Les Archer 1956 European/World Champion
Les Archer receiving the gold at the 1956 British Grand Prix. Now that is a trophy!
The 27th February 1929 I was born with a" silver spoon in my mouth." How else do you describe a 'kid' born into a family dedicated to our wonderful sport. A Grandfather who drove some of the earliest vehicles from 1902 and competed in motorcycle events on the actual ground where the very first recorded motocross (scramble) took place in 1924. Follow this with a Father who won his first race on a 250cc New Imperial at the famous Brooklands Track in 1926 and went on breaking World Records and winning those incredible 100 & 200 mile races with both solo and sidecar machines. Little wonder that my first memories were the roar of racing engines coupled with the smell of Castrol 'R' wafting up from the workshops into our apartment above the garage. I was too young to be allowed into that magic place but Grandad found time to give me a tricycle with pedals on the front wheel. In my playroom, he would set out a circuit by laying coins in pairs and I had to ride round as quick as possible keeping that front wheel in between the coins. I tried hard to get that nod of approval, fell off a few times, and once right out of control went straight down the stairs. Forget what Mum said!!!!
Soon more wonderful things happened; Dad & Grandad were founder members of the North Hants M/C Club, one of the oldest in UK, so there were a variety of events during the year like Scrambles, M/C Football; Gymkhanas; and Trials. At eight I was given a two/speed Excelsior and allowed to take part in some of the fun and games. I was also able to go and watch Father race at Brooklands which was an amazing spectacle in its day. On his New Imperials and Velocettes I was too young to appreciate just how good he was and then Hitler spoilt it all. I was ten and all the fun stopped; the bikes were all carefully put away into storage; the business became a Ministry of Defense special workshop restoring to new condition some 30 bikes a week for Army, Navy and Air force. We moved out of our apartment and offices which were taken over by the 'Ministry' Men and Dad went off to be a Chief Engineering Officer in the National Fire Service. This was because Archers had always played a big part in the Aldershot Voluntary Fire Service and Dad had always been the driver of the large Fire Engine roaring down the road with other volunteers still struggling to get into their uniforms and the bells ringing away much to the delight of all watching. A few minutes earlier they had all been working in shops and offices all over town; then the bells went and surprised customers were pushed aside and watched them running up the road to the station. They were not forgotten; later at Dad's Remembrance a gentleman came up to me and said " I had to come, as a lad your Dad driving that Fire Engine down Victoria Road was something I will never forget."
During the war period Ron Hankins, an enthusiastic Scrambles rider, came to work at Archers and he became responsible for Dad's machines. In 1946 The North Hants Club held its first post-war scramble and Ron, riding himself, quickly put together a 350cc Army Matchless for my first ride; 21 years later I was to have my last ride for the same Club!! Famous reporter Ralph Venables noted the first time with his usual accuracy “Young Les, though winning both ' Under 20 awards ' shows no promise of ever becoming a great rider like his father." Dad was indeed a hard act to follow, but later Ralph kindly acknowledged I had improved a bit!!
1947 we really got into gear. Grandad allocated a section of the premises for the ' Racing Stable '. I had left College and was put with Ron full time to build a 250 Panther for Trials, a 250 Velocette for scrambles but most important of all to prepare again Dad’s 250 New Imperial, 350 and 500 Velocettes for the TT races in the Isle of Man. First problem was low grade 72 octane fuel so the engines were re-set with lower compression ratios. Grandad got the use of a local airport and I was test rider until Ron was finally satisfied. I regret Dad, not having ridden for some years, decided to only ride his favorite 250 New Imperial in the Lightweight race and our dear friend Bob Foster was to ride the two Velocettes in the Junior and Senior races. The Clubman’s races were for Production Machines and I was given a new 250 Velocette.
There is nothing to compare with the TT races in June so my first time was truly memorable. Dad knew every inch of the 37 mile circuit but for me it was a bit like learning to swim by jumping into the deep end of the pool. It was wonderful; Dad was pleased to finish 4th in the Lightweight, Bob Foster won the Junior for us and was winning the Senior when the old piston gave way, and I got into 3rd place of the 250 Clubman’s event.
