Saturday, 12 March 2011

Harry Skirrow - "The One-Armed Lakeland Wonder"

"Perhaps the least known and most underrated racing car constructor in this country". That is how author Derek Bridgett described Henry (Harry) Skirrow in his book "Midget Car Speedway". That statement is very true. Without a doubt, it was Harry's skill, drive and initiative that produced the UK's most successful midget speedway cars, but there was so much more to this great man than has ever been published before.
Born in Bradford in 1906, Harry was raised in Westmorland (now part of Cumbria). Harry began his working life as a banker, but he soon became bored with the mundane occupation and opened his own motor garage on Lake Road in Ambleside, close to the shore of Windermere in England's Lake District.

During their teenage years, the brothers had both been bitten by the motorcycle bug and competed in sand races, speed trials and grass track events and they were both founder members of the reformed Westmorland Motor Club. Harry and Geoffrey were pioneer speedway riders too. Harry had finished 2nd to his brother in the 350cc event at the first Whitehaven meeting in July 1930 and they were both winners of the Silver Goblet and Silver Rose Bowl at Barrow-In-Furness speedway during the same year. At one stage Harry was a promising novice at the Preston speedway track, but then he lost his left arm in a shooting accident and everyone presumed his motorcycle racing days were over - everyone except Harry that is! With the aid of an artificial forearm and a hook, Harry started riding again and even amused himself by riding speedway again, albeit behind closed doors at the famous Belle Vue track in Manchester. He was such a fan of the sport that he would drive down to Manchester to watch the "Aces" most weeks and it was here that he first saw Midget Car Speedway. On May 16th 1935, Belle Vue Speedway presented an "All Car Meeting", which was reported as a failure, but it obviously caught the imagination of some and fired a new enthusiasm in Harry Skirrow.

Harry returned to Ambleside and built his own midget racer based on the wreck of an old BSA Scout. He returned to Belle Vue as a competitor and despite having the fastest car around the Manchester track, he was still not satisfied. With the help of Walter Mackereth, a blacksmith from Kendal, they built a new car and took it to Flookburgh Sands for testing. They experimented with front wheel drive, rear wheel drive and different wheelbases until they eventually produced a car that they were both satisfied with and turned their attentions to domination of the UK midget speedway car scene.
The fully developed "Skirrow Special" from 1936
(Photo courtesy of Malcolm Skirrow)
I have a copy of a letter drafted by Harry on various scraps of paper and intended to be sent to Michael Ware at the National Motor Museum in Beaulieu that tells the story of how the famous Skirrow Special developed...

