Obsession: Full Factory Fetish

Libraries normally smell of dusty, musty books. Not Chris Wilson’s. His has an envy inducing collection of factory race bikes

“I know how fortunate I am, how unbelievably lucky I am to own this lot,” says Chris Wilson with an excited, al most chid-like glint in his eye as we shuffle, bounce and manhandle the ex-Kork Ballington KR500 into place for another photograph.

“In actual fact, I’m just lucky to be alive when it was my turn to look after them.”

It’s a Zen outlook, but the sheer significance of this amazing collection of one-off factory racers is not lost on the piston and gas turbine aircraft engineer. We sense his pride. He clearly senses and enjoys our enjoyment. Everybody’s happy then.

“I know some people will be thinking “flash twat” but that’s OK, there will always be people who will think like that. I’m just fortunate that I have an incredibly understanding wife and the wherewithal to feed my passion. I won’t be here on this earth forever and I really do see myself as the guardian of these historic bikes until it’s someone else’s turn to lavish the same care and attention on them.”

“I used to race 100cc karts – and without trying to sound big-headed, I was pretty good in them – the same with cars. I originally started this whole thing wheeling and dealing in Yamaha TZ500s and owned nine at one point. It was really an exercise in convincing my wife I should go racing. She said ‘no’ which was probably a good thing because while I’m OK on four wheels on the track my bike skills are nowhere near good enough to go racing.”

“But I do believe in my bikes being run, being ridden hard. After all, that’s what they were built to do.”

Outside, in a very cold, polythene draped garage, is evidence of the use Chris’s bikes get. Jammed between a GSX-R1100 slab-side streetfighter and a fastback Norton Commando is Kenny Roberts’ actual TZ500 with evidence of some tarmac damage. “Steve Parrish highsided it last year. At least he broke his collarbone,” laughs Chris.

A smashed master cylinder, bent clip-on and broken screen tell the story. But it’s nothing compared to what the bike was like when Chris first got his hands on it. “It was actually sawn in half,” says Chris as he readjusts his sheepskin flying jacket in the sub-zero outside garage. “I’m not going to tell you how little I paid for it but its price reflected the fact that someone at Yamaha had sawn through the frame and the bike was being readied for the crusher. It’s been subject to a full rebuild to get it in the condition it is now – Parrish’s efforts notwithstanding.”

The icy cold timber garage houses an eclectic bunch of tackle. There’s a recently acquired GT750 Suzuki triple with a drum front brake and enormous land-drain sized Piper three-into-one exhaust. Propping up a line of British iron is a fairly scruffy but clearly original CB750 Hadley Honda racer with four black megaphone pipes and period stickers.

“That’s the only bike I’d never sell. When I was stationed in East Anglia with the RAF in the seventies, that’s the bike that really inspired me. We used to traipse along to Snetterton to watch the racing and Julian Soper used to work wonders on this thing against the factory two-strokes. It had no right to be so competitive but Julian rode the wheels off it and regularly beat the big names. That’s his bike, the actual one. I’ve got his leathers inside the house as well.”

It’s this last statement that makes me take note. Chris Wilson may be a hard-nosed, astute and pragmatic businessman but here, in his motorcycling wonderworld, he’s just a wide-eyed, über-enthusiastic bike nut, positively slavering enthusiasm and passion. A commendable place to be.

“It’s pretty much as it last raced. I took the frame to Harris to get jigged and Steve Harris saw me coming in through the door with it he said ‘fuck me, a Rob North frame’. When I got closer he said, ‘Fuck me, that’s Julian Soper’s frame. Sell me the bike. Name your price.’ He knows his frames, Steve.”

But we’re distracted. While the Soper CB750 may hold massive sentimental importance for Chris, our source of distraction lies elsewhere. It’s a very, very rare SC500 Yamaha motocrosser in as-new condition. Just looking at it suggests pain, broken collarbones, punctured lungs and cruciate ligament damage. But the assault on our eyes is welcome.

“There are only – as far as I know – three of these in the UK. I’ve just finished restoring it and just need a front number board to complete the picture,” says its proud owner. “Someone said that it was a beautifully balanced bike in its day. You’d kick it and it’d kick you back. They had a reputation for being a bit hard to handle. Anyone who’s ridden one has told me not to ride it.”

Highly polished, flanged alloy rims, wasp-like waist and about three inches of rear wheel travel all mixed-up with a fucked-up air-cooled 500cc two-stroke motor. Nasty and bad. In a good way, of course.

There are a few bikes missing. The Honda RSC1000 away being fettled after a certain Mr Haslam (L) popped a rod and a piston at Brands Hatch in the summer. Aoki’s 1999 RGV500 Suzuki is also awaiting similar remedial work as is Freddie Spencer’s NS500-3 which is away having a new gearbox output shaft fitted.

While the bills and the hassle of costly mechanical work are clearly unpleasant, Chris seems to take it in his stride. He’s not stupid and realises that if you’re going to run (old) race bikes on race tracks ridden by racers then sometimes parts will fail. As a man with several decades experience of jet turbine and piston aeroplane engine experience, none of this come as a surprise to him.

Just a day at Chris’s place isn’t enough for me. He’s in and out of the house like a fiddler’s elbow, constantly juggling calls on his mobile, nipping backwards and forwards to work to deal with an unexpected Civil Aviation Authority inspection. There are still a thousand questions I haven’t asked and like Chris, my own puppy-like enthusiasm for these one-off, priceless bikes is as yet unquenched.

I’d like the factory KR750 Kawasaki to come home with me. I think it’d look better in my living room…

Chris Who?

Chris Wilson started his working life with an apprenticeship at Lucas/CAV after getting tipped out of school at 14. He then served four years in the RAF. After that he moved into commercial aviation basing himself at Stansted for three years, then to Oman to work on Jaguars with the specific intent to, “to get some money – which I pissed away.”

Then after a short stint back at Stansted he moved on to Africa and South America to work as a ‘flying spanner’ on 707s for nine years. A short spell at Gatwick ‘the company went tits up after a year’ was what it took to make him branch out on his own. Now 24 years later his well established aircraft maintenance and restoration business is keeping him in the style to which you are now accustomed.

Thanks from Chris to…

George Beale – historic bike and bits dealer 01530 223611
Andrea – ever-patient and immensely tolerant wife
(and not necessarily in that order)

Ducati Desmosedici GP3

“This is Loris Capriossi’s 990cc bike from the ’03 season. I bought it from Tony O’ Neil the bloke who runs Target Motorsport – he’s got about eight for sale. He’s an absolutely brilliant bloke to deal with, can’t say enough good about him. He deals direct with the factory. I bought that at the beginning of last year. It needs new valves, it hasn’t got any in at all. I’m going to get it running and then decide where and when we’re going to give it an outing and who I can get to ride it without chucking it up the road..”