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Neil Tinker The Victorian carpenter who was crazy for speed

Neil Tinker is probably the only Australian motorcycle racer who has made a hands-on contribution to the defence of the USA. A carpenter from Warrnambool, he worked for 10 months in 1954 building the US Air Force Distant Early Warning line of radar stations, situated above the Arctic Circle.

Neil’s wages helped buy MV racers that he and elder brother Len raced on the Continental Circus in 1957-’58, in an era when Australian private entrants almost exclusively rode 350cc and 500cc British machines. They also stood out from the pack by wearing jet-style Bell helmets.

Len Tinker had spent the 1953 season helping Australian racers Keith Campbell and Gordon Laing with their Nortons. He worked at a motorcycle shop in Los Angeles, before the brothers headed to Canada with Len’s BSA Gold Star 500 and MV 125 to earn their international racing licences.

In 1957, they each raced with a double overhead camshaft MV 125 and Len had a rare MV 203 single, which became a real saga.

“MV built the 203 after trying to make a 250 by bolting two 125s together and discovering its weight was a problem. So they bored out a 175, and put in a heavier front fork and a double twin-leading shoe front brake. It was really something – it revved to 10,500rpm and was so light at about 77kg that it would accelerate with an AJS 350 though its first four gears. And man, did it stop!

“There was only one problem – it was almost impossible to start without two guys pushing it!” Neil said. “The works mechanics didn’t like the fact that we had it, so they wouldn’t tell us how to fix it. When we came back to Australia at the end of 1958, one rider said that the Dell’Orto carburettor had an idle jet. Once we tuned that, it would start just like the 125 – pull back onto compression, two steps and bump it.

“That was only one of our problems with the 203; we had occasions when the big-end bearing exploded and many a night sat up late, pulling pieces of metal out of the oil, which would be like silver. Alpha Bearings saved our arses by solving that problem. Then we had problems with valves, so Len bought irregular BSA valve blanks for scrap and turned them down in the lathe for the MVs. They were amazing and lasted a whole season.”

Neil Tinker said his MV 125 did 109mph (175km/h) down the Masta Straight during the 1957 Belgian Grand Prix, “while keeping company with a CZ works bike. My bike had a full-bin fairing, which you were still allowed to have in ’57, and the works bikes had tail fairings as well.

“The engine turned at 11,200rpm, which created a lot of mechanical noise from the gear cam drive and meant you had to ride with cotton wool in your ears. Plenty of vibration too – which cracked the aluminium gas tanks. The famous Dunlop tyre fitter Tom Bowers would weld them up for us. All the paint and the MV insignia peeled off, so they looked tatty, but we weren’t worried about the looks, just the speed.”

“At Spa-Francorchamps lapping the valves after practice made the difference, pulling 10,500 and 11,200 rpm with the highest gearing we had.

“But in the final 250 training, Len blew the big end in the 203 and we spent all night completely rebuilding it and in the rush to finish the bikes I didn’t put a safety tie wire on the exhaust flange ‘nut’ of my 125. Most of the works bikes dropped out during the race, leaving me duelling with a works CZ for either third or fourth. But it was not to be, as my exhaust pipe came off and with all the noise I thought it had dropped a valve, so I stopped. By the time I was going again, the rest of the privateers had passed me, so I ended up seventh. I just never seemed to have luck in Europe.”

Neil Tinker migrated to Canada in 1967 and lives near Toronto, Ontario. He still has Len’s MV 125 and the 203. His son Ian is restoring them to running condition.

“I am 88 and still enjoying life. My father made it to 93, so I have five years to go to match that. I still mow my lawn and for my neighbours,” he said. “I’ve written down all my experiences in Europe for my children and grandchildren, so they know what fun I had.”