History of Speedway
Bikes through the ages
Speedway bikes through the ages
With 500cc engines, no brakes, one fixed gear and speed that could leave a Formula 1 car trailing off the start line, 21st century speedway bikes are incredible machines.
But how have they evolved over the past century? FIMSpeedway.com is your guide to the bikes that habe powered the sport over the past 100 years.
1923 - HARLEY DAVIDSON PEASHOOTER
Harley Davidsons remain a common feature on parades at big-time speedway events all over the world. But there was a time when Harleys were much more than just part of the pre-meeting entertainment – they were very much at the heart of the action.
When Americans headed to Australia to race in the early 1920s, they travelled with a Harley Davidson Peashooter. It quickly became the bike of choice as speedway was born in the land Down Under in 1923, before the brand-new sport made its way to Europe, launching in Britain in 1928.
There, the bike very quickly came up against a British-born rival …
1928 - DOUGLAS
The Douglas very quickly left the Peashooter trailing. The twin-engine machine with three gears had a low centre of gravity and a low saddle height, giving riders the chance to pioneer the spectacular leg-trailing style through the corners.
The bike was starting to take off in Australia, before Douglas bikes were supplied for the very first meeting staged in Britain at High Beech, North London on February 19, 1928. .
The Autocycle Union, British motorcycling’s governing body, ordered riders to use rear brakes on the bikes. This was a shock to travelling Aussie star Keith McKay, who sailed over for the High Beech event and was much more used to racing without brakes Down Under.
Brakes were dispensed with very quickly as the sport took off in Europe and another machine was quickly gathering momentum.
1928 - RUDGE
While the Douglas was an unconventional speedway machine by modern standards, the Rudge was the beginning of what evolved into a standard speedway bike.
The 500cc, one-cylinder machine took over from the Douglas. Lighter and more compact, it’s four-valve speedway prototype came into production in the summer of 1928.
1929 – SUNBEAM
Sunbeam's DTR emerged as a competitor to the Douglas and Rudge bikes in the late 1920s. It is not known how many DTRs were made, but given the model's short production life, it is not believed to have been many.
Bikes were evolving fast, and it was not long before a very famous name knocked No.1 machine Rudge off top spot and ruled the speedway world for around three decades.
1930 – JAP
Founded by inventor John Alfred Prestwich , JAP was a business initially specialising in the production of scientific instruments, experimental apparatus, and machines for making and showing cinema films. But a move to Tottenham, North London in 1895 saw Prestwich become one of the most prolific engine manufacturers in the world.
On the advice of Stan Greening, who became his chief technical advisor, Prestwich took a trip to Stamford Bridge Speedway in West London – home of Chelsea Football Club – but showed little appetite for getting involved in this burgeoning sport.
ut a visit by Stamford Bridge captain Bill Bragg to the JAP stand during the 1929 Motorcycle Show at Olympia, London saw him meet Prestwich’s son Vivian. After selling speedway to Vivian, a word with his father saw John Prestwich gave Greening the go-ahead to start work on an experimental engine. .
The prototype JAP engine was too heavy and couldn’t match the 28hp of the Rudge. JAP enlisted top rider Wal Phillips to help them strip down a Rudge engine and turn the tide in the search for speed.
Changes were made and when the new horsepower figures were checked, the engine was given the green light to be tried at Stamford Bridge. A two-lap trial proved a huge success as unofficial timing suggested it was lapping at over 46mph, which was more than the track record.
The JAP logo became iconic for riders and fans alike in the sport’s formative decades and the bikes remain some of the most beautiful in speedway history.
1934 - HARLEY DAVIDSON CAC
While the Peashooter helped the sport take off in the 1920s, the legendary American manufacturer made an unexpected foray back into the speedway world in 1934.
When Harley Davidson’s factory racer Joe Patreli desired a speedway bike, it is said that Harley Davidson did not want to invest the money into developing one. But with the help of some of the company’s engineers, Petrali built the bike himself during his weekends at the company’s Milwaukee plant.
It is thought between 12 and 20 CAC racers were made, making the Harley Davidson CAC one of the rarest models ever created. One of the bikes is said to have been sold at auction recently for over $180,000.
1949 – ESO
While Czech manufacturer Jawa eventually became synonymous with speedway, it was the ESO machine that was the country’s first foray into the speedway market in 1949, before it eventually merged with Jawa in 1964.
Engineer josed created the JOLI model between 1947 and 1950, before Jaroslav Simandl bought up the spares of the defunct JOLI bikes and used them to create the ESO version.
Engines were sourced from JAP during the first year, before ESO created its own engine from 1950, first copied from JAP and later creating their own design.
