Not Forgotten – Keith Bryen | Columns | Gassit Garage
From a poultry farm on the western fringe of Sydney to riding the Moto Guzzi 500 V8
IN 1957, KEITH Bryen might have been tempted to pinch himself to check it was real, in one season racing ex-works Nortons, works AMC machines at the Isle of Man, works Guzzis in three GPs and being recommended for a place at MV Agusta by team leader John Surtees.
Guzzi hired Bryen on the strength of strong finishes on his Nortons at Assen, after Bill Lomas and Dickie Dale were injured. He rode 350 singles to support compatriot Keith Campbell in the Belgian and Ulster grands prix, finishing third at Spa-Francorchamps and second with fastest race lap at Dundrod. He retired from the Italian GP with handling problems.
However, the dream run ended on September 26, 1957, when, along with rivals Gilera and FB Mondial, Guzzi jointly announced its withdrawal from GP racing. Bryen had finished fourth in the 350 world championship.
Keith and Gwen Bryen flew home to Sydney for the summer and the birth of their first child. A letter arrived one month later from Guzzi. Shattered, Keith considered a return to Europe as a private entrant, but retired from racing and spent the next 30 years as a serviceman for Victa Mowers.
War-time petrol rationing fostered Keith Bryen’s interest in bikes, as a bike could go four times as far as a car on the weekly allowance. With a group of mates, he founded the Merrylands Motorcycle Club and started racing at age 20 in 1947 on local dirt tracks. Australian IoM TT representative Eric McPherson convinced him to park his dirt-track BSA and buy a road-racing 350 AJS 7R.
“In those days we all read the British magazines and istened to the radio reports about the Isle of Man TT,” he said. “I realised if I was going racing I might as well do it seriously; the blokes in Europe were doing as much racing in one year as we did in five. So I bought a truck and spent 18 months carting cement to earn money.
“In 1953 I sold up everything, ordered two Manx Nortons and sailed off to England with the idea of staying five years. I did the TT and the remainder of the European season, travelling with Rhodesian Ray Amm, who was a works Norton rider. At the end of the year, I thought ‘okay, that’s it for racing’ and came home on the P&O liner Mooltan.”
On board he met life-long partner Gwen.
Bryen sold his Nortons in Sydney, but couldn’t settle. He was back at the TT in 1954 with two new Nortons, but a broken collarbone sustained in Ireland ended his season.
“If you broke those bones it wasn’t plated; you were out for four or five months.”
He came home, married Gwen, bought a house and tried to live without racing. It didn’t work. He went half share in a Norton with Barry Hodgkinson and co-rode a Triumph Thunderbird to a class win in the 1955 24-Hour bike race at Mount Druitt. “Just for the heck of it, I nominated for the 1956 Isle of Man team. The ACCA selected Jack Ahearn, Bob Brown, and Keith Campbell and I was the fourth nomination. Then I heard they had been suspended for taking part in the 1955 Dutch riders’ strike, so we sold our new house, ordered new bikes and booked fares to England.”
His ’56 season included winning the 750 class of the Thruxton Nine-Hour race with Triumph factory test rider Percy Tait and second place in the non- championship East German 500 GP.
“You knew you’d arrived in those days, because meeting organisers would come up to you and ask you if you were riding at their meeting the following week.”
Keith worked at Norton Motors over the winter and competitions manager Alan Wilson sold him two of the 1956 factory machines. His fairytale run began in the 1957 Dutch TT, finishing fifth in the 350 race and sixth in the 500.
“After the races I was cleaning the 500 when (Guzzi race engineer) Giulio Carcano pulled up in his gull-wing Mercedes-Benz. He offered me a ride in the Belgian GP and a fee of £150.
“The Guzzi 350 had unbelievable acceleration. I had to remind myself I was on a single.”
In the 350 GP Bryen duelled with Gilera’s Libero Liberati for second place.
“I thought about trying to outbrake him at La Source, and then I decided third place was better than taking a tumble in my first Guzzi ride.”
Inspired by that ride, he finished third in the 500 GP on his Norton.
“Guzzi booked Monza for a week so we could test a new V-eight 500 before the Italian GP. It was surprisingly easy to ride, with smooth power and it sounded great – like a piece of canvas tearing.”
In 1981, John Surtees invited Bryen to England for his testimonial day at Brands Hatch, where Keith rode a Surtees-owned AJS 7R.
On October 22, 2013 Keith Bryen suffered a heart attack and died. He was 86.
He was survived by wife Gwen, their daughter Stephanie and son Mark.
Words & photography Don Cox