Alf Hagon's story and history - Part 2

As told exclusively to

Part two of Alf’s story covers his time as an established star of international Speedway and Grass track, riding at meetings in the UK and abroad as far as Australia, including a memorable trip behind the Iron Curtain. He continued to put his engineering skills to use, providing products and bikes for many of the sports leading competitors. He began working at Ford in Dagenham but his skill in engineering and frame building was becoming more widely known, and this led to him opening his first shop to cater for the growing demand for his products.

Thanks to Karl Fiala for supplying images from speedway media of Alf during the 50s and early 60s.

This is something I tell people but they dismiss it, can’t believe it. I had a 1937 2H 250 Triumph and my mate Freddie Wells worked at Longstaff’s motorcycle shop. We fitted a pair of tele forks with a sprung hub on the back. The engine was all black inside from years of use and the big end was worn. Freddie took it to work and put oversized rollers in the big end. I got the piston out of a twin, the valve angles were completely different, but the bore size was the same. I took the cylinder head to work and stuck an inch drill down the inlet port, using an inch carburettor and 350 valves with valve springs from something else. We couldn’t turn the engine over because the piston hit the valves. We fiddled about with that. We got a couple of old valves and cut teeth on them. Then cut the pistons, turning them by using a hand brace. Standard camshafts, built it all up then rode it at 10pm one night and my mum was mad at me the next morning. Then we fitted a silencer.

This must have been mid 1950’s, and my mate had just bought a brand new 350 Goldstar. We lived at Barkingside, quite a wide road up a hill, it was 30mph with houses all around. We’d stop at the bottom of this hill side by side in the middle of the road talking, and no traffic at all. Then we’d say “Come on lets have a go.” I’ve got the 250 Triumph and he’s got the 350 Goldstar, it left the Goldstar for dead.

Speedway Star, 21st May 1955. Alf is now a lifetime member of the World Speedway Riders' Association.

When I was riding for Wimbledon I had good and bad meetings. At Norwich, having a bad meeting, out of the start I’m spinning and couldn’t get any drive. Well, Ronnie Moore, one particular year he rode at Norwich in the league, that year he won every race. At Norwich we only had one bike and a track spare. In Ronnie's last race his bike packs up and he has the second half to do. He asks to borrow my bike which I said is no good anyway. He goes from the start to half way round on one wheel, wins the race by miles! He comes back and says “Blimey it drives well!”

I’ve said to people a Speedway bike to a Speedway rider is not much more than a football to a football player. When I started you had 40 horsepower, and you can’t get 40 horsepower on the ground, it just spins. Now they've got 60 horsepower, so they're worse off now than before.

Speedway Star and News 8th March 1958, Alf on the left.

A couple of things to mention happened at Wimbledon. They had the World Championship rounds and I ended up going to the stadium in Norway, the big Olympic stadium. I went there with Cyril Maidment. We flew there but didn’t do any good. It was either at the end of 1955 or into 1956, we went to Poland. Poland was in the Iron Curtain, and getting out there was not easy. They’d sent the English team once before to Poland and we were the second team to go. They would supply the bikes and you couldn't go directly to Poland.

We had to go to one of the Continental airports and be met there by the Polish organizers of the event. He was accompanied by a KGB man. So we’re on another plane to Poland and the guy said “Any of you boys got cameras? Only whatever you do keep them out of sight!”. We landed at a military airport, on grass where there was a load of ME 109 Messerschmitt in Polish colours. As we were driving along the road to the hotel the buildings were flattened. On the road side were women chipping away at the bricks and re-stacking them.

1958 11th October Speedway Star, Alf rear row, far left.

In Warsaw the Russians had built what was the highest building in Europe. It was the end of the year and it was cold. We went to the track and were showed the workshop full of Speedway bikes and were told to pick a bike. The first thing you do is check to see if there is any compression. We got our first event and the place is packed, and there are loads of Russian soldiers with Tommy Guns. The meeting starts and we're getting absolutely slaughtered. Now, you'll like this, and I’ve spoken to several people about this and half of them think you don’t know what you're talking about. The Polish riders came up to us and said “We’ll ride your bikes and you ride ours” Tt didn’t make any difference at all!

