A  History of Classic Racing  50cc Motorcycles


Name: John Lee 

Birth date: 21st December 1946 
Birth Place: Coventry 
Date of Death : N/A 
Place of Death :N/A  
Nationality: English 
Gender: Male

Classic Racing - 'Fifty' at Fifty

No matter what the capacity, you can have fun on track with all sizes of old bike. He started with a Tiger Cub but John Lee found true happiness with a 50cc racing motorcycle, at fifty.

"Where are you off to this weekend? Is it old blokes on old bikes again?"

This is the summer chorus from Number Two daughter as I couple the 1971 Sprite Cadet to the rear of the high-top Escort van. Both of these are huge sources of embarrassment to the aforesaid sixteen year old, but the high-top means I can chuck a bike in without removing the screen, and the caravan has a door in the back which makes carrying a second bike a doddle - and, anyway, it is a parent's function in life to embarrass their offspring.

Nowadays the racers tend to be 50cc Minarellis; much easier for a gentleman of my advanced years to heave in and out of the race transport. 'Scuderia Pantalone' is about to embark on yet another weekend of high-revving short-stroke engines, tall stories and late night Old Speckled Hen drinking.

I attended post-war motorcycle trials in my carry cot and, according to my mother, the 'motorcycle club boys' were twisting my chubby little fist and trying to get me to say 'Brrm brrm' before 'Dada.' I didn't quite cut my teeth on a ball-ended lever but it wasn't far off. My dear old dad, CH (Bon) Lee rode in trials, mountain grass tracks and park races in the 1930s, mainly on 350cc Velocettes, ( this picture is of a similar bike as I do not have a photo of the old one) but for a while on an extremely quick, home-tuned Triumph L21 which embarrassed the works Triumphs on more than one occasion.

When I first began to ride in trials, Dad's pep talk consisted of; 'keep your feet on the pegs son and keep it shiny side up.' Before that, when I was puffing and blowing round the local cycle speedway track, it was; 'remember. The bloke who wins is the bloke who knows when to shut off.' Good advice, which I regretted forgetting as I head-butted the scenery in Aberdare Park in 2002.

Under the circumstances it was only natural that I should be drawn to powered-two-wheelers. By the age of fourteen I was thrashing a rigid framed 350cc Velocette (what else!) around my uncle's farm. Dad wasn't letting me loose with a road bike straight away, though. When this sixteen year old pestered, he was told; 'you're doing a season in trials first. I want you to learn to fall off properly.' Anyone who has slid up the road will recognize the wisdom of those words!

A very shiny 125cc BSA Bantam trials bike was bought from Bruce Lewin in Leicester. It was an ex-Ken Sedgeley scrambler and proved to be a handy tool... but I did ride it into the canal when I couldn't lift the front wheel over a tree root in one section. The Beeza was soon joined [ In the canal? ]by a MAC Velo road bike and later superceded by a Model 16C AJS. If lifting the front end of the Bantam was a problem for my seven and a half stones, then keeping the front end of the Ajay down proved a more exciting one!

A string of machines followed and I was not without a motorcycle from the age of fourteen until our twin sons were about ten years old. A friend of mine had started racing again and the boys were growing keener and keener on bikes. She Who Must Be Obeyed expressed her concern and with traffic conditions so changed I did not want to encourage them onto the road, so I gave up motorcycles and the boys and I became heavily involved with barn engines. When Number One son announced at the age of nineteen that he was buying a road bike there was little I could do. After all he was a man now.

Now, I am very sedate on four wheels but could not make the same claim with regard to two so I decided to follow in father's wheel tracks and opt for racing as the safer option. Soon a little 250cc narrowcase Ducati was tucked up, nice and cosy in the shed. The little Duke was paraded with the CRMC and hill-climbed with the NHCA. Then in my 50th year I began racing a Triumph Tiger Cub in the 200cc class with the CRMC. As a second string I acquired a T200 Suzuki and Number One son's roadgoing T200 was modified for him to parade.

