The lost champion

David E. Langford recalls meeting his sporting hero

Inset 'Mike the Bike' - by Dave Langford

During the 1960s Kings of Oxford enjoyed a good reputation as the national headquarters of a leading motorcycle dealership. Situated in Park End Street. where Kwik Fit now stands, Kings bad been taken over by Stanley Hailwood, a self-made millionaire from the north of England. who eventually made his home in Boars Hill, Oxford.

In his younger days, Stan Hailwood became a well-known figure in the motorcycle and car racing world. His competitive streak on and off the track however, was eclipsed by the superstar status of his son, Stanley Michael Bailey, known to the world as ‘Mike the Bike’ Hailwood.

Mike began his motorcycle racing career in 1957 when he was 17. He went on to win nine world championships, 14 Isle of Man TT races and, in 1972, the European Formula 3 car championship with the John Surtees Team. He is still regarded as the greatest motorcycle racer of all time, something that today’s top riders are willing to acknowledge.

Keenly following SMB Hailwood’s progress since 1965 (when I was 16), some friends and I tried to emulate him at circuits like Brands Hatch and Silverstone. But after a few close scrapes and written off bikes, I decided that racing wasn’t for me.

If nothing else, these outings provided inspiration to produce many paintings and drawings of Hailwood in action. The painting shown here has been reproduced several times in Classic Motorcycle magazine, it shows ‘SMB’ on the 297cc Honda six cylinder (itself a miracle of technology, years before its time), at Braddan Bridge during the 1967 TT.

When Honda withdrew from Grand Prix racing the following year, the company was reported to have paid Mike £50,000 NOT to ride for any other tearnl

His race track expertise certainly helped to establish his entry into car racing. This began in 1964 with a sixth place at Monaco for Lotus BRM and the previously mentioned drives with Team Surtees Hailwood and David Hobbs were robbed of victory in the 1969 Le Mans 24-hour race when their Gulf Ford GT4O developed gearbox trouble — but they still finished third.

Mike had more success in his favourite Formula 5000 cars, but it was while driving for the Yardley McLaren Formula 1 team in 1974 that a bad crash at the Nurburgring put paid to any further car racing aspirations and thereafter affected his ability to walk with ease. Despite this obstacle, in 1978 Mike made the most successful comeback in sporting history when he returned to the Isle of Man.

At the age of 38, and with a leg injury that made getting on a bike difficult, he managed (with no loss of grace or precision) to beat all the younger opposition and to win one of his most famous of all TT victories on the Sports Motorcycles Ducati.

It was after yet another successful return to the Island in 1979 that I had the pleasure of meeting him at his motorcycle dealership in Birmingham. He was kind enough to display one of my paintings (of him on the Honda Six) in his showroom and had promised to buy the picture for himself if no-one else bought it.

Eventually it was sold to an enthusiast from Wolverhampton and, returning to Birmingham to make the delivery. I remember joking to Mike that he would be better off moving back to Kings old building in Oxford. Many a true word spoken in jest, this proved to be prophetic. Tragedy struck some months after this meeting.

On March 21, 1981. Mike had been taking his children, David and Michelle, to get some fish and chips, when his Rover car was in collision with a lorry that performed an illegal U-turn on the dual carriageway they were travelling on. Michelle was killed instantly, Mike died two days later David was the only survivor.

Everyone I knew at the time was devastated by the news. It was like losing a close friend, one of the finest people one could wish to meet, whose retiring modesty concealed the mountain of achievements he bad made for himself and his country. These included an MBE and the George Medal for bravery — awarded after he had rescued fellow driver Clay Regazzoni from a blazing car during his days in Formula 1.

Many people were convinced that he could have become Fl champion with the right team and less of the appaling bad luck he encountered on four wheels. His night of TV stardom on This is Your Life and the bronze sculpture of him which is on display at Mallory Park in Leicestershire (see ), is further evidence of his legacy.

A bronze sculpture of SMB Hailwood MBE, GM, here in Oxford would be a fitting tribute, as he was, without doubt one of the finest sporting heroes the city has ever seen.

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February 2006 Oxfordshire Limited Edition 31