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Competitor Profile: L C Harfield

TT Career Summary

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At the age of 12 Len was the proud owner of two bikes, a Triumph and a Douglas, the latter having a mechanical exhaust valve and an automatic inlet valve. The bikes were ridden for fun , down on a farm near to his village of Bishops Sutton. Around this period his parents moved to Southampton and Len was instructed by his father to dispose of his bikes by buying them in a field!! As far as he knows they are lying there to this day.

From the age of 14 he worked in the forge and machine shop of a local engineering works earning just two shillings and six pence (12.5p) per week. Although the pay was low, the experience gained was priceless and was to lead, in years to come, to the ultimate satisfaction of building and racing his own machine in the world famous TT Races. However, before this came the second world war. Len, like most young men of this era enlisted into the army and served his country until 1946.

It was during this period, whilst stationed in the Middle East that he took part in his first competitive motorcycle event, The Inter Divisional Scrambles, the bug had bitten!!

On leaving the army Len continued his engineering career and also joined the Southampton Motorcycle Club. He took part in trials, grass track and scramble events, using the same bike but changing the barrels, pistons and cylinder heads depending on which event he was competing in. This he continued to do until 1950, then, as he says " I drifted into the road race scene". Racing the same bike he continued to compete in grass track and scrambles until the end of 1952. "I also took part in the first ever road race meeting at Brands Hatch" he recalled.

The commencement of his love affair with Mona’s Isle started when he went to spectate at the first TT after the war in 1947, being particularly impressed with Bob Fosters win in the Junior. This initial visit wasn’t without incident, falling foul of the Island Constabulary!! Len recalls" I only had the one bike which I competed and rode to work on, so it was natural that I took this to the Island. It had a fishtail exhaust pipe but no silencer and a lovely throaty roar, well at least I thought so!! However, the local Police didn’t quite agree with me. Whilst riding through Douglas I was summoned to stop and given a caution and told to go quietly, which of course I duly did ?"

Len carried on gaining road race experience and in 1953 he entered the TT for the first time. "The bike was a rather special 125cc BSA Bantam that had a piston on the side of the engine which did the induction, operating much the same as a disc valve." Unfortunately it was an inauspicious start to TT racing with the bike having a tendency to seize. During practice a rear rod spindle broke as he was going through Quarry Bends and although the bike could have been repaired it was the end of Lens first TT. The owner of the machine decided that the stresses and strains of the Mountain Course was too much for the little bike and he withdrew his entry. This was to be Len’s first and only competitive venture on the Mountain Course, the follow year the Lightweight 125cc TT was run over the shorter 10.79 mile Clypse Course.

Undeterred by his misfortune he planned to return to the TT in 1954 and to make a return with a difference! Len takes up the story "In those days, as today, the buying and maintenance of a racing bike was an expensive business and one I could ill afford. I had harboured ambitions to design and build my own machine for sometime and the motivation came from a conversation with a friend just after the 1953 TT. He told me that it was a pipe dream and I would never be able to do it, well that was like holding a red rag to a bull and the rest is history as they say."

The hard work was now to begin, with the bike being started from scratch, everything from the design, the making of the tools and the sourcing of the materials. Len made a wooden pattern of the engine, a frame jig and a cam grinder, all of which, along with the original drawings, he still has today. The materials were obtained from an aircraft manufacturer and the engine castings were made for nothing by a friend who owned the local foundry. The frame was made on his home made jig and so the first 125cc LCH was built. The design was that of an over square engine that revved to 10,000rpm. The bike was entered for the 1954 Lightweight 125cc TT. The fulfilment of a dream was near, Len carries on the tale "testing went well but I thought the crank pin was not strong enough to race on the Island and a local bearing manufacturer offered to make me one which I gratefully accepted. I gave the manufacturer the specifications and the crank pin was duly made and fitted into the engine. I went down to the local aerodrome to run it in, but within three minutes disaster struck! The pin broke and wrecked the engine, my dream of racing my own bike on the Island was gone for at least another year. The bearing manufacturer accepted full responsibility but it was little consolation. I was still determined to race in the TT and I borrowed a BSA Bantam and I made my way to the Island."