I have always been fascinated by racing 50s and, as things would have it, the Racing Fifty Enthusiasts' Club rode in the CRMC 200cc events. When the Suzuki holed yet another piston at Pembrey, I loaded it into the van on Saturday night and announced my intention of watching Sunday morning's racing and then making an early start for home.

Someone said; 'I've got a spare Minarelli rolling chassis with me,' and someone else added; 'I've got a spare Minarelli engine.' At 06.45 the next morning we were screwing together a 50cc racer. My contribution was a pair of exhaust springs! In the pre-practice assembly area I was told off for revving it below 10,000rpm, and told to; 'go out and try to kill it.'

After one practice and two races I was hooked. The grin-to-cc ratio is immense! Now came the quandary. I wanted to race a 50 but I did not want to stop racing the Tiger Cub and I couldn't ride them both in the same race.

Before the start of the 2001 season I noticed a piece in 'Classic Racer' announcing that the Racing Fifty Enthusiasts Club (now the Classic 50cc Racing Club, by the way), was to hold a full championship with the Preston and District Club. I contacted the secretary, Steve Bedford, for more details and to begin negotiations to buy his air-cooled long stroke Minarelli as soon as I had sold my Suzuki. About a week before the first meeting Steve phoned me.

'Are you going to Three Sisters next week?'

'Yes but I haven't sold my Suzuki yet so I'm just riding the Cub.'

'Never mind, you can borrow my short-stroke Min, if you like.'

Would I like? He didn't have to ask twice! Steve was not able to make the first meeting so I took the bike up to Wigan myself and proceeded to break the screen when I chucked it up the road at the first corner in practice. Later in the day, when he phoned to see how things were going, he was told the news and I could hear him laughing down the phone from ten feet away. They're a great crowd, these 50cc racers.

Would I like? He didn't have to ask twice! Steve was not able to make the first meeting so I took the bike up to Wigan myself and proceeded to break the screen when I chucked it up the road at the first corner in practice. Later in the day, when he phoned to see how things were going, he was told the news and I could hear him laughing down the phone from ten feet away. They're a great crowd, these 50cc racers.

Steve had not done himself any favours. I still hadn't sold the Suzuki and once I'd ridden the short-stroke the lustre went off the idea of buying his long-stroke. The upshot was that Steve let me use the short-stroke all season; I gained my national licence; I came second in the air-cooled class, third overall and second in the Preston and District Club's 50cc championship. Perhaps still weighing less than nine stones has its advantages after all!

At the end of the 2001 season I bought a well sorted short-stroke Minarelli. What happened to the Ducati and the Suzuki is a different story. Another trophy for the 2001 season was the 'Ouch!' award, which I picked up for falling off more times than anyone else. Sorry Steve. The award came my way again in 2002 as a result of the 'Aberdare Tree-butting Incident', this time falling from a modern 80. (Picture: John collection the 'Ouch' award from Jason Vincent). 

I was determined to avoid the hat-trick and managed to keep it right side up throughout 2003. I like my classic Minarellis. The shed is a bit cramped, cold and leaky so if any kind soul can offer the use of a nice cosy workshop in the Rugby / Hinckley area I should be very pleased to hear from them.

"The Fifty?". "I've never had a bike instill so much confidence in such a short time. It felt as though I could trust it to do anything I asked of it."

John at Three Sisters, Wigan

John Waiting on the Line at Tonfanau

John at Aberdare Park


(A letter from John Lee to the CRMC Open Mega Magazine) 

What is it about Pembrey? Now, don't get me wrong. I love the place. I rode in my first CRMC parade and my first race there. I enjoy most of the two hundred-mile journey to get there and it is an interesting and rewarding circuit to ride on. I even like the approach road, now, and the people who run it are friendly and helpful but I can't help wondering if I have offended Idris the dragon or failed to propitiate some ancient and vengeful Celtic deity.