I was entered again for the Manx GP. in September with the 250 New Imperial and the 350 Velocette, but only in the Senior race as Dad insisted I had much to learn and would try too hard to win the 350 race. Sound thinking but I did well in the 500 race and was only a couple of seconds short of the 350 winning time. Perhaps best of all, because I had broken the New Imperial engine in practice, I met Joe Erlich. His rider was injured so would I ride his 250 EMC, similar to the pre-war DKW. Dad agreed so I went out for practice, recorded fastest time but was not allowed to start in the race. I was then more or less Joe Erlich’s official rider so in October with the same bike I won the Hutchinson Milano 100 mile race which Dad had won at Brooklands back in 1932. Dad of course was the first to ever win a 100 mile race at over 100mph on his 350 Velocette and also first 100mph lap on the 250 New Imperial. Said he was a hard act to follow!!
1948 saw the EMC win at Scarborough against World Champion Maurice Cann on his Moto Guzzi, and Joe also built a very interesting 350 EMC which I rode several times and now rests in Sammy Millers Museum.
Dad and I rode together that year in the TT. Both on Velocettes; in practice I had a bit of trouble and watched him coming through some 'S' bends towards Ramsey. Flat out, handlebars touching the grass one side and then the other. I watched in awe; they called him “The Aldershot Flyer” and Ralph Venables was correct; I would never be that good. I finished OK in the race but Dad who was going really well had a puncture. As he said “Last race, what a way to finish."
I really enjoyed my road racing years, especially the short-circuit events. Norton’s took an interest, and I suddenly found I had a brand new 500 Manx delivered for the meeting at Blandford. I liked the long-stroke engine at once but did not realize that it was soon to be the only engine I would use for my Moto-Cross career.
Part 2 Moto-Cross
As well as preparing the road race machines in 1947 Ron had built me a 250 Velocette for scramble (motocross) which was to be the foundation of everything we learnt to enable the Manx Norton machine to be built four years later. To start with, Ron fitted some telescopic front forks and then worked wonders with the engine. He made the alloy cylinder and high compression piston to run on methanol fuel, modified the fly wheel assembly and cylinder head. It performed so well that I also used that bike in short circuit road races. Ron then turned his attention to the frame and swinging arm suspension, quite a novelty in those days. Rear units used by Velocette would not stand the strain of motocross; swinging arms would twist and chains would fly off but the advantage and better handling was obvious. Aldershot of course was a military town with plenty of spare ground so Grandad, once again, worked his magic and we had our own test circuit. We made about five different rear end lay outs and Ron even made his own interior valves for the rear legs prior to Girlings being available. The bike won lots of races against BSA, Matchless and Triumph factory riders but we soon needed more speed. The engine was increased to 350 cc for a while but as only 500's could be in the British Team and ride abroad it was time for a change and we of course chose Norton’s.
To start with Ron put his swinging arm assembly on to a Norton push rod ES2 trials bike and it went very well indeed. In 1951 after the Easter Hants Grand National meeting, I set off with Basil Hall ( BSA ) for my first taste of motocross in Belgium . This was a different scene; no English fields and open spaces. This was serious, flying through trees and over jumps and amongst it all first view of the great Auguste Mingels on his F.N. complete with nice van full of spares, mechanics, and race manager. Poor Basil crashed heavily first race and made me rub Ellimans Embrication (horses version) on to his raw shoulder in preparation for the next day’s meeting in Holland. The Norton performed well but after three hard races that week end my hands were covered in blisters and I was starting to wonder about this motocross sport; road racing had been rather nice!! However, I had teamed up with Eric Cheney (Ariel) and we set off on our first year together. Good results but most important we were getting the idea of what was required and understanding the quality of the opposition; some of the French riders for example were excellent on their own circuits but lost it completely away from home. Bit like some football teams. The best in all ways were the Belgians headed by Mingels, Leloup, Baeten and Scaillet on F.N and Sarolea machines.
Eric and I were now riding in Algiers, France, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, Holland and Sweden covering some 30 events per year plus a few in England and lots of testing various modifications. Unfortunately Ron never saw any of these events so I had to keep him well informed as to my own thoughts on settings for the bikes in various countries. Once again a bit more power would be nice so how about modifying a Manx engine? The more the local ' experts ' said it was a ridiculous idea the more Ron got determined to show them; he was that sort of character, hated advice and liked the impossible.