"I hadn’t been on the Island very long when I bumped into Dr Joe Ehlich who asked me to ride one of his works EMC’s, this was an offer I just couldn’t refuse. I joined Harvey Williams, F.H.Burman, H.L.Fruin in the four man team. Practice went well until the last session when Harvey unfortunately crashed at the second of the Morney bends, breaking his thigh."

After the problems with his own bike and then procuring a works machine, Len could well have hoped for a good finish in the race. However, there was to be no fairy tale ending, "Dr Joe instructed my mechanic to drain the gearbox and refill it with two different oils at a ratio of four parts to one. This he did but to less than half full resulting in me seizing and sliding into the bank at the Nook on lap 1, nether me or the bike were seriously damaged but it was the end of my race! Austrian Rupert Hollaus won on an NSU in 1hr 33 mins 07.4 secs at an average speed of 69.57mph. My team mates H.L.Fruin and F.H.Burman both retired on laps 9 and 5 respectively." Len carried on racing the EMC on the British short circuits for the rest of the season.

The change to the Clypse Course was controversial at the time with many believing that it would deprive the riders of the traditional prestige gained over the Mountain Course, however, Len particularly liked the course. "I suppose I was one of the scratches of the day and the Clypse Course complimented my riding style. The section from Creg-ny-Baa to Onchan was my favourite part, and of course the massed start made Parkfield Corner interesting on the first lap. Yes, I enjoyed the course very much."

The desire to race his own machine was as great as ever and by the start of the 1955 season the LCH had been modified and rebuilt, Len again entered the 125cc Lightweight TT. The lure of the Isle of Man beckoned and Len set off from Southampton confident that this would finally be his year for a good result. A satisfactory practice period reinforced this belief. In a race dominated by the Italian works teams of MV and Mondial, Len progressed steadily. At the end of the second lap he was on the leader board in 12th position, moving up to 9th by the fifth lap and then to 8th on the eighth lap. After nine hard laps, in a race won by Carlo Ubbiali in 1hr 23 mins 38.2 secs averaging 69.67mph, Len came home eighth. "Being the first private entrant on a British bike home following five works MV’s, a Mondial and an EMC Puch was very satisfying. However having built the bike, this gave me the greatest pride and pleasure," said Len.

Never one to rest on his laurels, Len continued to develop and modify his engine. The availability of Hepolite pistons (made for MV) enabled him to increase the power band to 12,000 revs with a bore and stoke ratio of 53:56.

The 1956 TT proved to be one of the most frustrating for Len and one that clearly rankles him today. Len continues "The conditions at the start were very poor and I thought caution was the better part of valour, so I started slowly and gradually picked up speed as conditions improved. There was a high retirement rate with only about 12 bikes racing by the seventh lap. I was a few seconds behind Frank Cope and could see that I was catching him. At the end of lap eight the start line officials let Frank go through to start his final lap but flagged me off !! They said that time had run out but this wasn’t so. I would have had time to do two laps and not just the one that I had left to do. In those days you didn’t protest too much, but I did let my feeling be known." Len certainly didn’t suffer fools gladly and it is a characteristic that many have tested and regretted. "Frank finished ninth and last of the twenty starters and I still believe I could have caught him given the chance !" The race was again won by Carlo Ubbiali in a time of 1hr 24 mins 16.8 secs at a speed of 69.13mph. He lapped all but second place finisher, Marcella Cama, whom he beat by over five minutes.

Not to be put off by officialdom, Len returned again in 1957 to race in the 125cc Lightweight TT. Practice went without incident but unfortunately he couldn’t say the same about the race. Shortly before the start of the race there had been a light shower which had dampened the roads. A strong north-westerly wind had all but dried the track but it was the wind that was to cause Len some difficulties. The climb from Hillberry to Creg-ny-Baa was particularly gruelling and on the third lap the wind caught the dustbin fairing and blew Len across the road. This happened twice as he passed gateways in the hedgerow and he elected to stop at the end of the lap to remove the fairing. It was whilst he was in the pits that he noticed a broken valve spring and that was the end of his race. Tarquino Provini winning in 1hr 27mins 51 secs at a speed of 73.69mph.

1958 proved to be an uneventful year, again riding in only the 125cc Lightweight TT. Practice went without incident and in the race Len finished a creditable sixteenth, having gone faster than he had ever done before. The race was again dominated by Italian machinery taking eight of the top ten positions, MZ claiming the other two. A young Mike Hailwood finished seventh on a Paton and the race was won by Carlo Ubbiali in 1hr 24 mins 12.0 secs at an average speed of 72.86mph.

