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Cecil Sandford, 93, was MV Agusta’s first world title winner and is now motorcycling’s oldest surviving world champion

Words Mat Oxley  Photography Chippy Wood and Sandford archive

On Wednesday 11 June, 1952, Cecil Sandford scored the first world championship victory for MV Agusta, the marque that went on to become the most successful manufacturer in grand prix racing, with 275 victories and 75 riders and constructors world titles. Even now, almost half a century after MV’s last race, only Honda, Yamaha and Aprilia have achieved more success.

Two months after Sandford took MV’s first win in the Ultra-Lightweight TT, he clinched the 125cc world title, MV’s first. Five years later he won his second world championship, in the 250cc class, with rival Italian brand Mondial.

During his 15-year career, the Gloucestershire rider had factory contracts with AJS, Velocette, MV, DKW and Mondial. He raced against Geoff Duke, John Surtees and Mike Hailwood, the greatest British riders of all time. He won the race in which Hailwood made his debut, at Oulton Park in April, 1957.

“Surtees was one of the best riders I ever watched,” recalls Sandford, a chipper 93-year-old with an amazing memory for the first decade of motorcycle world championship racing. “And Duke was always a step ahead. He was the only bloke I ever saw drift a motorbike, at Monza.”

Sandford on DKW’s two-stroke 350cc triple. Dustbin fairings were later banned because they were too dangerous in windy conditions

Sandford started racing as a teenager, just after the Second World War, after converting his Triumph roadbike for scrambling, trials and grasstrack duties.

Next came roadracing, usually at disused wartime bases like Haddenham, Dunholme and Blandford Forum. He made his TT debut in the 1948 Clubmans Junior, though he very nearly didn’t.

“We were taking my Velocette to Douglas from Liverpool, with me, my mum and my dad in an MG with the Velo on a trailer. At the docks we gave the car to the AA to put on the boat [this was pre-roll-on/roll-off ferries], went for some dinner, came back and stood in the passenger queue to get on the boat. We’d been there for quite a while when my mum pointed at a boat pulling out of the docks and said, ‘I’m sure that’s the boat we put the car on’. And it was. The queue we were stood in was for the boat to New York.”

Two years later Sandford made his Continental debut, riding an AJS 7R in the Italian GP at Monza. “That was my first time abroad and Europe was still recovering from the war, very much so. A lot of road signs were still full of bullet holes and I remember the roads in France were still really rough and full of muck.”

During the crucial early days of Sandford’s professional career his mentor was Les Graham, winner of the inaugural 1949 500cc world title, with AJS. The Merseysider quit the struggling Plumstead brand for MV at the end of 1950 and a year later recruited Sandford, 17 years his junior, to the cause of Count Domenico Agusta.

“Les called at the garage owned by my sponsor Arthur Taylor to ask if he’d let me go, because Les had suggested to Domenico that I ride for them in 1952.”

Agusta had recently recruited engineer Piero Remor and mechanic Arturo Magni from Gilera. Remor designed MV’s first 500 and first four-stroke 125, a DOHC single, although Sandford believes Agusta was also involved with the smaller engine. 

“I think the first 125 engine was the old man’s idea – he was a good engineer,” he says. “The first time I saw the bike was on the Isle of Man and the first time I rode it was in practice. It had very narrow tyres – you just had to keep underneath the hedges and try to make speed. I won the race and I was on the way up.”

Sandford and the MV beat Carlo Ubbiali’s Mondial by one minute 40 seconds to take his and MV’s first TT win, but the Count wasn’t there to congratulate him.

“After the TT Les took me to Gallarate [MV’s HQ] to meet Domenico and his mother for dinner, where she got to have a look at me and see if I was alright to be allowed to join the factory. All that was quite something for me, because I come from the sticks.” Sandford got the nod from nonna Agusta and signed a contract with her son.

“You never had a lot to do with the Count, but he knew exactly what was going on and the racing team was his pride and joy. Whenever you went to see him he always sat on his desk, so he was always looking down at you. The only bloke that could open the door and go in was Les. Everybody else had to knock on the door and sometimes you’d sit there for hours, waiting to go in.”

After Sandford’s career-making visit to Italy he headed north to Assen, for round two of the 1952 125cc world championship. He soon realised this wasn’t going to be an easy ride.

“It was quite a nightmare trying to keep my bike as fast as those ridden by MV’s Italian riders, like Angelo Copeta. His bike always seemed to be better. Luckily Les was in charge, so he told me to race Copeta’s bike at Assen and I won that too.”

Sandford clinched the title with another win at the Ulster GP, staged over the Clady circuit, with its 11-kilometre main straight, and a third-place finish at Solitude, Germany.

The following month at Monza the Count was there to congratulate Sandford on his championship success. Did MV’s first world title make the Count smile? 

“Not really, no. There was always more going on there than we understood.”

Indeed there was. Earlier that year the Count had signed the deal that would bankroll his team for the next two decades: building American Bell helicopters under licence at Gallarate.

Agusta hoped that Graham would win the brand’s first 500 title in 1953, but the former RAF bomber pilot was killed at the bottom of Bray Hill during the season-opening Senior TT. The MV four’s Earles forks somehow jammed on full compression, causing him to lose control.

“So I was taken back to Monza,” Sandford recalls. “I was there with all the 500s for the next few months, trying to find out what had gone wrong. I went round and round Monza but of course the circuit is flat, completely different to the Isle of Man.

“I spent an awful lot of time sat in Gallarate, waiting for something to happen. I was living in a hotel in Milan and they gave me a Fiat Cinquecento to get around in.”

