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Competitor Profile: Ray JA Petty

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Ray Petty – Rider and Tuner par excellence!

Even if Ray Petty had not decided to go into business on his own account as a tuner and engineer, he would have made his mark in the world of motorcycle sport.

The word racing is avoided deliberately as Ray has had a remarkable amount of success as a rider in the widely diverse spheres of road racing, sprints and trials!

Undoubtedly many riders can claim to have participated in all three categories, but not many can associate themselves with a TT placing and Replica, a British Experts Ride, a third place in the Southern Experts Trial and a ‘Gold’ in the ISDT, all in one season.

Start of it all was a burning interest in engineering from a tender age. On leaving school in 1934 (his headmistress wanted him to become a schoolmaster) he became an apprentice at a local garage, served five years, then got into aircraft engineering. He had his share of ‘the drawing office’, but soon organised it so that he was on the experimental side. Although he was no mean performer with protractor and dividers he preferred to get to grips with the machinery, as it were.

What finer engineering exercise than one’s own motorcycle. When fourteen, Ray bought his first machine, a 250cc Red Panther for fifty shillings (£2.50). Like all first, cheap bicycles it provided lots of fun and an incredible ‘inside knowledge’ of internal combustion engines. “I’ve been learning about them ever since.”

By 1939, at the age of nineteen the youthful Petty wanted to put his knowledge and skill to the test. Racing was the obvious course (he had already had a go at cycle grass-track racing with success) and a 250cc New Imperial was purchased and raced at Brooklands. Little did he know when he bought the ‘Imp’ that he was to retain it for more than twelve years and to score with it a fifth place in the 1948 Lightweight TT.

War found him in the experimental department of Vickers-Armstrong’s at Weybridge where he, strangely enough, really got to know Francis Beart. Ray would set up the instruments, and Francis would test-run the Bristol engines. Only a few yards away from the track, which they both loved so well, it is not difficult to imagine in which direction their conversation, drifted.

When the war ended Ray decided that motorcycles meant more to him than aeroplanes, and in 1946 he joined Francis Beart as his assistant at Byfleet, where the great man had set up shop. He stayed for nine years and in spite of working the usual long hours that seem inevitable in preparing racing machinery, he managed to prepare his own racing and trials bikes.

Just to have coped with the preparation of the machines would have been enough for most people, but when his successes are recorded, the whole thing seems almost fantastic. Right up until 1953 which was he his last real competition year he was riding in road races, sprints and trials. The success list makes a really mixed but mighty impressive bag: 2nd class award in the Bob Kingsley Memorial Trial a win and fastest lap in the Blackmore Vale races at Blandford seventh in the Lightweight TT (Bronze Replica) first in the 500cc class of the North East London Sprints, and first in the 500cc class of the Vintage MCC Sprints at Thruxton.

Pressure of work had made 1953 less race-packed than the previous years, some of which promote boggling when presented in ‘awards gained’ form. Take 1948 for instance: A first-class award in the Victory Trial first-class in the Cotswold Cup Trial, 5th place in the Lightweight TT 2nd (350cc class) in the Waterlooville MCC’s hill climb a first-class award in the Southern Centre Team Trial, and 14th place with a replica in the Hutchinson 100 are just a few of his successes.

His weight of little more than nine stone made him a natural for lightweight machines, and with his special 250cc Nortons he had a chance of combining his tuning skill with his lack of avoirdupois. He ran the faithful old ‘Imp’ until 1951 (in which year it netted him a 2nd at Blandford and a 3rd at Castle Combe) then decided to build his first 250cc Norton. The Imp had served him well but the old pushrod engine, designed nearly twenty years earlier was not capable of keeping up with the continental racers.

The Norton engine with its twin overhead camshaft layout at least offered power, even if weighty when compared with the continentals.

First engine was devised with respective bore and stroke dimensions of 64 and 77 mm. Although some of the critics yelled ‘long-stroke’, it went fast, produced plenty of power, and as Ray sagely remarked ‘It revved quickly enough to put it on the limit as far as the valve gear was concerned.’ This engine provided him (in conjunction with a ‘feather-bed’ frame of course) with an 8th in the Lightweight TT (bronze replica), a 3rd at Blandford and a 4th and a 5th at Boreham.

The 1952 TT performance was put up without any kind of fairing but by 1954 the 250cc Petty-Norton had a faired steering-head and engine, and was capable of 103 mph on the level. By that time a new Norton engine had been devised with bore and stroke of 65 mm and 75 mm respectively which would run up to 8000 rpm. On the downhill sections of the TT circuit like Bray Hill this meant speeds of about 112 mph. On 80 octane fuel, ( 1 compression ratio and only partial streamlining it was a remarkable performance. He finished 9th in 1954 at 76.36 mph.