The 'featherbed' frame was the "Talk of the Town” in road racing so let’s alter one. Ron laid one on the floor and keeping the lower part the same for engine/gearbox fittings marked out in chalk the bends required in the front tubes in order to accept a 21" front wheel. That was basically the first requirement, now replace the twin top tubes with a single one and strengthen the whole front section with some gusset plates. Easy, now make footrest positions adjustable and same for head angle and handlebars. This bike must handle well or forget it. A single knocker engine; knock up tanks (all in metal) and we went testing hour upon hour altering one thing at a time. Trial and error until suddenly it just felt right. Ron turned it into a presentable machine for its first race at the important Championship Trade Supported event at Shrublands Park August 1952. It caused quite a stir especially when after a bad start, kick starting it twice, I passed everyone to just beat Geoff Ward on the approach to the Finish. This in itself was a great reward as I have always considered Geoff to be the British Auguste Mingels. We were of course delighted; Norton’s were impressed, stopped their own motocross programme and gave us their engines and free run of the factory for anything we wanted. Ron set about making jigs so that he could reproduce and improve his latest invention. Ron was to build four bikes for Eric and I to represent Norton’s; Motocross Manx Norton’s hit the Continent with a bang in 1953 winning lots of races. I won 14 including the Motocross des Nations in Sweden but best of all for me was that I beat Auguste Mingels in the Luxembourg Grand Prix; side by side for nearly all the race the Norton took the flag by a bikes length.
The great Auguste Mingels on the left and Les Archer's teammate Eric Cheney on the right. These guys look like they could eat furniture. Tough guys!
This was a most memorable moment as it was the only time that Grandad had agreed to come along. So nice to win a GP for him and two other International events in France before returning to Aldershot. He had always been so proud of the fact that we were "Archers the Rider Agents” and his early life is a book in itself. Sad that British Motorcycle manufacturers that he had seen come to life gradually faded away, Norton amongst them. They were unable to make some special parts we needed to constantly improve the bikes; everything now in light alloy; cylinders and pistons from Mahle in Germany; gearbox constant mesh wheels from Sweden and Ron even made wheel spindles in Titanium obtained from friends in the aircraft industry. The bikes were giving wonderful results for several years but nothing lasts forever.
Our heavy machines were being seriously challenged by much lighter models but the Norton had been a force to be reckoned with for a good 12 years and amongst its rewards won the French Grand Prix four times. Eric had moved on to make a name for himself with the successful ' Cheney Specials ' which were used by some very famous riders. The wear and tear of over 30 Continental races every year on the Norton’s had reduced the original four machines to one which I sold to my American pal Bryan Kenney and the old bike continued to serve him well. Motocross had changed; both machines and circuits, especially for Television although I did win the first one televised in England. The Swedish lads had arrived in force and both Sten Lundin and Bill Nillson built some very efficient and beautiful bikes. Ron had retired; enough was enough, he had prepared machines from 1946, won the TT, and virtually serviced or made himself nearly every machine I ever raced. Now in just one last attempt to get a faster bike I used the same jigs for frame and general layout but used a full short stroke double knocker Manx engine that Ray Petty, renowned Norton engine tuner, put together for me and I must say it was a beauty. Not so many races these days but still winning a few and most important still enjoying the wonderful fellowship of the Motor Cycle Sport as I had done for so many years. The last Norton I also sold to Bryan Kenney and years later Fred Mork did a wonderful restoration job, and as Chairman of AHRMA (American Historical Racing Motorcycle Association) invited me to see the result at Daytona.
The original long stroke Manx was found in Canada and also received the same treatment by the National Museum in Birmingham, UK and they kindly allowed me to ride her again at the Goodwood Revival Meeting in UK and again now in 2004 at the wonderful gathering of old riders and machines at Imola in Italy. As old friends get together again a fly on the wall would hear some amazing tales of what we once did back in the 50's and to be there on the bike again where we once did 11 Grand Prix together is really the icing on the cake. Guess that old silver spoon is still hanging in there.
Thank you all so much,
Les Archer 2014
The Norton Manx as it now sits in the National Motorcycle Museum, Birmingham, UK.
Les Archer next to his trophy case holding his original helmet from the 1950's. Photo taken in 2012 at the Archer villa in southern Spain.
In 2012, Joel Robert, Hakan Andersson and Terry Good visited Les Archer in southern Spain. Les was a hero of both Joel and Hakan and this was the very first time they ever met Les. To say we all had a blast is an understatement. Eight world championships among the four of us.