1959 was to prove to be Len’s last competitive appearance in the TT but by no means his last visit to the Island. Again he entered his 125cc LCH in the Lightweight race, in a year that saw the introduction of the Japanese manufacturer Honda. As in the previous year, he had a successful TT finishing 16th out of thirty five starters. The race was won by Tarquino Provini in 1hr 27 mins 25.2 secs at a record speed of 74.06mph, foreign manufacturers filling the top ten finishers.

Following a heavy fall at Mallory Park Len decided to retire at the end of the 1959 season. Len recalled the incident that led to this decision, "In those days there was gorse bushes all round the lake at Gerrards so you couldn’t see all the way around the bend. As I entered the corner I saw another rider crossing the track so I tried to take avoiding action. The only way to do this was to lay the bike down, which I did, but unfortunately I thumped into the bank and knocked myself about quite a bit. I sold the bike, an NSU, to George Collis, and called it a day."

As it happens it wasn’t the end of Len’s racing career but after seven very eventful years it was the end of racing on the Isle of Man. Len’s commitment and involvement in the TT wasn’t to end but that’s another story…….

I revisited Len in January 1995 and as usual he was not at home with his feet up, but down at his workshop. He was engineering titanium valve spring retainers to reduce the weight of his 250cc NSU. Approaching his 75th birthday, his commitment to precision engineering and his enthusiasm for motorcycle racing puts most to shame. "At the moment I am working on a ‘trick’ engine for my NSU. It will not be finished until next year and I hope to ride it in the Classic Parade. I’ve also ordered a Corollo con-rod from the USA and I am replacing other parts with titanium. The aim is to improve performance by reducing the reciprocating weight of the motor," Len said.

Len’s premature retirement from motorcycle racing came after a ‘big get off’ at Mallory Park near the end of the 1959 season. "Following the crash I decided enough was enough and immediately sold my bike to George Collis. I suppose, in retrospect, it was a hasty decision. However, I had been planning to start my own business for sometime and without any racing commitments I could give my new venture my full attention. My garage, Len Harfield Ltd., opened in early 1960 for the sale of petrol and car repair maintenance." The business was a team effort with Len working in the garage during the day and his wife, Winifred, manning the petrol pumps during the evening.

Although his commitment to business was total, the urge to go motorcycle racing again could not be quelled and in January 1961 Len purchased another 250cc NSU. He spent the next few months making it ready to race, however, after a couple of short circuit outings he was convinced it would not be competitive. The TT was never an option in his racing comeback, solely due to the time constraints of being unable to leave the business for two weeks at a time. He did, however, take short trips to the Island to watch the races each year.

Len continues his story: "The NSU appeared to be past its sell by date, so during the winter of 1961 I purchased a 250cc Honda CB72 engine and manufactured the frame and forks for it. Later in 1962 I bought a 305cc Honda CB77 engine and bored this out to 350cc, again using my own frame and forks. I raced these machines with modifications until I finally retired from racing in 1974." Len is not a person to look back and reflect on what might have been, but he did concede: "in my early days I was too dedicated to the 125cc class, the bike was difficult to ride and you really had to tie yourself in knots to get the best out of it. I couldn’t believe how easy the 250 was to ride and the 350?, well that was even easier. They would have been great to ride on the Mountain Course."

During the late 1960’s Len started to become involved in scrutineering at various meetings. This included being the Specification Scrutineer for the Endurance 500 miler at Thruxton and later Chief Scrutineer for endurance racing at Donnington Park. In 1969 Len produced the specifications for the Production Races and the following year he was asked to become the Chief Scrutineer for the TT Races. He held this position for eleven years, up until and including the 1980 TT Races. Len takes up the story: "when I took over the scrutineering facilities were very basic to say the least! We had a little tent just by the Glencrutchery Road and the bikes were wheeled in to be checked.

