A very short TT race

Wal Handley was a legend. He had won the 1930 Senior Isle of Man TT race (on a Rudge), the 1925 Junior, the 1927 Lightweight and the 1925 Ultra-lightweight (all on on Rex-Acmes), and going into the 1931 races held the lap records in the Senior, Lightweight and Ultra-lightweight classes.

1931 Senior TT F.N.

Handley's entry for the 1931 Senior TT was technically advanced, fast and unquestionably handsome. So handsome that it must have saddened F.N. when The Motor Cycle published the illustration above, but erroneously captioned it as an N.S.U.! Designed by Dougal Marchant - best known for his exploits at Brooklands - the key feature of the machine was the massive unit-construction power plant, with bevel-driven overhead camshaft.

Writing in The Motor Cycle the day before the 1931 Senior TT race, "Michael Kirk" dismissed fifty of the sixty starters, giving them "... about as much chance as an eclair on the tea table at a boy's school." Handley was discussed along with the other "chances":

The Greatest Rider

And so we reach the Valentino of the Island - Wal Handley, the greatest road-racing rider the world has yet seen.

But this year he is on an F.N., not a Rudge. What do we know of the F.N.? It is tuned by Marchant, the man who could make a three-fifty win a Senior if he were put to it. Handley's F.N. has been seen out at the continental races. It has usually been the fastest model on view, but early on it was rather a brute to steer, even on the easier Continental circuits. Frames and forks are not supposed to be Marchant's long suit. We must put a huge black "?" against this F.N. It looks to me very, very dangerous. It is likely to be first or nowhere; but it is a single entry, and the correct Rudge tactics will be to send somebody on ahead to crack it up.

Elsewhere in the same issue, Motor Cycle's "man on the spot" said of Handley's chances:

No one is a safe winner while Wal Handley is in the race, and practice times tell us nothing of his form, but his riding requires no comment, and his F.N. engine and gear box are a superb piece of engineering, and probably the most up-to-the-minute design in the race. Vague rumours that its road manners on the Island course are not perfect need not be taken too seriously, for Handley's fall on his first lap, before he had settled down, may have unsteadied him temporarily. At the moment of writing Handley's position is obscure, for, technically, he has failed to qualify on the F.N. Surely a curious position for a man of his calibre.

The pedigree of the F.N. machine was not in doubt. Through 1930, with Handley (or occasionally Marchant himself) aboard, similar machines of 350 cc and 500 cc had captured a gaggle of speed records at Arpajon and Montlhery, at speeds up to 192.7 km/h (500 cc flying mile). By the end of 1930, F.N. held 33 World Records, and clearly had a machine fast enough to win races. Surely this was to be a far cry from Mundy and White's sedate tour around the TT course in the 1914 races.

Detail, 1931 Senior TT F.N.

Preparations for the 1931 TT races were far from smooth, and with one of England's favourite sons in the saddle there was plenty of comment and speculation in the motorcycle press. After the exciting build-up, the race itself was a massive anti-climax for Handley and F.N.:

The position of Handley had remained obscure till overnight. He had qualified on a Rudge, but the F.N. people refused to release him from his contract with them, and he was finally given permission to start on the F.N., though it had broken down two miles from the end of its final qualifying lap. Rumour averred that he could not get its handling to his satisfaction, though it had lashings of speed. Anyhow, he retired at Quarter Bridge on his very first lap.

"Ubique" reviewed in detail the mechanical breakdowns in the race:

Wal Handley's trouble in the first mile of the race was unique. Certain gears in the F.N. four-speed box, when not in use, idle on a steel sleeve and run on bronze bushes, which are screwed into pinion bosses. The third-speed pinion had been erected the wrong way round, so that the bushes unscrewed, took up all end float, and jammed the box solid.

Well, that was the official explanation. Does anyone know a different story? One could imaging more intriguing explanations for an abandonment so close to the start. Would Handley rather have been riding his Rudge? Was the handling of the machine as dangerous as "Michael Kirk" had suggested?

If there were any consolation for Handley, it may have been that while he was the first to retire from the race, he was far from the last. Of the 56 starters, only 12 actually finished  - or 13 if you wish to count the unfortunate rider who was still circulating when the roads were reopened.

For the record, Norton made a clean sweep of the places, and in finishing 1-2-3 emulated Rudge's Junior performance of the previous year. Rudge were not entirely disgraced, finishing fourth and fifth. I wonder where Handley might have finished had he been allowed to start on his Rudge?

From Guy de Becker's lovely book Quand la F.N. avait deux roues (When F.N.s had two wheels), we find an interesting postscript to the 1931 TT saga. On his return to Liege, Marchant was sacked as head of the racing department, which was then restructured and brought back into the F.N. factory proper from the building that had been especially constructed for Marchant. New race machines were designed, still with overhead camshafts, but this time driven by chain.

Copyrightę Leon Mitchell 2001

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