A lifetime of racing adds up to a lifetime of stories. I can only try to tell a small fraction of Gerry's life in these few paragraphs but I'm glad to be able to share this much at least. Making personal connections with people like Gerry is what makes this whole project with The Mighty Motor worthwhile.
I met Gerry at Deus in Venice during the Festival of Thump event last March. I was taking pictures of a factory works Norton Manx when I heard an English man say "that's me in that picture", pointing to a framed photograph leaning against the rear wheel of the Norton. The picture, what had at first seemed to me like one taken from a history book, was really a shot of Gerry on his bike during his younger days racing in the Isle of Man TT. I have seen a few factory Manx before, even seen them being raced a few times, but this was my first time meeting an actual TT racer that had raced a Manx in its time. Turned out that he successfully raced the Manx and several other bikes still in his possession. He competed in three Isle of Man TT races in '47, '48, and '52.
We talked for a few minutes and I knew that Gerry had more stories to tell so I got his information and a week later I was on his doorstep.
Gerry was on his couch watching golf while building a Norton Manx in his living room. Parts of the Norton motor were arranged around him as if he was performing surgery. Six bikes were in his living room altogether. At this point I wasn't quite sure what I had walked into.
He showed me around the house and everywhere I turned were more bikes and memorabilia from his past. A wall where an old J.A.P. speedway bike leaned was arranged with trophies and ribbons of his achievements.
Gerry was born in Manchester, England on December 23rd, 1926. "The first bike I ever rode was a 1937 Norton Manx 350 running on alcohol." This was the summer of 1939. "A friend and I pushed it to a neighbor's farm and he rode it around for a bit. He jumped off and said 'Here, you ride it!' Everything else was much easier after that. I was 13 years old."
His second time on a bike was two years later when he was 15. He rode a trials course on a Ariel 350 Red Hunter loaned to him by a friend. "We rode pillion till we got to the mountains, then he said 'Ride it down and back up'. I had never done it before but I did it anyway. I rode down and back up. Everyone clapped. What the fuck did I do? They told me I just cleared the toughest section in Northern England."
During the war Gerry joined the Royal Air Force. This was also the time he was introduced to speedway racing. "With riding trials and winning them, my photograph was in the papers. Belle Vue got in contact with me and asked me if I would like to have a trial at the speedway." He impressed the team with his natural riding ability and was asked to put together a J.A.P. racer from parts during practice. "The guys were still messing around on the track when I came out with this new bike and flew around. They said, 'You're riding at New Cross Wednesday night, First Division'." He was made an official Belle Vue racer in 1950 (a Belle Vue "Ace", as they are called).
Road racing had also been something that Gerry wanted to try for a long time. His chance came when he got his hands on an R8 AJS. He raced his first Isle of Man TT race as a privateer.
His best finish in road racing was also his biggest upset. He rode the Isle of Man Grand National and finished second behind racer Bill Nicholson. However, due to a screw up with the marshal leaving his post to escape one of the Isle of Man's notorious squalls, Gerry was recorded as finishing in fourth place. "I didn't really worry about it much then but now I realize I should've stuck up for myself...but I didn't bother."
Because of all his exploits as a professional racer he had the chance to live in few different countries. He lived in South Africa with his wife and then moved to Bermuda after seeing the rising racial conflict within the country. Finally, in 1970 after accepting a job as a Rolls Royce mechanic, they moved to the United States as citizens and have lived here ever since.
Gerry has a familiarity with the combustion engine like no one I have ever met. No computers to tell him what to do. He just understands it. Still today, at age 86, he receives job offers to work on Rolls Royces.
A few of his bikes in his workshop left me baffled. Always looking for ways to improve an engine, he would match different types of bikes to one another. He'd pick the best characteristics of each and blend them together to make a perfect machine. One, for example, is a grafting of a Yamaha TT500 top end onto a BSA Goldstar bottom end. When asked why, he simply said, "I wanted an overhead camshaft Goldstar." He configured and built the engine right there at home.
I have seen the inner sanctum of Gerry's world and I may not make it out. There is not enough time in the day to see what Gerry has in his shop, and I was struggling to stay afloat in a cocktail of vintage race bikes and stories of grandeur. Head still giddy and mouth dry from drooling over shinny silver Norton gas tanks, I took my leave, thanking Gerry for his time.
I promised Gerry I would come back and visit him again soon. I am still feeling the effects of the last visit, and it has only been seven months.
P.S. I saw Gerry during the 34th Hansen Dam All British Ride and Show a few weekends back. He had completed the Norton Manx he was building while on the couch. It looked amazing. And like our meeting was just yesterday, he called me by my first name and asked about his article. Sorry it took so long, Gerry.