The lack of space meant that we bumped into each other every time we moved, also the bikes were ground level and could not be viewed properly. It really was a chaotic and shambolic arrangement. At the back of the Grandstand I found some ramps that had been left over from the International Six day Trials and after talking to Ken Shierson I brought them into the scrutineering tent. The ramps made a world of difference, firstly the bikes entered in an orderly manner and secondly the scrutineering became more efficient with the detection of faults being made easier. One evening during practice we discovered seven cracked frames, all of which were around the steering head. The detection of which, I believe, was made because of our greater visibility."

As well as being Chief Scrutineer Len was also a member of the organising committee and was instrumental in abandoning the overnight ‘Weigh-In" before races and also morning practices for the 1978 TT. Len explained: "the overnight weigh-in meant that bikes were impounded and leant against wooded stakes in a marquee, protected by security guards. It wasn’t unusual for the stakes to fall over during the night, especially when it had rained, and for the bikes to sustain some minor damage. The riders preparation time was also restricted, leaving no time for last minute adjustments. We also impounded the riders helmets, these were hung up in a shed which unfortunately had a leaking roof giving some riders a damp start to their race!!

I suggested the abandonment of morning practice after the 1977 TT, which was poorly attended that year. We tried this in 1978 but the experiment only lasted the one year because too may riders complained of not having enough practice time."

To all intents and purposes Len enjoyed his time as Chief Scrutineer, however, there was one aspect that he neither enjoyed or got used to and that was attending the Coroners Court for inquests on fatal accidents. Understandably, this is something he doesn’t dwell on. During his career he believes he had the riders respect, not that they always agreed with his diagnosis or decision. On more than one occasion he had to disappoint riders by withdrawing their bike because they were unsafe. One anecdote Len recalls was that of Tony Godfrey having to be lifted off his bike because the petrol tank had split resulting in burns to the top of his legs and worse. The eyes water just thinking about it!!

Lens team consisted of 22 scrutineers, all volunteers from the mainland, receiving no expenses or salary. Len and his deputy, Bob Payton, did receive travel and accommodation expenses. Bob, a close friend, still accompanies Len on their annual pilgrimage to the Island. They both relinquished their roles after the 1980 TT races, mainly due to the internal politics of the organising committee of that era.

As stated earlier, Len did not suffer fools gladly. Vernon Cooper wrote to Len to ask him to reconsider but the enjoyment had been soured. He could see no real change in the foreseeable future and stepped down. That was not the end of his participation in the TT Races because he participated in the 1986 Classic parade and has done so every year 1988. "I really enjoy the Classic Lap, although I would prefer two laps rather than one! In 1986 I brought over my 350cc LCH Honda which was great fun and ever since I’ve ridden my 250cc NSY Sportsmax. I’ve only failed to finish twice, firstly in 1989 when I oiled a plug at the Black Dub and then in 1993 when the circlip broke and I stopped at Glentramman. I also rode my 125ccLCH at Billown in 1988 and had four very enjoyable laps picking off some 7R.’s as I went.

Len’s involvement in motorcycle racing other than his TT responsibilities include 15 years as a delegate on the ACU General Council, for the Southern Centre until 1994, and now as a delegate for the New Era Club. He was Clerk of the Course at Thruxton from 1980 until 1985 and then deputy Clerk of the Course from 1986 until 1991. He then went on to hold the position of Chief Executive Officer at Thruxton. His role with Southern Centre included being a steward at other motorcycle events such as grass track and trials as well as road races. In 1994 he also helped a novice rider, Peter Eaton, with advice and bike preparation and this continued into 1995. Len said: "Peter’s very keen and enthusiastic and is going about it the right way. I am not prepared to spoon feed but as long as he listens and works hard I will give him all the assistance I can."

Len’s commitment to motorcycle racing was total and this was recognised when the late Dave and Alison Morris, of Chrysalis Racing fame. They nominated him for life membership of the Southampton and District Motorcycle Club which he proudly accepted. Was there anything other than motorcycling in Len’s life? "Yes! I have a great love for playing the electronic organ and there’s my wife Winifred. We celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary in 1991, but, as she says, everything turns to motorcycle talk."

Len made his last trip to his beloved Isle of Man to participate in the 2000 TT Classic Parade. Since that time he has not enjoyed the best of health and passed away peacefully on Wednesday 23rd October 2002. The motorcycle world has been greatly enriched by Len’s contribution and is now that much poorer with his passing.

©Mike Hammonds

January 1995

October 2002

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