THE ERIC CHENEY STORY
When you start to delve into the history of scrambling / motocross you don`t get very far before you come across the name of Mr Eric Cheney. Today, if you take an early morning walk through the paddock at your average classic scramble, more often than not you will find several examples of his work being fuelled & fettled ready for a days sport. Later when the start gate drops it`s not unusual to see one of Eric`s machines up front at the pointy end, battling for the number one spot. In the hands of the best riders, Eric`s original machines and the modern reproductions, that his son Simon hand builds today, still win many races & championships, not only here in the UK but all over the world. It seems quite impossible that a man who spent all his life working out of a workshop not much bigger than a large domestic garage, could design & build such exceptional machines. Did he spend hours slaving away with slide rule, drawing up complicated diagrams & blueprints ? no, his design methods were far simpler, a piece of chalk & the workshop wall was the norm for Eric, experimenting with the design & geometry until it looked right, his quote of “I know when it`s right & it screams at me when it`s wrong” pretty much sums it up. Cheney is often thought of as just a frame builder but this is not so, Eric knew exactly how an engine worked & knew exactly what needed to be done to get the very best out of it, the plain & simple truth is, you can`t become a successful rider yourself, as Eric did, then in later life build complete machines for some of the worlds greatest motocross riders to use at GP level if you don`t have an expert understanding of frame geometry & engine tuning, as well as suspension & braking systems.
Born in 1924 & educated in Winchester, Eric was just the right age when Hitler decided to start world war II & soon found himself serving on the arctic convoys, having to suffer horrific weather conditions & the ever present threat of “U Boat” attack . At some point a sideways move onto motor torpedo boats as an engineer provided even more danger, the task of fixing a dead Rolls Royce Merlin engine while enemy aircraft tried to shoot your boat to bits, was an absolute joy, talk about out of the frying pan & into the fire ! The only good thing to come out of Eric`s wartime experiences was he developed the ability to work calmly & quickly under pressure, it`s the perfect skill to have when things start to go wrong at a GP.
After the war Eric became a motorcycle mechanic, First for Triumph main dealers, Homestead Garages & later on at Archers of Aldershot. His riding career started on an ex war department Triumph single, this was followed by a more competitive Ariel Red Hunter 500, it wasn’t long before Eric started to modify his machines with telescopic forks & twinshock rear ends, don`t forget at this point we are still in the 1940s, only a couple of years after the war had ended, so a lot of riders were still competing on machines with girder front forks & rigid rear ends ! Success followed & Eric started to win some pretty major race meetings, by 1950 he was a works rider for Ariel using their 500 Red Hunters, the same year he was chosen to ride in the Moto Cross Des Nations held in Sweden & again in 1951, when the event took place at Namur. Along with Team mate, Les Archer, who became the European Champion in 1956, Eric spent the 1950s traveling all over Europe wining race after race & in the process picking up some very good prize money. Unfortunately all things come to an end & after picking up a serious blood infection while racing in Algiers during the 1961 season, Eric decided to retire from racing, he just couldn’t get back to full race fitness & speed after his illness.
So what does a design & engineering wizard do when he can`t ride fast any more ? answer, he designs & builds bikes to make other racers fast, real fast ! Eric set his sights on building something better than the mighty BSA Gold Stars that were petty much winning everything at the time. Early experiments with a lightened & modified AJS 500 were good but not good enough, the only answer was to take a Gold Star engine & build it a new lightweight frame that used Ceriani front forks coupled to a skimmed Matchless front hub. Visually the bike was stunning, jet black frame & hubs, polished alloy side panels & mud guards, all toped of with a beautifully made, slim alloy petrol tank, anodised blue. The end result was a bike that weighed 50lbs lighter, handled well & stopped a whole lot better too. With the great Jerry Scott at the controls the bike lit up the race tracks of England & achieved many victories, including a few in the Grandstand TV scramble series. Unfortunately technology was moving on at a pace & the days of the pre unit Gold Star engine were over, the BSA factory bikes were already using lighter unit constructed motors.
The story goes that Eric acquired an ex BSA competition department 420cc motor, it was around this engine that Eric developed the “Cheney Victors”. Jerry Scott had moved on to become a BSA factory rider, so it was left to another extremely fast rider Keith Hickman to campaign the new machine, things got off to a great start with a fourth place finish at the Sittendorf GP followed by good results through out the year. Sadly though, for the rest of the 1960s the GP victory that Eric so desperately wanted never happened, always in with a good chance & pushing hard for the win but never quite getting it.