Typical of Ray’s analytical mind is the average speed sheet from his 1952 250cc record book. It shows 462 miles covered in six race meetings – at an average speed of 75.32 mph!

Many sprint successes are to be found in Petty’s ‘score-book’, and like Beart he confesses a great liking for this type of competition. His 500cc ‘single-knocker’ rigid frame sprint Norton that he has had for many years is still in his possession, and if he can find just a little time in 1958 he intends to ‘have the odd go, just to keep my hand in.’

It is certainly going to be difficult for him to find time. On my visit to the Petty establishment, it was so stacked out with work and bicycles as to make entry a major operation.

Since setting up his own workshop in 1955 he has amassed many customers both for engine and complete machine preparation. He works exclusively on Nortons, a marque he knows intimately.

His system of preparation is one of accurate fitting and careful assembly, using in the main, standard Norton racing components. Although he is prepared to try out experimental parts on his own machines, he is of the opinion that the most realistic and economic arrangement for racing men who are ‘in the business’ is for their engines to be overhauled and rebuilt with Norton parts.

It is one thing Ray says, to try out revolutionary ideas on one’s own machinery, but if a private-entry, for instance, wants to go through a season’s racing reliably, and keep in the money, he is far better off with a carefully assembled racing engine, composed of standard parts. He has the highest regards for Norton ‘bits’. ‘They’ve been in the racing business for so long they must have learned how to make engines.’

Applying this system he had a very good 1957 season. He prepared engines for Messrs. Tanner, Perris, Lewis and Clarke, and complete machines for Drysdale and Lewis. It is almost unnecessary to record some of these riders’ successes, but Tanners performances alone make interesting reading.

With his 7th place in the Junior TT he was the second Norton to finish, averaged 90.25 mph, and his fastest lap was 91.57 mph. He was holding 4th place in the Senior but ran out of fuel on the 8th lap. His fastest lap was 96.25 mph.

In the Swedish Grand Prix Clarke took 4th place in the Junior and was the first Norton home. These arte of course only a few picked at random out of the Petty record book, but they indicate the effectiveness of the preparation.

When it comes to experimental work Ray is equally adept, his speciality being the building of 250cc racing engines based on the Norton unit. He has made several of these engines and is at present working on a new one with a one-piece crankshaft. He produces all his own working drawings, and the whole operation, with the exception of any heavy machining is carried out in his small workshop in Cove, near Farnborough, Hants. His No. 1 helper/secretary is Mrs Peggy Petty and between them they are building a solid and satisfying business.

When questioned on his tuning methods, Ray re-iterated his previous remarks regarding careful assembly and new Norton parts, and opined that he hadn’t a great deal of time for mirror-finish, port polishing and the like. He pins more faith on meticulous attention to ignition and valve timing, and to compression ratios suitable for the job in hand.

Ray has carried out a mass of research on compression ratios. ‘So many riders are apt to favour an engine set-up to, say 10 : 1, little realising that after a lengthy race carbon deposit has raised it to about 10.8 : 1, in all probability lowering the efficiency of the unit.’ It is such thought and attention to detail that produces real results.

The Petty emporium can hardly be described as vast, in fact space is very much at a premium, but work proceeds in a very orderly manner. Two centre lathes and a drilling machine are squeezed into the confined workshop, not o mention an incredible number of frames, engines, exhaust pipes, and so on.

A line of Nortons wait outside (under cover) for attention, amongst them Ray’s sprint machine. There are spares everywhere, even one room in the nearby house is given over to Norton items – several pounds worth!

Somehow or other in the midst of all this activity he finds time to prepare special Norton car engines. One of his 250cc engines powered a specially streamlined Cooper which last year broke five world records at Monthléry. Amongst them was the 100 miles record at an average speed of 96.184 mph. During practice runs the car was lapping at more than 103 mph, but eventually bent a valve. Ray feels certain that ‘his’ car was the first 250cc machine to exceed 100 mph.

Ray built a 500cc racing car to his own design in 1956 which was racing with great success under his aegis until last season. It has now been sold, as bicycle and engine commitments are heavy, and time is limited. The Petty-Norton however will continue to race in 1958 in the new owner’s hands.

Like most of the leading engineer/tuners he is full of ideas for producing more power from more-or-less existing components, and it’s my guess that we shall see something pretty unusual from the Maison Petty before very long.

Douglas Armstrong – MCI – April 1958

Supplied by Janette Wood – March 2005

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