A month's wages and you’d buy a pair of shoes. Well, we got lots of money but you couldn't take it out of the country. We were also given a camera. I ended up buying a box of films for it and some shirts, managing to spend it all. Some of the others brought telephoto lenses and other items, and on the way back through customs, and asked about all this camera gear, we explained it was all for England and we got through ok. The camera we were given was a Russian Zorki, which I had stolen a few years later only to find out from a top man at Leica I met on my way to a show that it was worth a fortune.

Leicester Hunters

I got a job at Fords at Dagenham in the wood jigs and fixtures department which paid twice the money I got at the glass company. This was very different from what I was used to with the variety of tools and machines that were there to use. I’m thinking by this time I’m not going to last here long. A young lad on the bench next to me took me on a walk round the whole factory, including where the cars were made. We were walking around and we saw Ronnie Genz, one of the Speedway riders working. At the time the MK 2 Consul, Zephyrs and Zodiacs were coming out. Once I got into the variety of work, and different jigs and fixtures made for many jobs, I found the work very interesting and I enjoyed my time there, even working Sundays at double time.

You had to be a member of the unions, which I felt was ridiculous, as were some of the rules and regulations. I became a member of the pattern makers union. I went to the welding shop one day, just to have this one piece welded, and the guy was reading a newspaper. He said “Leave it here and come back later”. “Well” I said “I can weld it myself if you like”. Well the next thing I know is the foreman came up and said you’ve caused a bit of a stir.

1962 Speedway Star 21st July, Alf front row left.

These were the days when they had a steward who was the bell ringer. One day he rang the bell, “Stop! Down tools!”, and they’d have an argument about having these windows cleaned which were around us all, and they’d not been done, and were really so dirty. So they went on strike. It was that ridiculous.

I’d ordered a new Ford Consul before I left because you got them at a really good price. Then when the Speedway season started again in March I thought I can’t mess about here and come and go as I please. So I went up to the foreman and said “I do the Speedway and what’s the chance if I pack up could I get my job back next year?” He said “You'll have to go to management to ask.” So I gave my notice, left and did Speedway racing for the season. The next year I applied for a job at Plesseys, a big electrical company at Ilford. Turned out not to be a good firm to work for at all. But I’d had my new Consul.

1962 Speedway Star 6th October.

I think one year I just fiddled about. In the meantime I’d won the Junior Championship at Harringay and Wal Phillips was a keen motorcyclist and we got on well together with the engines. I learnt a lot from him. I said “What about putting a bigger inlet valve in?'' He said we tried that in 1928, but it didn't work”. He said “If we put a bigger inlet valve in we got 1 extra horsepower. If we put in a 2mm inlet port we got another horsepower. We did four things that got an extra horsepower, but if you put all four together you only got 1 more horsepower!”

In 1955 I had the Austin which was the tow car. I’d gone into the dealers to buy an Austin A 50 and told I’d have to wait but if you paid a bit over the top you could get one. One of the guys I knew worked for a tool place and he said “I’ve found you an Austin at Brixton. It's black but it’s the proper price.” So I bought it. Run that for a couple of years then ordered a Consul in 1957. At the end of 1956 Speedway wasn’t doing too well and they amalgamated the 1st and 2nd division to just one. I was given the option to ride for Leicester which I did in 1957,58 59.

1962 Speedway Star 24th November.

At the Grass Track in 1956 I got friendly with Martin Tatum and he’d started doing the meetings abroad. When I was at Wimbledon I got an invitation to go to France for £75. I built this bike and still can't believe how it happened. I was doing the bikes myself and there was this mechanic who was hopeless, he did Ronnie Moore's bike. Anyway I’d built this bike completely from scratch using an assortment of parts I had and bits from others. This included a centre frame from Ronnie, a pair of metal profile forks, swinging rear arm from Tatum, rubber band suspension and a Albion gearbox. I had to leave the next morning for France even before I’d had a chance to start it up. This was a 3 day trip over the Pyrenees mountains to Valence D'agen. I came third in that meeting. I realized it was not worth it and only did that one Continental meeting, although I was invited to others. I made the right decision to stop here.

