Sunday, December 22, 2013

'STANLEY WOODS: The World's First Motorcycle Superstar'

Stanley Woods aboard a Cotton-Blackburne in 1923.  Hew won the Junior TT that year by steady riding, but got excited when he learned his was in the lead, and ended up in someone's door, bending his forks, which can be seen clearly here.  Only the retirement of leader Bert LeVack on a New Imperial paved the way for his victory, in only his second season of racing.
When the greatest motorcycle racers of all time are discussed, among them must always be Stanley Woods, the Irish racer whose career peaked in the 1930s with a phenomenal record of ten Isle of Man TT wins, and a long list of 'fastest laps' on an amazing variety of machinery.  Woods began his racing career with a chutzpa move, sending letters to various manufacturers, claiming to the 350cc makers that he had secured a ride with 500cc makers, and vice versa, and directing their 'who in blazes is he?' queries to the Dublin+District M/C Club, and the Dublin dealer of Indian motocycles....with the replies dictated by Stanley himself! 
Stanley Woods pushing off on a Norton Model 25 racer in the 1926 Senior TT, his first TT win on a Norton.  The Model 25 was a tuned and strengthened version of the Model 18, with a proper recirculating oil pump.
The new book 'Stanley Woods: The World's First Motorcycle Superstar' by David Crawford (Lily books) is rich with period detail and photographs, as Stanley kept diaries and careful notes of his activities, as well as his own camera, and of course the press of the day loved to photograph a champion.  Stanley also had a keen memory, remaining sharp as a tack until his death at 90; author Crawford was a friend of the great man, and had plenty of time to familiarize himself with his long and complicated racing history, as well as Woods' opinions and recollections.
Stanley with his personal New Imperial-JAP outfit, which New Imp agreed to build specially for him from components Stanley sourced from other suppliers like JAP and Sturmey-Archer.  He raced it on the road and on sand, and eventually built an OHV version with a KTOR JAP engine!
'Stanley Woods' has some real gems in the text, including descriptions of the Isle of Man 'race track' in the early 1920s, which sounds much more like a trials or scrambles course. "The first section of the TT course from the start at Douglas to Ramsey was a bumpy and water-bound road.  On dry days...the clouds of dust made overtaking a hazardous business.  It was also full of pot-holes (the section between Sulby and Ramsey being the worst of all) giving riders a hard physical ride on their rigid-framed bikes.  The mountain road out of Ramsey was mostly soft sand and loose stone up as far as the Bungalow, with ruts from cart wheels and grass growing between the ruts."  We picture the Isle of Man as a fast race course today, with speeds over 200mph in sections, but 100 years ago it was another test or rider and machine entirely.  
It's good to be the king!  HRH Prince George (later King) shakes hands with Stanley Woods at the start of the 1932 Senior TT, with a new Norton OHC factory racer at his side.  He won both the Junior and Senior TTs that year, the first man to do so.
Luckily, Stanley Woods was already an experience trials rider, and knew how to cope with rugged turf.  He was also quite pleased that the ruse employed to find a 1922 TT machine hit paydirt with Cotton, who agreed to supply him with a Blackburne-engined machine, in fact, one with the highest HP rating of all the 350cc engines supplied for racing that June. He was not so pleased when the Cotton was delivered, for all the Cotton TT racers had been ridden by Cotton employees from Gloucester to the ferry at Liverpool, and their transport duties had become an impromptu street race!  And who can blame them, having suddenly been let loose on pukka racers on the road...but the net result was Harold Brockbank, the Cotton factory foreman, informing Stanley on their introduction that his racer was in no way fit to race, and needed work before even practice could begin.  An exhaust rocker had seized, and the inertia of the Blackburne's external flywheel had sheared off its woodruff key on the crank, and welded itself to the shaft.  1922 was early days for an overhead-valve motor, and Stanley had never touched one before, but set to work, worrying all the while and in his sleep whether it would work. He was 18 years old.
In 1928, at the peak of a Dirt Track craze in the UK, Stanley Woods tried his hand at the best bike available, the Douglas DT500.  He quickly mastered the art of broadsliding, and won several events, setting course records all the while.  Woods was also an expert off-road competitor, winning hundreds of trials. 
The Cotton-Blackburne ran well, but Stanley crashed at Ramsey hairpin and lost his tools, then clipped a kerb so hard he split his exhaust.  When he stopped to refuel, he didn't shut off the engine - a sloppy fill-job spilled fuel onto his leaking exhaust, and Stanley was engulfed in flames.  The fire was put out, and Stanley carried on, more badly burned on his legs than he realized in his adrenalin frenzy.    It was suggested at each instance that he retire from the race, but he doggedly kept going, and finished 5th.  Everyone thought he should win the Nesbitt Shield for 'pluck', but he didn't, and the ensuing press controversy resulted in Cotton sales increasing six-fold!  There are more ways to sell than winning, apparently.
In 1934, Stanley Woods signed with Husqvarna to ride their very fast 500cc v-twin OHV racers.  He set several lap records in the Senior TT, and was leading by 3 minutes on the last lap, when he ran out of fuel.  He rated the Husqvarna as exceptionally good-handling and faster than the Nortons.
Stanley was soon signed with Norton, which catapulted him to the top of the racing tree, and developing an absolutely professional work ethic to racing, which meant winning for his employers, and maximizing his earnings.  While the Norton team reduced his earnings by 30% in the midst of the Depression (from £350/yr in 1929 to £250/yr in 1933), Woods still collected checks from suppliers of chains, oil, saddles, tires, handgrips, etc, which amounted to many times his 'salary'.  It wasn't the money which eventually pushed him away from the Norton team - it was the expectation that Woods should ride to 'team orders', and not win so much.  Norton team manager Joe Craig's logic was that if four top-class riders on Nortons took turns winning, it would reflect better on the machine; Stanley's star status and frequent wins made it appear the wins were due to the man, not the bike...which was of course fairly true!
The 1934 500cc OHC Moto Guzzi v-twin, in Woods' first year racing with the Italians.  The following year, with full rear springing and alloy wheel rims, Woods won the Senior TT in record time.  
So in 1933 Woods left Norton, and successfully raced several other marques, which eventually included Husqvarna, Velocette, DKW, and Moto Guzzi.  His keen riding sensibilities improved the Velocette chassis tremendously in 1936, when he test-rode the new 'dog kennel' OHC Velocette works racer.  He loved the engine, but hated the handling, and suggested the engine be moved forward a few inches - thus began a collaboration with Harold Willis at Veloce, and they tested the engine placement theory initially by moving a lead block attached beneath the frame.  The new frame became the Mark VII KTT, subsequently developed into the Mark VIII KTT with full rear suspension (the first with 'shocks'), then the Venom and Thruxton swingarm bikes, which all used identical steering geometry and weight distribution.  [Next time you're enjoying the fine handling of a 1960s Velocette, remember to thank Stanley Woods!] Woods rewarded Velocette with his last TT win, in the Junior class of 1939, and a 2nd in the Senior class.  He retired from racing, and lived a full life postwar.
Woods toying with a Binks 'Mousetrap' carb in a sleeper train to the Assen TT in 1933.
Stanley Woods and Veloce's Harold Willis discuss the 1937 factory Velocette racer which Woods helped develop.  This was the first rear suspension system with 'shocks', in this case, specially-made air/oil shocks by the Oleo aircraft landing gear manufacturer.
Woods with a DKW 250 supercharged two-stroke, which handled beautifully, was very fast, and incredibly loud! It was one of the many marques Stanley rode, but this one did not give him a TT victory.


