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Competitor Profile: Derek Minter

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Although primarily known for his success in the 1950s and 60s on Britain's short circuits, particularly Brands Hatch, Derek Minter was formidably impressive both on the Isle of Man and in the limited number of grands prix he undertook. Among his many remarkable achievements was to become the first rider of a British single cylinder machine (Norton) to lap the island at over 100mph but he was not averse to giving the multi-cylinder bikes and their better paid riders a run for their money and even beating them.

Throughout his career he was always prepared to say what he believed. He never felt completely at home in a team situation. His frankness may not have made him an automatic choice with the big-time factory team bosses but his great enthusiasm and love of the sport turned him into one of the most popular and finest riders of his time.

Minter, the son a Kentish miner who himself loved motorcycles, was brought up in the village of Littlebourne, a few miles outside Canterbury, and knew from an early age that his biggest ambition was to buy a motorcycle (or "bicycle" as he always called his machines). He spent weekends and holidays apple picking, with every penny going into his motorcycle fund. After getting a job as an electrician's mate with the Canterbury Bus Company he raised £150 and, in 1948, at the age of sixteen he purchased a new 350cc BSA. He quickly realised that riding on the roads was not a sufficient challenge. He started riding in trials on his road bike.

After National Service in the RAF he often became a fascinated spectator at Brands Hatch and took a job with Hallets, of Canterbury, the motorcycle dealers who were to become his sponsors. The proprietor, Ray Hallet, had been a useful road race and grass track rider himself and had taken Derek to the Isle of Man to be his mechanic in the Manx Grand Prix. Eventually Minter persuaded the company to provide him with a BSA Gold Star. Twice he entered his name for races at Brands Hatch and twice he backed out, suddenly realising that it took more bravery to turn up and race rather than watch. Eventually he plucked up courage and began to show real talent.

For a time his career flourished. After five years riding for Hallets he was offered the chance to race some MV Agusta small capacity machines while continuing with his own Gold Star in 500cc events. The MV’s were underpowered and his career seemed to being going nowhere. Back in Canterbury, he became a taxi driver, often carrying inmates from Canterbury prison to other jails around the country.

His chance to return to racing came when he found that the owners of a new local garage were keen on motorcycling. They offered him a job as a mechanic and, more importantly, two Nortons. He rode well at various domestic events and in 1957 was third in the 500cc Dutch Grand Prix and fourth in the 350cc race. However, after a disagreement with the garage owners he decided to go freelance.

At twenty-six he was a full-time professional rider, alone but determined. With only £100 to his name, he entered the 1958 Isle of Man TT with his own Nortons. He achieved a commendable fourth in the Senior race - while all the time praying that the bike would not suffer an expensive breakdown - and was placed ninth in the Junior. The island held a love-hate relationship for him. He refused to believe that the cost of competing there and the risks involved made it worthwhile and, towards the end of his career, he decided against making the journey.

Important to his success in the late fifties and sixties was his link with Steve Lancefield and Ray Petty, engineers who knew everything there was to know about the tuning of Manx Norton engines.

The 1958 season at Brands Hatch also saw him sensationally beat John Surtees, who had previously been more or less unbeatable on the Kentish circuit and was riding his factory four-cylinder MV Agusta. The track was wet and the MV heavy but Minter was in such form that he may well have won even if the conditions had been more friendly to the Italian “fire engine”. Surtees had pulled in for a brief mechanical stop but at half-distance still got ahead of Minter who, typically, recovered to win.

In the meantime he had shown his love of all forms of motorcycle sport by spending the winters trials riding. But the road race season had begun with a crash at, of all places, Brands Hatch. He recovered and made his first appearance at Oulton Park (which, surprisingly in view of his reputation at Brands, was to become his favourite circuit). He gave the great Bob McIntyre a real tussle in the 500cc event before finishing second.

His appearance in the 1959 TT was unhappy. He retired in the 250cc race on his R.E.G. and decided to abandon the Senior event because the rain was so heavy he said it was impossible to continue. Even so, his fame had spread abroad and MZ offered him a 125cc machine and Morini a 250. He led for five laps before eventually finishing third in the Dutch Grand Prix on the Morini which he said was as fast as his 350cc Norton. He raced in the Belgian and Italian Grands Prix without winning but always keeping in touch with the leaders.

Throughout his career he fought against an inability to make quick, effective starts, yet in a way that was what contributed towards his popularity. He would regularly still be push starting his bike while the others from the front row of the grid were well on their way to the first bend.

He had always realised that racing on the home circuits in front of big crowds paid rather better than appearing against the factory-supported riders on the grand prix circuit. Also, he believed, rightly, that his particular neat style was more suited to the tight, short circuits than the long ones on the Continent. He never adopted the knee-out style made popular by one of his great rivals, John Cooper, and which, if truth be known, he probably despised.

