John Banks on a BSA Victor delivered four-stroke power’s final thump in world motocross. But it was all in vain...
I was back in England in 1969 and looking to return to daily newspapers after fleeing from America over visa issues that could have despatched me to Vietnam, when Motor Cycle News phoned. I’d had some brief history with them, but now they were offering £1500 a year – daily paper money – plus access to road test bikes, a company car and the opportunity to be their Motocross Grand Prix reporter, travelling throughout western Europe. I blocked myself from saying “I’ll start tomorrow”, and said I would consider it.
Three months later I was at Sittendorf in Austria for the opening round of the 500cc world championship. I’d seen riders like Don Rickman and Dave Bickers leaping into space at British circuits such as Glastonbury, Farleigh Castle and Bulbarrow Hill, but here everything was bigger and faster, and Iron Curtain riders with hard names such as Vaclav Svastal and Otokar Toman hurled 360cc CZs into the void far above the village below.
CZ had been the first two-stroke manufacturer to win the championship, with the East German Paul Friedrichs in 1966. Now BSA were the only four-stroke factory team left in the series. The BSA team was led by the top Brit of the day, 25-year-old John Banks, also known as The Baron. He started the year well with second place overall in Austria, behind
Sweden’s Bengt Aberg on a 400cc Husqvarna. The BSA Victors were being increasingly cornered by the strokers; as well as the CZs and Huskies, there were 360cc Maicos to contend with.
Two-stroke technology was improving fast. At MCN we tested the current offerings with Chris Horsfield, a dexterous 29-year-old who’d handled James, Matchless, CZ, AJS and Greeves factory bikes. “Any average rider could mount a Husqvarna 400 and win,” he vowed after stepping off the 40-horsepower Swedish bike. Maico’s claim that their 360 was the world’s best-handling motocrosser was “a pretty fair boast”, he declared.
By May the burly BSA boys were suggesting that a minimum 490cc capacity limit would ensure that only full-size bikes contested the senior class. “Most of the riders in Grand Prix today are no more than overgrown 250 men,” Banks said. “We’d like to see proper 500cc twostrokes. They’d be heavier, more powerful and much more difficult to handle.”
The eighth of the 12 rounds took place on the notorious Citadelle of Namur circuit in Belgium. Safety standards in the ’60s were pretty lax, but I was shocked with what riders had to deal with on these valley-side slopes above the confluence of the Meuse and Sambre rivers. In places there was only a rope coiled around a tree that could snap a limb on the downhill plunge, while a few feet away Belgian families chomped frites and swigged beers.
John and Belgium’s Roger De Coster, on a CZ, each won a race and took a second place. De Coster won overall with a time advantage of 3.4s, but The Baron led the points table. The world title slipped from the Baron’s grasp just three rounds later in Switzerland, however. In practice he rapped his throttle hand against a stake while flat in third, and needed painkillers and an injection before he could race. But the final blow was when the BSA got a puncture as he held fourth place in the first leg; Aberg raced on to claim the title.
When I saw the Baron at his home in Suffolk at season’s end, I saw the burdens he carried. At 25 he and his wife Mary were already parents of two children. But racing was the problem; BSA gave him no rest, demanding that he race in the winter televised events – damp, dreary brawls in slush and snow that he hated. And at Namur the Belgians would kick sand in his face, throw bottles in front of him and shift paling fencing to make him take a longer line than their favourite De Coster.
Of all the riders who claim that they deserved to win a world title, John Banks was one who truly merited it. In the classic era a four-stroke never again finished in the top three of the 500cc world series after his great 1969 effort.