Thursday, July 09, 2009


By John Joss

MRU963, seen in these dismal old photos, was an amazing machine. Its history is worth recording: it involved some of motorcycling’s greatest names and achievements. At the start of WWII, a motorcycle enthusiast and officer in the King’s Own Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment (known as ‘The Beds and Hearts’—phonetic), wondered what would happen on the battlefield if radio communication became iffy and four-wheeled vehicles could not traverse difficult terrain. Answer: brave riders on high-speed, cross-country motorcycles. The officer? R.S. (“Dickie”) Wilkins, a close friend and fellow officer of my stepfather, Jack Malcolmson. Wilkins persuaded the Ministry to create the ‘DR’ or ‘Dispatch Rider’ corps, riding Army BSAs, Matchlesses, Royal Enfields and Nortons, to carry battlefield intelligence from unit to unit. They rode all over North Africa and Europe, serving the war effort nobly.

After the war these bikes became the first scrambles machines, breeding motocross and its derivatives. Wilkins went on to sponsor Bob Foster (1949 350-cc World Champion—Velocette). His motorsports enthusiasm was endless. He funded the ‘G-type’ ERA, a Formula 2 machine powered by Bristol’s two-litre, in-line six built under license from BMW, who had designed the engine before WWII. BMW used it in its 328 that won the last pre-war Mille Miglia in 1939. The G-type was painted a bilious duck-egg green (any green is considered British Racing Green) and Mike Hawthorn raced it successfully, bow tie and all. Dickie bought MRU963 but did not ride it. He did not need to. He had a Mulliner Continental Bentley for town and the prototype Aston-Martin DB3 sports-racer (David Brown’s personal car earlier) for fun in the country. He gave me that sky-blue Squariel—a truly magnificent gift. The pre-WWII-conceived, 1,000-cc motor, originally iron with twin pipes, was re-engineered in the early 1950s in alloy, with four pipes (see pix). It was, to oversimplify, a pair of coupled parallel twins similar conceptually to the great two-stroke 500-cc MotoGP bikes of the ’80s. It breathed through a big Solex mounted in the center of the engine between the rocker boxes. It worked well, a smooth and quiet ‘gentleman’s express’ that hummed along nicely but disliked being flogged (rear-cylinder overheating). The frame and suspension were acceptable for the time but lacked rigidity and precision; the rear link suspension (see pic) might have delivered ¾” compliance on a good day. The 8” drum brakes? Marginal. No, actually not that good.

In the action picture I was flogging MRU963 down the Kingston By-pass, snapped by one of the great race photographers of the time, Bill Banks. We were both working at the time for ‘The Motor Cycle’ (the ‘blue ‘un,’ as opposed to ‘Motor Cycling,’ the ‘green ’un’—both weeklies).
One day a curious mechanical problem afflicted MRU963. I had decoked and reassembled it. On kick-starting, it would turn over 8-10 times, then run at valve-crash revs briefly before shutting down. Twice, three times I did this but decided that I risked harming it (insanity: “repeating an action and expecting a different outcome”). I unbuttoned everything and discovered that one rocker-box gasket had bowed, preventing the Solex from seating. It was only getting the necessary 14:1 air/petrol mixture every 8-10 kicks. Problem solved. No damage, mercifully. The Squariel (sadly, not MRU963) is a bike seen often at shows and in collectors’ hands and is memorable for its smooth, elegant way of going down the road. I wish I still had mine.


David Blasco said...

A fine article. Thank you. Any hint whatever happened to MRU963?

Anonymous said...

Hi Paul,

I read your blog with great enthusiasm. My name is Denislav Vasilev, I live in Varna, Bulgaria and I'm also keen on classic motorcycles. I'm writing you to ask you if I can use some of your photos for a classic cars and motorcycles magazine.

Thank you in advance!


vintagent said...

D. Vasilev; see my 'Notes on the photos'... if the pix are in color, they're probably mine, but many are from friends too. If b/w, I've likely scanned or downloaded them, thus they're not mine to release! If you're publishing them in print, send a list of what you'd like and I'll let you know what's mine to release.

motorcycle chargers said...

Nice bog. i really impressed with this blog.i kept it as a bookmark. thanks.

Anonymous said...

from a friend who owned one:

I cannot dispute anything in that article..... SIlky smooth and it would clog up the oilway in the rear crankshaft with no problem.

Anonymous said...

this is lame the four was a complete wanker of a bike