Alf Hagon's story and history - Part 3

As told exclusively to

Part three of Alf’s story sees his Speedway career continue as his business expanded and he began to specialise in developing shock absorbers with the acquisition of stock and machinery from Girling. He continued to compete in various differing motorcycle events and, with the encouragement of Len Cole, built his first sprint bike using one of his speedway frames. This Triumph powered machine was soon setting records. The photos in this part were taken at Hagon Products by Dave Dick during our recording of the interview.

When we got going with the shop we had no money, but Jean was very good with money. In fact it sort of backfired on me in the end. Only when I bought the farm, which I still have, I bought 4 new tractors. Jean would say “What do you want another new tractor for?” One time, (I was always a fan of Ford cars), I bought a new A50 then a Consul paying over £800 for each one.

Then we bought 350 (High Road, Leyton) and next door was a Jewellers and his lease had run out. We paid £2,600 for that. Then we brought the shop up on the corner which had the 2 top floors blown off and the roof off the stables out back. We started to rebuild the workshop out back. The guy who had been there before turned up and said “If you change it too much you have to reapply for a different development.” He said “You have users rights now.” We had suitable conditions above number 350 and were living above by now. Then we bought a house and we were there for 15 years. Then Jean wanted a bigger garden so we bought the farm.

We were doing the Grass Track, making the motorcycles and doing ok then we ran into problems with money. The accountant said “You’re doing too many things”. So we cut out a number of them, including the sidecars, and kept a check from week to week and got over that problem. We kept making the bikes, which we were sending all over the World, even Japan, and started to make money again. I rode at Ramsgate in the early 1960’s with my 350 Jap, on one of my grass track bikes, and it went ok.

We used to get the Girling shocks from the local distributor, Kennards in North London, and Gus Coombes in South London. One day Kennards rang up and said “My lease is running out in a few years and I’m getting on and going to retire,” and would I be interested in the business? We brought his shop and business with a few shocks for only peanuts as long as we kept on Roy Price, the guy who ran it. They had what they called a float which was a sidecar with a box, and a commercial vehicle was a solo bike. The dealers would phone up and we’d deliver them, and it was on a monthly account. The first thing I did was stop the account and make them pay up front.

When I first started I used to use Tom Kirby to get all my stuff. Then I went over to Alec Jackson. They were the big JAP people Wembley way. One day Alec came out and said “I will give you an account but I can supply you with more items”. He said “One word of advice is, don’t do credit to Speedway riders.” When we started it was cash only and no credit accounts. Don in the shop had a call from Fords asking to order 10 timing discs. He said “Cash. No account”! A while later they did pay cash for them. They were known to take up to a year to pay if you gave them credit.

We were North London’s Girling distributor, getting 50% of their products. One of the Speedway riders asked if we wanted to buy some Girling tractor seat dampers, which they used as steering dampers, for less than we were paying. I said “Are they knocked off? I’m not interested.” He said “It doesn't matter where they’re coming from, you'll get a receipt.” We had a letter from Girling saying we were not meeting our quota. I phoned one of the bosses. I said “I can buy shocks cheaper from elsewhere than I can from you.” He wanted to know from where, I wouldn’t tell him, he said “They must be stolen,” well I had the receipt. He wanted to bring the chief of security to us and see what’s going on, fine I said. We had a little office upstairs. There’s me, Jean and Ken, Girlings’ head of security. I looked the security guy straight in the eye and said “You don’t want to know where these came from do you?” Then they start talking. It got so corrupt and out of control they had to end up shutting the plant. More stuff was going out the back door than properly. Anyway we sorted out their concerns.

I’d heard that Girling were selling up so I called Ken and said “I hear you're selling the shock absorber business. I could be interested in that.” He said “All due respect Alf you couldn’t afford it, it’s going for millions and millions” and a German company bought it. We only wanted the Girling shocks to put on our bikes we sold, and we did advertise them for sale, and we were selling them. Looking back on it, we should have pushed the shock absorber sales. By this time I could see that selling the racing bikes and stuff, you’re only as good as your last race to promote yourself, and it was a limited market. We needed to sell more products.

So we went to the Milan Motorcycle Show. There were 6 big halls and we were looking to buy some shocks. We spoke to a number of manufacturers, but the quantity we wanted per year was 4000, and this was too small for any of them. They were just not interested. I’d been wanting to make my own shocks and had made air shocks before this. So we sat down and started sorting out what we were going to do. Then we had Ken on the phone, he said “This is an unofficial call, Boge have been over and taken all the equipment, except for all the motorcycle stuff, would you be interested in it? I said yes. He said “There’s a couple of problems, first of all it’s not ours, it’s theirs but they don’t want it. We can sell you it but you can’t use the Girling name.” I thought “Well that’s alright.”

Now this is going back to the early 1960’s, we paid them £4000 for their existing stock and a few assembly machines. Ken gave a bit of advice to steer clear of the automotive industry. It is just ridiculous, they want thousands and thousands, pay nothing for them, you wait ages for your money, if anything goes wrong it’s down to you. So we brought it all and started making shock absorbers and the business was going alright.

