Motorcycling: Battle for the legacy of Mike Hailwood

Motorcycling enthusiasts step up campaign to prevent a legend's valuable collection from leaving Britain; Norman Fox reports on a row over plans to put artefacts under the hammer
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A LAST-MINUTE attempt is being made to perpetuate the memory of Britain's finest and most popular world motorcycling champion, Mike Hailwood, by keeping his unique collection of bikes, trophies and other memorabilia together rather than have it broken up at auction next Thursday, or even being bought in entirety by the Honda company and taken to Japan.

The collection, which includes a four-cylinder 350cc Honda he rode in the Sixties and the 1979 Suzuki RG500 on which he made a winning comeback in the Isle of Man Senior TT after 10 years in retirement, is due to come under the hammer of Coys of Kensington at the Business Design Centre in Islington, London. Hundreds of enthusiasts will hope to purchase mementoes which range from TT trophies to pairs of goggles, but many others have reconsidered and contributed to a campaign to keep the collection together in Britain.

It would be no surprise if the Honda company put in a bid of up to pounds 200,000 to recover the 1966 350cc machine on which Hailwood was world champion but there are also strong rumours that their representative has a budget large enough to buy the entire collection. Money is no object to a company that recently gave pounds 250,000 to buy back one of their 500cc machines for the Honda museum.

Sammy Miller, who raced in the same era as Hailwood and now owns an important motorcycle museum in Hampshire, is in the forefront of the campaign, describing the possibility of the collection's break-up as a "tragedy on a national scale". Within an hour of news of the auction becoming known, members of the TT Riders' Association promised pounds 5,000.

Miller and the campaign's co-ordinator, Nick Hodgson, admit that raising the sort of money that the Japanese may bid for the Honda and the suggested pounds 40,000 top price for the Suzuki is probably out of the question, but Hodgson is pleading with Hailwood's widow, Pauline, to have the rest of the collection withdrawn to give him time to raise more funds and set up a trust.

Mrs Hailwood now lives in Spain and, campaigners believe, may not realise the depth of feeling that the auction has raised. Hailwood, who died when driving his own car near his home two years after his final retirement from bike and car racing, was hugely popular on and off the track. Miller said: "He was revered in the sport...a great champion".

Hodgson says that he could not justify spending a large amount of the campaigners' money on the bikes but believes that given more time it would be possible to raise an acceptable price for the rest of the collection which is more personal to Hailwood, including four TT replica trophies in one lot estimated to fetch up to pounds 3,000, numerous individual TT and other prizes valued at up to pounds 1,000 each, sashes, T-shirts, tankards and even anoraks. Hodgson says: "There has never been such a single collection of memorabilia from one world champion."

Hailwood won nine world titles in six years and so many races that he is recognised as the greatest rider of all time. Early in his career he was accused of having a head start since his father was the millionaire owner of the huge dealers Kings of Oxford and could afford to set up a whole backing team and send him to South Africa to learn road racing. But his talent had nothing to do with money.

His enthusiasm was such that he declared himself to be 18 when only 17 in order to get an international racing permit. Typical of this lover of parties, he later remembered to celebrate his 21st birthday twice. In his first complete season of racing he won more than 50 races and set 38 race or lap records. His first world championship came on a privately owned Honda in the 250cc class of 1961. His versatility was astounding; he often won four races on four different machines at one race meeting. After being invited to ride the big Italian MV Agusta machines, he won the world 500cc titles of 1962, 1963, 1964 and 1965. Many stories were spread about his reason for leaving MV and again riding Honda bikes. Money was the least likely.

The Japanese were so taken aback by his straightforward honesty that they were insulted into action in their engineering and stung into getting their man.

After his first trial run he was asked how the bike handled and replied: "Bloody awful." Honda immediately set to work trying to put it right. Although they never really succeeded, Hailwood brought them the world 350cc championships of 1966 and 1967.

It was on the Isle of Man that his spectacular and brave riding was unforgettable. He won 12 TT races before retiring in 1968. A move into car racing brought limited success. He hankered after one more visit to the narrow, dangerous and fulfilling roads of Isle of Man. In 1978, at the age of 39, he came out of retirement and won the Formula One race on a Ducati, but his real aim was the 1979 Senior TT in which, after a crisis, he rode the Suzuki now being auctioned.

He borrowed Barry Sheene's mechanics who came to his rescue when the machine's crankshaft oil seal broke on the evening before the race. They put the bike into a temporary workshop under the Majestic Hotel in Douglas and began to rebuild the engine. When Hailwood looked in and saw it in pieces he asked whether there was a problem and was told there was nothing to worry about. Work went on all night and the machine came to life at dawn, which was probably about the same time Hailwood was calling it a day - his party-going stamina was probably second only to that of his friend Graham Hill. Nevertheless, the old champion went out to win his 14th TT.