Lording it up on a new Hesketh
Spring, 1981 New V-twin Hesketh V1000 launch
n the late 1970s, when the British bike industry was on its deathbed, a high-living, petrol-head aristocrat strode onto the scene like a knight in shining armour. Alexander Fermor-Hesketh, the third Baron Hesketh, had already proved himself by building the car that took James Hunt to victory in the 1975 F1 Dutch GP.
Would he be able to achieve the same success with his eight-valve V1000 V-twin?
Sadly, no. The V1000 was cursed with a multitude of faults and fewer than 150 were built before the company went bust.
John Mockett ‘I was working for Yamaha Europe, making prototypes and concept models with David Bean, their chief European tester. Then Beany started working with Hesketh as well. Yamaha encouraged me to get involved too and paid for some of my time there because they thought there should be another British motorcycle. The first prototype I saw didn’t need a side-stand because the exhaust pipes held it up, so you just lent it on the pipe! That was the stage they’d got to – they didn’t have anyone in a senior role who knew anything about motorcycles.’
Michael Scott ‘Lord Hesketh had some track record, literally, with James Hunt, so I think there was a certain level of optimism. We all hoped it was going to be the Vincent reborn.’
John Mockett ‘I got on well with Lord Hesketh – I think it was an attraction of opposites. Then there was Bubbles Horsley, his F1 team manager, and Mick Broom, the engineer who grew up with the company. We were based in the stable block. You’d go in one stable and there’d be a McLaren, then there’d be a Ligier in the next and a Williams in the next. All these teams were competing against each other in F1 but they all had work done at Hesketh because he had the best fabricators in the world.’
Michael Scott ‘The thing that was wrong with British motorbikes at that time was they were all antiquated. Triumph ‘revolutionised’ the Bonneville by putting an electric starter on it. I only tested one and it was pretty disappointing, but that was because it was based on a design from the 1930s. The Hesketh was a totally fresh design, so it had every chance of being OK.’
John Mockett ‘You could find skilled British fabricators to make beautiful one-offs, but there was no production knowledge. Hesketh got his chief engineer from British Leyland, but even he didn’t know anything about putting things into production. The other thing was the Weslake engine, designed by Ron Valentine, who was getting on for 80. Hesketh chose a V-twin because they thought the Ducati 900SS was the best European bike around.’
Michael Scott ‘The launch was Champagne and caviar. Hesketh was very engaging. We all had a test ride, and the bike was lovely, a bit big and heavy, but it had this terrible gear change. There was this terrible undercurrent – the Hesketh people would ask us what the bike was like and we’d say it’s really nice but, er, the gearbox is a bit clunky; it possibly needs a little bit more work there. I do remember my coverline from the launch: To The Spanner Born.’
John Mockett ‘When we told the engineers about the gearbox they said, ‘oh we’ll sort that out’. But the money was running out. The people who said they’d invest didn't, so Hesketh was forced to go into production before the bike was fully developed.’
Michael Scott ‘The question we kept asking ourselves was how had the test riders not noticed the gearbox. Later Hesketh built a fully faired version, in metallic pink, which had a slightly improved gear change. And that was the end of it. Hesketh wasn’t far from producing a great bike.’
John Mockett ‘Hesketh was a good bloke. He’d come down at three in the morning, say well done lads, and crack open the Champagne. He was a great believer in the meritocracy. And in a way he began the movement that developed into Triumph, because people and experience from Hesketh proved useful to Triumph as they developed. The difference between Hesketh and John Bloor was that John was interested in the production side – everything you made, you had to be able to mass-produce.’