5 comments:

BSAChris said...

I'm glad to see the book reprinted. If anyone is interested, I have some of the original hardbound versions (2012) of this book available still at http://classicbikebooks.com/catalog/product_info.php/biography-stanley-woods-the-worlds-first-motorcycle-superstar-p-1061

Llamaman said...

My wife would go mad if I went to bed in oily pajamas!

William said...

Nice to see him here..
in his final years,he lived for part of the year with the Rhodes family.. the Velocette doyen.. where Rene' looked after him and he in turn doted on her.
What we need now is for someone with some clout[!!] to press for a really good book on Jimmie Guthrie.. who perhaps was the greater rider whilst they were always devoted friends..
That might be you then.??
Regards
WF

Anonymous said...

Hello Paul,
Happy New Year and the best for 2014...
I've been out of Sydney for a week at the 68th Australian Jazz Convention where it seems I wore my finger tips off playing banjo....!
Just noted the Stanley W post in The Vintagent...a few minor corrections for you.
SW while he was approached by Veloce in 1935, their factory racers were not "big fin" until the 1937 season...they used "dog kennel" heads with SOHC camboxes for 350 and 500 in 1935 and for the 500 in 1936 and DOHC for the 350 in 1936.
Re the new frame as the mk.7 KTT...this was a continuation of their rigid racers from 1935, the discussion was where to site the engine...further forward ar back as it was?
SW favoured further forward, Harold Willis was inclined to back where it was. The givaway is the front engine plates, whether they are narrow or wider.
The new frame developed for SW was the swing arm frame that was used in 1939 on the Mk.8 KTT.
The SF coded frame number.
Up to 1936 it was still a rigid frame with the new s/arm grafted to it...in fact the first two frames used around May 1936 were SF1 and SF2 which used the steering head frame casting welded to the seat down tube and used the steering head cup and cone bearings....
The photo we unearthed in the Austrian Technical Museum in Vienna from the Artur Fenzlau negative collection shows the lead block attached to the lower front down tube..spoken of but never before seen photographically... on SW's 500 SOHC dog kennel at the Swiss GP in early May 1936....
Interestingly the 350 DOHC he used at the Swiss was a rigid frame and likely the frame Ted Mellors used in the 1936 Junior IOM TT...he seemed to prefer it...while SW and Ermei Thomas used the new SF frames in the Junior IOM TT.
This was the effort HW and SW were making to more quickly determine the best position for the engine and thus the better handling...easier than adjusting primary chains, making new front and rear engine plates and new exhaust pipes.....
The Velo speedway dirt track photo we've unearthed which I featured recentl;y on my Velobanjogent blog was also a little gem for Velo enthusiasts like us...

- Dennis Quinlan
www.velobanjogent.blospot.com

The Vintagent said...

Dennis,
I knew I could rely on you for the nitty-gritty! I'll amend the post to reflect your input.
I'll also need a copy of that 'lead weight' photo showing the weight distribution argument in process! How interesting...
yours, Paul