An Interview With Bert Perrigo

‘An interview with Bert Perrigo’ by Ray Waters.

First published in the March and June 1985 editions of ‘Front Wheels’ The BSAFWD club monthly magazine

Note:this is 1780 words long, probably better to save and read off-line

Those of you who have been around for some time will know that Bert Perrigo was President of the BSA FWD Club in the later 1960s. In fact the National Rally opposite award was presented to the Club by Bert when he succeeded George Savage as president. To we ‘bright young things’ of the time he simply carried on the then current tradition of inviting someone who had been associated with the BSA FWD project to be President. Personally I had an interesting talk with Mr. Perrigo at a National Rally of the time. This simply confirmed what Peter Bowler had told Me, he had done some trials pre-war. However, in 1982 I picked up a book on BSA motorcycles which belonged to a vintage motorcycle enthusiast friend of mine and ‘Lo and Behold’ Bert Perrigo was one of the principle characters. This same friend put me onto the BSA motorcycle club who put me onto Bert, and a letter brought an invitation to visit Mr. and Mrs. Perrigo in their Birmingham flat. Thus in July 1982 Brenda and I spent a most informative morning over a most welcome glass of beer (what more could you ask?). What I had not realized until 1982 was that Bert Perrigo was a very well known figure in the motor cycle world from the 1920s to the 1950s. For much of this time he was Chief Engineer and Works Manager of the BSA Motor Cycle team. In competitions Bert swiftly established himself as a leading trials rider who represented Britain in the I.S.D.T. abroad. Inevitably his trials career led him to compete in all of the premier trials in this country. At this point I should perhaps digress to explain that in the car and three wheeler world of the 1920s and 30s trials occupied a place similar to that which International Rallying occupies today. Most famous of numerous events were the M.C.C. Lands End, Exeter, and Edinburgh long distance reliability trials. These grew from simple observed runs to the points mentioned, taking in the most fearsome hills on the way, to their modern format of an overnight run followed by a series of Observed Sections. The observed sections consist of rocky, muddy, boulder strewn steep inclines on private land. The aim is simple, to climb without a ‘failure’, clearly, since road cars were used, trials were a natural medium for the car manufacturer to demonstrate the prowess of a vehicle: with which the general public could identify. Bert Perrigo’s appearance in trials using a BSA three-wheeler was a logical step for a company seeking publicity. They sought to make use of his famous name and to use his skill to gain notable success in the only type of event to which the BSA trike was remotely suited. After all, as three wheelers and bikes often competed on the same events, he already knew the hills concerned. In addition, BSA realized that a great part of their publicity must be directed towards motorcyclists who would see a three wheeler as the next step up the motoring ladder. As these people would already know of Bert’s fame it was logical to chose the trike rather than a four wheeler as the vehicle for Bert to publicize. Thus it was that between 1933 and 1936 Bert Perrigo competed in an aluminium bodied four cylinder three wheeler. Sadly he had no personal knowledge of the V twin in trials so this remains an area for any would-be researcher. The only thing that was important was to obtain ‘Golds’ for completing events without failing a hill. Thus if the machine broke on an event this was an occupational hazard and the local dealer was left to collect the car and send it back to Small Heath by rail. Bert did in fact obtain Golds on the Lands End and Edinburgh. However, the most coveted award for Gold on all three trials eluded him. This was because the short-comings of front wheel drive grip could not be overcome to allow a clean climb up the Exeter Trial’s infamous Simms Hill. Despite all Bert’s efforts to improve grip Frank Cope appears to have been the only person to have obtained the coveted Triple Award in a BSA. Of course Frank used a second engine in the tail which was not an option open to a works driver. Having established by 1936 that he was attempting the impossible and that a Triple Award was beyond his reach Bert did not wish to carry on promoting a BSA three wheeler in trials. For a works driver whose success was based on ‘The will to win’ there was little point. Thus after a most informative morning Brenda and I departed to consider the delights of another form of hill climb – VSCC Shellsley Walsh – and Bert? Well, this sprightly pensioner and his wife were off down the road to Edgbaston for a Sunday afternoons county cricket. This then was the end of our tale- well almost – there were a few technical points raised, and these will now be covered. His situation at BSA