Keeping it in the family

Moto Cross star David E. Langford continues his tribute to local heroes in motorsport

Joe Johnson

During the 1950s and 60s, the BBC TV Sports programme Grandstand sent a regular outside broadcast team to cover international motorcycle scrambling, or MotoCross as it came to be known.

Among the stars being televised at the time was the Oxford rider Joe Johnson, whose father owned Johnson’s Café, opposite the Cowley Car factory.

It is hard to define what it is that makes an exceptional sports personality. When stamina, training and grim determination are eliminated, there remains, within a few, that rare spark of genius which defies description.

At the peak of his career Joe Johnson had that spark which placed him on a level with the world champions he rode with, and in some cases ahead of them, despite sparse national newspaper coverage which tended to overlook motorsport with rare exception.

Joe inherited his competitive flair from hisfather, Len Johnson, a former professional strong man whose own achievements were, substantial by any standard. Len took Joe to spectate at a local scramble and his riding career was sealed from that day.

Starting out with a 197cc 'DOT' (Devoid of trouble, an early British make) and later a 250cc version, he rapidly proved how competitive he could be. A BSA Gold Star was added to the stable, transported to race meetings on a trailer towed by Len's MG sportscar.

During the early 1950s, Joe was riding on most weekends and his forcetul riding style attracted spectators and sponsors alike. With Eddie Dow, Banbury's famous BSA Gold Star specialist, tuning his machines, this was a formidable team effort.

Joe's winning campaign carried on for seven seasons with his DOT and BSA machines and eventually the former British scramble champion and Summertown motorcycle dealer John Avery, supplied him with a highly competitive Greeves machine. By coincidence, it was John Avery who supplied me with my first motorcycle in 1965, and the second one in 1967.

With the Greeves in Joe's highly accomplished hands, his career began to snowball and, in 1960, he was invited to the Greeves factory where the manager Derry Preston-Cobb offered him a place in the works team alongside Dave Bickers, one of the top riders at the time. With Bickers as a team mate, Joe described the next three years of racing at home and abroad as the happiest days of his career.

In 1960 he achieved one of his best wins in the 250cc class at the Experts Grand National at Rollswood Farm, where he beat world champion, Jeff Smith. At the Spanish Grand Prix course in Barcelona, he took second place to Dave Bickers in his first international race meeting, and at the Hants Grand National, he won a superb victory over Vic Eastwood.

For those who followed the sport, these names will bring a wave of nostalgia, as they were by far the greatest riders of their era.

Joe left the Greeves factory when the two-stroke machines became uncompetitive, he therefore returned to the big four-strokes after a spell with Cotton and Parilla.

In 1964 the Bicester dealer, Dave Curtis, built and supplied Joe with Matchless in a Rickman Metisse frame. A Triumph Metisse followed, supplied by Don Smith. This machine could well have been tailormade for him.

The illustration shows the Rickman Triumph Metisse with Joe in winning form, throwing the big twin around as if it were a lightweight. His victories on this bike were numerous across the south of England.

Towards the end of his riding career Joe returned to racing two-stroke machines as they became more and more competitive, he rode CZs, and the Swedish Husqvarnas with which he won the first Ken Hall Trophy meeting.

When his father died in 1966, Joe inherited Johnson's Caf'. Being opposite the car works meant a regular flow of customers from the factory staff and an increasing flow of regular income.

It was inevitable that the family business had to take priority along with the welfare of his growing family. He hung up his leathers just after his 30th birthday at the end of a highly successful 14-year career in motorsport.

My thanks go to Joe Johnson and his son Bob.

April 2006 Oxfordshire Limited Edition