Unfortunately, not long after the Maudes Trophy success, Tony Jefferies crashed badly at Mallory Park’s hairpin and broke his back, paralysing him from the waist down. His first time out from hospital in a wheelchair was later that year - just in time to join the team to collect the Trophy. And the partying continued, just as it had during the attempt itself…

Tony Jefferies, his wheelchair and the Maudes Trophy are hoisted aloft by his teammates at the subsequent trophy presentation ceremony.