Monday, December 10, 2012

The best book I've read lately is 'Stanley Woods, The World's First Motorcycle Superstar', by David Crawford.  I spent a long time with this book as it's chocked full of great detail, photos, posters, advertisements, letters, Stanley's handwritten notes and transcribed accounts.
Stanley was born in Dublin in 1903 and lived there until 1974 when he moved to Northern Ireland, where he died in 1993.  Author Crawford is also Irish and became a personal friend to Stanley and therefore had great access to him and his personal papers.
Most people who know anything about the history of road racing know that Stanley was one of the greats, but I had no idea of the breath of his accomplishments.  Besides road racing motorcycles, Stanley was very successful at trials, did hillclimbs, grass track, speedway, ice racing and raced cars.  He was the 'Dick Mann' of his era and clearly loved riding just about anything.  He competed on an amazing variety of marques including AJS, Cotton, DKW, Douglas, Harley Davidson, Husqvarna, New Imperial, Moto Guzzi, Norton, Royal Enfield, Scott, Sun, and Velocette, and probably others.  In addition to being a great racer and loving to ride, Stanley was clearly a good businessman and made a lot of money in his career.  But, he was also a charmer and well loved by his fans and competitors.  So, the tag 'First Motorcycle Superstar' is defensible.
Bitten by the motorcycle bug when he was a teen, he talked his mother into buying him the Sun Vitesse  before he was 16 and this was the first bike he competed on, in a trial.  In 1920, he talked his father into buying a Harley Davidson with sidecar to use in his traveling sales job, with Stanley acting as the chauffeur.  He soon talked his father into letting him compete on this.  He first went to the Isle of Man in 1921 as a spectator with some friends and halfway though the first race he decided he could do that and,  by the time the last race was over, he was determined would race there the next year.  How he accomplished this is a great example of his sharp business sense and self confidence.  He wrote to a number of likely manufacturers telling them he had an entry in another class than they would be competing in and would they supply him a bike for 'their' class.  Cotton fell for the ploy and, while they were aghast when they saw how young and green he was, but by that time they were committed.  He ended up finishing fifth in his first TT after the bike catching fire at his first pit stop, losing a pushrod a while later and crashing at Ramsey hairpin after losing his brakes.  The next year, 1923, he won his first IOM TT race, the Junior, on a Cotton after crashing at Parliament Square.
Stanley didn't finish his next six TTs in '23, '24, and '25.  In 1925, he was racing a Royal Enfield in the Junior TT when he crashed at Ballig Bridge on the last lap while lying 5th, breaking the right handlebar off.  He moved the throttle over to the left side and carried on one handed.  The marshalls at the next post tried to stop him, but failed.  They called ahead to the Bungalow where he was stopped only 10 miles from the finish and he was not happy.
But, he had attracted the attention of Norton and was hired by them for 1926 and promptly won the Senior TT for them.  A fascinating feature of the book is Stanley's handwritten accounting of his winnings from many of the races he was in.  And, the '26 Senior TT is the most money of any of these in the book, 1631 pounds, 16 shillings.  500 of this was bonus from Norton, but 500 also from KLG sparkplugs, 200 from Dunlop tires, 150 from Castrol oil, on down to 5 pounds from Webb fork.  Prize money was 20 pounds.  More than sixteen hundred pounds was a huge amount in 1926 for anyone, let alone a 22 1/2 year old.  He went on with Norton to race at the European Grand Prix, that year at Spa in Belgium, finishing 3rd with the fastest lap after having a flat front tire and losing his brakes.  He quit his day job working for his father and took a position with Norton.
