Those Dashing Racers of the 1920s: CT Ashby

You can almost smell the castor oil burning off the hot motor of Cecil Ashby’s 1925 Zenith ‘Championship’ racer at Brooklands after winning the 200-mile race in 1926. CT Ashby had a rapid rise in his racing career, appearing like a meteor in 1924. , and promptly winning both long-distance track events and road races in the UK and Europe. As a former fighter pilot in WW1 with the RAF, he considered motorcycle racing relatively tame, and enjoyed riding big machines like the 1000cc Zenith below, which made smaller road racers (more typically 350cc and 500cc) seem like child’s play by comparison. “If one is used to to hold a machine capable of 100mph…the 500cc machine used for road racing feels ridiculously easy to manage” (from an interview in Motor Sports, Nov. 1926)

CT Ashby was a professional racer in an era dominated by amateurs. His racing Zenith Championship with 976cc JAP KTOR engine racer is a very special machine, and the fastest motorcycle one could buy in the late 1920s. [The Vintagent Archive]

Cecil Ashby was an interesting fellow, who took up racing seriously only in 1922, a mere three years before the epic header shot of this article was taken. He joined the Royal Air Force immediately after graduating from Grays College in Essex, and spent two years in relatively safe transport duty, before taking a pilot’s license and indulging in two more years of ‘cloud scraps’ (dogfights) over Belgium, experiencing a few crashes and ‘nasty moments’, as he put it. After the war he set up in London as an import/export merchant, and in 1921 he bought an Indian V-twin with a sidecar, then a Rudge Multi. He raced neither machine, but purchased a 500cc NUT V-twin, a nearly forgotten make today but one that had won the Isle of Man TT before WW1, and continued briefly after the war as a racing contender. Ashby’s first races, while not winners, certainly gave him the bug, and led to a shift of careers.

The 1923 Wooler flat twin sports machine. Note the front suspension by twin plunger spring units on the front axle; a recipe for poor handling on the limit. [The Vintagent Archive]

In 1923 Ashby took a job as sales manager for the Wooler Engineering Company, makers of the famous ‘Flying Banana’ motorcycles using flat-twin motors that could be totally dismantled using a single wrench. Woolers were not known for speed and were generally not raced, but in November that year Ashby took one to Brooklands, where it recorded a 67mph lap from a standing start, which astonished everyone! Sadly the Wooler was not used to such treatment, and expired, as did the Wooler Engineering Company soon afterwards. Ashby was undeterred, and joined Coventry-Eagle as their southern sales and competition manager. He used a 500cc sidevalve model in various reliability trials, but soon switched allegiance to the WJ Montgomery Co, holding the same job titles. In the summer of 1924 he rode a 350cc Montgomery with JAP OHV motor in the Isle of Man Junior TT, in which he finished a creditable fourth place.

CT Ashby’s innovation for performance on a JAP engined Montgomery TT racer: using one cylinder from the KTOR racing v-twin motor. It worked, and Montgomery offered a TT Replica model – seen here, a 1925 model. [The Vintagent Archive]

In the search for more power, Ashby convinced JAP (meaning their competition manager, Bert LeVack) to provide him with a 500cc engine using one cylinder from their new KTOR V-twin engines. Installed in the Junior TT Montgomery chassis, and took 3rd place in the Brooklands 200-mile race (lapping at 90mph), and won the 1924 BMCRC racing championship. At the big Olympia Show in 1924, Ashby once again took a new employment, this time from Phelon & Moore (P&M), better known as the makers of Panther motorcycles. While looking after sales in London and racing activities in the south of England, his work agreement stipulated he could also race other makes when not racing a P&M – a very unusual contract! Thus he was free to purchase and race the big Zenith Championship 976cc model pictured above, which was as fast a motorcycle as one could find anywhere in the world at that date.

From the 1925 Zenith Motorcycles catalog: the Championship racing model. [The Vintagent Archive]

Zenith motorcycles held more over-100mph lap times at the Brooklands speed bowl than any other make, and the construction of the competition machines were personally supervised by Freddie Barnes, the Managing Director of Zenith from 1907-1930. The Championship model was new for 1925, and Zenith expert Gerhard Schaukal estimates only six were built through 1930, using 1000cc OHV JAP KTOR racing V-twin engines. Very few road-going or track motorcycles were built using these motors, and all were strictly limited-production models, like the Brough Superior SS100, Zenith Super 8 and Championship, Coventry-Eagle Super 8, MacEvoy, and a few other small makes. They remain the rarest and most coveted of all British V-twins, and rank highest among our list of Top 100 Most Expensive Motorcycles in the world today. Ashby’s Zenith is a pure track racer, stripped down to the essentials. Note the big pillow strapped atop the tank for rider comfort on the notoriously bumpy concrete Brooklands speed bowl. The crucial components of the Zenith include the big 1000cc JAP KTOR racing engine (probably tuned by Bert LeVack), the Harley-Davidson forks with an Andre friction damper out from, a ‘square’ ML magneto driven by chain at the front of the engine , two big ‘Brooklands can’ fishtail mufflers poking beyond the rear wheel, 21″ wheels front and rear, and aa dummy rim rear brake. Ashby, always a practical rider, is wearing a turtleneck sweater under his collarless leather tunic, and a kidney belt to help with the pounding he must have received while doing 110mph with very little suspension.

Ashby on his 500cc P&M racer at the Isle of Man. The bike was fast, and lay 3rd for most of the race, but ultimately failed. [The Vintagent Archive]

Ashby’s career blossomed with P&M, and he won numerous trials, plus a win in the German TT at Swinemünd, and a third in the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa. He also won the 250cc event at the inaugural German Grand Prix at the Avus circuit on a Zenith-JAP, and took 3rd on the P&M in the 500cc race. In 1926 he won a Gold Medal in the 1926 ISDT on the P&M, although an Isle of Man TT win eluded him, and though the P&M TT racer was fast, and lay for most of his races in the top 3, mechanical failures dogged the team. His best result at the TT was in 1927, after he left P&M in favor of OK Supreme, when he took 3rd place in the Lightweight TT. Later that summer, the European Championship – at that time decided with a single race – was held on the newly opened Nürburgring circuit, and Ashby beat the two-stroke DKW and Puch racers of Winkler and Höbel to win with his OK-Supreme, making him the Lightweight Champion of Europe. In the 500cc event, he rode a Rudge to 3rd place behind Graham Walker (Sunbeam) and Stanley Woods (Norton).

Cecil Thomas Ashby, 1896-1929. He was 32 years old and at the top of his racing career when a crash at the TT ended his run. [The Vintagent archive]

Ashby defended his 250cc European Championship title again in 1928, winning the Swiss GP at the Circuit de Meyrin in Geneva with his OK-Supreme, as well as the Austrian GP at Vösendorf. He won the 500cc Belgian Grand Prix race at Spa on an Ardie that year as well. Sadly, Cecil Ashby luck ran out in 1929 at the Isle of Man Junior TT, and he crashed his New Imperial racer heavily at Ballacraine, sustaining head injuries, from which he died in the night at Noble’s Hospital in Douglas. He’d survived dogfights in WW1, 110mph laps at Brooklands, and the two European Championships, but a small road racer proved his undoing, as did the lack of proper safety equipment for racers in the 1920s.

Paul d’Orléans is the founder of TheVintagent.com. He is an author, photographer, filmmaker, museum curator, event organizer, and public speaker. Check out his Author Page, Instagram, and Facebook.

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