1952 – ROTRAX
Founded in a cycle shop in Southampton, UK, Rotrax initially started as a business crafting lightweight cycle frames. But in 1952, they began to build their own speedway chassis.
Mike Compton , the workshop foreman, together with the British Oxygen Company, developed a nickel-bronze brazing technique for the frame lugs and tubing that was to give the hand-built frame the strength needed for track racing. This method of brazing was later adopted by the aircraft industry on their jet engine frames.
Fitted with a JAP engine, the stunning Rotrax speedway bike was born.
1964 – JAWA
Czech company Jawa was started by Fratisek Janecek in 1929. Before that, Janecek had been an engineer and an inventor, creating everything from a hand grenade to typewriters and sewing machines.
But with the arms industry in decline, Janecek decided to go into motorcycle production.
The Czech Republic was already making waves in the speedway world as ESO tried to keep pace with JAP.
Jawa purchased ESO in January 1964, giving them the tools needed to emerge as a true challenger to the British manufacturer. They remain one of the market leaders in the 21st century, producing both frames and engines.
1970S – WESLAKE
Born in Exeter, UK in 1897, Harry Weslake grew up around his father Henry’s engineering company Willey and Co, which supplied gas meters.
After developing a keen interest in engines during the interwar years, he formed Weslake and Co. after the Second World War and provided cylinder heads for the Ford GT40 Le Mans cars.
He entered the speedway engine market in the 1970s, winning the 1976 world speedway championship with British star Peter Collins . The Weslake machines then took second, third, fourth and fifth place at the 1978 World Final, with a delighted Harry looking on.
But in a cruel twist of fate, he suffered a fatal heart attack during that event at Wembley Stadium and passed away.
1978 – GODDEN
Crowned Britain’s first European Long Track Championship winner in Oslo in 1969, Don Godden emerged as one of speedway’s top manufacturers in the second half of the 20th century.
In 1968, Godden purchased a small agricultural engineering company in Aylesford, Kent, UK. Having served an apprenticeship in a similar firm, he continued to service their company’s existing customers, while launching the motorcycle side of the business.
After showing a talent for tuning JAP engines, he built a flourishing chassis business. But with JAP pushed out of the speedway market by the might of Jawa and the Czech firm reluctant to supply standalone engines to power Godden’s chassis, he turned to Weslake.
In 1978, Godden built his own engine. The project cost £120,000; half of it was borrowed and the other half raised from the existing company. The engine was first displayed at a London show in January 1979 and went into volume production for the following season.
While it took until a few years for Godden to turn a profit, their engines emerged as a market leader in the 1980s and 1990s, with Danish star Hans Nielsen racing them to world titles in the 1980s, pre-Speedway GP era.
1979 – GM
While it may appear to be a branch of car manufacturing giant General Motors to those unfamiliar with the sport, the GM name represents its founder and former Italian rider Giuseppe Marzotto.
In the late 1970s he began to develop his own speedway motor and the first official version was produced in 1979. Swiss long track rider Marcel Gerhardt tested the engine in long track racing and brought it to the attention of German tuner Otto Lantenhammer . He became the first official dealer for GM.
It was perfect timing for German racer Egon Muller , who raced a Lantenhammer-tuned machine to victory at the 1983 World Final on home shale in Norden.
With Danish star Erik Gundersen riding a GM to victory in the 1984 World Final, they rapidly became the must-have motor. They remain speedway’s market leader and have powered the sport into the laydown era.
1995 – LAYDOWN ERA
As the FIM Speedway Grand Prix series was launched in 1995 , transforming the sport’s World Championship from a one-day event into a series, another revolution was taking place.
For much of speedway’s history, riders competed with upright engines that sit vertically in the frame. But in 1994 and 1995, the laydown engine became the design of choice for the sport’s biggest names – a major step in the evolution of the modern speedway bike.
the-new-design better handling, a lower centre of gravity and an increased power ratio.
Laydown engines from manufacturers like GM and Jawa fire the sport’s modern greats to glory in Speedway GP.
While speedway bikes have evolved relatively little compared to vehicles raced in other two or four-wheeled motorsports, the challenges of the future will inevitably bring about more innovations.
Efforts to reduce the sport’s noise pollution levels have seen silencers evolve, gradually lowering the sport’s decibel levels.
With speedway bikes powered by methanol, one of the cleanest-burning fossil fuels , and riders and their teams travelling to events in a single van, speedway’s carbon footprint is already one of the lowest in the industry.
But will methanol continue to be the fuel of choice, or will the next iconic speedway bike be an electric model? All will be revealed as speedway enters its second century…