On an island in the middle of the Irish Sea, one of the most significant restoration projects in classic motorcycle racing history is underway. Seven machines once ridden and owned by legendary racer Bob McIntyre are being brought back to life, one at a time and with a sympathetic approach, by engineer Mike Jones. He works voluntarily, and alone.
“I’ve never met anyone with a passion for motorbikes like mine,” says Mike, who was riding with his father at the age of three. “It’s a way of life, so for me this is not just a passion project, it’s a labour of love and most of all, a privilege.”
The collection of motorcycles, which were brought out of storage four years ago after being carefully laid to rest by Bob’s family following his death in 1962, includes the 500cc 4 cylinder Gilera he rode when he became the first person to average more than 100mph on the Isle of Man TT circuit in 1957. On long stretches of the 37.73 mile course, Bob would have hit speeds of up to 160mph, but out of respect “we don’t want to abuse them” Mike refuses to test the bikes capabilities as vigorously as their previous owner did –particularly those in the fleet that were designed and built by Bob and the racer, engineer and businessman Joe Potts.
“These are very special bikes, they were unbelievably fast but they could be very fragile,” explains Mike. Known as Potts Nortons, they had a reputation for failing short of the finish line because parts, such as the pistons, had been manufactured too lean. “They were trying to build bikes that were super fast, so to save weight they would machine components down as much as they possibly could. Invariably those parts would fail mid-way or towards the end of a race because they were that light that they couldn’t sustain the pressure. Bob was a hard rider, and a lot of people said he was hard on the machines, but he wasn’t. The bikes just weren’t reliable, he probably lost more races than he won because they broke.”
Not born a showman, Bob’s aptitude on a motorcycle made him a reluctant superstar and enduring icon. Best remembered for his one-hour speed record at Monza in 1957 and five motorcycle Grand Prix wins, his down to earth attitude and determination to push the limits of what going flat-out on a motorcycle means is comparable to the determined spirit of Morris Lubricants Racing Ambassador, and Mike’s friend, Guy Martin.
“In the same way that Bob was always chasing faster speeds, Guy is as well,” says Mike. “They’re both record breakers who experiment, design and build bikes that they can realise ambitions on.”
Guy’s current mission is to become the world’s fastest person on a conventional motorcycle. His ride of choice to achieve 300mph within the distance of a mile, from a standing start, is a Suzuki Hayabusa, which he’s “slowly going through the process of evolving” so that it’s up to the task. Considering it a challenge worth dying for, Guy reveals why in our exclusive interview, here.
Having recently become a father, Bob perished at the age of 33, following an accident at Oulton Park in Cheshire. “A lot of people talked about him when I was a kid,” says Mike, 37, who became friends with Bob’s daughter Eleanor, when he curated an exhibition about her father for the Isle of Man TT Museum.
In 2017, Eleanor felt it was time to celebrate her father’s legacy and entrusted Mike with the responsibility of waking the motorbikes from hibernation. “She wanted to let people see them, hear them and smell them,” says Mike, whose long association with the world of motorcycle racing includes being chief engineer to eight times world champion Phil Read MBE.
As owner of the Bob McIntyre classic parade team, Eleanor also committed herself to touring the UK and Europe to display the completed bikes. Joined by Mike, as team manager, who describes taking parts in festivals and events as “a buzz like no other”, as well as rider Chris Wedgwood and Mike’s brother, Chris Jones, they believe it’s one thing to see the machines that were made legendary by Bob in a museum, but it’s quite another to witness them in action. Especially when it’s an anniversary celebration.
In 2019, Mike’s brother rode Bob’s 1959 350 Manx Norton on the Isle of Man TT Classic Parade lap – 60 years after Bob raced the bike there. “It was unbelievable, he relives that day over and over, it’s all he talks about” says Mike, who, in the same year, took Bob’s 350 Manx Norton back to the North West 200 circuit where it secured victory in 1959.
Currently working on restoration number four, the 500 Potts Norton that Bob won the 1959 F1 TT on, Mike fits it in around his full-time job as a steam engineer at GMA engineering on the Isle of Man. Reviving them in no particular order but with patience, precision and support from Morris Lubricants, he has the utmost respect for preserving these pieces of automotive heritage.
“You can’t just start an engine that hasn’t run for fifty or sixty years, you’ve got to strip it down and inspect it before it’s made runnable,” says Mike. “The bikes were all complete and had been well looked after so I haven’t had to deal with rust or rot. The chassis are all original, the wheels, the rims, the seats, petrol tanks, mud guards, handlebars, everything is all original. Mechanically, the original crank shafts are all in them, the cam shafts too, everything is original apart from the bits that have worn out inside the engine, like the pistons and the valves, those are new – but I’ve kept the original parts that Bob made or carved. I keep everything, even the parts that are broken because it’s part of the bike’s history.”
Whilst a motorcycle might look like it’s in great condition to the casual observer, using the correct oil and lubricants is key to protecting, preserving and maintaining internal components. “I’ve used Morris Lubricants products for over 20 years so the fact that they’ve come on board to help with this project is brilliant,” says Mike.
Once rebuilt, each bike takes a gallon (4.55 litres) of Morris Race C40 engine oil (formerly MLR 40 Castor Racing Oil) which Mike will drain before and after each bike is used to inspect it for early signs of engine problems. “I’ll look at the colour and see if there are any little bits of metal in there that might indicate something’s breaking up. So far, the oil has always come out as clean as it has gone in.”
If, or when, there are issues, Mike feels reassured that Morris Lubricants is on hand to help. “The technical knowledge and support is outstanding,” he says. “With 150 years of experience, if you’ve got a problem, they’re going to find an answer. If we were wearing a crank out, they would work out exactly what we needed to do. Perhaps warm the bike up for longer, or put the oil in hot rather than starting the engine from cold with cold oil.”
Identifying the “treacle” like coating that Race C40 gives components as the key reason why it’s his lubricant of choice, Mike explains: “other oils tend to be flung off, for example when the crankshaft spins it will throw the oil off, but not Race C40. It sticks to all the bearing surfaces, and the coating it leaves on moving parts that come into contact with each other prevents material wear and damage. Without a shadow of a doubt this is the best oil for these bikes.”
With a 1960 McIntyre Norton, 1961 Potts Norton and the original McIntyre Matchless left on his to-do list, Mike is optimistic that he’ll be able to take his current project, the 500 Potts Norton, to the 2022 Bob McIntyre Memorial Classic race at East Fortune in Scotland. He’s also looking forward to being reunited with Guy. “When he’s on the island he comes into the workshop and we talk motorbikes for hours on end.”
The Bob McIntyre motorcycle collection
Up and running
1956 500 Potts Norton
1957 500 4 cylinder Gilera
1959 350 Potts Norton
1959 500 Potts Norton
1960 McIntyre Norton
1961 Potts Norton
The original McIntyre Matchless