Saturday, 26 September 2015

Winning Through Adversity

I was leafing through some old magazines when I came across this letter from the pages of the MZ club magazine (Jan/Feb 1983). In his own words, it tells the story of racer Alan Shepherd’s troubles en route to the US and his win in the 1964 Daytona Grand Prix. As you’ll no doubt agree, this was one epic journey.

Alan Shepherd at Knockhill Race Circuit in Fife, Scotland
During his time with MZ, Alan had no formal contract. Lacking hard currency they couldn’t pay him, so they would supply him with bikes and mechanics, and he could keep whatever prize money and sponsorship he could find. However, Alan, who managed to hold down a full time job whilst racing, used what money he won to buy Western components to improve the MZs.

After retiring from racing Alan still did demonstration races at classic meetings on an MZ 125, keeping alive the memory of MZ’s racing heritage, and reminding people of the genius of his close friend, MZ’s race bike developer Walter Kaaden, the inventor of the modern two stroke engine.

Alan always came across as a quiet unassuming man who played down his part in MZ’s racing success. I remember at an event in the '90s him recalling his trip to Daytona and after detailing all the trials and tribulations, finished the story with the phrase ‘…and the bike won’. As if he had had nothing to do with the victory.

Alan died in July 2007. A great man who will be sadly missed.

Daytona 1964
The Will to Win (or was it good luck?)

My first race in 1964 was the first World Championship meeting at Daytona. The 250cc machine I was riding was a twin cylinder two stroke rotary valve MZ which was prepared at the MZ factory in Zschopau under the attention of the brilliant Mr Walter Kaaden (Walter Kaaden is responsible for the design of all the two stroke racers still in use today).

The American organisers had arranged a charter flight for all of the European competitors, and two days before this flight was scheduled to take off from London Airport I received a telegram from Walter Kaaden which read, “Alan we cannot compete at Daytona, sorry, Walter Kaaden”. 
Walter Kaaden
 It was in the middle of the afternoon when I read this telegram, so I ‘phoned the factory at Zschopau to find out why we could not go? I was told the visa for Mr Kaaden was not available because the Americans would not let him into the America. I asked, “If I came to collect the machine could I go on my own?”  “Yes, of course you can”, was his answer, “but how are you going to get there and back to London Airport by the day after tomorrow?” 

I asked him to meet me at the West/East border at Marionborne on the next day, which he kindly agreed to do. So I started the long trip to Daytona via Southend - Ostende Airferry, Belgium, West Germany / East Germany and back to London Airport (in an old J4 van, not the best vehicle for Inter Continental Travel!!!).

From Grange-Over-Sands to Southend was relatively uneventful apart from breaking almost every traffic regulation! I caught the late night flight which got me to Ostende just before midnight. The all night drive from Ostende to Marionborne was uneventful, except for the big-end noise which was gradually becoming more noticeable.

At the West/East border there was a delay problem. I wanted to go into the eastern section but I didn’t want to go anywhere else. I could have got a visa to go to Berlin, but I didn’t want to go to Berlin. After a lot of arguing, and more than an hour’s delay, I got in. Mr Kaaden was waiting for me with a bike and some spares (4 magnetos, chains and sprockets etc.). The MZ didn’t have engine trouble just magneto trouble. A quick transfer from his van to mine, and with all his good wishes I started back. 
From L-R: Walter Kaaden, Mike Hailwood, Alan Shepherd, Ernst Degner, unknown
 The East/West border didn’t want to let me out as I hadn’t really been in, having got a visa with no destination on it. More arguments and delay and eventually I got out. Now I had to average 45 mph to catch the airferry in Ostende! Not very fast by modern standards but a tall order in a J4 van with tapping big-end. Before I got into Belgium the big-end cap gave in and the rod poked itself through the crankcase! That stopped me! 

I phoned the German AA and shortly afterwards their breakdown vehicle arrived. I explained I was going to catch a plane at Ostende in 4 hours, then I was going to the USA and would he tow me to Ostende? No, he wouldn’t, was his answer, but he would tow me to the nearest Morris Agent (about 25 miles in the right direction). When we arrived at the Agent’s garage it was closed - other than for petrol. I explained why I must catch the plane and the attendant ‘phoned his boss who, luckily for me, was a motorcycle racing enthusiast. The attendant said the boss was coming down top see me, and in a few minutes a very nice large Mercedes screeched to a halt. 

