He smokes like a two-stroke. That’s one of the first impressions you’re likely to get when you first meet Mick Hemmings, one of the world’s best known and longest-serving Norton specialists and Commando racers. We’ve “known” Mick for years as a voice on the phone, usually when we called to gossip or ask some technical advice. When it comes to Nortons in general and Commandos in particular, after all, Mick’s accumulated so much information that you need to sink a shaft to get to the bottom of it. You also often need a gun to persuade him to release that information. And naturally you have to pick your day. He also knows a thing or two about post-war Triumphs having owned five or six of them including a Speed Twin and a Tiger 100.
But this is our first face-to-face encounter, which is why we’ve brushed our teeth.
He looks just like his photograph. Not everyone does. He’s leanish, and tallish, and oldish, but still somehow not old. There’s a repressed youthfulness about him, which is just as well because he can still ride like a bike thief and he looks like he hasn’t yet lost that all-important need for speed.
Picture: Brian Crichton
Shop and workshop
His shop is tucked away in the back streets of Northampton. The adjacent terraced houses marching grimly down the street are prime territory for anyone looking for a semi-permanent flat or bedsit, while the city centre booms relentlessly a mile or so to the south west. Overall, the area looks a little run down. Estate agent’s signs grow like weeds. The neighbouring buildings are a little tired and evidently confused about what era they’re in. But it’s hard to tell if the district is going further down or coming up or just stabilised. It’s one of those kind of places. Changeable, yet changeless.
The area used to be much more industrialised, but most of the shops and businesses that helped drive the economy of Northampton are long gone; either bankrupted, or moved to the newer industrial parks elsewhere, or having just run their natural course as viable trading entities.
But Mick’s not going anywhere, geographically speaking. And certainly not any distance away. He’s found his place and he’s happy with it, and there’s something to be said for being cosy.
His shop is fairly unassuming. It’s just a workaday kind of premises of the old school. The double yellow lines outside don’t help much, but neither do they really hinder. Mick—or more likely wife, Angie—will usually be able to sort you out with a parking permit, or will tell you where it’s safe to leave your wheels. But then, most of their current business comes in by email, and goes out by snail mail. Direct face-to-face customer trading is the exception rather than the norm.
When you step into his world he smiles professionally, shakes your hand and lights a ciggie (if he hasn’t already got one going). Then he tells you matter-of-factly that the place is a mess. Which it isn’t. By the standards of the average motorcycle mechanic, his workshop is reasonably spacious and reasonably clean and tidy. And clearly he’s long since organised himself to get the maximum work done as quickly and as efficiently as possible.
Bikes. Benches. Tools. Cup of tea. Ciggies. Not necessarily in that order.
You look around and prod and poke. But there’s nothing startling here. Just typical workshop equipment with a few special tools peculiar to the motorcycle trade. The air is rich with old and new hydrocarbons. The paintwork is yellowed with cigarette smoke. Poster and charts and racing memorabilia hang everywhere. The walls close in from another age.
Mick watches you keenly, happily chugging on his cigarette and appraising you the way an undertaker might. Size. Shape. Weight. Any special points of interest. Presently he smiles a different kind of smile and relaxes. You’re approved for further attention and he begins talking freely and openly, but a little unfocussed at times as if someone’s rearranged the pages of the script. You ask him a question and he has a habit of coming at it from multiple directions, like a conversational pile up. But somewhere in the wreckage, the story of Mick Hemmings begins to leak out.
As he speaks, he chugs harder on the ciggie and reaches for a spanner. He moves towards a bike etherised on the bench. When they finally amputate Mick’s cigarettes, the surgeons will also be looking to remove a few tools from his fingers. He just can’t seem to keep them out of his hands. And if ever he goes missing in the woods, you can just nail a spanner to a tree and wait for a while. He’ll sniff it out sooner or later.
He likes to laugh a lot, and it sounds like he’s got a lot to laugh about. An anecdote here. Another there. A cross-referenced story about this, which lead to another story about that. He must have told all of these tales a few dozen times in the past. That’s how it usually works. But it all sounds pretty fresh to us as if he’s just opened the memory tin and is enjoying his first sniff.
Back story and Joe Glazebrook
Mick was born in 1944 in Northampton, the same year the allied armies sailed off to their fateful rendezvous with D-Day. He began his working career in 1958 as an apprentice with Joe Glazebrook. “I was fourteen years old,” he says (still chugging on the ciggie and now reaching for a nine-sixteenths ring). “I used to regularly walk past his shop here in Northampton and look in the window at the Manx Nortons. One time I walked in instead and asked him for a job. He was a TT rider at the time and was friends with fellow TT rider Albert Moule. It looked like the kind of place I wanted to work.
“He took me on straight away, and I grew to like Joe a lot. He was just fun to be around, and it was a brilliant time in my life. I used to do all the usual fetch-and-carry things you do when you’re learning a trade. But I got around too.”