1927 saw the debut of the OHC Norton and while it failed at the TT, Stanley won the Dutch, Swiss, Belgium, 2nd in the German, and 3rd in the Ulster GPs.  '28 and '29 were relatively lean years with reliability problems with the the Norton, though Stanley did win a number of Continental GPs.  He also started his own toffee company, TT Toffee.  In 1930,  Joe Craig redesigned the Walter Moore Norton and things started to turn around by the end of the season with Stanley winning the Ulster GP, the first of four successive wins there on Nortons.  The Norton became dominate and, while he had a good year in 1931, 1932 is arguably the best year of his career.  He was 3rd in the North West 200 after replacing a broken spark plug, 1st in both the Junior and Senior TT ( this made him the rider with the most TT wins, a title he was to hold until 1967 when Mike Hailwood surpassed his 10 wins), 1st in the 350 and 2nd in the 500 Dutch TTs, 1st in the 350 French GP, 1st in the 500 Belgium GP, 1st in the 350 and 500 Swiss GPs, and 1st in the Ulster GP.  However the world wide depression caused him to shut down his toffee business.
The depression was hitting the motorcycle manufacturers hard and in 1933 Norton cut his retainer and eliminated bonuses.  Norton had also instituted 'team orders' where the riders were alternately  predetermined to win and the prize money split between them.  Norton wanted it to seem that it was the bike that was winning, not the riders.  This grated on Stanley and he left the then most successful team at the end of the year.  While this is sort of  reminiscent of Valentino Rossi leaving Honda when it was dominant, Stanley didn't just change loyalties to a rival factory, he became a free agent, riding for many different factory on an ad hoc basis.  He also switched oil sponsors from Castrol to Mobil.  This brought him in contact with Husqvarna, which he had been impressed with at the previous years Swedish GP.  But first he raced Moto Guzzis at the Spanish GP winning the 250 and 500 races.  At the  TT, he rode the Guzzi to 4th in the Lightweight and ran out of fuel on the last lap of the Senior on the Husky while in 2nd.  He crashed the Husky at the Dutch TT and broke his wrist, which put him out of racing for the rest of the season.
In 1935, Stanley won the Lightweight and Senior TTs at the IOM on Moto Guzzis and won the Swedish GP on the Husqvarna and also did some car racing.  He cites this was the year of his highest earnings.
In 1936 he married Mildred Ross, a marriage that lasted 52 years until she died, although she was 11 years his junior.  He started riding for Velocette and won the 500 Spanish GP.  At the IOM TT, Stanley rode a DKW in the Lightweight, running out of fuel on the last lap, and Velocettes in the Junior and Senior.  He DNFed in the former and was 2nd in the Senior, setting the fastest lap, the 4th successive Senior fastest lap on four different marques (Norton, Husky, Guzzi, and Velo).  At the end of the year, He and Mildred sailed to Australia where he raced Velocettes at Adelaide and Phillip Island.  In 1937, he continued to race Guzzis and Velos and rode a Royal Enfield in trials.  In '38, he ran out of fuel while in the lead of the North West 200.  He won the Junior TT and was 2nd in the Senior on Velocettes.  He then crashed at Spa in the Belgium GP and lost a finger on his left hand and this ended his racing for the year.
In 1939, he won the 350 class in the Leinster 200, won the Junior TT for his tenth TT win and was the first 350 at the Ulster GP.  In October, he joined the Irish Defense Forces, Supply and Transport Corps,  motorcycle section, never to roadrace again.  He resigned his commission in the fall of 1945 and became partners in an auto agency.  He continued to be involved in motorcycle racing, managing the Moto Guzzi team at the Isle of Man.  He was tempted to take over the ride of the injured Freddie Firth at the '47 TT, but ultimately decided not to.  In 1956 he tested the Moto Guzzi V-8 and in '57 did several laps in practice at the TT on a 350 Moto Guzzi for an article he wrote for 'The Motor Cycle'.  In '74, he and Mildred moved to Northern Ireland where he sold Guzzi spares.  In '80,'81, and '82 he rode laps of honor at the TT.  Mildred became ill and he looked after her for the last five years of her life.  He had a couple of hip replacements, but stayed quite active until he died in 1993.
This is a special book because of the obvious very close relationship between the author and Stanley and hence the first person accounts of a  truly remarkable individual.  The book is available from and I highly recommend it.

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