After a quick examination he said he would not be able to get the parts until tomorrow, but said he would tow me to Ostende. I just as quickly told him that I couldn’t afford to have him do that, his reply was, “Let’s worry about that later, all that matters now is getting you to Daytona”. He didn’t wait for my answer, just moved his Merc into position and the attendant attached a tow rope, and off we went to Ostende. 

Quite a fast and uneventful journey, except for some problems at the German / Belgium border who were not happy about a West German pulling a British van with an East German machine in it! Oh dear, didn’t I create problems?

We arrived at Ostende in time to catch the last plane, and all the German garage owner wanted was my autograph, wasn’t I lucky? Then I bribed the fork lift driver to push the van up the ramp into the plane. I think I gave him about 10DM (about £1.00).

At Ostende I ’phoned the Castrol competitions manager at 1.30 in the morning and he told me where to go!! To Southend railway station and catch the first train to London in the morning, and leave the van at the airport. So, during the night I got a taxi to transport the MZ, my tools, leathers and the spares from the airport to the station. Imagine the taxi drivers face while I was trying to get a fully built racing bike into his taxi! And also the Southend/London commuters with all my gear and the bike in the train corridor.

As arranged, in London the Castrol competitions manager was waiting, and we got to London Airport with an hour to spare (Phew!!!).

Practise at Daytona was not without its problems. The bike was not its usual trouble free self, instead of having acceleration like a rocket, it was more like an old road bike. After the first practise I changed both magnetos, even though I didn’t think they were faulty, but nothing other than magnetos ever went wrong, but in the second practise it was just as slow. So in desperation I changed them again, with my changes to the carburetion it went a little better in the third practise but was very short of power so with only one session left I ‘phoned Walter Kaaden in Zschopau to get some advice. On the phone, at about £1.00 per minute, which was a lot of money and I could not really afford it, he told me what to do to improve its performance, after I had explained its characteristics. In the last practise it went perfect, but I still had to change the gearing before the race.

A spectator from London offered to do my signalling, which was very welcome. The machine ran perfect in the race. The two leading Suzuki’s got tired as I piled on the pressure, and I finished with a very comfortable lead, and didn’t I enjoy myself?

When we got back to London, after I had a go at piloting the plane (a DC6), my van had been repaired by the Castrol manager. I returned the bike to Zschopau without further incident.

My thanks again to the brilliant Walter Kaaden and his team, the German garage owner, the Londoner who gave me signals and Malcolm Edgar of Castrol. Without all their assistance I wouldn’t even have got to Daytona. I really do take my hat off to Walter Kaaden, on the ‘phone I told him exactly what the engine was like, and he replied immediately that the fuel must be a different octane value, so I had to change the timing and the carburettor settings. He gave me the exact timing figures, all in a 3-minute ‘phone call.
With race bike at BMF Show, Peterborough, England
To be fair without Walter Kaaden I could not have qualified in practise, never mind winning the race. Thanks for all your assistance, including the Daytona Marshall and the Organisers.

Kind Regards,

Alan Shepherd (1935 - 2007)


  1. It is quite a remarkable story, thrashing across Europe to East Germany in a clapped out transit, picking up a racing motorcycle and an assortment of spares and then antics at the various borders, blowing the motor and an abundance of luck and the support of enthusiasts, planes trains and automobiles it's all there!
    It's a powerful story proving once again that if you can set your mind to do something, somehow things fall into place.. It has happened to me and I often have thought about those times.

    1. A more innocent time, perhaps? I admit that it reads like something from a B&W Ealing comedy - plucky young racer wins against all the odds etc. It so unlikely that it would never get made as no one would believe it.
      The sad thing is, you know that it couldn't happen now. Bikes in taxis, signaler from the crowd etc. simply wouldn't be allowed. Too many rules for rules sake and people whose sole purpose it is to say "No".