Motorcycling legend Len shares tales from his life on the roads

LOCAL motorcycle racing legend Len Ireland recently got in touch with the Antrim Guardian, asking him to share a picture of him in his heyday, ‘doing what he does best’.

This week we also publish a look back at his amazing career, first published in a 2017 edition of Classic Racer magazine, reprinted with many thanks.

Len (right) still does some mechanic work at his home just outside Antrim town, where he lives with wife Claire.

A real fan favourite at the Irish motorcycle road races throughout the 1960s, Len was one of the men to go wheel-to-wheel with if you wanted silverware at races like the North West 200 and Carrowdore 100.

His story is a fascinating account of a man who loved his racing and was as hard as nails.

Born and raised in Crosskennan, Len Ireland first got his hands on a motorbike, a 1949 BSA 350 B31, at the tender age of 15.

This pretty much coincided with his decision to finish up at the local ‘Tech’ and to start as an apprentice mechanic at the main Armstrong Siddeley dealership.

The little BSA was ideal for the daily commute in and out of Belfast but it was at weekends, when it was used for ‘fun’, that it gave Len the most satisfaction.

‘Fun’ involved heading to Bells Crossroads near Kells and to a network of local country roads with a group of similarly-minded motorcycle owning youths for what Len casually refers to as ‘unofficial racing’.

These were undoubtedly thrilling times for young Len, notwithstanding the frequency with which these lads ended up injured and Len recalls one occasion, rounding a bend only to discover a herd of dairy cows in the middle of the road which, once again, resulted in a spell at the local Massereene Hospital.

So frequent were his visits there that the nurses joked about having a bed named after him.

Then, one weekend word came through that at a similar unofficial racing event at another nearby set of roads known as the Rumbler, a young rider was killed and Len realised that he’d have to take this pursuit more seriously or he too would end up dead.

And so it was, while returning from a trip to the 1957 TT later that year, having watched Bob Mcintyre win both the Senior and Junior TTS, that Len took the conscious decision to acquire a motorbike for the purpose of racing.

He soon heard about a 1955 Norton 350 that was available in the UK for the princely sum of £345 but, as Len recalls, he didn’t have 345 shillings back then.

But needs must and a Herculean effort, that involved all sorts of wheeling and dealing, copious amounts of secrecy and the sale of most of his worldly possessions, including his precious accordion, resulted in the arrival of a large, strange-looking, cardboard-wrapped, two-wheeled package at Antrim station.

The accompanying tag bore the name ‘Ireland’ and the address ‘Antrim’ and somebody sent word to Len’s older brother to ask if it might be for him?

He said: ‘No, I know nothing about a motorbike’ … ‘well, it’s got your name on it!’ but by the time the brother got to the station the package had been collected and spirited to a small shed near home.

It seemed that most of the local Antrim countryside was abuzz with talk of this machine and who it might belong to and one evening his older brother asked Len out straight whether in fact the machine that had arrived was in fact his and Len had to confess and admit that it was.

This surprise acknowledgement fuelled further conversation and gossip locally but when he then announced his intention to race the machine, reactions ranged from disbelief to incredulity to doubt, both at home and throughout the small village.

Around this time word reached Len that preparations were well advanced for an all-new 100-mile road race at Tandragee in Co. Armagh, so Len put in an entry, which was accepted, and the following April, at the inaugural Tandragee, Len made his racing debut in the company of several other first-time racers including Dick Creith, Fred Mccaul and Jack Shannon.

Len set out early on the morning of the race and rode his 350 Norton from Crosskennan to Tandragee, a lengthy journey that had him tired before he’d even reached the starting line.

Of course, there was no practice for races back then, new and, to add to his woes the bike was severely under-geared and was screaming it’s head off, but Len still managed a very respectable third in the handicap and sixth in class and one of the first to congratulate him was Tom Steele from Ballymena.

Tom was the main sponsor for Billy Mccosh, who was a rising star in Irish road racing at the time.

Tom could hardly believe it when he learned that Len had ridden his machine all the way to Tandragee and ended up giving him and his Norton a lift back to Antrim, and so began a lasting friendship.

For the 1960 season, Tom decided to get a more modern machine for Len to ride.

He contacted Reg Dearden and the bike he purchased had been ridden by Eddie Crooks in The Manx the previous year on which he was leading the race until the last lap when the magneto spindle broke, thus forcing his retirement just a few short miles from the finish.

Len had some impressive results on this machine throughout 1960 and achieved a win at the Cookstown 100, as well as his first 350cc scratch win at the Carrowdore 100 together with the fastest lap and the 100-mile road race championship.

Buoyed by this success, Len approached Gilbert Smith, the managing director of Norton to begin the arrangements for Tom to purchase a brand new 350 Norton for Len to race in the 1961 season, but Mr Smith flatly told him that the only way they would be considered for a new Norton was if Len agreed to race the TT on it.

Never one to shirk a challenge, Len took the boat to Liverpool a few days before the start of the 1961 TT and, by arrangement, collected his new Norton, which he wheeled onto the boat and disembarked at Douglas two hours later.

Len finished in 30th place in Monday’s Junior TT, a feat that earned him a silver replica and he rode the same 350 Norton in the Senior TT on the Friday, retiring on the third lap.

Later that year he won at Carrowdore and did so again in 1962 and 1963 to make it four-in-a-row.

Throughout these years, the Irish Championship was staged over 14 races and included rounds at Lurgan Park, Bishopscourt, Maghaberry, The Curragh, Skerries, Athboy Co. Meath, Dunboyne Co. Meath, Tandragee, Cookstown, The North West, Killinchy 150, The Temple, The Mid-antrim, The Ulster GP and Carrowdore.

