Bob Humble, 93 years young, recently answered a question that has been taxing the brains of the current members of the National Road Rally committee for some considerable time. When was the first Rally held? They had known from a photograph in a newspaper report of the final control at Rhyl in North Wales dated 1935 that huge crowds had turned out to see the riders arrive, but when the first Rally was held remained a mystery apparently buried in the mists of time. In 2006 Bob helped at the Gainsborough Control managed by his daughter Jean Witting, husband Stuart and their family along with fellow members of the Scunthorpe Motorcycling Club - then in their 28th year as control organisers. Although he could have gone home to bed early, Bob stayed until the control closed at midnight. "Not bad for a 92 year old!" said Jean.
Jean, knowing of the Committee's interest in the history of the Rally, whilst sorting some of her Dad's papers excitedly discovered details of the 1939 National Rally that her father and his cousin and great friend Bill Millburn had entered together. The programme detailed the 891 competitors, including Bill riding his BSA registration number JM 3321 with allotted rally number 411, whilst Bob was 784 mounted on his beloved 600cc Panther that he'd bought new in 1937 from London dealer George Clark. Although Bob's Control Card has been lost, Bill Millburn's son Keith managed all these 68 years later to find his Dad's card. As Bob insists they rode together, we know that they rode 429 miles each and visited 14 of the 120 controls in that year's rally. They began their arduous ride at Kendal, rode north to Carlisle and into Scotland and then back to Berwick-upon-Tweed and south via Newcastle, Thirsk, Nottingham and Derby to the final control at Donington Circuit. Remember, that was on bikes that often needed a bit of tender loving care from a knowledgeable rider mechanic to keep them going and where the roads were far more primitive than they are today. The breadth of the rally was huge with controls as far apart as Penzance and Hawick in Scotland and Margate and Bangor in North Wales. Truly a National Rally! Perusing the list of controls it appears that virtually all were located at motorcycle dealers or garages where no doubt local enthusiasts would have come to cheer on their favourite riders and provide excellent advertising for the firms involved.
But it was the event programme that provided the answer to the committee's question as it was headed, "Seventh National Rally of Motor Cyclists at Donington Park - July 23rd 1939". Eureka! Assuming that the rally was an annual event it meant that the very first was held in 1933. The "Official Handbook and Programme of Events" that Bob and all competitors received, makes those of us who cherish our history want to cry as it is a roll of honour of the once dominant and magnificent British motorcycle industry. All 891 riders rode British with the exception of a small number of German BMW's. The Japanese were noticeable by their total absence as at that time their Imperial forces were trying to conquer China and much of the eastern world rather than motorcycle markets. There were Triumphs, Nortons, BSAs and Velocettes in abundance as well as lesser known marques such as OK Supreme, Montgomery, Calthorpe, and O.E.C. The manufacturers' advertisements extolled the greatness of the British product! Sir Malcolm Campbell proclaimed faith in his Ariel Square Four that he believed "Without doubt is a very great credit to the British Motorcycle Industry." The Model G 350cc Royal Enfield Bullet cost £60 cash and was, it stated, every bit as good as it looks. AJS, manufactured at Plumstead Road in south east London, "ensured success", whilst for "Really high speed touring the Matchless Big Twin is supreme!" Norton ensured pride of ownership and if you wanted the best pictures and descriptions of sporting events then, The Motorcycle - The Motor Cyclist's Newspaper costing 3d every Thursday - was the one to read.
Alongside Bob Humble, Bill Millburn and all the civilian riders, there were, like today, many service and police personnel competing in the rally. There were Corporals, Bombardiers, Lance Sergeants and Sergeants as well as commissioned officers recorded in the programme who must have all known that their adventures on motorbikes would soon be substituted for less welcome adventures. They all knew that on 30th September the previous year, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had flown back to London's Heston airport holding an agreement signed by Adolf Hitler that stated the German leader's desire never to go to war with Britain again. "Peace in our time!" was the slogan. When, in March 1939 Hitler ordered the invasion of parts of Czechoslovakia the world realised that war was inevitable. Just over a month after the 1939 National Rally, German troops invaded Poland and as a result on 3rd September 1939 Britain, France, Australia and New Zealand declared war on Germany. There would be no more National Rallies for some time!
A few months into the war Bob was called up and spent the next four years serving naturally as a "Don R" - a motor cycle dispatch rider with the Royal Regiment of Signals. Much of the time he was with the British Eighth Army, better known as The Desert Rats. Amazingly, details of Bob and his comrades' motorcycle activities in the deserts of North Africa survived the war and were published in Motor Cycling magazine just before Christmas 1951. In addition to their collection of veteran British bikes that were almost worn out through constant use in the Sahara's sand, they had acquired from the Germans a big side valve BMW outfit and lots of little Puch two-strokes - all bearing the palm tree symbol of Hitler's proud Deutsches Afrika Korps led by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. They relieved their then Italian enemies of a sports Moto Guzzi and a Benelli that Bob, a skilled fitter, had spent many hours of patient labour putting into full working order. They even had a Harley-Davidson although they never did manage to quite work out how that came to be in the desert in 1941 at a time before America had troops in North Africa. It was three long years before they saw England again and longer still before they got out of khaki.
Amazingly the National Rally, or National Road Rally as it's known today, survived the war. It must be one of the oldest events for road riders in the motorcycle calendar! It's often known jokingly as "Motorcycling's best kept secret", as although entries today are greater than in pre-war days, so many motorcyclists seem to know little or nothing about its joys. This year there will be over 50 controls dotted across England - just as in pre-war days. If you want to get the feel of the Rally, then enter the medal competition and have a gentle Saturday afternoon and evening circular ride round some of the controls not too far from your home. Alternatively get up early on the Sunday morning, ride in the National Sunrise Rally and finish at The Ace Café. If you are a beginner but are a bit more adventurous, try the Bronze Award where you will be asked to ride 200 miles and finish at one of our final controls. Of course if you're experienced and wish to try something more challenging you can ride in other categories. There are rally categories for every type of two or three wheeler, scooters, mopeds, small capacity bikes.
If this article has whetted your appetite to consider entering one of the great historic events of the motorcycling calendar why not find out more? Visit the Rally web site www.nationalroadrally.co.uk and click on "Rally Summary". Alternatively e-mail the Rally Secretary Alison.firstname.lastname@example.org, telephone her on 01788 566409, or write National Road Rally, Auto-Cycle Union Ltd, ACU House, Rugby. CV21 2YX.
Whatever award you aim for you'll enjoy one of the great events in motorcycling and you might even emulate the achievements of old Bob Humble, many years after he first rode in 1939.
Mencap the mental health charity hopes that riders will obtain sponsorship to help people with learning difficulties.
- John Riches