A Three-wheel Odyssey
Australian motorcycle outfit rider Ken Hibberd landed at England’s Southampton dock in the 1960s with £45 in his pocket and a dream of racing at the Mecca of Motorcycling – the Isle of Man TT.
Les Virtue’s Manx Norton outfit No.15, which Ken purchased and campaigned, at the lefthander at Mt Panorama, near McPhillamy Park.
On arrival he met up with Tom Gill and Barry Thompson, a couple of Aussie motorcycle racing mates who’d been over there for some time. They’d experienced some success and had a lot of fun competing alongside some of the world’s finest riders, on challenging first–class circuits that we, on the other side of the globe, had only read about.
Ken quickly bought a newspaper and went about getting a job. He scored one without too much trouble, with a company that needed a contract welder who was willing to travel.
“I purchased a Morris Minor on time payment, with 10 quid down,” said Ken.
“And I set off from London on my first job of welding maintenance on the conveyors and machinery at a paper mill in northern Scotland.
“So with the Morrie pointing north and with a roadmap on the passenger’s seat – because I had no idea of the local geography – I set off and I was skint by the time I arrived.”
However, after working hard for 12-hours a day, seven-days a week Ken was able to amass enough capital to start building an outfit.
One of Ken’s drawings calculating the angles of an outfit frame
“At that time most Pommy workers earned about £40 a week, but with the hours I was doing I was earning £150 a week,” Ken said.
“Working in what spare time I had and using their equipment – as well as having Tom and Barry send me components from down south – and by also ordering some fibreglass panels, the outfit started to take shape.”
Ken said that Tom and Barry had clued him up on how to get a start at the different race meetings.
“The trick was to write to the various promoters at each racetrack event for the coming season,” Ken recalled.
“By return mail you’d then get an invitation, along with an agreed amount of appearance money to compete.
“So, at night I would be writing letters and existing on around four-hours sleep.”
With the job in Scotland finished, Ken headed south with the outfit frame, to meet up with Tom and Barry, so the three of them could pitch in and get a Manx Norton’s mechanicals integrated with the frame and the fibreglass streamlining fettled.
Time was running out, as the European racing season was almost upon them.
“Because Australians and New Zealanders had a good work ethic and were therefore an asset to a British employer, we were able to take time off during a racing season to compete, knowing that our jobs would be there when we got back,” remarked Ken.
“We needed to qualify in Europe with a start in a Grand Prix, in order to qualify for the Isle of Man TT.”
Just what had motivated Ken to travel to the other side of the world; to work hard in order to make money, only to spend it all on a motorcycle sidecar outfit to go racing?
Bikes in the blood
Ken riding solo on a 350cc BSA down the Esses at Bathurst in 1957
Ken’s father and two uncles raced bikes and there was no doubt in his mind that he would follow in their wheel-tracks.
Saturday night at the Sydney Showground Speedway was a religion and this was where he made a lifelong friend in Jack Brabham, who at the time was just starting out in speed cars.
Ken was impressed by Jack’s no-nonsense, analytical approach to racing and his ability to understand the engineering and dynamics of a racing machine in anger. Ken said he leant a lot from the wily fox, despite his young age.
Trophies collected during 1957 and ’58 seasons in Australia
Ken had joined the Parramatta Motorcycle Club and by this time was racing bikes on various dirt tracks around and beyond the Sydney basin. He’d also raced on bitumen racetracks, including Lakeside in Queensland and the Hume Weir circuit near Albury.
Ken enjoyed racing on bitumen, but the effort of getting to these tracks was a marathon one.
“I’d leave from work on a Friday afternoon,” recalled a smiling Ken. “Arrive at Lakeside on Saturday morning; spend the day practising and qualifying for Sunday’s race; then after the race pack up and head back to Sydney for work on Monday morning.
“The guys at work would ask how I spent the weekend and when I told them what I’d done, they’d shake their heads in disbelief.”
Ken on his 250 Maico (No.51) at Port Lincoln in 1959
Ken said the club, like many around Sydney, lacked a bitumen road surface track and it was decided to approach the Singer Car Club, who in those days ran Oran Park Raceway for car racing.
The result was an invitation to run three motorcycles in a demonstration at a car race meeting and Ken, Eric Hinton and Noel Manning were the chosen three riders to run an exhibition during the car meeting, in order to evaluate the spectators’ reactions.
“It was raining as we set out from the dummy grid and then we each had a slide off onto the grass, but we bunged on as good a show as we could considering the very wet track,” Ken remembered.
“We received a standing ovation as we completed our final lap.
“A deal was consummated a month later and we then had a Sydney-based motorcycle road racing track.”
In 1958, the RT250 DKW with Ken in the saddle at the Moorebank Scrambles, where he finished second behind John Schroen on a Puch 250.
By then, many of Ken’s racing mates had ventured to England and were racing in Europe. For as long as he could remember it was Ken’s dream to experience racing at the legendary Isle of Man TT.
“I thought: ‘Why not follow the dream?’,” Ken said with a smile. “And that’s how I ended up on the other side of the world: chasing that dream.”
Crossing the channel
“I had a feeling of great expectation as the ‘Channel Ferry’ arrived at Calais,” Ken recalled. “I was off to race in the Big Time.
“Our Manx Norton went very well, but was unable to match the outright speed of more powerful BMWs on the straights.
“So I gave it some thought on just what we could do to decrease the MN’s lap times and I remembered seeing disc brakes on a new Renault Dauphine in France.
“At that time I’d thought the callipers looked compact enough to adapt to the bike’s front and rear wheels.
“Discs would enable the outfit to go deeper into the braking zones and exit the corners first, helping recover the time given away to the faster bikes on the straights.”