He pauses and gazes over your shoulder into the past and puts a fresh glow on his cigarette. Then he begins again.
“One time we went to Silverstone taking a brand new Manx with us. Stirling Moss was using the full circuit. Joe and me had only the straight. I suppose I was seventeen then. Joe took the bike off for a run and came back satisfied. He got of the Norton, said, ‘Go on then. Have a go, boy.’ And naturally I didn’t waste anytime straddling the bike. At the time, I was riding a Speed Twin with a sprung hub, you understand. So the Manx was naturally very different. I got comfortable and I revved it up and slipped the clutch and really took off. It was fantastic. The sound. The feel. It was my first time on a bike like that.”
“Another time I remember going to Bracebridge Street with Joe, home of Norton. He must have had some ‘pull’ there because it wasn’t easy to get attention from the firm. When we arrived, there must have been fifty Manx’s all lined up and ready to go, all of which were earmarked for customers all over the place. I think the bikes used to cost around £550 (this was in the early 1960s), but the government dropped the purchase tax, so the price went down to around £450. Anyway, it was one of those memories that stays with you. A wonderful collection of Manxes, right there where they were made”
“Another time, Joe bought a 250cc AJS 7R from Copes at Hagley Road, Birmingham. Frank Cope had a special head made at AMC. It had only a 68mm bore. The piston was welded up. So Frank went to Liverpool and brought back three Porcupine pistons. He put the 68mm bore piston together with the 68mm head, and Joe sorted it out. Because the barrel was shorter, he had to cut down the timing cover and stuck it back it back together with fibreglass. Amazingly, the fibreglass didn't melt, and he made a lovely job. That bike had a set of Vincent forks in it, as I remember. And a Black Shadow front brake. Yeah.
“We needed some other parts, so we went to Brum (Birmingham) in an Austin Westminster. It was like being in a Rolls Royce, that car. At Fort Dunlop we got the rims and left the hubs there to be sorted. Then we went down the road to Amal for a GP carb, and went off to Lucas for the magneto. Finally we went back to Dunlop and we were very happy. They’d sorted it out properly with a 2.75 front tyre and 3.00 rear. Lovely for a 250. The point being that all those firms were right there close to each other. BSA. Triumph. Norton. Amal. Lucas. Almost everyone. It was a biking Mecca.
“Anyway, later we went to Silverstone to test the bike. Joe told me to take it up the M1 motorway. So I did and blasted along at silly speeds. I got to a village somewhere off the motorway near the end and a copper pulled out on a pushbike. Luckily I didn’t hit him, but he wasn’t pleased. And he didn't believe the bike was a 250; not at the speed I was travelling.
“At Silverstone, I had taken off the bulb horn, and so I got nicked that day for riding without it. The copper also nicked Joe for having no (trade) plates on the bike, and for aiding and abetting me. I was fined £2 10s shillings (£2.50). Joe was fined £7 10s. (£7.50).
Bert Avill and Andre Baldet
“Well I stayed with Joe for three or four years or so, but I couldn’t get on with his wife. So I left. I then went to Bert Avill in Barrack Road, Northampton. He sold Matchlesses mostly, but unofficially. I stayed there for about two years. Then I went to the late Andre Baldet who was the top Vespa dealer in the UK and had four mechanics working on the scooters. But he also sold motorcycles, and it was the bikes that I worked on.”
Baldet, incidentally, once boasted the dubious accolade of being one of the oldest fathers in the UK having sired a child in his early seventies. Which is nice work if you can get it (and you can get it if you try). He was the “Vespa King of Britain”; a man who had escaped the Nazis in France and fled to England via Algiers.
But this isn’t about Baldet. It’s about Mick Hemmings, who went on to meet his wife, Angie, in the mid-1960s.
“At the time, she was working worked for BRS [British Road Services; Britain’s nationalised road transport operator formed in 1947]. Joe had had a bike sent down from Copes of Hagley Road, Birmingham.
“I walked in to that BRS office having ridden there on a 1935 BSA “float”. This was a 500cc v-twin with a sidecar platform that we used for collecting bikes. Angie opened the office hatch and I took one look and I thought “Yeah, she'll do for me, mate.”
“I told her to get the kettle on for a cuppa, and we hit it off straight away. We were both seventeen.”
Mick spent some time working for Brown Brothers, a huge firm that sold spares to the car industry and the aviation industry, and pretty much to anyone else who needed hydraulic components, or electrical parts, or braking and clutch parts, and similar.
“I was working on milling machines at Browns,” says Mick. “But I just can’t do repetitive work, and I got bored with that pretty quickly. So after a year, I moved on.
