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An Afternoon With A Motorcycle Racer of the 1950s

John racing in the 1950s black and white photoA flesh-and-blood figure with motorcycles on his mind steps out of the archival photo album and enters Ed Pretty’s wood turning shop leading to talk about what it was like to race motorcycles in the 1950s.

Not all are lucky enough to have discovered their passion. I’m doubly blessed in having two: riding and woodturning. I’ve enjoyed both since I was very young and they still give me endless pleasure. 

Recently the two crossed over when I was asked by Moira McDonald to turn a commemorative bowl from a piece of a cherry tree that had grown alongside her family home since she was a child. Her dad John McCaffrey (Johnny to his friends) no longer wished to live on his own after his wife, Janet, passed, so he sold the family home and moved in with Moira’s family.  

So where’s the crossover? While Moira and John were at our house delivering the wood and discussing design options, John noticed the various motorcycle pictures and mementos in our house, and commented that he used to race motorcycles in Ireland in the early 1950s. 

I was torn. I can talk bowl design all night long but here was raw motorcycle history sitting right across our very table. At the end of the evening, John left us with his snappy version of a common biker’s salutation: “Keep it between the hedges.” A tall, agile, handsome Irishman in his 80s, John is still a biker through and through.

How often do you stumble across someone who is a portal into another era? There were bikes that were legendary when I was a kid, but here was one of the riders who created those legends in my very own kitchen. I knew I had to hear and share his story.

Weeks later we delivered the bowl to their house then got down to the more important (for me) matter of hearing John’s story. He handed me an Irish whiskey with a beer back (more like a beer with an Irish whiskey back!) as I sat like a kid, hanging on his every word. 

John cut his teeth riding the 75 miles between his hometown of Fivemiletown, County Tyrone, and Belfast in Northern Ireland. Each trip was faster and faster, passing between cars on the non-existent white line. He clearly had a need for speed. 

At the age of 22, he rode his first race in 1952, the Cookstown 100, aboard a Triumph 500 twin. Sneaking a teacup full of ether into the 3.5-gallon tank, he blazed past the competition—until a melted piston sidelined him. 

John on 1950s race bikeJohn went on to ride several races, all 100- or 150-mile events. Crashes and breakdowns aside, he completed as a “finisher” (within 18 seconds of the winner) in the ones that he finished. During his time as a racer, John piloted a 350 Matchless and 500 Triumph but his favourite ride was a Norton 350 Manx, ridden to and from races (except when he crashed). 

From his archival photos I can tell he cut quite the dashing figure aboard this classic, himself a classic racer of the day. He remembers each race vividly, and can describe in minute detail the weather, road conditions, landmarks, mechanical failures—and crashes. He proudly displays his awards for each race, themselves classic and rare mementos.

John bantered about such names as Mike Hailwood, Reg Armstrong, Stanley Woods and Geoff Duke with complete familiarity. One day during a break in race prep, Woods actually swung a leg over John’s Norton in the pits, clearly a meeting as meaningful to him as this meeting was for me.

I asked John if he had any training or used any particular techniques that are seen on today’s circuits: sliding corners and that sort of thing. In his wonderful Irish brogue he replied, “No. Just grab the bars and GO.” No training facility, no factory sponsor, no factory racer, just raw talent and nerve. 

John crashed a few times but never broke any bones. A few stitches after a 98-mph crash, but generally none the worse for wear. However, the bikes took quite a beating, he says. 

When I ask if he ever rode the Isle of Man TT he replies, “No, far too dangerous.” Specifically he means, the rock walls and rough roads. This from a man who raced on Ireland’s narrow, hedge-lined and rock-wall guarded byways!

Because it sounded like an adventure, John came to Canada in 1954, worked as an auto mechanic in Winnipeg and then performed maintenance duties on the Cold War era Defence Early Warning line in the high arctic. He says it was his lucky day when they told him that in the north there was a woman behind every tree. He arrived by plane to his station, noting along the way that he was many, many miles north of the tree line. 

In the absence of women, John spent his time reading—specifically, the poems of Robert W. Service. While at our home for a subsequent visit he launched into a recitation of a couple of Service’s poems about the Klondike, breathing life into those verses like I’ve never heard before. 

John and group of racers from the 1950sEventually John worked his way to the west coast, where he met and married Janet, finally calling Vancouver home.

Like me, John has another passion, music, specifically the accordion. He owns nine accordions and a harmonica, too. He did a little jig for us playing an inch-long harmonica with a string (so it could be retrieved if swallowed). An accomplished musician who played sessions with the original Irish Rovers, he was invited by the leader Will Miller to join the now legendary band go on their first tour. It was an offer he had to decline. He had just been promoted to shop foreman at a prominent auto dealer and, as everyone knows, real jobs like that don’t come along every day. Although he was ever the responsible family man, Moira attests that with John from Ireland, mother Janet from Nova Scotia, and a host of musician friends, life at the McCaffrey house was one constant stream of parties. 

Because motorcycles remained in his heart, John built a Triton in his south Vancouver basement. This hybrid of Triumph 650 engine and Norton Featherbed frame was (and is still) considered the ultimate motorcycle by generations of motorcycle-mad boys from the British Isles. 

When I was a kid I learned that reading was actually worthwhile by consuming MC magazines that covered all the race venues and racers John mentioned. I still can’t believe my luck to have met the man. I regret that I’m only able to scratch the surface of his story here. A wonderfully funny, friendly, and enormously talented guy, Johnny McCaffrey is part of a historic era of motorcycle racing. Lucky for me he was itching to share his Irish whiskey and chat about days gone by. 

by Ed Pretty Canadian Biker #316

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