Tea with Peter Isaac
My first recollection of Peter Isaac is listening to him extol the pleasures of Hillclimbing at a Velocette Owners’ Club-night at the Nova Scotia at Cumberland Basin, Bristol in 1973 or thereabouts. An acquaintance owned a Velo Venom and told me about Peter’s guest appearance, so I came along.
But how did Peter become involved in motorcycles and in particular the NHCA? I visited him at his home recently to find out. Peter’s father had a keen interest in motorcycle sport in the late 1940s/early ’50s, taking his son to the Kickham Trial, and to races at Blandford Camp and Castle Coombe where he saw Artie Bell and machines such as the first Featherbed Nortons. He also recalls a short ride as a boy perched on the tank of a 1937 KSS Velo belonging to his father’s friend.
Around 1960/61 Peter was apprenticed to Lister’s at Dursley, Gloucestershire, and it became necessary to have some sort of transport for getting to work and for returning home at weekends. The paternal influence came into play; it had to be either a Norton or a Velocette. A visit to Kings of Oxford resulted in the purchase of a Velo 350 MAC springer.
At Lister’s Peter came to know fellow apprentices Arnold Gimblett and Chris Thomkinson. Chris’s father was Mike Thomkinson of Mead & Thomkinson who was well known for racing production Velocettes. By this time Peter’s interest in sport was increasing and he felt perhaps he should have a go. Hillclimbing seemed an easy way into the sport and when Chris mentioned that his father might have two Velos for sale, Arnold and Peter visited him at his place up near Gloucester. Mike Thomkinson sold one of the Velos, a 500cc Venom ex-Barcelona class winner to Arnold who then sold it on to Peter when he went to join the Merchant Navy. As Peter says, it went really well, having been properly screwed together in the first place. It was a well-known bike, engine VM1044, registered SOX 631.
By today’s standards there were relatively fewer opportunities available for Hillclimbers. Individual clubs ran some events for their members; otherwise Hillclimbers were catered for as part of the National Sprint Association, which mainly organised the straight-line stuff. Peter recalls his first event at Dyrham Park about 10 miles north of Bath, which was run by the Bristol Motor Cycle Club. By this time Arnold Gimblett had built himself a Triton and competed with Peter at Wiscombe Park in 1967. Peter busied himself by stripping the Velo, removing all the unnecessary items and entering every event in sight. This included some road racing as well; apparently the road race at St Eval was dubbed "the Cornish Grand Prix"! He also ran at Prescott, but unfortunately the then organisers at this lovely Gloucestershire hill seemed to have a preference for sidecars and three-wheelers, so it was several years before the solos were able to get back in there. I was surprised to hear that in his early competitive days, Peter passengered in outfits in both road racing and Hillclimbing.
Events in the late ’60s took Peter such venues as Packington Park on the east side of Birmingham and Barbon in Northumberland. A faithful Ford Thames van provided the transport with the luxury of a bed along one side and room for the bike along the other. Peter still remembers the Thames with a lot of affection. It was large enough to get the bike and all the kit in, but a more handy size than the Transits that later became fashionable race transport.
A fall at a practice day started an unlikely sequence of events that ended up with Peter, and Arnold and Christine Gimblett becoming heavily involved in the organisational side of things. In 1969 the first all-bike Wiscombe took place, Peter having spent some time negotiating with Majors Chichester and Lambton, the owners of the house and grounds. The annual event at this lovely Devon venue has become the premier event for motorcycle Hillclimbers over the years. Peter recalls that, at about this time Denis Jenkinson became involved, entering on his Triumph twin. As the calendar expanded the Hillclimb section of the NSA grew from strength to strength; soon there was a proper championship with awards and an annual social to mark the occasion.
Over the years since then Peter has been pleased that there has been steady continual growth of interest. Of course, people have dropped out as family demands have increased or as their interests have changed, but the trend has been steadily upwards. He reflects that, in the late ’60s he would never have thought that motorcycle Hillclimbing would have such a large number of participants and followers as it has today. He is pleased that the sport has never become commercialised. Hillclimb events organised by the club always have what Peter calls "a proper motorcycling atmosphere". Without the club or its members being stuck in the past, it is almost as if the world of ever-increasing professionalism has passed it by. He sees this as a benefit of the NHCA having a relatively low profile. Peter thinks that there is a careful balance to be struck between generating sufficient interest in the sport to attract a steady flow of new competitors without the club growing too fast to be able to accommodate them. He derives a great deal of satisfaction from seeing a second generation of Hillclimbers – the Sims, Chapmans, Mitchells, Wills and Lumleys and others.
As the 70s and 80s rolled by there was a steady increase in venues. This meant that, although some events were restricted, it was always possible for a newcomer to get a fair number of rides through the season. With a little bit of common sense being exercised by secretaries and entrants alike, it was rare for anyone to be turned away.
