I have always firmly believed that even the most exotic bikes or factory specials are just inanimate objects that require human interaction to come alive, as do your standard production machines, or even home-built specials. It is the person or persons associated with them that make the story and create the history of motorcycling obviously worldwide — the history involving hundreds of thousands of people, some famous and some not so.
However, everyone has their own story and many deserve it to be told to wider audience, but the reality is that, in most cases, it tends to be the big names that attract the media and publisher’s attention. Often there are riders, designers, engineers et al, that play a massive part in the history of two wheels and do not always get the credit and accolades that they deserve.
John Chisnall is one such person who, up till now, to many has just been a name on the results sheets of races both here and abroad, no doubt largely ignored because he was often the co-pilot to some of the world’s best sidecar racers. Thankfully — in conjunction with another co-pilot and friend Anthony Davis — his story is now published in a well-produced soft-bound book entitled ‘And the Wheels Went Round’.
Born just before the second world war and coming from humble beginnings, he started motorcycling on a Velocette GTP of 1932 vintage (after the obligatory pushbike), before becoming one of the most sought-after passengers for those riders on the Continental Circus after starting out on solos, grass track racing, and then the Isle of Man TT. (John — like former World Champion Stan Dibben — also believes the title ‘passenger’ is a total misnomer, as they are integral to steering the outfit, but try as you might, you end up using it!)
Romanticised by many over the recent past, John tells the real story of constant travelling, living an almost hand-to-mouth existence, fights with organisers to get decent money for riding on dangerous circuits despite tens of thousands of spectators paying to watch. Worse still — as a passenger — he often did not get paid even for a win, or had to take a smaller fee with the rider getting the lion’s share of the purse, relying on a day job to pay the bills.
As you work your way through the 150 pages — spread with period black and white images — you learn about racing with the greats such as Florian Camathias, Max Duebel as well as home-grown talent like Bill Beevers and John Tickle. He tells of the loss of many friends like Dickie Dale, and Dave Chadwick to name just a few over the years, making you realise racing at that time was not as glamorous as some would have you believe.
Racing at the TT is also well documented as is the occasional brush with the law, amongst some amusing anecdotes contained in the easily read pages, before he goes on to recount life after racing, or should be passengering on the tarmac?
Moving on, he went back to racing solos, building a Bantam race bike, he designed and built the monocoque-framed Yamaha racer for Ted Broad that was ridden by Barry Ditchburn. He also set up a motorcycle business with fellow sidecar racer Derek Yorke, eventually selling Jawa and CZ motorcycles and then Kawasakis. While this was happening he was back on the grass and riding trials. Given that he also had a spell in scrambling, he was the complete all-rounder!
Despite being into his eighties he is still riding on the road, restoring motorcycles, and is active in many clubs like the VMCC and Velocette Owners Club, proving that once motorcycling gets into your blood it is there forever.
I have to say that having lost two afternoons in this well-written book I was left just wanting to know more about the man, because it is obvious he has many more stories to tell and is just plain modest about his achievements. It is truly a great read, written truthfully about a life on two wheels by someone who has really been there and done it. Credit also to his friend and author Anthony Davis who — from the little snippets that crept in — also has a good story to tell!
Published by Bear Alley Books it costs a modest £15.00 and can also be obtained from www.sidecarbooks.com
Author of this article: Ian Kerr MBE