When asked which win was the most memorable, Len didn’t hesitate, his memory is encyclopedic: ‘‘It was Dunboyne in 1965.

“Dunboyne was first run in 1958 when it was run counter-clockwise, I first raced it the following year, but my first win there was in 1965.

“It was my best because it was my hardest-fought.

“I was up against Fred Stevens, who was riding Tom Arter’s six-speed 350 AJS, a far quicker machine, and Fred was a top class rider, and I chased him hard throughout the closing laps, but I took a big risk and passed him on the final left-hander into the village and held that lead all the way to the flag.”

Len also took another fine win at the 1967 Dunboyne in very wet conditions, winning the 350cc class and with it the Hutchinson Trophy by passing all but one of the 500cc machines.

That was the last ever Dunboyne, as a year-on-year series of massive accidents in the car races claimed the lives of four competitors and culminated in the event being dropped from the Irish calendar.

Another friend to Len was Scottish businessman Glen Henderson, who was a sponsor of Ralph Bryans, providing him with a Honda CR72.

In conversation in 1965, Glen offered Len a ride on the little CR72 and further told him that he could have it for the North West 200 that year, as Ralph would be out of the country then and therefore not available to race the wee Honda at that event.

Len takes up the story: “So the Honda was entered and I was to ride it. Nearer the date Bryans returned home unexpectedly and heard that Glen had entered me on the Honda and he was very annoyed and angry.

“Anyhow, when the time came to go to the NW races in May, the transporter was loaded up and Bryans put his leathers, boots and helmet in as well, determined to have a change of rider in the programme and he lodged an appeal with the officials to have a change of rider, but this was rejected and a senior official told Ralph Bryans: ‘Len is on it and is staying on it’.

“Not happy with that and determined to prevent the ride going to anyone else, Bryans had a brainwave.

“On Thursday’s practice Bryans told me to go out, do one lap and pull in at the end of the lap.

“ I wondered why, as I knew I needed at least three laps to qualify for the race and as many more as I could to help me get used to the strange machine, but I assumed that he wanted to do a plug check to see if the carburation was rich enough, particularly at sea level.

“When I pulled in after one lap and sat on the machine while waiting for Ralph to remove the spark plugs, he never did, he just said ‘get off’.

“I stood up and he wheeled the Honda from under me and put it into the transporter, so ending my practice session.

“Even from a standing start, and with a slowing down finish, my one lap was the fastest lap of the 250cc practice session. Considering that Tommy Robb and Sammy Miller were both riding works Bultacos and all the other good riders who were taking part in that session, I had run really well.

“Bryans’ move was a crafty one but the official he’d spoken with earlier when trying to lodge a change of rider knew what Bryans was trying to do and turned a blind eye to the three-lap qualifying rule and made it possible for me to take pole position on the starting grid for the race.

“Just before the race I asked Bryans, ‘What’s the secret to operating the throttle?’ as I didn’t want to oil a plug, he didn’t answer my question but said: ‘Get on and ride the bloody thing.’ “I pushed and bump-started the Honda but sadly it only fired on one cylinder.

“ I was last away but then, as I reached Henry’s Corner, it suddenly fired on both cylinders and I was away!

“I headed off in pursuit of the pack of riders well ahead of me and by the end of the first lap I wasn’t even in the top 10 riders crossing the line.

“I started to feel more comfortable on the strange bike and rode a lot quicker. By the third lap I had caught and passed all of the riders in front of me, except Tommy Robb.

“On the fifth and final lap I passed Tommy as we both approached Millburn Corner at Coleraine. I was leading the race at this stage and was first at Metropole Corner, but somewhere on the Coast Road Tommy got past me.

“He had a lot more experience of racing than I had.

“I was tempted to try a passing manoeuvre at the right-hand bend just before the chequered flag as I was right on Robb’s rear wheel and could have taken a tighter line but in doing this could have caused the Bultaco rider to go wide and off his proper line.

“It was not the place to make contact with another competitor!

“So, rather than risk the move on someone I had a lot of respect for, I finished one second behind Tommy.

“I also recorded the fastest lap of the race. I really appreciated Glen Henderson’s trust in me to ride his CR72 Honda.

“Also many thanks must go to the race official who made it possible for me to take part in the race.”

Len enjoyed mixed fortunes at the Ulster Grand Prix.

Probably the most exciting race was the 350 of 1963 when he shared the front row with Mike Hailwood on the MV, Jim Redman on the Honda 4, Ralph Bryans on a Norton, Luigi Taveri on a 305 Honda twin-cylinder and Len on his 350 Norton that he piloted to sixth across the line and achieved one world championship point for his efforts.

Then there was the 1967 Ulster GP win which he lined up on the grid for the 250cc race alongside some more of the best names ever to grace the sport, including Bill Ivy, Phil Read, works Bultaco mounted Ginger Molloy, with both Mike Hailwood and Ralph Bryans on 250/6 Hondas.

Len was racing a 250 Greeves Silverstone that day and recorded the fastest lap in practice as a privateer.

But in the race, a nasty accident at Deer’s Leap, caused by a seized engine, kept Len out of action for most of 1968.

He appeared briefly in September onboard a TD1C and he took a win ahead of Ian Mcgregor, Ray Mccullough, Tom Herron, Alex George and others. Len’s last race was at Lurgan Park in 1970.

He was riding an Aermacchi and managed the runner-up spot behind Cecil Crawford and just ahead of Billy Guthrie, both riding 350 Yamaha bikes.

He was entered at Maghaberry the following weekend but loaned his machine to Gordon Bell and Gordon ended up buying it from Len.

These days Len is a regular visitor and spectator at classic events throughout Ireland. In September 2016 he was made honorary president of Dunboyne Motor Club, the very circuit where he enjoyed his hardest fought victory.

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