The turning point, Peter believes, was the formation of the NHCA as an independent entity. Operating as the Hillclimb Section of the NSA worked surprisingly well. There was no friction; several NSA stalwarts such as Ernie Woods were also great Hillclimb enthusiasts and past competitors. Nevertheless by the mid-80s the Hillclimb Section became as large as the nucleus of straight line sprinters. It made little sense for subscriptions to be passed across from Hillclimbers to the central NSA only to be withdrawn again to fund Hillclimb events. Also, there were fewer riders interested in doing both types of events. Fortunately there was excellent support from the NSA, which graciously agreed a severance. This amicable separation formally occurred at the end of the 1986 season.
Peter realised that one of the first things the newly formed National Hill Climb Association needed was a sound financial base. By this time Jenks had become closely interested in the well-being of motorcycle Hillclimbing and gave the club a £1,000 contribution by way of a loan with no strings attached which later became a gift. This meant that there were no money worries and the club has always been able to manage its financial affairs with confidence and prudence. As we know, when Jenks passed away relatively recently, the NHCA was one of the beneficiaries, along with the Midland Auto Club, the Vintage Sports Car Club and the British Racing Drivers’ Club – so we are in very good company!
Peter is pleased that the Hillclimb Section and now the NHCA have always enjoyed the support of ex-Hillclimbers such as George Buck, Neville Higgins, Ernie Woods and others. Over the years Peter has spent, and continues to spend, a great deal of time liasing with venue owners, agents and secretaries of other clubs to ensure that the motorcycle point of view is put across in the most positive manner and to maintain our high reputation in the car hill climbing world. One gets the impression that a lot of work is done behind the scenes by Peter and a number of others – work that pays dividends for the ordinary competing member in terms of new venues and repeat invitations. Reputation is all. Many years ago bikes were dropped from Shelsley events and it took a great deal of work getting us back into that uniquely historic hill in the 1970s. The invitation to twelve bikes has slowly risen to fifteen. Last May it was great to be given a second invitation to Shelsley by the MAC for thirty or so bikes and three-wheelers. Peter believes that reputation of the NHCA is extremely high, particularly with the car clubs upon whom we rely for many of our invitations, and that it is very important that we maintain this.
I ask if he has noticed any changes for the worse. He reflects quietly for a moment. A small smile appears and he says with disarming honestly, "Nothing, really". He sees the NHCA today at its highest level of activity that there has ever been, but wonders, "Can we maintain this steady expansion whilst retaining the same family atmosphere? Now that Herman is dropping out of the organisational side, can we carry on in the same way? " On reflection he feels we can continue from strength to strength because the NHCA is a club where there is support of one sort or another from almost every member.
The NHCA’s relatively low profile has assisted our not having to make too many re-adjustments as requirements change. However, it is important to remain alive to environmental issues such as noise and other forms of pollution. Safety is the one area that causes Peter most concern. The NHCA has an excellent record in this area and strives for the highest standards of safety towards its competitors, marshals and others, but motor sport is dangerous and accidents do happen. Peter is not unreasonably cautious, but is alert to the unfortunate consequences that might occur if an unforeseen incident occurred which was seen by the powers-that-be, with the benefit of hindsight, as avoidable.
Peter has been involved in motorcycling and the sport for so long that I expected him to have a ‘stable’ rivalling the National Motorcycle Museum. It turns out that his ex-Barcelona 500cc Venom is virtually his only bike. There is a 200cc Ducati Elite in the garage, but it’s a project at present. To what extent does he carry out his own maintenance and/or rebuilding? The general mechanical work he does himself; fabricating items he farms out. When he used to compete more often he used to take the Velo apart every year, but it’s been together now for five years or so. He thinks that either he’s got it dead right, or maybe he’s not trying so hard any more!
So, what about some advice? "Leave the throttle open a bit longer" he says, which has got to be right when you recall how much momentum is lost closing off too early for the first esse at Shelsley. He recalls a sage comment made by car hill climb champion David Grace at last year’s NHCA dinner – "Carry your speed through the corners." Peter is rather shy about demon tweeks, but he learned in his early days that gearing could be critical. His methodical nature is evidenced by the fact that he used to have a notebook in which he wrote everything down. Clearly, careful preparation has been very important. He hates working on the bike at meetings, believing that the time between runs is better spent thinking about how to go quicker on the next run. The greatest difference he has noticed over the years is in the quality of the tyres that have become available. He thinks that this has helped his times to remain respectable – as he slows down, the tyres perform better and the results are still the same!
When I asked him to recall his greatest cock-up, he could only remember leaving the line with the fuel turned off and puttering to a halt some yards further up the track – no big deal in the scheme of things. Maybe this is why his Hillclimbing career includes five 500cc championships.
Finally, what is Peter’s favourite hill? Well it has to be Wiscombe – but he also likes Loton, Prescott and Gurston for different reasons. He thinks that Hartland is in many respects a favourite venue, not that the hill itself is particularly special, but its setting is both dramatic and beautiful. Most of all, he loves the people involved and derives a genuine satisfaction from seeing them riding and enjoying the hills. As to the future he believes that, if we continue to maintain our good reputation, motorcycle hill climbing can only go from strength to strength.