In the letter Harry describes how, with more enthusiasm than judgement, he sold his garage at Ambleside and put all his resources into producing a car that fulfilled the rules of midget car racing in the USA. He then relocated to London and rented a workshop from Victor Martin in Tottenham. Harry had asked the neighbouring firm of J.A.Prestwich to produce a 1000cc air-cooled v-twin engine based on two 500cc speedway J.A.P. units. The two cylinders were mated to a common crankcase and each cylinder had its own twin monobloc Amal carburettor and ran on methanol. This engine became known as the 996cc J.A.P. 8/80. The chassis and pressed steel disc wheels were produced by Rubery Owen and Harry also persuaded John Bull to produce special tyres using the same tread pattern and compounds as the larger 20" speedway bike tyres.
996cc J.A.P. 8/80 engine.
A cutaway showing the 4-wheel drive chassis of the Skirrow.
By the Spring of 1936 Harry had produced his first few complete cars and presented them to Eric Spence at Belle Vue Speedway. At first he wasn't interested as he wanted to produce his own cars based on the American Elto design, so Harry became a partner in Liverpool Speedway which allowed him to race and demonstrate his cars to his hearts content. It wasn't long before the Skirrow was recognised as the best car for the job and Harry eventually joined forces with Jim Baxter and the Belle Vue management to form a national midget car racing league with Harry and his wife promoting their own tracks at Lea Bridge in London and at Coventry in the Midlands.
Action from Coventry in 1937.
Ginger Pashley in an Elto leads Walter Mackereth in a Skirrow.
Not only was Harry a talented designer, fabricator and a budding businessman, he was also an exceptional driver. In his book "Coventry's Two Speedways", author Colin Parker describes how Harry managed to turn his car onto its side during a meeting at Wembley. He scrambled out, pushed it back onto four wheels with his single arm and carried on racing. The same book also describes how the cars had to be transported from their Tottenham workshops to the Brandon track at Coventry, either on the back of a truck or being towed behind it, with the "driver" exposed to the elements in all kinds of British weather.
Harry sitting at the wheel of the final development of the Skirrow Special.
(Photo courtesy of Malcolm Skirrow)
In his letter Harry continues to describe the diffficulties he faced. Despite being totally under capitalised and running into severe financial difficulties during the recession of the 1930s, Harry did not give up on his dream and persevered with developing his Skirrow Special and promoting racing or "Doodle Dicing" as it had become known, at more venues. He had plans to introduce his "Doodle Bugs" to the Moorville Speedway in Carlisle in partnership with Roland Stobbart and Jimmy Baxter, but the venue never recovered from the financial disaster of its one and only motorcycle speedway meeting and the proposed project never materialised. 
Coventry driver Frank Chiswell in his Skirrow No 77.
(Photo courtesy of Roy Chiswell)
Walter Mackereth and his Coventry team were crowned League Champions in 1938 and Harry was just beginning to reap the rewards of his dogged determination. Crowds were increasing and Harry had been invited to tour Australia over the winter of 1939/1940, but the events that followed were completely out of Harry's hands. Poor summer weather in 1939 had caused a lot of meetings to be rained off and combined with gathering war clouds, the midget car league was abandoned in July 1939. Consequently, the trip to Australia was also cancelled. Fate dealt another blow in 1940 when Harry's house was completely demolished during an air raid, destroying all of Harry's records, drawings, photographs and press cuttings. At this point Harry sold his business to Victor Martin, paid off his debts and relocated back to the North West to join his son Malcolm, who had already been evacuated from London and was living with an Aunt in Bowness-On-Windermere. The family eventually settled into a house just south of Lancaster and Harry turned his attentions to producing aircraft parts for the war effort. He joined forces with William "pops" Kitchen, a former partner of his at Liverpool speedway and the father of Belle Vue speedway star Bill Kitchen, in a small factory unit in the village of Galgate.

After the war had ended there was no immediate resumption of midget car racing and Harry found that he had lost touch with his associates and his cars. More importantly, Harry wasn't willing to take any more financial risks having lost everything in the 1940 air-raids. Bill Kitchen and his brother Jack were due to be demobbed from the Army and would be returning to the family business, so Harry decided it was time to move on again, this time to Devon.

The family bought a house in Maidencombe, just outside of Torquay and Harry persuaded his brother Geoffrey to join them. The two brothers bought a market garden and then sold it for a hefty profit in 1947. Their next venture was to buy the Loughton Motor Company in London together with some war surplus Nissan huts, which were erected next to the garage and rented out as storage.

Harry had managed to recover three badly damaged Skirrow cars from the remains of his garage at the bombed out house in London and had taken them to Devon where he rebuilt two and sold them. The third chassis became a donor for a single-seat sports car that Harry built in order to travel to London and back whilst overseeing his business. The car was described as looking like a miniature Allard. It used the same 996cc 8/80 J.A.P. engine as the midget racers with the addition of a 4-speed motorcycle gearbox, which Harry modified to give the car a reverse gear. Unlike the racing cars, this road legal Skirrow was front wheel drive, ran on petrol and could return 70mpg at a steady 60mph.
Harry with his home-made sports car, which he drove to London and back on a regular basis.
Eventually a compulsory purchase order was put on the garage to allow for the construction of a new road and harry and Geoffrey were out of a job. Geoffrey found some part-time work helping out at the local service station at Chudleigh and Harry spent most of his time indulging in his new hobby - sailing, but they both became bored without regular work and bought the Maidencombe Service Station in 1952.