I remember I got £10 a run and £75 was about a month's wages. With the Speedway I’d average over a week's wages a meeting as a mid-team leader. Another guy worked out with his accountant it was Half a Crown an hour, which was 2 shillings and sixpence. When I was at Fords I got 4 shillings and sixpence an hour.

1963 Oxford, Alf front row left.

My Son Martin wanted to do Speedway and has been European and National Grass Track Champion and his son Sam now does it. I did my best to put them off. When I started the Speedway I used to love it, driving up and down but in the end, when I had the shop and I was riding at Oxford, I had to leave at about 2pm. It just all got too much for me.

End of 1958 what am I going to do? I had the offer of going to Australia with the English team. The trip was 4 weeks on the boat. I didn’t like Australia, how could you live out there with that bloody weather? It was too hot. There was me, Ron Mountford, Gordon McGregor and Nigel Boocock, who didn’t show. One of the guys had been out 8 times before. We went to Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide. At one of them, 2 of us had the opportunity to just get on a plane and go to Surfers Paradise. When we arrived at this very small and basic airport there was a taxi waiting. The driver said “Are you the 2 English boys? I’m to look after you today. Go where you want and do what you like”. We had a helicopter ride from the beach and were taken out for a super meal. We went to Melbourne and met the promoter at his house. He said “I’ll let you have a car with one stipulation, only Hagon is to drive.” They’d had a car the year before and ruined it. The whole trip was a great experience.

1964 17th July West Ham Hammers, Alf on the left.

In the meantime, this is 1956, I’d built this bike up which I called the Kirby Special because I did it in Tom’s workshop where he had welding equipment. I’d already won a National Championship. One of my competitors was Martin Tatum. He'd won a Championship and already travelled abroad a lot where they had long tracks like a 1000 meters, some dangerous and narrow. One of the top riders, Austin Creswell, asked me to build him a bike which I did before I went to Australia. I put a tiny advert in Motorcycle News and had a few enquiries and ended up building 6 bikes for different people. Then after Australia I sold a few bikes over there. I also got married while still living at my mum’s. Then we wanted a shop.

My grandfather had quite a lot of property, pubs and things, and my father was left quite a bit of money, but he blew it all and my mum took over the finances. When I started doing the Speedway and earning a few bob she said “We’ll put it in the building society and find a shop.” When we went to the building society for financial help with buying a shop they knew I was a Speedway rider, and they didn’t want to know. I had a little bit of money in the bank so thought “I’ll go and see the bank manager.” I sat with the manager and he said “Where do you get the tips?” I said “What tips?”. The money I got was from Speedway riding at Harringay which was also a Greyhound racing track. The stadium was run by the Greyhound Racing Association and I was paid by cheque. I explained I did Speedway racing.

1965 Poole Pirates, Alf front row right.

The bank did help me out and my first shop was at Leyton, opposite Leyton Orient football club. It was £2,400. It was a greengrocer and a land mine had landed on the opposite side of the road. It had a basement, ground floor and 1st floor, and the top floor had been blown off and had a temporary asbestos roof on it. Two others in the road were completely flattened. It had a roller shutter and was racked out with metal shelving. When taking it all down my mate put his foot through the floor. We put in a new floor and window replacing the roller shutter. It had a stable out back which had bomb damage to the walls and the top wall was 2x2 timber with tarpaulin nailed on.

Then when the council guys came down, they said “Ok, what you doing?” They came back to me and said I was doing heavy industry and was not licensed, and could have been fined £100 per week. Well we thought we'd knackered it. I had one guy working for me. The council guy said “I’ll be back in a couple of weeks to check.” When he came back and looked round he said “Look, if you get a complaint, we’ll be down and sort you out, you know.” So we carried on.

Images courtesy Karl Fiala.

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Alf Hagon's story and history - Part 1

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