Living the dream - Colin Byrne

David E Langtord continues his series on Oxfordshire motorsport heroes who have inspired his work.

Colin Byrne

Oxford produced the greatest motorcycle racer who ever lived in the shape of Mike Hailwood GM, MBE, a shy ex-public schoolboy who inspired many followers.

Because of him, the city bred potential world champions at an unprecedented rate. One of this new breed of Oxford rider was Colin Byrne from Horspath Road, a modest electrical engineer who possessed a grim determination to succeed.

Colin and I met through a mutual friend who was working with me at the Oxford University Press. On our occasional weekends off, we would all meet up on our motorcycles, at various race tracks including Staverton airfield near Cheltenham, and RAF Gaydon, north of Banbury, to help, hinder or support 'C B.' in any way we could.

This usually involved the complicated technical process of cheering him on from the sidelines with a can of Fosters. Some of us tried our hand at flag marshalling but soon gave up when it became clear that having to leap out of the path of a crashing bike, or bikes, was sometimes more dangerous than actually racing.

This experience for a budding artist, however, was invaluable, the illustration shown here was one of my first drawings of a motorsport subject in 1976; it shows Colin Byrne on his 250 TZ Yamaha at Brands Hatch.

Colin Byrne on the Sparton 500,
sponsored by Clive Laws of the George Inn, Botley Road, Oxford

He began his competitive career in 1972 with a Suzuki 250 Super Six, which he rode to and from work during the week, racing it at weekends. As his success grew, he progressed to a highly competitive 250 TZ Yamaha, the 'workhorse' of the 1970s' national licence holder.

Help was also at hand in the shape of sponsorship from the White Elephant filling station in Dawson Street, between Cowley Road and St Clements. They supplied him with oil and fuel.

As word spread of this new talent, Harpers, the motorcycle dealers in Cowley, provided sponsorship with a van to transport bikes and equipment to and from the race meetings.

His main achievements at this time were to win enough races to walk away with the North Gloucestershire Club Championship, attaining his national licence in the process, and to win the East Midland Motorcycle Racing Club's prestigious Rider of the Year award.

The Oxford Mall was soon recording his success rates, but at the infamous 'Hutchinson Hundred' at Brands Hatch, a race that was run anti-clockwise as opposed to the conventional clockwise circuit direction, he experienced the worst crash of his career.

Approaching the steep climb to Paddock Hill bend, another rider tried to overtake on the inside. The inevitable collision sent Colin and his bike into the crash barrier, putting him in hospital for three weeks with an ankle injury that needed metal splints which are still there to this day.

Carterton chicken farmer, Harold Coppock, a well-known sponsor of leading motorcycle racers, phoned Colin in hospital. After hearing the bad news, Harold loaded the wrecked Yamaha into the back of his van in a selfless gesture of support, typical of those involved in road racing. He returned the bike to the injured rider some weeks later in almost new condition.

The author(centre) watches as Barry Ditchburn prepares to ride the Silver Dream Machine
built specially for the movie of the same name starring David Essex.

After his recovery, Colin was approached by Clive Laws, the landlord of the George Inn on the Botley Road. Chive had purchased a 500cc Sparton from the renowned Caernarfon manufacturer, Barry Hart.

Barry had built the famous ' Silver Dream Racer ' for the David Essex movie of the same name. One Wednesday in 1980, I happened to be taking part on a test day at Mallory Park where British 750 champion Barry Ditchburn was trying out this particular bike for the film.

As I came out of Shaws Hairpin on my 750 Yamaha, The Silver Dream Racer overtook me on its back wheel, in a mindboggling display of skill and control. Being on the track at the same time as 'Ditch' was like practising at Wembley with George Best. An experience one is never adequately qualified to describe.

David Essex astride the Silver Dream Machine
in a scene from the film

To progress to the higher plain of existence and actually race with World Champions like Barry Sheene is what Colin Byrne was now doing. Difficult for us mere mortals to imagine, but with Clive's help in supplying the beautiful Sparton, Colin was now up there among the elite.

In 1978, armed with this bike, he came up against Isle of Man T.T. winner and British champion Tony Rutter in a National road race at Thruxton and came within inches of Rutter's back wheel as they crossed the finish line. At the same track during a 1984 National event, Colin raced a 250 Yamaha alongside the great T.T. riders, Nial Mackenzie and Neal Tuxworth.

The photo of Colin Byrne with a few of his many trophies, is testimony to his amazing career on two wheels.

'What could have happened, given the opportunity of a works ride, we will never know. But with Oxford's previous record of producing world champions, my guess is that he could have been a nationa4 or even a world champion with the right machinery.'

However, house purchase, and the responsibility of marriage and a family brought normality to his life, as it does with so many.

Having experienced a colourful sporting career and achieving goals most of us only dream about, the memories always remain, and they are there to share with everyone right here and now.

Thankfully, Colin (who now lives in Abingdon) and I still make contact through work, or at the Cassington motorcycle evening which has become a major calendar event for motorcycle enthusiasts from all over the country. See you there in June!



• For information on D E Langford's work call 01865 434359. February 2007 Oxfordshire Limited Edition 57