In the summer of 1968 Alan Kimber, who was the head of Suzuki GB, asked Eric if he could design & build a new frame to house one of Suzuki`s first factory twin port motocross engines. Suzuki had been taking an interest in motocross for a year or two, they had produced a vey fast & furious 250 twin port engine for their works bikes but with their extremely heavy frame & suspension, it was awful. A frame was specially designed & made to Eric`s usual high standard & along with the works engine was sent back to Japan for the Suzuki engineers to study. During 1968 Suzuki had also obtained the services of Olle Pettersson, a very experienced & super quick top level rider. Suzuki & Pettersson got busy testing & redesigning those original works bikes & by the time the 1969 season started the Suzuki`s looked a lot different. The engine was now a single port & it was clear that the new Suzuki frame layout had been heavily influenced by Cheney`s design. The frame that Eric had made for Suzuki was sent back to him along with one of the new single port engines & Eric was instructed to make the necessary modifications required so that the new engine could be fitted into the frame & a complete bike built up. This Cheney did & the finished machine, complete with it`s super light & strong magnesium hubs & fork sliders was quite successful with rider Tom Leadbitter at the controls, he gave the top CZ & BSA riders a good run for their money on several occasions by all accounts. Sadly for Eric a possible deal to make frame kits for the Suzuki engines, that would have then been built up into complete machines & sold by Suzuki GB never came off, the only payment Eric received was for the original frame. There is absolutely no doubt that the frame Cheney built & sent to Japan for assessment had a huge influence on the Suzuki engineers who later designed the famous Suzuki light weight factory racers that Roger De Coster & Joel Robert were so very successful on.
The shock announcement in the summer of 1972 that BSA was closing down it`s once all conquering competitions department left some of the worlds finest motocross riders with out a ride, one of them was John Banks, he had been twice runner up in the world series. When Banks agreed to ride a Cheney machine for the 1973 GP season the level of excitement & anticipation must have been sky high. Eric produced what is now referred to as the finest motocross machine of the period, fast, well balanced & could hold a precise line through a corner like no other. Although Banks rode like a man possessed though out the whole of the 1973 season, pushing the bike to breaking point & archiving a sensational second place position behind Roger De Coster at the US GP, that overall GP victory was still being very elusive. Banks had better luck at home & won the 1973 British championship & to date is the last person to achieve this on a British built machine. Understandably at this point there was a lot of Interest in the John Banks machine & motorcycle dealer Ken Heanes persuaded Eric to team up with him & produce around 500 John Banks Replicas “JBR” that Heanes would sell on to all those eager buyers. At first all this seemed a good idea but there was a problem, it`s fair to say that Eric was a creative genius, a problem solver, a person who was driven to find ways of making a fantastic motorcycle even better, he constantly had new ideas about frame design or engine tuning. The thought of spending months cutting / bending lengths of steel tubing & then inserting them into a jig ready to be beautifully bronze welded together to produce the same frame kit 500 times over, soon started to loose it`s appeal. In the end, only around 200 or so frame kits were made, another problem that added to the demise of the project was BSA had agreed to sell Cheney & Heanes the necessary B50 engines, wheels & forks but deliveries of said items were often very slow. In the end the target of 500 completed machines was never achieved, all the left over motors that should have gone to the Cheney & Heanes project were eventually purchased by that other legend in British motocross history, Mr “CCM” Alan Clews.
As the 1974 season drew near Eric faced the problem of not having a GP rider, John Banks had left & signed to ride for CCM but luckily for Cheney Bengt Aberg wasn’t happy with the deal Husqvarna had offered him for the new season so Eric offered Aberg a “JBR” to try. He gave the bike a run out at a couple of pre season international events, all went well, in fact in one race he finished almost a complete lap ahead, totally smoking the opposition including Heikki Mikkola who was riding for Aberg`s old employer, Husqvarna. Unfortunately even though Aberg scored some impressive results at the first two GP`s of the 74 season, including finishing higher up the points table than the works Suzuki of De Coster & beating the CCM ridden John Banks, by the time the GP circus rolled into Italy for the 3rd round, Aberg had defected to Bultaco. Eric`s way of doing business, a hand shake & a gentleman’s agreement, meant that he had no way of stopping Aberg signing for Bultaco. This was pretty much the last straw for Eric & he decided to pull out of racing, putting an end his dream of one day achieving overall victory at a motocross GP.