So Ken purchased some callipers; had a machine shop turn up a pair of discs – not telling them what he wanted them for – and then adapted them to the bike’s hubs and plumbed the callipers into the braking system.
This was around the time that Honda offered disc brakes on its production road bikes first shown at the 1966 Tokyo Motor Show. However, according to Ken, he was the first to fit discs to a racing bike.
Another innovation of Ken’s was to fit a 10-inch Mini Minor wheel to the sidecar, thus giving an advantage on left-hand corners, because of the lower centre of gravity at the outer edge of the sidecar.
When he rolled up at scrutineering for the first time with these modifications, there were some questions as to their legality. However, after some discussion about the fact that it wasn’t a factory production outfit and ‘brakes are brakes, so if they work effectively, it should pass muster’. As there wasn’t a standard for the diameter of the third wheel, it was cleared also.
Ken Hibberd and Tom Gill airborne at Ballaugh Bridge at the ’67 Isle of Man
After a season racing in Europe, Ken had made many racing friends, in particular a group of German BMW riders and the great Mike Hailwood had also befriended him. Ken says he was a lovely man without a pretentious bone in his body, treating him as one of his racing mates.
“After all, I was just an Aussie from Sydney’s west, so I was quite chuffed to think this guy who came from the other side of the tracks from me and, who had achieved greatness in the world of motorcycle racing, had befriended me.
“On the day that I arrived at the ‘Island’ I felt like I should pinch myself, to realise I was actually there – I was living the dream.
“Hopefully I would soon be taking part in one of the world’s great motor racing events.”
Ken said, in reference to the disc brakes and mini wheel, he went through the same question and answer routine at scrutineering as had initially happened in Europe. He emphasised the fact that they had raced at many European circuits with the same configuration and without incident.
The prerequisite at the Isle of Man to get to the qualifying level was to lap the daunting 37¾ miles (60km) of the winding, undulating course of bitumen ribbon through the villages and along the mountainside, in no more than 30 minutes.
Ken thought it would be a breeze and with Tom Gill perched on the sidecar the two Aussie battlers went out on their prequalifying lap.
“Having finished the lap, I went confidently up to the timing room to check our lap time,” Ken recalled.
“What a shock I got when they told me it was 46 minutes!
“I was devastated and just couldn’t believe it, but I went back to Tom and broke the sad news.
“However, as it happened, Mike Hailwood and his mechanic Roy Robinson came over to ask how we went.
“Mike was stunned, but gave me this piece of advice : ‘When you go out for the second attempt; during the first 20 miles take every blind crest without lifting off; just keep the throttle wound on and go flat out in top over them.’
“He was right you know, because on the second outing we clocked 24 minutes… and it was foggy too.”
Souvenir from the 1967 Isle of Man TT Diamond Jubilee event
The next day Ken and Tom were out on the trusty Manx Norton outfit, exploring the limits of the track, in order to get a good qualifying time for the race. Late in the afternoon on one lap Ken recalled:
“We were coming off the mountain on the sweeping downhill right hander and when I went to pull the brake lever to slow us down, it had come away from the fulcrum pin, so I didn’t have any front brake and I knew what would happen if I touched the foot pedal to apply the rear brake.
“There was a break in the rock wall to our left, which was a dirt road that appeared to be leading down to a farm gate and as we were going too fast to take rest of the right hander without a major accident, I decided in a split second to head for the opening by turning left.
“Tom was behind me, leaning for the right hand bend so as I turned to the left (he was obviously oblivious of what was taking place) the outfit wheel lurched skyward for a moment, but we made it through the opening and I slowed it down in a straight line, coming to rest just before the gate.”
Ken Hibberd and Tom Gill (Norton) at Ramsey – 1967 Sidecar TT
Ken said what had happened was the bolt through the fulcrum pin in the brake lever had come out, although he’d used a nylock nut to secure it, but it had obviously worked loose and come off. He said he then set about drilling and split-pinning every securing nut on the bike and outfit!
With repairs carried out they managed to qualify 41st in a field of 83, so they were well pleased to be sitting in mid-field for the race.
It is on record that while sitting waiting in the paddock for a start advice, Ken had said to an interviewer that he and Tom had a packet of Corn Flakes between them and starvation.
Luckily they got a start and finished 25th in a time of 1:34:29 at an average speed of 71.89mph (116km/h) and therefore picked up some money to carry on. They also received a Bronze Replica Medallion – not a bad effort on a tight budget.
End of the journey
One of the more affluent German riders offered Ken a great deal to purchase his BMW – a deal Ken thought too good to be true – but the guy was keen to give Ken a lift up the ladder, as he thought the Australian had a good future with the right equipment.
Ken returned to England to scrape up the money. He had met Elizabeth, a lovely Australian girl, in the UK and she had travelled with him to some of the races.
She organised a party at his place to celebrate the duo’s success at the TT, during which the doorbell rang.
It was a telegram from Ken’s mother, which simply read: ‘Please come home. Your father has drowned!’.
After receiving that sad news, he knew that the future of racing in Europe was over, so he headed home, with Elizabeth soon to follow. Not long after, back in Sydney, they married and from that day on, Ken hasn’t put a leg over a motorcycle.
He had seen too many mates, competitors and even his own uncle die in motorcycle racing accidents, and what were the repercussions on the family that was left behind.
Ken then started a new life away from motorcycle racing, with the love of his life, settling down and starting his own family.
Sadly, Elizabeth passed away some years ago. However life goes on and apart from the joy of his grandchildren, Ken Hibberd can always look back at his success at the Isle of Man TT in 1967, as a dream that came true and something he will always treasure.
Ken with his James racer (No. 51) at Vineyards track in 1958.