When we started the shop up I remember Ronnie Moore, he was top Speedway rider, earning a fortune. Most of the top Speedway riders earned the money and blew it all, like a lot of professional people. I had a good guy working for me and the Honda Dream had just come out. We wanted some shocks for the Honda Dream and two years later we had still not received them from Girlings.

Then the Motocross had started. We got a bit involved and went to a Girling do at one of the Motor bike shows, and the Ohlins guy was there. I said “There’s one major problem with your shock absorbers, and that’s that they're too cheap.” Ohlins then improved on the Girling shock and we started doing the sidecar motocross, and we got this Dutch bloke Tom Van Hoven. Then Girling brought out the gas shock.

We first brought our tubing from Accles and Pollocks, which turned out not to be suitable, and ended up buying it from a German company. Girling then made bigger shocks for the Jaguars. I’ve had 4 brand new Jaguars now, the first one a V12. That was a load of crap. We increased the diameter of the rod, basically the shock absorber we sell now hasn’t altered in the last 40 or 50 years.

When Derek and Martin were here they were saying “We want to build a better shock like Ohlins” which were the most popular. Their price was £1000 to ours at £400. Martin and I didn’t really agree on things but we're alright now. I said to them both “You can't build a Rolls Royce and sell it at Ford prices.” Martin came in with a new shock and I pulled it apart. Our shock is made up of 19 pieces. Then in Motorcycle News they tested all the different shock absorbers and ours came out best buy. Then we were only doing the twin shocks and then they said “We want to do the mono shock.”

We started making them, although I thought it was not a good idea. It started off slow. I was wrong and it was good to start making them. We found people came to us with a new bike asking to have the shock absorber changed. We’d take off the original one and test it and, depending on the weight of the rider, supply a shock absorber to suit. Nine out of ten people would go away pleased as punch. We have a good name and reputation. It takes a long time to get that and a short time to lose it.

When we purchased the shop it came with a new Thames van. Sold the Consul for £400 with 80,000 miles. In 1963 I bought a new Cortina, with the wood down the side, then a new MK 4 Zodiac. And another Thames van and MK4 Zodiac. Next was a new XJ Jaguar which had just come out. I had to wait 12 months for delivery. If you paid £500 or £1,000 more you could get it sooner. Then when we got it to discover no spare wheel, the rear window was plastic and it cost £2,888. You could buy a top Ford for about £1,000. So we jump in it, pull up the road, stop at a set of lights and a car coming the other way stops and they say do you want to sell it, but I kept it.

Then I ordered another new Jaguar with another 12 month wait and in the meantime I heard they were bringing out a V12 and I signed to get one of the first cars. I had the second car, a straight six, only a month and another Jaguar pulled up outside the shop. The guy gets out and says “Mr Hagon it’s your new V12 Jaguar, with the 4 carburettors.” I kept that so I must have been doing alright, I paid for them outright. I sold the other one for £500 more than I paid for it. The V12 was not as good as the XJ, I said to Jean “We need to sell this before the warranty runs out!” Then we bought another 6 cylinder Jaguar, and sold the V12 without too much of a loss.

Anyway we want to get back on Drag Racing don’t we. What were you on about, we’ve only got an hour to go! (We were all laughing!)

We were in business and we had a guy come round called Len Cole. He worked for Nannucci and they were importing the aluminium rims. Len and Bill Matterson did Speedway racing, he worked for me. Len was interested in Speedway and they both talked about pre-war Speedway. Len was into Sprinting as well. So talking to Len I said “I’m going to build a 650 Triumph.” I got a Bonneville engine which I found had a cracked head. So we got the engine and Triumph tuning leaflet telling you what cam’s and what to do for performance.

It was a standard bottom half. I had cut the fins, it had iron barrels, and, just for something to do, put a couple of 500 Speedway Jap carburettors on. Start it up and it vibrates terribly. Wal Phillips had the same problem with a Speedway bike back in the day. So I phoned Triumph and spoke to the top engineer at the time and explained what we were doing. He said “I’ll send you down a crankshaft.”

When it arrived it was completely different on the webs. Fitted it in, started it up and it was still the same. So I phoned him up and thanked him for the crankshaft but it still vibrates like hell. He asked what frame it was in, I said “One of my Speedway type frames.” He asked where the head steady was. “On top of the engine” I said. “Well there's your first mistake” he says. We relocated the stay and it helped, but still vibrated, but was rideable.

Len says “Let's do the Blackpool Sprint.” So we take the 650 Triumph running on straight methanol. I was fastest and beat George Brown there. Then people would say “What have you done to the engine?” I’d say “Get the Triumph leaflet.” and they’d say “That’s no good, you got to have all special trick bits.” But I can assure you that so many times it’s been proved. When Valentino Rossi, with his short career at Honda, when he said in practice “We’ll swap bikes,” and Honda got to hear about it and said “You’re disproving everything we’ve set out to do” and this was one reason he left Honda.

In 1962 Alf took the Triumph sprinter, known as “The Mouse” due to its distinctive fork mounted fairing with nose and whiskers painted on, to the Records day at Wellesbourne. The 650cc bike eclipsed the competition and took the 750cc record, running an 11.79, before Alf packed everything away and headed over to Coventry for a Speedway meeting that evening.

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Alf Hagon's story and history - Part 1

Alf Hagon's story and history - Part 2

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