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'It's the stopping that's the hard thing'
Eric Bliss: 'I've got some bad memories, some prangs and that sort of thing, but by and large I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was a real thrill.'
When “Motor Cycling” magazine was first printed in Watford in 1962, the editorial staff lined up on the momentous day when the first editions came off the new press.
As the journalists and motor-racing enthusiasts stood eagerly awaiting the magazine, a whisper broke out that someone thought they recognised one of the print employees.
Handling the first copies was racing star Eric Bliss, who worked for the Watford Observer in the rotary machine department.
The British Sidecar Champion had ridden alongside racing legends Eric Oliver and Chris Vincent, and a few months later would be an Isle of Man TT winner.
Soon the whispers turned into shouts and the crowd surrounded the young racer, asking him for pictures and autographs. The first editions of Motor Cycling magazine were forgotten.
Eric, now 80 years old, said: “I knew we had the contract to print Motor Cycling and I thought, let’s see what happens.
“I kept it quiet from them, who I was, and they were standing there. All of a sudden one of them pointed and said ‘it can't be’ and then everyone got their cameras.
‘“I did get quite a kick from that.”
‘Shortly after surprising the journalists at Motor Cycling, Eric Bliss, aged 29, notched the first all-British Sidecar TT win since 1954, the first mountain circuit win by a British machine since 1925, and the first-ever international TT victory by a BSA, at the Isle of Man TT, in June 1962.
Before any of that, Mr Bliss was racing on a grass track in Cassiobury Park, completely unaware of the vehicle which would carry him to stardom.
Mr Bliss, who now lives in Claremont Crescent, Croxley Green, said: “I came out the forces in 1952 and was able to ride a motorbike, I got a job working in printing and was a member of the Watford and Bushey Motorcycle Club.
“I did trials, scrambling and grass track. One weekend, I don’t know why, but my race entry was refused. There were another two chaps riding, so I went along as spanner man.
“It was the first grass track meeting where I saw sidecars and I was very interested. In the practice, there was a big accident where several passengers were injured.
“The organisers realised they would be short of passengers and put an appeal out on the tannoy for anyone with a race licence.
“I volunteered, and the result was that I rode with a chap for that afternoon, and then a couple of weekends following until his passenger recovered.”
Motorcycle sidecar racing became popular in the 1950s. The acceleration, braking and steering is controlled by a driver, while the passenger, in the sidecar, leans backwards and forwards and side to side to maintain tyre grip while “drifting”, or sliding around the corners.
Mr Bliss said: “You move your body weight around. On a left hander you’re hanging out, on a right hander you’re behind the driver.
“The driver would set the throttle and hold it before a corner. As he turns, you’re going far too quickly, the front wheel starts to lose grip and the outfit starts to crab to the outside of the corner.
“You ease your weight forward which lets the front wheel grip and the back wheel slip. Then you shift your weight backwards to let the back wheel grip.
“You’re rocking backwards and forwards and you go around in one steady drift, which keeps the revs up, rather than someone who is opening and shutting the throttle.
“It’s a peculiar sort of feeling. You can’t talk to the driver. It’s an inbuilt thing. You just know what is going to happen.
“Not everyone has got it. It’s just something you pick up or don’t.”
Following his first taste of grass track racing, Mr Bliss visited Silverstone race track in 1954 and once again was captivated by the sidecars.
“At the end of 1954, there was a big announcement from Eric Oliver, who was the top man of that time and era, he was four times world champion.
“There was a picture of him and his passenger Les Nutt, standing next to this completely streamlined silver outfit, saying Eric was looking for a new passenger as Les was retiring.
“I wrote to him and much to my surprise I got a letter back asking me to come to see him at Staines.
“I shook hands with the great man himself and the first thing he said was ‘you look the right height, step on the scales.’ He told me I was the right weight and to come back on Monday so we could have a run-out.
“I went back in my racing gear and there was a little track around some army huts. We went out and he was very pleased.
“Afterwards he gave me a packet with passes in it and I said ‘what’s that for?’ and he told me it was for the Hutchinson 100, a big race at Brands Hatch.
“I met up with Eric there and he told me he was trying out two other passengers at the same time. I thought the others must be more competent than me because I’d only ever been out once in a grass outfit.
“He took the other passengers out and at the end of each run his hand went up signalling he wanted to come in. When it was my turn, I thought, this is it, any minute his hand is going to go up.
“Instead we did a complete practice and eventually got back to the van. He had a word with the other two and they left. Then he turned to me and said ‘I was very pleased with that. You’re mine for the season’.
“I got changed and was ready to leave, he said ‘I want you over to the shop on Sunday, bring all your gear and paperwork’.
“I asked him what he meant and he said ‘on Monday we're going to Barcelona, for the Spanish Grand Prix’.
“It was a fairytale start. One minute I was a spectator and the next I was a rider, looking out at the spectators.”
At the end of the 1955 season, when Mr Bliss was still in his early 20s, the pair came back from Europe and won the British Championship at Thruxton.
Mr Bliss said: “That’s when Eric Oliver retired. As I was listening to his speech, I was thinking ‘well what’s going to happen to me?’ and a hand landed on my shoulder.
“It was Cyril Smith, an ex-world champ and he said ‘look mate. Don’t look so down-hearted. You’ve done a season with Eric Oliver, you’re good enough for anybody’.
“It certainly put my name up in lights and opened many doors.”
Cyril Smith was true to his word and rode with Eric in the 1957/58/59 seasons, following a year with Bob Mitchell, the Australian champion in 1956.
Mr Bliss said: “My next full time ride after that was halfway through 1961. The gaps in between I was freelancing and standing in for other passengers. That was when I joined Chris Vincent. During that period we had a fantastic season. We won everything in this country that we entered.”
Together with Vincent, Mr Bliss, then of Chester Road, won the 1962 Isle of Man TT, beating hot favourites Max Deubel and Florian Caniathias of BMW.
He and Vincent hurtled through the course, which is run on narrow streets and closed residential roads, on a 497cc BSA twin with specially built Watsonian sidecar, at an average speed of nearly 84 miles an hour.
They hung on to second place – despite hitting a grass verge and bending the gear change – and then only 30 miles from home, race leader Deubel broke a piston and Vincent and Bliss surged through to win. Their green and black outfit was sold this year to a collector for £21,000.
Eric parted company with Chris Vincent at the end of 1962 and it was 1965 before he was riding again, this time with Bill Bodice, until 1967 when his licence was taken away on medical grounds.
Mr Bliss said: “As a passenger, when you’re leaning out, your weight makes your knee work left to right rather than forwards to backwards. I went to Stanmore Orthopaedic, but they said there was nothing they could do for me. Today I could have had a new knee.
“I haven't been in a sidecar since. I’ve got some bad memories, some prangs and that sort of thing but by and large I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was a real thrill, I would do it tomorrow.
“Speed is speed; it doesn't matter if you’re doing 100 or 200, it’s the stopping that’s the hard thing.”
This Nostalgia column was first published in the Watford Observer on July 13, 2012. Some of the questions posed here may have been answered by our readers in subsequent weeks so keep an eye on this website. All will be revealed as subsequent columns are added over the coming weeks.
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