allowed Bert to tackle the problems of making a trike suitable for trials far more comprehensively than the average amateur, particularly as limitless parts were available. As has already been stated the major problem was one of grip not engine power, Bert was said to have had a 1204 c,c. engine with alloy head; and modified camshaft, any further power increase would not have been useable and would have affected reliability. Cooling was improved by either an electric or back of dynamo driven fan and a specially made up high efficiency large capacity radiator. No attempt was made to improve the brakes, which from what I can gather were as bad as we all know, with complete fade on long downhill sections, Bert apparently did report this fact to the ‘powers that be’ but with no effect Whilst on the subject of brakes we discussed the need to do hand brake turns on tighter sections Apparently pre-war sections did not necessitate this, perhaps because by judicious filing of clearances and selection of parts Bert specifically set out to improve his trikes lock. From this point we naturally passed onto the manner in which Bert tackled ‘sections’ He confirmed what I had long suspected that a ‘section’ was usually tackled from a running start on the flat, though in many cases if there was no other competitor already on this ‘section’ one simply carried on directly from one’s approach without stopping at all, However, much use was made of ‘stop and restarts’ where the competitor had to stop astride a line somewhere on the climb and then restart and clear the line within a certain time, Judging from the laugh in his eyes when we discussed this point we reckoned that Bert was well on the way by the time the restart marshal dropped his flag. One modification to assist at restarts was a remote gear lever bolted to the chassis centre tube. This allowed the passenger to operate the gear lever, leaving the driver free to concentrate on the other controls. It may also have been that the clutch tended to drag and cause to the car to stall as they awaited the restart flag. Hence the need to disengage the gears and for the passenger to wrench it in with both hands at the appropriate moment. The need for the driver to use two hands led us finally to the subject of traction, As I said last time it was a lack of traction which finally prevented Bert from achieving the M.C.C’s much coveted triple award. In a final attempt to gain grip Bert modified the differential to be partially ‘limited slip’. This was done by putting springs on the pinions within the differential, which prevented the classic situation of one wheel being stationary whilst the other spins helplessly. Such a modification makes the steering really twitchy with a great deal of kick back. Hence the need for using two hands; I gather other competitors commented to Bert on his trikes weird handling. Also that he often got the car sent back by train even if there were no mechanical problems rather than face a twitchy drive home. The more usual aids to grip were also employed, such as a one hundredweight lead bumper and two spare wheels one each side (just like we all did.) Standard width tyres were used of various degrees of ‘knobbliness’ depending on the regulations. The tyres were let right down which necessitated the use of security bolts to prevent the rim turning in the tyre. Bert did not think that the classic rear wheel drive trick of ‘bouncing’ helped although both he and his passenger got their weight as far forward as possible, Inevitably the clutch took a fearful pounding and plates with alternate ‘Ferodo material’ and cork inserts were used in company with as little oil as possible. Once again only a limited clutch life was necessary as it could be changed between events, I also wondered how the body stood up to the treatment it got, specifically with regard to flexing causing the doors to fly open. This problem was encountered and very simply overcome by using a solid sided body with no doors. This greatly increased the rigidity of the whole structure. Protection against the winter elements was supplied by a specially made hood and side screens. The hood being of such a construction as to allow it to be ‘pulled over’ once the occupants were in the care. So ended my trip back into the past, I can only express my thanks to Bert Perrigo for so patiently answering all my queries Inevitably my own reaction is one of awe for someone who had actually taken a BSA trike to the top of Beggars Roost. Historically though, this does fill in another piece of the jigsaw The trike was by no means an ‘also ran’ in trials. It does have a competition past, not in the glamour of Brooklands, but, on a dark winters night as you climb out of Lynton to Barbrook Mill; and you come up the valley, to your left, and high in the sky, head-lamps stab the darkness, you know it’s not a low flying aircraft— it’s someone having a go at ‘Beggars—–‘.

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