His visit to the Isle of Man in 1960 had been preceded by a taste of what he could achieve. At the various Easter meetings he had entered nine races and won eight, with one second place. The season brought one of his most memorable feats. The Senior race on the island had, not unusually, been in doubt because of mist and low cloud over the mountain. Indeed, that morning a group of his supporters from the Canterbury area organised by Ray Hallet, circled overhead in a trundling old Dakota waiting a gap in the cloud and convinced that if the race did start they would be too late to get there. In fact we arrived and saw history in the making.

Minter’s 100mph lap, achieved shortly before Mike Hailwood did the same also on a Norton, suggested that he could even challenge Surtees, who was on the howling MV, but a split oil tank forced his retirement on the third lap. Even so, the brief performance was all the more remarkable since he had almost recorded a 100mph average on his first lap from a standing start. He had overtaken McIntyre at the thirty-third milestone and led him by two seconds back at the start line (a lap of 99.51mph). Surtees won ahead of John Hartle (MV) and Hailwood.

In 1961 he was British champion for the second time and 1962, his most successful year, he was the champion in Senior, Junior and 250cc classes. Records fell to him almost at will and such was his dominance that on one occasion at Brands Hatch he won five races. His biggest win that season was the Mallory Park 1000 Guineas Race of the Year but probably the more remarkable success was to beat the factory Hondas (including that ridden by Jim Redman) to win the 250cc TT on a year-old non-works Honda. Indeed, 1962 was a year in which he seemed almost unbeatable and was justifiably named Man of the Year by readers of Motor Cycle News. Riding the Honda four and a works 650cc Norton twin (in up to 1,000cc events), he had good machinery and took full advantage while still remaining loyal to his 500cc Petty tuned Manx Norton now once again sponsored by Hallets.

His first race on the 250cc Honda four was at Brands Hatch where he won that class and the 500cc event. In the up-to-1000cc race he was against Hailwood who took an early lead. Minter overcame one of his traditional poor starts to get back on terms with the future champion and finally pass him to win.

On the island the Honda he used was considered to be out of date yet he not only achieved his first TT victory but beat all of the official works riders. He and Redman exchanged the lead five times. McIntyre had led by half a minute early on with Minter third, behind Redman, the world championship leader. After McIntyre dropped out Redman took what looked like a race-winning lead but on the third lap Minter got by to win, though over the final miles he was convinced that there was a mechanical problem.

When the mechanics stripped the bike down they found that the crankcase had been broken in three places.

The 1962 season continued with records everywhere he went but the Honda management could never forgive him for that victory over their latest machinery. He hoped that Gilera might make an offer. Although he had the occasional ride on the Italian bikes, that was as far as it went.

After Surtees moved into car racing, Minter became even more popular. Not surprisingly the Brands Hatch authorities realised that the unofficial “King of Brands” title was far too good not to be exploited. Actually, it was the commentator Murray Walker who had previously dubbed Minter “King of Brands” and the phrase kept on being repeated until on Good Friday, 1965 the first official “King of Brands” event was held before a crowd of nearly 50,000. Minter did not reserve himself for the one big race but won the 350cc event on his Norton. But in the 250cc race on the Cotton (a quick and responsive little machine) he made a familiarly poor start and finished only fourth behind the ever-brave and spectacular Bill Ivy. However, the unofficial and long reigning King was not about to be deposed in the 500cc race.

Unusually, he made a fast start and won at a speed of 86.09mph, beating the very fast Yamaha of Phil Read and the enormously powerful 850cc Dunstall Norton twin of Dave Degens. Admittedly Ivy fell at Druids. Read continued the chase but had to admit defeat to “The Mint”. The following year Ivy got his revenge and in the year after that Minter was injured and so could not compete. Indeed by then his career was almost finished. He retired in 1967. It was not only the end of his career but the conclusion of an era of unforgettable short circuit racing which he graced with skill, courage and downright stubbornness. His love of the sport continued after retirement with appearances at classic racing bike events.

TT Record: 1957 Senior: 16th (Norton). Junior: 14th (Norton) 1958 Senior: 4th (Norton). Junior: 9th (Norton). Lightweight (250cc) Retired (R.E.G.) 1959 Senior: Retired (Norton). Junior: 8th (Norton). Lightweight (250): Retired (R.E.G.) 1960 Senior: Retired (Norton). Junior: 4th (Norton). Lightweight (250): Retired (Bianchi). 1961 Senior: 30th (Norton). Junior: 4th (Norton). 1962 Senior: Retired (Norton). Junior: Retired (Norton). Lightweight (250) 1st (Honda). Lightweight (125): 4th (Honda). 50cc: 9th (Honda). 1964 Senior: 2nd (Norton). Junior: 4th (Norton). Lightweight (250): Retired (Cotton). 1965 Senior: Retired (J.R. Hallets-Norton). Junior: Retired (J.R. Hallets-Norton).

The above article was written by Norman Fox for which we are indebted. ©Norman Fox 2002

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