I was reminded, when writing the story of Norton’s four-cylinder project, how few survivors there are to whom we can talk about motorcycling in the 1950s. The leading figures in the Norton four saga are now gone. We can only access their lives secondhand through books and articles.
It was this sense of being able to experience living history that made me rush to interview Jimmie Simpson in 1980, when he was 82. Here was a chance to meet one of the great TT historymakers, for Simpson was the first rider to set 60, 70 and 80mph laps on the
Mountain Circuit. He did that in a span of just seven years, from 1924-31, at a time when motorcycle design and road conditions were evolving fast. Simpson’s era opened with hand gearchanges and lever throttles, and TT practice conducted on open roads, ending with the first reliable overhead-camshaft motorcycle engines and top speeds of 100mph.
His first TT lap record, of 64.54mph, was even more sensational in that his factory AJS was a 350, not a 500. In 1926 he raised the record to 70.43mph on a factory pushrod 500cc AJS, then pushed it to 80.82mph in 1931 on a 500cc overhead-cam Norton. But while bikes
were getting faster, they were still unreliable and Simpson won only one of the 26 Island races that he contested.
These days, setting the absolute lap record on the Mountain Circuit draws almost as much acclaim as winning a race. It wasn’t like that in Simpson’s time. “There were no congratulations. They were not a bit pleased about the new lap record,” Jimmie said of the Stevens brothers’ response to his heroic 1924 effort. “They said that if I had ridden sensibly, I might have finished first. In those days lap records were not the intention in racing.”
Statistics underline the fragility of bikes in Jimmie’s era. When he was racing, only 18 of the 44 TT races held were won by the rider who set the fastest lap; in contrast from 1960-69, 49 fastest-lappers in the 68 races in that period won their respective TTs. “The Stevens brothers used to say: ‘You go too quick’,” Simpson told me. “I would reply that the race goes to the quickest, but in those days it just wasn’t so.”
In his day, being a factory rider meant you actually worked in the factory. “When I was at Norton in the early ’30s, every bike was personally tested by me before being delivered to the customer,” he said.
At Bracebridge Street, on a salary of £400 a year (around £23,000 today) he worked with designer Arthur Carroll, development engineer Joe Craig and tuner Bill Lacey to improve the company’s first overhead-cam engines, the first of which had been unreliable.
“We had a good engine, and you couldn’t destroy it,” Simpson said. “But the frame had been used on the previous camshaft Norton and was too heavy. The whole bike weighed 450lb (204kg). I suggested that we built a lighter frame and use more alloy parts. In this way we reduced the weight to 330lb (150kg).”
On that bike Simpson became the fastest road racer of his day, lapping the Ulster Grand Prix circuit at 84.63mph in 1930. It was a world away from his 1924 TT record, when, as well as a hand change and lever throttle on his AJS (top speed 75mph) he also had to cope with a footoperated oil pump.
It’s hard for us today, when the Mountain Circuit lap record stands at 132.701mph, to appreciate the hazards that were faced by TT riders in Simpson’s time. In the early ’20s Bray Hill was a potholed, tarmac-free zone, and the road over the Mountain was a rutted cart track. Simpson’s only TT victory was in the 1934 Lightweight, on a Rudge 250. A year after our meeting, Jimmie Simpson passed away. I’m glad I had the chance to meet him and get some sense of what life was like for those heroes of the ’20s and ’30s.