Lincolnshire’s motorcycle racing stars of the 1950s

Words by:
John Almond
Featured in:
June 2015

George Catlin and Bernard Codd
The 1950s are recognised as the golden era of the sport of motorcycle road racing in Great Britain, when eight riders won twenty-two world titles between them.

The likes of Geoff Duke, probably the first world motorcycling superstar, John Surtees, Bill Lomas, Cecil Sandford, and the up and coming Mike Hailwood at the close of the decade, led the way. But George Catlin and Bernard Codd, two Lincolnshire riders, were certainly a force to be reckoned with, especially on the short circuits of this country and on the notorious Isle of Man TT mountain circuit.

Both riders were farmer’s sons. George was born in Minting in 1932, while Bernard was born in Wrangle in 1934. George started grass track racing and scrambling in 1949 and then of course road racing, where he drew the attention of Stan Hanson, a Skegness businessman, who soon sponsored him and had him mounted on Manx Norton machines. Bernard started in trials riding and drew the attention of Austin Munks, of Leverton, a motor garage proprietor and four times Isle of Man Manx Grand Prix winner, who also soon had him Norton mounted.

George began his road racing career at tracks such as Alton Towers, Osmaston Manor (both now a distant memory) and locally at Cadwell Park, riding JAP (J A Prestwich, London) engine powered machines. He made his amateur Isle of Man debut at the 1954 Manx Grand Prix, contesting both Junior (350cc) and Senior (500cc) classes. Unfortunately he failed to finish in the Junior race, and finished twenty-fifth in the Senior. But this was only the beginning of a distinguished career, as he moved up to the professional ranks on the Isle of Man and the short circuits of this country and the European continent.

George’s highest finishes in the Isle of Man TTs came in 1958, when he finished fifth in the Junior race and seventh in the Senior races, riding Stan Hanson’s Nortons. For the 1959 season George left Stan Hanson, and teamed up with the Kent based Arter brothers. Tom Arter had him mounted on 350cc 7R AJS and 500cc G50 Matchless machines, on which he finished tenth in the Junior and eighth in that year’s Senior TT races. He was to remain with the Arter brothers until the end of his career in 1961.

Early into his career George became firm friends with John Surtees, the multi world champion and the only man ever to win world titles in motorcycle racing and Formula One. They used to work on their machines in John’s father’s South London workshop, and George was a regular visitor at the Surtees home. In fact, Mr Hanson purchased some of the machines that George rode from John. Probably George’s most notable victory on the small circuits was when he won the Gold Cup at the Oliver’s Mount circuit Scarborough International meeting 1958, beating several world class riders with works machinery and backing, plus all the top privateers of the day.

He certainly took some beating on all of the British tracks. He held the outright lap record at his local Cadwell Park for a while, and was a winner of the Coronation Cup. He also competed in mainland Europe with success.

On 1st April in his final season (1961) George was part of a four-man team that broke the world land speed twelve- and twenty-four-hour records for 800cc and 1000cc motorcycles riding a German, BMW R 69 S machine, entered and prepared by MLG Motorcycles of London, at the bumpy Montlhery circuit in France. They averaged 109.39mph for the twelve-hour record and only slightly slower (109.24mph) for the twenty-four hours, covering 2,621.77 miles. They broke the existing record by almost 10mph.

George was lucky to escape serious injury during his twelve-year career in such a dangerous sport as motorcycle racing, apart from several broken collar bones and an ankle at one time, but nothing major. He also rode an interesting collection of foreign machines during his career including 125cc MV Agusta and 250cc NSU models. His collection of silver replica trophies that he won in all the TT races he completed are proof of his consistency.

Bernard was not to be so lucky injury wise, but what a successful career he had despite it being cut short. He started riding a motorcycle while a schoolboy in a grass field on his father’s farm. His obvious talent was brought to the attention of Austin Munks by a neighbour, Ted Stones. In 1950 Austin had him successfully riding in trials events, similar to Geoff Duke, on a James two stroke machine. Bernard completed his national service in the RAF, in which he was a member of the motorcycle trials team. He then made his road racing debut at Snetterton on August bank holiday Sunday 1955, and at Cadwell Park the following day, riding a 350cc BSA machine.