It seems that every time I visit the place I end up breaking something, either a part of the bicycle or a part of me. My first attempt to parade the Ducati almost ended before it began. I thought that I had charged up both batteries before I set out. My recalcitrant battery charger obviously knew otherwise. However, "the friendly club" proved itself to be so right from the start and thanks to the generosity of Ross Dyson I managed to get out there for my first parade. Even that turned out to be quicker than I'd expected (I'd been away a long time).

Next year's effort on the Tiger Cub involved a valve gear disaster and this time it was Richard Thirkell and family who kept me supplied with cups of tea and huge slices of cake as I set about replacing push-rods and rockers ready for Sunday. The following year saw my first ever race. This time that little god must have set his sights on someone else. I came away with a soaking and a third place but only because everyone else seemed to have either slid off or spluttered to a halt in the downpour, although I didn't get off scot-free. The charging circuit had gone down on my towing vehicle.

Once again the paddock rallied round and after a quick boost charge and a tow start I drove the full two hundred miles without daring to stop the engine once. I did stall it while trying to reverse onto the drive though and had to get my sons out of bed to help push. Later in the year I returned to Pembrey to play with the New Era Club. During practice the rider of a modern machine gave me a little brake test at Hatchett's Hairpin. 

Discs versus my little drum. No contest! All I could do was sit and watch the accident happen. Result, one broken collar bone. Serves me right for pushing my luck, going to Pembrey twice in one year! Luckily for me Richard Grinley, who happens to be a friend of my son's friend, had just clinched the 250 championship and was more than willing to give me a lift home. The circuit staff were brilliant, collecting me from hospital in Swansea and putting 'bike, trailer and car into storage. The accident happened on September the fourteenth and because of complications with the collarbone I didn't manage to collect the car until Christmas Eve. When I arrived the car was outside the workshop, battery charged and engine running. Thanks once again chaps.

The collar bone injury meant that the shed didn't get re-roofed and consequently the Cub missed out on its promised winter rebuild. "Oh it'll be alright for a couple of meetings more." Does that sound familiar? My first meeting of the following season was, you've guessed it, Pembrey. Two laps into our first race and the little Triumph seemed to be rattling even more than Cubs usually do. Time for a visit to that nice Martyn Adams for a new big end bearing and rod kit.

This year I decided to give my little Suzuki a few outings. By the second race at Pembrey I was really having fun. What I didn't find out until the fairies opened a mining company in the piston crown was that the ignition had advanced itself on one side. End of fun for the week end. Or so I thought. 

Seven-o-clock on Sunday morning saw Steve Bedford and Cliff Figes Putting Cliff's spare Minarelli engine into Steve's spare Minarelli rolling chassis and suddenly I had "honorary one day membership" of the Racing Fifty Enthusiasts Club. Having been told off in the warm up area for not revving it enough I went out for Sunday practice. 

I've never had a bike instill so much confidence in such a short time. It felt as though I could trust it to do anything I asked of it. If you are less than twenty stones and you've not raced a fifty, have a go. It is such FUN. Sunday afternoon's race involved a four lap tussle with Steve Nugent, also mounted on a Minarelli. What if we finished 23rd. and 24th. overall, it was the most enjoyable day's racing I've ever had, even though my ears didn't stop ringing until mid-day on Monday! 

And Pembrey? Oh yes. That's the place where you find out who your friends are. 

Well, at some time a race must end and John has gone pasted his last chequered flag. This is a great loss to anyone who knew him as he was a guy worth knowing. John was aware that I was going to update his page on the History site and yet even when he was loosing certain capabilities due to the MND, he still had a great sense of humour. He sent me this picture of his new 'Fifty' but added to his email that it would never win a race at Three Sisters. 

I enjoyed his company, his sense of humour, his loyalty to what he believed in and his love for the Sport of '50's'. I miss not being able to have either a Cup of Tea with him and downing a glass of Old Speckled Hen listening to some music in the evenings before race day.  

These are my new wheels! Maker's claimed top speed is a blistering 4m.p.h.

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