Harry sailed a 14 feet redwing yacht with the Babbacombe Corinthian Sailing Club, where he built and installed a motorised winch to haul the boats up the beach and also built trailers for other club members. Harry still had a strong competitive streak too and was awarded the prestigious Sir Reginald Leeds Trophy in 1959 after nine consecutive race wins in the Torbay Regatta and two race wins at Falmouth.
Harry out sailing in 1953.
(Photo coutesy of Malcolm Skirrow)
When Geoffrey died, Harry sold the garage and gave half the proceeds to his widow. He then went to work for his son Malcolm at his garage in Babbacombe, travelling to work and back every day on a 90cc Honda Cub. Even though Harry always said he never wanted to retire, his Doctor had other ideas and in 1984 Harry finally went home for a rest aged 77 and eventually passed away in 1991 at the age of 84.

He was once asked in a newspaper if having only one arm had made life difficult... "Oh no" he said, "If I had another arm I just wouldn't know what to do with it, I can do most jobs and if I'm beaten I just ask for help. With this hook I can hold a welding rod right down to the last bit without burning my fingers, but there are some things that are on the official list of things I can't manage, like the washing up".

Shortly before he died Harry said to his wife... "I think I've done just about everything in life that I wanted to", to which his wife replied... "Yes - You bloody well have!".

But what became of the Skirrow cars? Victor Martin continued to provide service and spares after the war under the name of "Skirrow Special Cars Ltd" and his friend and colleague Walter Mackereth continued to race with great success in Hamburg and Paris. Most of the remaining cars were purchased by David Hughes, a midget car racing enthusiast from the East Midlands, who had built his own racing track in 1949 at Brafield in Northamptonshire. Hughes then took the Skirrows on tour in 1950 followed by the formation of  the Midlands Midget Speedway Car League in late 1951. Sadly, the league featuring teams from Birmingham, Cradley Heath, Coventry and Leicester was short lived and was abandoned before the year was out. By the end of the 1950s the cars were beginning to wear out and Victor Martin was no longer able to provide back-up. Some of the cars were cannibalised to keep others going but Hughes eventually had to admit defeat. Thankfully a few Skirrows have survived and are now in the hands of enthusiasts and collectors who acknowledge the historical importance of the Skirrow Special.
A preserved 1938 Skirrow Midget Speedway Car. Originally from Canada, this car was recently sold at auction and is now in Australia. Although not completely original, it does represent Harry's later development of the Skirrow vey well. This particular car has been discussed at length on Midget Car Panorama (see link at foot of page).
Massive thanks to Harry's son Malcolm Skirrow for letting me have copies of Harry's letters, photographs and giving me a potted history of Harr'y life. Thanks also go to Derek Bridgett, Colin Parker and Roy Chiswell, and also to Percy Duff and the late Bernard Crabtree for sharing their memories of Harry.


References:
Midget Car Panorama - A Forum for Midget Car Racing.
Midget Car Speedway by Derek Bridgett
Coventry's Two Speedways by Colin Parker
and various Stock Car Racing articles by John Hyam.

4 comments:

  1. Dear Black Country Biker,
    Test message. This excellent essay twice mentions my great-Uncle, Victor Martin.
    I would very pleased if you would test e-mail me at gerald.martin@rolls-royce.com {please entitle it "Skirrow biog." or similar).
    Many thanks, Gerald.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I tried to contact Gerald about Victor Martin but the email bounced back. Did you have any luck?

      Reason is I own the red and cream car you have pictures of and hav e now got quite a bit of Skirrow history assembled. Would like to know more about Victor Martin.

      Terry Wright
      tsrwright@gmail.com

      Delete
  2. Fascinating article. And interesting to read Harry was once in partnership with Pops Kitchen. A couple of weeks ago I photographed his son Bill's old speedway bike, the one he built himself in the 1930s, it's still preserved exactly as it was...

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks for the compliment Odgie - I never knew Bill's original bike was still around... I have quite a few stories from Bill Kitchen's early days including a photo of him on that bike. His first ride was at Burnley in 1929. He rode over there with one of his schoolmates, they stripped their bikes, raced a few novice races, put the lights and mudguards back on and rode back home again. Great to hear from someone who inspired me to start writing about bike stuff ....

    ReplyDelete

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Whitehaven, Cumbria, United Kingdom
Disenchanted City Boy who rode out of the fast lane and into the back lanes! Life on Two Wheels is so much fun.