His first success came at Cadwell Park when he won the 350cc class on Easter Monday 1956. By now Austin had him mounted on Manx Norton machines. Austin also purchased a pair of BSA Gold Stars for Bernard to compete in the 1956 Isle of Man Tourist Trophy Clubman’s races. These were two special races, for 350 and 500cc machines over three laps, for younger riders to gain racing experience over the famous (or infamous) Mountain circuit, riding over the counter machines with no modifications. They also gave the up and coming riders experience of competing at the same meeting with all the best riders in the world.

Austin called in one of his many influential friends, Geoff Duke, to give Bernard some tips on how to ride the circuit. He took Bernard round the circuit several times in his Aston Martin car, pointing out the best racing line, breaking points, what gear to be in etc.

Bernard was in the Isle of Man five weeks before the TT with his Matchless road bike doing several laps every day. When the big day finally came, the morning of Thursday 14th June, Bernard started No 8 of the sixty-nine competitors for the three lap Junior 350cc race. He was never headed, he led from start to finish, with a time of 1hr 22mins 3.8secs, (82.02mph). In the afternoon it was time for the Senior 500cc class, also over three laps. Once again Bernard started No 8 and was never headed, finishing with a time of 1hr 18mins 40.6secs (86.33mph) and again the fastest lap of 26mins 10.4secs (86.52mph). Bernard has gone down in history has the only man ever to win this unique double, and he will never lose it, as this was the last year these events were held.

Later in the season, on the Isle of Man, he rode in the Manx Grand Prix, taking fourth place in the Junior race, but was forced to retire in the Senior with clutch trouble. For the following season Bernard had new sponsors, Hallen’s of Cambridge. Owing to their own business commitments, Austin and mechanic Sam Coupland, of Frithville, were unable to continue their sponsorship. But the 1957 season started with the usual flourish of short circuit meetings in this country. It was Golden Jubilee year for the Isle of Man TT races, Bernard retired in the Junior and finished eleventh in the Senior. This race will always be remembered in motorcycling folklore because the flying Scot, Bob McIntyre, was the first man to lap the notorious TT course at over 100mph.

Late in August that season, at a meeting at Crystal Palace, Bernard was involved a serious crash. The New Zealander John Hempleman had lost control of his machine and caught Bernard’s rear wheel, bringing him down and crashing into unprotected railway sleepers. Bernard suffered a shattered right thigh. After a two month spell in Beckenham Hospital the injury had not healed, so a steel pin was inserted. Three weeks later he was sent home and told to rest for a year. Apparently a friend and fellow motorcycle racer, Dickie Dale, advised Bernard to go to the West Middlesex Hospital and after thirteen operations they finally got him mobile again. But there was still not enough movement in his leg to continue racing, so he retired from the sport.

There were other Lincolnshire riders at that time, the aforementioned Dickie Dale (another of Austin Munks’s protégés), from Wyberton, who was at that time living in Italy, and rode on the Grand Prix circuit for almost all of the Italian manufacturers one time or another. He was a world class rider finishing second in the 350cc class in 1955, and third in 1956 riding Moto Guzzi machines, and third again in the 500cc class in 1958, this time riding a German BMW machine. Other notables include Peter Davy from Sleaford, Brian Freestone from Lincoln – who suffered multiple injuries during practice for the 1957 TT – and Jackie Beeton, the sidecar ace from Louth.

But George, who rode throughout the decade with such style, determination and reliability, was always to the fore. How many Lincolnshire personalities have achieved an internationally recognised world record?

Bernard’s career was unfortunately cut short. A contract with the Italian Gilera team was strongly rumored to be in the offing for the next season but did not materialise. We were never to witness what else his obvious talent had in store.

After their racing days were over, George first managed a motorcycle dealership in Red Lion Street Boston, and then started and ran his own successful finance company in the town until his early death in 1992. Bernard returned to the family farm in Wrangle, which he ran until his death in 2013. George’s red and white helmet, and Bernard’s white with the Boston grammar school emblem on the front, were certainly a force to be reckoned with.

I would like to thank both the Catlin and Codd families for allowing me access to their family archives and for all their help and assistance.

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