Booth Horrocks, Motor Cycle News, Mick Walker, and taking care of business
“Then I came across a firm advertising factory heating systems. That was Booth Horrocks & Sons. I loved that job. It involved installing boilers, and I worked a lot with asbestos without ever worrying about it. No one did back then. The boilers were usually installed in local industrial buildings such as the shoe factories that Northampton was once famous for.
“Well, Angie and me got married around 1966-1967. I went back to Andrew Baldet’s for a while. And sometime after that, I found myself working for Motorcycle News (MCN) in London’s Chancery Lane. I was handling advertising for the Midlands, and stayed there until 1974.
“Then I started my own shop. I had just sixty quid in the bank, but at MCN I’d met and made contact with a lot of people. That was important. The shop, in fact, was right across the street from where I am now. I rented it off the council for a fiver a week.
“Someone who was a really big help back then was the late Mick Walker. Mick was a motorcycle dealer before he became famous as a writer of motorcycle books, and he lent me a lot of bikes to fill the showroom. I was also repairing bikes—Triumphs and Nortons mainly—and in one year I sold 85 units, mostly Commandos and Bonnies. And on the strength of that, NVT gave me a franchise.”
“That worked well for a while, and then I took on Suzuki. That must have been 1975-76, just as the AP50 and X7 was coming in. At that time, I had myself, a store man, a manager and three mechanics on the payroll.
“The best year, businesswise, was 1978. It was suddenly easy to sell bikes, and easy to buy them, and easy to make money. By the middle of the 80s, however, things were dropping off. Coburn and Hughes had come along and were cut-pricing everything.
“Finally I had to cut back on the business and get rid of a few people. That was around 1989. The building that was rented from the council was old and tired. They wouldn't spend any money on it. Instead, they gave me money to move out.
“I went across the road to this shop where we are now; just me and the storeman. But he left in 1993 (I couldn't afford to pay the sort of wages you could earn at an ASDA supermarket). Angie said that she’d come and help, and she did, and we've never looked back. The Norton and Triumph franchise days were gone, however. We sold spares mainly, and we were getting some stuff re-made when the old factory stocks ran out.”
He pauses with the spanner and puts the ciggie out. A cloud of lethal fumes dissolves around him and he continues.
“After Angie joined, the spares side of the business grew. But I was also doing restorations. Back then, I’d take pretty much any bike, but Nortons were always my biggest interest. But I'm a Triumph man too, and I like to work on them."
He talks some more, and your fingers are glowing red as you scribble it all down. Names. Dates. Faces. Dennis Poore (who Mick is still undecided about, but recognises that he had a very difficult job to do). Rob Reynolds (the buyer at Norton who was told by Poore to keep enough stock for two years and scrap the rest—tanks, frames, crankcases, jigs, everything). Harry Woolridge (the Speed Twin authority who Mick liked a lot). Kipper Killip (the most famous TT marshall of all time). And others. There are more names here than on Facebook.
“You getting all this?” Mick says, now working on the innards of the bike on the bench.
You nod but you daren’t stop writing even though the ink in your biro is boiling, and even though you’ve had ten fags whilst just breathing the air. It’s time to talk about Mick’s racing days.
He started out with a production Norton Commando that a guy had written off in a crash. Mick saw a challenge, reached for a spanner, lit another fuse, and set to work. Later he progressed to a Rob North triple.
His first race was at Silverstone in 1970. He came in “about fourth” he says, struggling to remember. Later he rode in the Maudes Trophy for BMW, and won. That event lasted seven days and seven nights. Team mates included Mike Nicks, Alan Robinson, and Ken Heanes (team manager).
His first year at the Manx was 1990, and he won the newcomers award. He’s ridden at the Bold D'Or three times, at Assen, and Monza—and won the 100 mile race there twice.
At one time, Mick and his yellow and purple Commando was one of the most familiar duos on the UK racing circuit. He was evidently a bad man to have in front of you, and a worse one to have behind.
He’s still racing, but isn’t committing to anything at the moment and hasn't got anything to prove. But he will do Goodwood and some parades.
He stops talking and watches as you come up for air behind your notebook.
“Want more?” he says.
Naturally, you do. But your fingers don’t.
“Next time, huh?”
“Suit yourself,” he says, turning back to the bike on the bench and lighting another fag.
If you need a Norton or Triumph engine or gearbox rebuilding, Mick’s your man. He doesn’t want complete restorations. They’re time consuming and fraught with problems. But engines and gearboxes and "manageable units". He’s more comfortable here. It’s where he belongs.
You can phone and ask for a price, and if he’s got the space in his busy schedule, he’ll fit you in. But rest assured that a Hemming’s power unit or transmission will be built as good as it realistically can be built. It might cost you a little more up front, but not in the long run.
As ever, you get what you pay for.
Mick Hemmings Motorcycles
This address might be out of date: 72-74 Overstone Road Northampton, Northamptonshire. NN1 3JS. England
Telephone 01327 844877