Titch Allen: Godfather of the classic motorcycle movement
Thursday 27 May 2010
Titch Allen was the godfather of the classic motorcycle movement. As a cub reporter for the Nottingham Guardian he rode his 172cc Francis Barnett to the 1931 press conference that announced the opening of the Donington Park race circuit.
Slipping away early, he rode around the unmade paths and woodlands tracks of the proposed circuit and staked his claim to be the first man to ride a motorcycle lap of what was to become hallowed ground.
Serving in the Second World War as a despatch rider, he responded to a suggestion in a motorcycle weekly that the interest in older machines warranted the formation of a specialist club. Demobbed with the British Empire Medal, which he dismissed later by saying "It's been devalued now they award it to a village postman for doing his job", he invited fellow vintage enthusiasts to meet at the Hog's Back, Surrey, in April 1946. Thirty-eight riders responded and the Vintage Motor Cycle Club was formed. Allen cleverly offered honorary membership to the editors of both The Motor Cycle and Motorcycling, and to Bill Boddy of Motor Sport, who remains a member to this day. Publicity inevitably followed and the club grew quickly.
Allen started work as a representative for the Feridax accessory company, designing some of the products himself and looking for ways to publicise them at minimal cost. In 1953 he entered the motorcycles-only Monaco Rally, run over the same route as the better known Monte Carlo car event. He left Oxford on Thursday evening, his borrowed, Yorkshire-built 600cc Panther fitted with a Feridax windscreen, dual seat and panniers, while his wife Jess occupied the sidecar. The final leg of the Rally, across the Alps on Saturday, was interrupted when he swerved to miss a wobbling cyclist and hit the steep rocky mountainside. Running repairs got them back on the road, only for them to collide with an errant bus in Monte Carlo and limp slowly to the finish, exhausted after more than two days without sleep. His reports for the two motorcycle weeklies were despatched by air on Sunday and given pages of cover that were worth more than a year's advertising budget could buy. He was especially proud that his wife's dress for the prize-giving ceremony had survived the rigours, protected in his pannier box.
In 1954 he followed that adventure with a ride around the coast of mainland Britain on a Birmingham-made 650cc Ariel and sidecar, an official observer replacing a disillusioned Jess in the sidecar. Despite the sidecar suspension collapsing and being repaired with a fence post and wire, the journey was completed in 10 days, an unofficial record for the journey.
He raced a collection of vintage machinery, including an ex-Brooklands lap record-holding Brough Superior that frightened him by shedding its handlebars at speed; he survived, and remained an active competitor into his 80s. The Brough was sold to a Japanese collector when the international interest in historic machines was moving prices up. His sons Roger and Stephen followed him into racing, which brought tragedy when Roger stopped to help a fallen rider in an Isle of Man event and was killed when hit by another rider.
Allen's achievements were recognised in 2004 with an OBE. He spurned the presentation at Buckingham Palace, explaining: "I didn't want my mates to have to pay the congestion charge to go down there; in olden days they used to hang you for highway robbery." Instead, Lord Lieutenant of Leicestershire, Lady Gretton, made the presentation in Donington Park racetrack's Grand Prix Collection hall.
He still contributed a keenly observed column to his club magazine up until his final weeks. When he invited those who preferred old motorcycles as their transport to gather at the Hog's Back in 1946 and possibly form a club, he could not have imagined the size of the movement that his enthusiasm would spawn. The Vintage Motor Cycle Club today boasts more than 16,000 members worldwide. Spares availability for classic machines is such that you can order a brand new 1972 750cc Norton Commando or a 1955 version of the legendary 998cc Vincent Black Shadow, while the hobby and its industry in the UK alone are served by at least eight commercial magazines specialising in their interests. The interest has spread globally, with strong markets in older machines in every continent; all those involved today owe a debt to a man who stood only 5ft 2in tall, yet was a giant in his accomplishments.
Charles Edmund Allen, motorcycling enthusiast: born Cotgrave, Nottinghamshire 6 May 1915; married 1937 Jess (died 2002; one son and one daughter, and one son and one daughter deceased); BEM, OBE; died Leicester 18 March 2010.
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