Thursday, February 26, 2009


Readers of George Cohen's 'Flat Tank Norton' have already heard the story of the 'Sgonina Special', but Charles Sgonina had more than one ace up his sleeve, and was a talented rider as well as a development engineer. By the age of 22 he had accumulated over 50 race wins, and was third in the French Grand Prix .

In 1921, Charlie snagged a Works ride for Triumph at the Isle of Man TT, on their new 4-Valve 'Ricardo'-engined machines. Sir Harry Ricardo was a pioneer in scientific engine development, and created the four-valve layout to reduce thermal stress on the inadequate valve materials available, while improving airflow through increased valve area (see pic above, at the TT).

During practice Charlie learned that Scientific Development didn't necessarily equal the fastest bike; the new Triumph was too slow for a decent placing. Another lesson learned before the race was to keep his eyes on the road; waving friends distracted him momentarily at one point, and he found himself riding on the sidewalk! He gained the nickname of 'Pavement Artist' in the bike rags, also being described as "a Welshman with an Italian name, a sunny smile, and a mop of fair hair."
Sgonina was the third rider flagged away at the Senior TT, a minute behind Howard R. Davies, riding his A.J.S. 'Big Port', which shortly achieved immortality as the only 350cc machine to win that 500cc event. Charlie reckoned on keeping H.R.D. in sight to keep up his placing; at the end of the first lap he was in 7th place, but halfway through lap 2 the 'Riccy' (see an example bovve) dropped a valve.

Next race was the French G.P., where he placed 3rd, at an average of 56.96mph. Bill Phelps, in the VMCC Newsletter, relates; "unlike the TT, in France you could practice any old time and they had great fun going flat out through a bunch of chickens - but French chickens know how to look after themselves. One incident Charlie recalls is going around with Freddie Edmunds who was one of the Triumph team. They were riding abreast at about 70mph when they saw a cloud of dust ahead; about halfway through it Charlie noticed a steam roller, and wondering what happened to Freddie, pulled up. Freddie also pulled up and said 'that was a close one; I heard my clutch lever go click against the back wheel of the roller!' (pic below; Sgonina is far left, with the '21 Triumph TT team).
During the race, Charlie was bothered by salt on the road, used to keep dust down, which gave him a sore throat. As he finished on the winner's rostrum, he was able to gargle with a bit of champagne. His mechanic stripped the engine for post-race measurement, but as much more champagne was available, he was unable to reassemble it!

In the Belgian Grand Prix (at Spa-Francorchamps) 'that valve' reasserted itself, and tire trouble too. So it was back to England and Brooklands, where he had never raced previously. During his first event, he was following Freddie Dixon, who burst a tire at 80mph and rolled endlessly, shedding clothing. Charlie thought it would be a long time before Dixon raced again, but Freddie was tough, and jumped back in the race.
At Brooklands, Sgonina hung around a few days to test fettle his Triumph in peace, but found more trouble, and left the bike with Frank Halford to sort out before the Catsash Hill Climb. Halford worked closely with Harry Ricardo and helped develop a bronze 4-valve cylinder head for his Triumph. Charlie was confident he might gain best solo and sidecar times, given such expert tuning, at Catsash. Race day dawned wet though, and the road turned muddy, so Sgonina used sidecar gearing for his first solo run. George Dance (above) on his Sunbeam went first, then Charlie gave the Triumph some welly and went very quickly, spinning his back wheel on the slick surface. At the finish line, the Triumph's brakes were useless on the muddy road, and he approached a T junction at 60mph; he tried to break right but laid the bike down on its footrest, slid into the hedge, and landed in a heap on top of the machine. George Dance was the first to render aid, commenting that HE had turned left and found a softer landing!

Although injured, Sgonina (above, again at the TT) attached a sidecar to his Triumph and made the Fastest Time of the Day on 3 wheels. George Dance stuck to his solo machine, went straight through the hedge, and ended up in the hospital.

When Sgonina returned the Triumph to Brooklands, Frank Halford again sorted the bike out, and promptly used it to break the One-Hour Record on the track, at 76.74mph!

Dance and Sgonina again squared off at Pendine Beach in Wales, a favorite spot for racing and speed work, being long and broad with a slow taper to the sea; a perfect racetrack, refreshed daily by the tides. Plus, Britain's ban on motor competition on public roads didn't apply to public beaches. In a One Mile sprint race, Dance made his customary 'hole shot' (being a past master of Sprint takeoffs) and leapt two feet, nine inches into the lead, which Charlie just managed to close within that mile. When they stopped, Dance congratulated Sgonina on a win, but he demurred, claiming Dance was yet 3 inches ahead... This was the fastest Charles Sgonina traveled in his bike racing career; Dance confirmed that his own Sprint Special would do 95mph 'any day of the week' (see Dance 'down to it' below).

As mentioned, Charlie gave up motorcycle racing shortly afterwards, but owned quite a few interesting cars, including a 1959 Aston Martin, a veteran of the LeMans 24 hours race, with which he would terrorize Welsh roads and tracks into his 60's...

Many thanks again to Bill Phelps for his images of Charles Sgonina, and for the use of his article which I've adapted here. The images of George Dance are from Robert Gordon Champ's definitive 'The Sunbeam Motorcycle' (Haynes, 1980).


Affer said...

Great Blog - wonderful story! In Sir Harry Ricardo's book "The pattern of my life", he gives some background to the Ricardo-Triumph. It arose from a research contract with Shell to develop an alcohol-based racing fuel, primarily for Brooklands. This was then sold as both Shell Racing Spirit and Discol R. Frank Halford (later of De Havilland fame) was racing a 500cc Triumph at the time, and found the fuel added to the 'bike's speed, despite its conventional side-valve format. To gain maximum performance from the fuel, with Ricardo he designed a new 4-overhead valve, pent-roof bronze head, based on the RHA aero engine. This became so successful at Brooklands that the fuel was promptly banned! However, it attracted Triumph's notice, and they commissioned Ricardo to redesign the production engines, to include a 4-valve head in cast iron, and Ricardo's patent slipper piston - but with a somewhat lower compression ratio to accommodate normal 'pump' fuel. Doubtless this was much slower than Halford's machine!

Anonymous said...

Hi Paul,

Ricardo has always seemed to me to be a GREAT organisation - and Sir Harry himself was a bit of an unsung genius really. The prices paid for his primary autobiography, and for his ‘bible’, “High Speed Combustion Engines” are just fantastic however! The book I quoted from was given to me by an Engineer at Ricardo’s on a visit there.

If you ever visit England, I recommend a visit to The Tank Museum which has a couple of his original 6 cylinder tank engines, although the star in my eyes was an absolutely huge engine is something called the TOG Tank! It would be interesting to compare Ricardo over time-lines with Harry Weslake and MCD (Al Melling). I am sure that Ricardo would come out top on every metric!!

Only just found your blog - it is really terrific, and is causing me sleepless nights as I delve back into its archives!

Best to you,


Anonymous said...

Your latest posting on "Vintagent", as ever, contains superb stuff; it
is good to see some coverage of Sgonina's early camshaft
design...even if I still don't know how to pronounce his name.