Sandford enjoyed his little slice of a la dolce vita, but knew his time at MV was running out. The Count had hired Italian Ubbiali for 1953, so the 25-year-old Briton was surplus to requirements.

“[Fellow MV rider] Bill Lomas used to say, ‘they’ll put a different jet in your bike and you’ll never be as quick as them’. And as much as I tried I couldn’t keep up with them. I was just there in the team, in the back. I think they thought it was better to have me with them than against them.”

During 1955 Sandford was a privateer member of the Continental Circus, riding last year’s Moto Guzzi 250 and 350, working his way around Europe with the rest of the racing gypsies.

“It was a good era – everybody was friends and we helped each other out. I didn’t camp though. I didn’t want to rough it if I could help it. If you got £200 or £300 start money that was a lot of money, so we’d stay in crummy hotels. I got around in a little Morris J van, which was a terrible thing: 45 miles an hour maximum and the noise was incredible and everything was shaking. Pat [Sandford’s girlfriend, who he married in 1957] used to sit on a five-gallon oil drum because there was no passenger seat.”

Very occasionally members of the Continental Circus found a faster way to travel. 

“In 1951 the Swiss GP at Berne was right before the TT, so we flew to the Isle of Man in a Dakota. We had 13 motorbikes, plus riders and mechanics. One superstitious Italian refused to get on the plane, because there were 13 bikes on there. We had to stop to refuel a couple of times, because everywhere was grass landing strips, so the Dakota couldn’t take off with a full fuel load.”

Celebrations after the 1955 Junior TT: winner Bill Lomas (Moto Guzzi, centre), runner-up Bob McIntyre (Norton, left) and third-placed Sandford (Moto Guzzi).

No one died in that old Dakota, but grand prix racing lost 29 riders during the 1950s – an average of three deaths per season. Amazingly Sandford wasn’t worried about the danger. 

“You never thought about hurting yourself – it’ll never happen to me.”

In 1956 he signed with German marque DKW to ride their V3 350cc two-stroke, supposedly the inspiration for Honda’s V3 NS500 of the early 1980s. He soon realised he didn’t like two-strokes, because they had a habit of seizing and throwing riders down the road.

“You didn’t want that to happen. What you did was use the kill button on long straights to kill the engine for a fraction of a second, which let some neat petrol into the cylinder to cool it down. I never had one seize on me – you had to have a real feel for the engine and really listen to it. At the TT the DKW mechanics never let me do a flying lap in practice – they always stopped me halfway down the Sulby straight to check the plugs.”

With Les Graham, discussing the Earles front fork that most likely caused Graham’s death at the 1953 TT

There was a way out of his two-stroke nightmare. Before the 1956 TT Sandford had agreed to ride a Mondial 125 in the Ultra-Lightweight race, alongside the DKW in the Junior. Mondial was another aristocrat-owned Italian brand, although Count Giuseppe Boselli’s blue blood was of a different hue to Count Agusta’s. 

“A lovely chap,” says Sandford, who signed a one-year contract with Boselli for 1956 and then a three-year contract for 1957, 1958 and 1959.

“The first time I met the Mondial people was when they got off the boat on the Isle of Man. Two mechanics had come all the way from Italy with their 125 on a trailer. God, they looked rough.

“The engine of the 125 was good, but the rest of the bike was rubbish, so at the TT we spent most of our time with Dunlop, Ferodo and so on, trying to improve things. By 1957 everything was different – Mondial had used quite a lot of my input and they had some good brains there, too.”

Chief among these was engineer Alfonso Drusiani, who upgraded the 125 single for 1957 and designed a completely new 250 single. The bigger engine was very over-square, with its double overhead camshafts driven by a train of five gears in a casing on the right side of the engine. An outside flywheel on the left of the crankshaft kept things nice and narrow. And the whole bike was enclosed in a hand-beaten aluminium dustbin fairing. This was the last year of the dustbins, before they were banned for safety reasons.

History is made! A delighted Sandford in pit lane after winning his first Isle of Man TT, with sponsor Arthur Taylor (centre) and legendary MV Agusta mechanic Arturo Magni

“The full streamlining was all right, so long as it wasn’t windy,” Sandford recalls. 

“At places like Monza we used front and rear fairings, at the TT only the front and at tighter tracks we might use neither.”

Victories on the Isle of Man – in the 10-lap Golden Jubilee TT Lightweight race – and at the Ulster helped the 29-year-old to his second world title, well ahead of teammates Tarquinio Provini and Sammy Miller.

Sandford’s 1957/1958 Mondial contract reveals an annual salary of £1200, plus various bonuses, including £1000 each for a TT win and £500 for victory at the Ulster GP. At the time the average UK house price was £2000, so he was well paid for his skills. This was a stark contrast to his days at AJS and Velocette, where he was paid not a single penny.  They wanted us to ride for the love of the sport.”

Sandford chats with Geoff Duke, Bill Lomas, Ray Amm and a bunch of privateers by the Castrol service truck

And then the great shock. During the late 1950s the Italian motorcycle industry struggled to compete with the new wave of cheap cars launched by Fiat and others. Sales and profits plummeted, so in October 1957 Gilera, Mondial, Moto Guzzi and MV announced their multilateral withdrawal from GP racing. Days later, crafty Count Agusta changed his mind.

Mondial offered Sandford a choice: retain his 1957 125 and 250 to race the following season or take his 1958 salary. 

“I’d had enough, so I took the money and scarpered,” he says. “I thought it was the best thing to do, otherwise I would’ve kept on going and hurt myself.”

In retirement, Sandford worked at Arthur Taylor’s bike dealership in Shipston-on-Stour, where he still lives with his wife Pat.