Motocross is only one part of the Eric Cheney Story, in the early 70s that man again, Mr Ken Heanes, who at the time was the British ISDT Trophy Team manager, approached Eric & asked him to design & build the team frames to house Triumph twin cylinder engines that he, Heanes, would supply. Eric created superb oil housing frames using light weight, thin wall, but still extremely strong high grade steel, each frame was then finished in gleaming nickel plate. The rest of the components were either polished alloy or chrome plated, the end result was a mechanical work of art, a machine that looked far to beautiful to be ridden flat out along narrow muddy & rock strewn forestry paths for six days. The riders earned Eric an International Six Days Trial Manufactures Award using these machines.
Although Cheney had withdrawn from motocross GP racing he still kept a close eye on technical developments. Maico had moved the position of their lower shock mountings on the swing arm further forward to gain more suspension movement, other riders & manufacturers spotted this & quickly followed, then Yamaha brought their single shock cantilever system to the party. Eric could see the virtues of the cantilever system, a single damper that lay on its side underneath the fuel tank, one end firmly anchored near the steering head, the other end bolted to the swing arm via a steel loop that was situated near the centre of the bike, a lot further forward than the position of the rear wheel spindle. Simple mathematics / geometry showed that when the damper was compressed by say 4 inches, the rear wheel would have an upwards suspension travel movement of over 7 inches, plus all the stresses created by the suspension travel would be smoothly passed on to the strong steering head part of the frame. By 1975 Eric had refined the idea & several machines had been built, all the basic principles were there but instead of having to source one expensive single damper, Cheney opted to use two conventional shocks, lying side by side under the fuel tank. Apart from saving money this also meant that almost any make of damper could be used & easily modified to suite each individual rider. As ever the frame was constructed using high quality Reynolds 531 tubing & beautifully bronze welded together by Eric. By this time there were no suitable British four stroke motors available so the frames were constructed to house Honda`s XL 250 & 350 four stroke engines. Just like all of Cheney`s previous creations the bikes handled very well & the new suspension system gave incredible grip & drive out of corners, transmitting ever bit of available power to the ground. Another interesting fact is the 250 model weighed in at an amazing 212lbs, an impressive figure when Eric admitted that he could have used lighter, thinner wall tubing but it would have been at the cost of longevity, instead he chose to use thicker tubing that would give the buyer a true working life of 4 to 5 hard seasons use. Another interesting side to this story concerns a Mr Allen Greenwood, an American guy who ran “Knobby Shop International” based in sunny California, he carried on loving four stroke motocross machines, even when the 2-strokes had pretty much taken over. Greenwood had been importing Cheney`s earlier BSA frame kits & was very interested in the new cantilever Honda XL frames. As seems all to often the case, Eric didn’t think he could or didn’t want to get tied down to supplying the number of frames that Greenwood wanted, so instead the job was given to a couple of guys who had previously worked for Cheney, Miles Web & Ralph Rustell. The frame kits that these two men produced were then built up into a complete machine by Greenwood, using a highly tuned Honda engine along with the best suspension components available at the time & marketed as the “KSI Thumper”. British motocross fans got to see a highly tuned version on the “KSI” in action when top American rider Marty Moates was sent over with one in 1978 to compete in the GP held at Farleigh Castle.
The years rolled on & Eric never stopped producing & experimenting with all sorts of frames that housed all sorts of motors, by the time the major Japanese & European manufacturers had pretty much made it impossible for some one like Eric to build something capable of competing at the top level of modern motocross it did not matter, as now the rebirth of classic scrambling was well under way. Eric`s expertise & classic frame kits were in more demand than ever but he still continued to do things his way, some times described as almost impossible to work with. No matter how much a buyer pestered or offered him in financial reward he carried on at his own pace, producing finely crafted products in the same traditional way until he sadly passed away in December 2001. You may be thinking at this point, what a same that he never achieved that motocross GP victory he so desperately wanted, worry not, in 1973 a certain Mr Phil Read won the world 250cc road racing championship riding a Yamaha, that all conquering Yamaha engine was housed inside a beautifully hand crafted frame, that frame was made by a certain Mr Eric Cheney.